Have you ever thought creativity was just for boy geniuses like Mozart and loners like Steve Jobs? That it's something someone is just "born with"?
If so, we've got good news for you: You're wrong.
Anyone can cultivate creativity. And in the video below, we'll unpack some of the ways to do just that.
TrackMaven CEO and serial entrepreneur Allen Gannett visited Fool HQ last month to talk about his incoming book, The Creative Curve. The conversation is a must-watch (and the book a must-read!) for anyone striving to be more creative or to launch their own business idea.
A transcript follows the video.
Michael Douglass: Allen Gannet is a ridiculously successful entrepreneur and marketer. He's the founder of TrackMaven, a marketing analytics company. He's been honored with both Forbes and Inc's 30 under 30. By the way, Allen, I'm 29. I don't know if you can put in a good word, but this is my last chance.
Allen Gannet: I got you, we got this.
Douglass: Good, great. He's about to publish this book called The Creative Curve, which goes on sale starting June 12th, 2018. Maggie tells me, by the way, Bookie Monster will absolutely buy Creative Curve if anyone wants it.
Gannet: What is Bookie Monster? That sounds amazing.
Douglass: It's a play on Cookie Monster, obviously. It's basically, the company buys books for people if there's some sort of vaguely business-related thing behind it.
Gannet: Got it. Oh, there's a lot of business-related things behind this thing.
Douglass: Absolutely. And we do it fairly broadly. It might be culture, it might be investing, it might be a few other things.
Gannet: That's awesome.
Douglass: Mindsets, which is what we'll talk about.
Gannet: Bookie Monster, I'm a fan.
Douglass: It's kind of a cool thing. Usually, there's a Cookie Monster logo in there somewhere.
Gannet: Got it, copyright infringement, it's cool.
Douglass: It's a lot of fun. So, in today's chat, we're going to be focusing, probably, on The Creative Curve, the book itself, but I'll leave time for questions at the end. If you want to talk about some other part of his amazing life, you can do that, too. We'll probably end up going into some of that, as well. We're going to cover a lot of stuff, because this book really unpacks a lot of things, whether it's marketing, creativity, obviously, or, well, how to get on a game show. I figured we'd start with the most important question, which is, how does one get on a game show?
Gannet: Oh, my God, I should never have put that in the book. I keep getting this question. Hey, guys, my name's Allen, I'm the CEO of TrackMaven. We're a 50-person company based in downtown D.C. The reason I'm a minute late is because of traffic, I don't have a good reason. The book comes out June 12th. I brought you guys, over there, there's some little booklets that they printed that have the first chapter. They're kind of cute, you should check it out.
The book is all about creativity. Obviously, one of the stories I had to tell is why the heck I'm interested in creativity. I explained in the book that I've always been someone who's really into reverse engineering things, and patterns, and trying to figure out how things work. When I was 18, I had this moment -- and this was, like, yesterday, right -- I had this moment where I was like, "Game shows seem fun. How hard could they be to get on?"
So, I applied for 30 game shows. I got an email saying they were having auditions for Wheel of Fortune down the street. And I was like, "OK, I'm going to go." I've never watched Wheel of Fortune before. So, what I did is, I watched a zillion episodes, and I read all these forums of people's audition practice, and I realized that they don't care at all if you're good at solving a puzzle. Like, at all. So, I went with this whole big scheme, which was, "I'm going to drink a lot of espresso and I'm going to enunciate like no one has ever enunciated before, and I'm going to do an Elmo impression."
So, I did all those things and I got cast on Wheel of Fortune like that. They were like, "This guy's got it!" And then, I was like, "That was so easy!" So, then, I auditioned on another game show on MTV, and I also got on that. I've always been a tinkerer. The story is in the book just as a little example of how I like to tinker with things. So, if you ever want to be on a game show, call me.
Douglass: [laughs] Excellent.
Gannet: By the way, you have a 10-year ban on game shows after you're on a broadcast game show. I'm 27. In 11 months, I'm going for The Price is Right. Seriously. I got this.
Douglass: Game on!
Gannet: Game on!
Douglass: One of the things that you talk about in the book is that there's this widespread social misperception around creativity. You call it the inspiration theory of creativity. Let's unpack that a little bit.
