OK Go is a Chicago rock band that’s well known for their elaborate, single-shot music videos. Their song “This Too Shall Pass” features an impressive Rube-Goldberg machine with 130 steps, while “Needing/Getting
To Kulash, great ideas don’t just show up fully formed. Instead, they are puzzle pieces that you notice as you go about your life, but only if you are receptive and observant enough to collect the pieces that speak to you and put them together in a way that’s meaningful to you. Thus, brilliant ideas have less to do with how smart, gifted or organized you are, and more to do with how you choose to engage with the environment around you.
This method for coming up with a brilliant idea flies in the face of how most of us learned to be creative. Typically, we think of a result we are looking for, then plan out how to achieve it in the most cost-effective way possible. Since we want to maximize our chances of success and minimize costs to the production of the idea, we often re-evaluate our idea to bring it into better alignment with the plan we’ve developed. Then we go back and plan some more, and then change the idea to suit the updated plan. We go back and forth like this until we have something we are confident will work and be successful. Only then do we get around to executing the plan and making the idea a reality.
While the conventional way of creativity can work, its drawbacks systematically prevent truly brilliant ideas from forming. First, the idea that we can come up with a foolproof plan to start with assumes we have a complete understanding of the situation and variables. But in the real world there are too many variables to ever account for fully, and so any plan is at best incomplete, and at worst completely off base. Napoleon Bonaparte was known to never make a plan of operations because, as the saying goes, no battleplan ever survives contact with the enemy.
Second, even if your plan reflects your world fairly accurately, during the time you are planning and amending the idea, the landscape around you is always changing. So by the time you are ready to execute on the idea, the environment you are in (be it physical or mental) is not the one the plan is based on.
Third, because you want your plan to work, the elements that make it up must be predictable. This desire for a level of dependability means we tend to limit the puzzle pieces of our grand idea to those elements we know have worked in the past, either for us or others. This helps us feel safer from failure. However, if you’re going for ideas that are full of wonder and surprise that no one’s ever tried before, like OK Go, using idea elements that are predictable time and time again will result in a final output that’s neither surprising nor wonder generating.
Instead of planning and revising the idea, OK Go takes the approach that takes them back to the childlike place of imagination. Instead of thinking and planning, they spend most of their time in play, which is the actual fuel of creativity.
“We try to identify a place where there might be a lot of those untried, but reliable ideas,” Kulash explains. “We find a sandbox, and then we gamble our resources into getting the sandbox to reveal to us ideas that are surprising and reliable.”
With this sandbox approach, OK Go spent a week and a third of their video budget flying around in a zero-gravity airplane to discover what things they could do in a weightless dance party for “Upside Down Inside Out.” The sandbox for “The One Moment” asked, ‘can we combine ballistics and math?’ The “Here It Goes Again” sandbox asked, ‘can we dance on moving surfaces?’ Their sandbox of umbrellas and a drone delivered “I Won’t Let You Down.”
This sandbox approach illustrates an essential understanding of how the mind works. Real creativity comes not from thinking but doing; not from stillness but experience. When we allow ourselves to sit in the safety of thinking of how to avoid failure, we end up designing plans for ideas that may be no more (and probably less) likely to succeed than if we just went out into the world and played. Rather than idea, plan, execute, the more creative approach is an idea, experience, experiment, fail, try something else, record what works and then use that new knowledge to plan how to deliver the final product.
This method for idea building means anything and everything is worthy of consideration. It stimulates our creative juices and beckons us to explore the unknown without fear of losing time or money going down the “wrong path.” Instead, anything you experiment with is automatically on the “right track,” because instead of plotting that route yourself, you are simply choosing one that is already there, even if it’s been hidden from view until now.
In life, successful ideation is more about making sense out of a self-inflicted chaos of options than putting one thought in front of another. There are millions of brilliant ideas people have not discovered yet because they were not in the exact place to line up the puzzle pieces in a particular way that fit with their particular perspective. When you take this sandbox approach to ideation, you’re almost guaranteed to come up with a solution no one else has.
What idea have you been patiently waiting for, hoping it will someday come to your mind? What reality have you been dreaming about for your life that just doesn’t seem to be coming together on its own? What type of sandbox can you create that will allow you to experiment with various idea elements, so you can determine which ones are reliable enough to line up into a grand vision? What one thing you can do this week, to start playing in that sandbox?
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” — Steve Jobs
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” — Scott Adams