Gannet: Sure. In Western culture, right now, in this very moment -- it's actually changed. I explain in the book the history of how we've perceived creativity over time. Right now, in Western culture, this is basically what we think of creativity. We think of Elon Musk, JK Rowling, Paul McCartney. There are these individual solo geniuses. There's the story of Paul McCartney dreaming the song Yesterday, and that's how he wrote it. We think of JK Rowling being zapped on a train with this amazing idea that led to billions and billions of dollars in books. And this is the sort of notion we have. It's very focused on the individual genius. Elon Musk is on the cover, not the thousands of scientists who work for him.
Right now, in the culture, we have this very specific notion. It's sort of a hero tale. It's this idea that there are some people who are special, they're magical, they're princes and princesses of our culture, and they're saving us, and they're bringing all this innovation to us. The problem is, when you actually look at the science around creativity -- it's actually a really well-studied field across psychology, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology -- the science does not support this notion at all, this notion that there are some people who are just born with child prodigy-esque talent, and everyone else is screwed. That is not what the science shows us.
So, the first half of the book is really dedicated to breaking down this myth, because I think it's a very dangerous myth. One, I think it's discouraging. Two, I think it gives people an excuse. If we think that it's easy for some people but not easy for us, well, if it's hard, why should I even try? So, I think it's a really, really dangerous notion.
Douglass: And there are some really interesting threads within that that I want to pull out a little bit. The first is this idea of a lightning bolt from heaven. In the book, you really argue that there are a lot of both conscious and subconscious processes going that are happening. In fact, your law No. 1 of the creative curve is consumption, that there's this way to seed the field, if you will, for bringing ideas to sprout out.
Gannet: Yeah. We're going to get into some really nerdy stuff now, so be prepared. Basically, one of the reasons why we believe in this ah-ha moment theory of creativity -- or, the inspiration theory of creativity, I call it -- is because we have all these stories. We've heard of JK Rowling being on a train and being zapped with this idea. We've heard of Paul McCartney waking up with the tune for Yesterday.
There's two problems with this notion. The first thing is that it's just historically inaccurate. JK Rowling just had a dream about the character Harry Potter and his sidekicks. The first book took five years to write. Paul McCartney dreamed six notes for the melody for Yesterday and proceeded to take 20 months to actually finish the song. So just, it's factually inaccurate, on one level.
The second thing is that science actually tells us a lot about how ah-ha moments work. And it's kind of cliché when you write a book on creativity to talk about right brain, left brain, but it's actually really important, it turns out. Basically, we have these two types of information processing that we do. In our left hemisphere, that's where we do very logical processing. If you're solving a math problem, it's very step-by-step, it's focus on the direct meanings and definitions of words and concepts. It's very, very conscious, too. I like to think about it as, in college, you may have had a lab, and you had that loud lab partner who was like, "OK, here's how we're going to solve the problem. We're going to do this, and then we're going to do this, and look, we have the answer." That's your left hemisphere.
Your right hemisphere solves problems in a different way. Your right hemisphere is where you connect more metaphorical or puns or more nuance associations of words or concepts or ideas. And what's interesting is that you're constantly processing things in both. Your right hemisphere is like a quiet lab partner. Your right hemisphere all does this subconsciously. It's constantly working, it's going, "OK ... hey, I got an answer." And it's very quiet and sort of shy.
And what happens is, it perks up when it comes to an answer, but if your left hemisphere is too active, it drowns it out. This is why we experience ah-ha moments when we're on our commute or at the gym or showering or waking up in the morning. That's when our left hemisphere is quiet. We can actually hear the ideas that our right hemisphere has percolated to. So, there's actually these really amazing studies where they look at people's brains and compare when they're having ah-ha moments versus when they're solving a math problem. And these ah-ha moments are just a normal biological process. They just happen to be subconscious. So, that's the first thing.
The second thing that was really interesting is, I interviewed this scientist, Edward Bowden, who's one of the scientists who focuses on studying ah-ha moments. He gave me this quote that I thought was really powerful, and I put it in the book twice, and the second time, I bolded it. My copy editor was like, "You're a jerk," and I was like, "No, I'm the author," and they're like, "You're a jerk." And, as you know, it's actually in the book. Anyway.
I think this is a really good quote. He said, "You can't have ah-ha moments about things you don't know anything about." And I thought that was really powerful, because when you look at Paul McCartney, Paul McCartney grew up in a musical household, he was constantly going to concerts, listening to music with his dad. He literally played in a cover band. JK Rowling spent her entire childhood locked away in her bedroom because her parents were always fighting, reading books. In college, she actually had library fines because she had so many books taken out. So, there's this massive amount of consumption that's going on. So, yeah, when JK Rowling daydreams, she dreams about characters, and you don't. When Paul McCartney daydreams, he dreams about music, and you don't. But that's not surprising. It's actually quite logical.
In the book, I outlined these four things you can do to actually nurture your creativity. The first one is consumption. Often, we talk about creativity as this thing that's very active. We're doing stuff, we're putting stuff out there. But, both in the interviews I did for the book and in the historical stories I researched, over and over again, there's this huge amount of consumption, because it gives you those dots to actually connect.
Douglass: And that's not to say, by the way -- the examples you brought up were people who, from childhood, from age, let's say, three or five, were reading or listening to music intentionally with their parents, and all that stuff. That's not to say that we can't, we who are not five years old, can't do that.
Gannet: 100%, yeah. I think one of the mistakes we have when we think about talent is, in the book, I talk a lot about this, there's actually a lot of consensus among researchers that the idea of talent is kind of a farce. When you actually look at the stories of childhood development for people who reached world-class talent, it's actually usually the story of, they started really young and they had a helicopter parent who made them work really hard. So, by the time they were self-aware, the hard part was gone, and they're like, "I'm so good at this! I'm going to keep doing it!" Because the hard part is usually what scares us.
Mozart's the best example of this. If you've seen Amadeus, he's literally, in the first scene, three years old, he's blindfolded, he's playing piano for the Pope. This three-year-old. And they say he wrote his first concerto at four, he wrote his first opera at eight, or whatever. There's this notion of Mozart popping out of the womb writing music. Here's the problem. Here's the real Mozart story. Are you ready for this? The real Mozart story is, when he was three years old -- one, two, three -- his father, who was literally a helicopter dad, essentially said, "Hey, little Mozart? I love you, but," which you should never say to a child, "I love you, but, you're going to become the world's greatest musician." And little Mozart was like, "Anything for your love, Dad." And Mozart's dad hired literally the best music teachers in all of Europe. All of Europe. And he made little Mozart practice three hours every single day of his childhood, seven days a week.
And there's this notion that Mozart was writing music when he was four. That's not true. He wrote his first true piece of original music when he was 17. Which, you still think, that's pretty impressive, except, one, it's not very good -- you can Google it. And then, two, this was after 14 years of practicing three hours a day with the best music teachers in all of Europe under the conditional love of a helicopter dad. So, like, yeah, you'd be half decent, too, at writing a concerto.
So, oftentimes, we mistake the fact that people started young with the thought of, "Oh, they must have all this childhood talent." No, they just had someone pushing them through the hard parts.
Douglass: Sure. We, as somewhat older folks, comparatively, can also push ourselves through that hard part.
Gannet: 100%. And in the book, one of the things I talk about is that, if you want to start learning a creative skill or function later in life, one of the most important things is surrounding yourself with the right type of people. One of the ways that you can get past this initial hump is, have other people around you who motivate you both through friendly emotions, but also through friendly competition. One of the things I thought was so interesting was, when interviewing these creatives, a lot of them would surround themselves with peers not just because they enjoyed their company, but they liked the fact that there was this competitive aspect. "Well, she did this, so I want to do this. He did this, I want to do that." And that's another way to motivate yourself. It's actually really important to do that.
In the book, I interviewed 25 living creative greats. These are billionaires like David Rubenstein, start-up moguls like Alexis Ohanian from Reddit, Kevin Ryan, who did Business Insider and MongoDB. I interviewed Pasek and Paul, a songwriting duo who did Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land and The Greatest Showman, so, not bad. One of the things I thought was so interesting was, we think about creativity as one of these things that's like, the solo genius, like, Elon Musk is on the cover. But, actually, there's such a strong human element to it. JK Rowling on one level, you can look and say, "Hey, she did this all by herself." But on the other side, she had, I interviewed him, an agent, a publisher, a marketing team, editors, copy editors, readers, all these types of people. Creativity is much more of a social phenomenon than we typically give it credit for.
Douglass: One of the other things that you really note in there and that I want to highlight here is that, we have this idea of creativity as, from nothing, something. Like, here is how things have been done, here is this new thing and it's a total change. And you contend, actually, that, in fact, it's really more of a, here's what we're currently doing, and here's a twist. Sort of like when people say, "It's Uber for ____." That would be creative, whereas a totally different thing might not be.
Gannet: Yeah. One the biggest differences between aspiring creatives and people who are really successful creatives is, aspiring creatives over-focus on novelty. What do I mean by that? Let me back up a few steps. When we talk about creativity, it's actually hard to define what is creative. If I asked you, "Here's a painting. Is it creative or not?" Well, you actually have to know the entire social context around it. Who painted it? When did they paint it? If I painted a replica of Mona Lisa right now, you would be like, "Wow, Allen is technically proficient," but it's not creative.
Academics actually have a really good definition for creativity. I think it's really cool. It's things that are both novel and valuable. Novel and valuable. If it's just novel, well, I can just throw paint on a canvas and it's certainly not creative. If it's just valuable, well, I learned the other week -- this is embarrassing at The Motley Fool -- I learned how to do conditional color formatting in Excel. Certainly valuable!
Definitely not creative, even though it was colorful. So, when you're talking about creativity, you're really talking about the ability to create things that are both novel and valuable.
There's a problem there. The problem is that value is a subject of social construct. We agree things are valuable, that makes them valuable. Like money. The problem is, how do we, then, know what's creative and not creative? What scientists have found is that it's actually really important, when you're talking about creativity, to recognize that at some level, for something to be creative, other people have to agree it's creative. Whoa, circular logic, right?
That's interesting. If people have to agree something is creative and something is valuable, well, how do you do that? Well, it turns out, there are these two massive contradictory urges that we have in our psyche. They're really, really opposites. One is, as people, we have this attraction to things that are familiar. If you think about it from evolutionary biology, go back in time and imagine you're a prehistoric cave dweller, and you saw two caves. One of the caves is the cave that you sleep in every single night. The other cave is a cave you've never seen before. And you're thinking, "Where should I sleep tonight?" Well, you'll go in the one that's familiar. It feels safe, you're probably not going to get killed by coyote. Sounds great. Interesting.
So, we like things that are familiar, they bring us safety. But, it turns out, we also have this other contradictory urge. We also seek out novelty because of the potential reward. If we're in a field and we see a berry that we've never seen before, and it's kind of like a small strawberry, we go, "Oh, I should try this. This might be a new potential source of food, of energy." In other realms, it's pleasure, enjoyment, whatever it is.
- How do we solve this contradiction? We both have an urge for things that are familiar and an urge for things that are novel. Well, it turns out that this is our brain's really elegant way of balancing risk and reward. We like things that are the right blend of familiarity and novelty. If I went back to that field and I saw a berry that looked nothing like any berry I've ever seen before, I'd go, "I probably shouldn't eat that. That might kill me." So, we don't eat that. As people, we're actually wired to look for things that are the right blend of familiar and novel.
What this means in practice is that when you look at creative products, the most successful creative products are a blend of the familiar and the novel. They're not actually radically new. Think about Star Wars. The first Star Wars, when it came out, it was a Western in space. Right? This is not crazy. Right now, the big food trend is those sushi burritos. It's literally sushi as a burrito. It's familiar, but there's a novel twist.
Douglass: Which are great, by the way.
Gannet: They're great. They're really good. So, that's one of the things I thought was so interesting. When you start looking at creativity through that lens, it starts to make a lot more sense. Kanye West -- I can't believe I'm quoting Kanye West -- just tweeted out the other day that great artists steal and update. And you realize that, when it comes to music or art or any of these things, it's really about creating that little bit of a novel twist. You're not looking to reinvent the wheel, you're looking to do something that will feel comfortable enough, but push your audience a little bit and get them further. Sorry for the rant.
Douglass: No, no! It's a great rant! It's not a rant. It's great commentary.
Gannet: I'm triggered. I'm leaving.
Douglass: [laughs] And one of the examples that you really highlight in the book that I found fascinating was that, you had Facebook, and then you had a competitor --
Gannet: Oh, my God, Campus Network, which was so sad.
Douglass: -- which was objectively the better product, but Facebook won.
Gannet: So, in the book, I talk about the story of the rivalry between Campus Network and Facebook. Who here has heard of or used Campus Network? OK, no one's raising their hand. That makes sense. Campus Network started a month before Facebook. It also started at an Ivy League school. It became a viral phenomenon at Columbia. But, it never actually became as successful at Facebook.
Douglass: And let's pause here for just a minute. Think about this. It had a first-mover advantage, and it had done well at ...
Gannet: At Columbia, a good, Ivy League school.
Douglass: A well-known school.
Gannet: The people were all connected. One of the things that's most interesting is, they had a "better product." They actually had all the features that Facebook has today that we think of as key to Facebook, like a Wall, a News Feed, photo sharing, all the stuff that, actually, the original version of Facebook did not have. The original version of Facebook was basically a directory that you could add friends and send messages on. That was it. Campus Network had all these advanced features. It had the same sort of basic foundations, but yet, it didn't work. And the reason why is actually really interesting.
I talked to a bunch of the people who studied the history of Facebook, like David Kirkpatrick. And I talked to the founders of Campus Network. And one of the points they made is that Campus Network was too much, too soon. It was too novel. People were just getting used to the idea of using their real names on the internet. That was really the big innovation of Facebook back at the time. In old times, with Myspace and Friendster, people didn't really use their real names. With AOL Instant Messenger, they didn't use their real names. So, that was actually the thing that was the little bit of a novel twist over Myspace or Friendster. But Campus Network was saying, "Hey, post your photos. Post on your friends' feeds. Let's have these centralized feeds. Let's do all these things." And people were like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa."
Facebook, on the other hand, as users got more comfortable with things, rolled out more and more of these features. They started with your own Wall, then they did a News Feed, they had more picture features, groups, and they slowly evolved to match their audience's tolerance in that familiarity and novelty balance.
Douglass: It's interesting. Within the book -- I made a visual, it's poorly drawn -- the creative curve is essentially this bell curve that matches preference and familiarity. The place that you want to hit is what you call the sweet spot, which is, as things are gradually becoming more familiar --
Gannet: Can I break this down a little more?
Gannet: You can hold it up, though, it's teamwork. Basically, in science, there's this thing that they found. There's a much geekier name in science. The geeky name is the inverted U-shape relationship between familiarity and preference. I call it -- because, when you write a business book, you have to come up with cute names for things -- the creative curve. That ended up being the title of the book.
Basically, what it is, what scientists have found is that, at an individual level, a group level, and a population level, when we're first exposed to something, we don't really like it. So, when we first heard that new Drake song, Nice For What, we're like, "Ugh, this is terrible." But then, the third time, we're like, "Oh, this is pretty good. I kind of like this song." Then, after listening to it ten times, we're like, "OK, but, maybe something new." And then, down here, we're like, "I hate Nice For What. I'm not nice. None of this, I never want to hear it ever again."
So, we have this relationship with familiarity where, initially, the more we see something, the more we like it, because we crave the familiar. But then, our novelty-seeking wins out, and we start getting bored of it. We get satiated. So, when you're talking about creativity, whether it's in marketing, or entrepreneurship, or fine arts, really, what you're talking about is the ability to create things in this sweet spot of the creative curve, where ideas with a little bit more exposure are going to go from low preference to high preference very, very quickly.
What's so fascinating about this is, they've done some really interesting studies. There's this type of research called empirical musicology, where you look at the math of music. This one professor actually mapped out the Beatles' use of experimental song features in their albums over time, and it maps this curve. They started using more and more experimental features. Then, once they worried their audience was getting bored of them, they started using them less and less and less, and they returned to their pop basics at the end.
So, there's this really interesting phenomenon there, where once you understand it, creativity becomes much more of a framework in which you're operating, and less of a, "Let's sit in a conference room and just brainstorm." Which, I hate that word.
Douglass: My trigger word. I'm not going to mention how many brainstorm meetings I actually convene.
Gannet: Let's not talk about it.
Douglass: Actually, this keys into something really interesting. I think a lot of people have this idea that creativity is this free-flowing, unstructured, not-data-driven process. But, in fact, it turns out that part of really successful creativity -- again, that confluence of somewhat new and valuable -- is that you use data to iterate.
Gannet: Oh, yeah. These great creatives are highly iterative, because they acknowledge the social factors around creativity. They acknowledge that they're creating for the audience. What's interesting is, only really aspiring creatives are the ones who are like, "Well, I'm just creating for me." That's usually because no one likes what you're doing. You realize, in these great creatives, they understand that their relationship with the audience is what they're trying to nail. So, they know that their job is to listen to their audience and create something that's in that sweet spot.
What's interesting is, I found that people do this in different ways. I talk in the book about the movie industry, and books, but I also talk about ice cream. I took a day-long adventure -- this was a whole thing for a guy who's not very tolerant of milk -- to the Ben & Jerry's headquarters, and I spent a day with the flavor R&D team. Which, by the way, is the best job ever. The one little side note is that they're all really skinny. Which, I was like, this makes no sense to me. They're like, "We bike a lot." I'm like, "Where do you bike?" Anyway, we're in Vermont, and we're in this kitchen, and they're talking to me about their process. These are people who spend all their time thinking about ice cream. They're constantly studying it, they're looking at trends, they're big foodies, they're food scientists, they're all these people. So, you would think these people are pretty knowledgeable about ice cream, that they would just come up with ideas and they're probably pretty good. No.
Here's what they actually do. First, they spend all year consuming information. They do these things called trend tracks where they go to different cities and actually try new restaurants, new bars, and see what flavors are percolating in the food scene. They're constantly reading Bon Appétit and Food & Wine and all these different magazines and blogs. The younger ones go on Instagram and look at food porn, all this kind of stuff. And from there, every year, they come up with a list of 200 ideas. 200 ideas that are intuition-informed that they think might be good. They then survey their customers using an email survey, literally a basic lo-fi email survey. And they say, "Of these flavor ideas, we have two questions. One, how likely are you to buy this flavor? Two, how unique is it?" Or, "How familiar is it, and how novel is it?"
And what they've found is that their job is to balance those two things, to balance the familiarity and novelty. If they just focused on what people say they want to buy, well, the entire line of Ben & Jerry's would be salted caramel, cookie, brownie, chocolate. That's all it would be. And eventually, the brand would get stale and boring. If they focused on uniqueness, well, people would be too scared to try. So, what they found is to actually refine their ideas to ones that are systematically shown to have a good balance of familiarity and novelty. And from there, they keep testing. They make samples, they do focus groups, they send them out to the different Scoop Shops and they have people try them.
So, this process, which you might say, "They're sitting in a room and they're experimenting," is really, basically, a giant data thing. Even at the end, they're tracking sales data for every flavor, they look at social media feedback, and they're constantly using this as part of their R&D and their innovation process. The structured innovation, I thought, was really interesting, because at the top-performing companies, when it comes to creativity, creativity is actually the most structured. The most structured.
Douglass: A lot of interesting stuff that we can pull out there for The Motley Fool. But let's turn this to, let's say, an individual creative. Let's say that someone here has decided that they want to write the next best-selling piece of young adult fiction. Just as an example. It's not me, just to be clear, but it would be totally fine if it were. Help us block and tackle how to turn this into a reasonably step-by-step process, especially for someone with not a lot of resources.
Gannet: The thing I would do, if I wanted to write -- it was kind of fun, writing a book on creativity. If you write a book about creating hits, there's a lot of pressure. Please buy the book. Bookie Monster's great. But, one of the things that's really interesting is, I found that I was doing some of the steps as I was writing the steps. The first step, I'd say, is, consume in a very narrow vertical. If you want to create great young adult fiction, well, read every single young adult fiction book you can. There's this myth that, to be creative, you have to be this generalist who's reading all this stuff. No. That's called Twitter, we're not doing that. If you want to be great at creativity, you actually have to be very familiar with the corpus that your audience is also going to be familiar with.
You have to go very, very, very deep. I tell, in the book, the story of Ted Sarandos, who's the chief content officer of Netflix. He started his career in the video business where, when he was 18, he was a clerk at a video store. And when no one was there on the off-hours, he literally watched every single movie in the store. Literally every movie.
Douglass: On that note, let's also talk about, there's a time commitment there, but there's also an intentionality there. You specifically call out longtime friend of The Fool, Malcolm Gladwell, as someone who's misread a paper about the 10,000-hour rule.
Gannet: I'll get more into this, but it's not just about consuming or practicing. It's also how you consume and how you practice. There's this idea, this business motif, of the 10,000-hour rule that comes from Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers. The 10,000 hours rule basically says, if you practice 10,000 hours at anything, you'll become a world-class expert. OK, here's the problem. This is all based on research by a guy named K. Anders Ericsson, who wrote the book Peak. He's a big researcher when it comes to talent development. There's two big problems with Malcolm Gladwell's reading up this. I interviewed Ericsson for my book, and he gave me this quote which I put in the book, which is literally, "Gladwell misread my paper."
Here's the two things. First, 10,000 hours was the average across people and across skills. There's not some magical clock in your brain that says, "Hey, you've done 10,000 hours! Cha-ching!" No, no. It takes different people different amounts of hours. And, it takes different skills different amounts of hours. For example, piano playing, they found that on average, it takes 25,000 hours to become a world-class piano player. People have been doing it for hundreds of years. There's been lots of people who started really young. It takes more time, there's more competition. But, take a newer field -- for example, there's this weird trend of, people do these competitions for digit memorization, which is literally what it sounds like, how many digits can you memorize. He's shaking his head. He's like, "I can do a lot."
Douglass: So, think like a pi competition, or something like that.
Gannet: Yeah. It takes about 400 hours of practice to become world-class at digit memorization right now. But it's going to go up, because more people are doing it. That's the first thing.
The second thing is that Ericsson's paper does not say that it's 10,000 hours on average of practice. No, no. He says 10,000 hours on average of something called deliberate practice, which is a very specific type of practice. And Malcolm Gladwell does not say the word deliberate anywhere in his book. The word deliberate is important because deliberate practice is when you take a skill -- let's say, it's the difference between playing basketball, that's practice, versus taking a skill and breaking it down into a small component part and doing a drill. Like, "I'm going to do my left-handed dribble mid-court over and over and over again." You've all probably driven 10,000 hours, but you're not a NASCAR driver. But, if you wanted to become a NASCAR driver, you'd take it and you'd say, "OK, I'm going to practice my high-speed left turns over and over and over again."
The reason why that's important is that our brains are very good at making things automatic, making them subconscious. That's why, when you're commuting, you lose track of time. You're practicing your commute, so to speak. But you've done it so many times that your brain is not really doing any work to do that. So, deliberate practice is really important, because deliberate practice means that you're keeping it conscious, you're learning, you're thinking about it, you're trying to get better at it.
When that comes to consumption and creativity, what's really interesting is that I found that all these creatives, they consume tons of information, they're constantly doing this. But it's not just how much they consume. It's also how they consumed. You could say, right now, "Well, I watch a lot of Netflix. Why am I not writing great screenplays?" The reason why is that, what I found with these great creatives is, it's very interactive. When they read a novel, they're outlining how it's structured, how does the narrative unfold. I tell the story in the book of how Ben Franklin learned to become a great writer. He describes in his autobiography how he literally took his favorite newspaper articles, outlined how they were structured, put it away, came back a week later, and tried to rewrite the article.
So, it's this very physical, this touching thing. That all comes back, again, to make a full circle, to this idea of familiarity and novelty. It's not about reinventing the wheel. Sometimes, the most important thing is really to understand the structures, the frameworks, dare I say the formulas, of what people like. That's a really powerful thing, once you do it.
One quick story, Kurt Vonnegut's a great example of this. At one point, he tried to get master's in anthropology. He said, by the way, that he didn't finish because he "didn't realize how stupid primitive people were." But, for his master's thesis, what he did is, he actually mapped out the emotional valence of stories. Did they start off positive, did they go negative, did they go positive again. And he found that there were four consistent patterns to all stories. Rag to riches, the Cinderella story, man in the hole. And those arcs, he found, are used over and over and over again. And that helped him understand, "Well, if I'm going to become a great writer, I use those as a baseline, as a placeholder, which, from them, I create my own novel twist."
Douglass: So, next time somebody criticizes what you're reading as formulaic, you can be like, "Yeah, everything is."
Gannet: It is! Everything's a remix.
Douglass: OK, so, step one, consumption.
Douglass: What's step two?
Gannet: Imitation. It's this idea of looking at these great creative works and imitating them, learning the structures, learning the frameworks, learning the patterns. Then, once you have that, then your job is to create that little novel twist.
The third step would be to surround yourself with the right people. If you want to become a young adult fiction writer, you should have friends who are young adult fiction writers who are going to clue you in to techniques, they're going to teach you, they're going to motivate you. They're going to give you that friendly competition. You need to have people in your network who will lend you their credibility. Since creativity is a social construct, you actually need people to pay attention to you. It's actually really important that people see your work.
There's this really cool study done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote the book "Flow." He did this study once where he took a bunch of art students, and he found that the art students who were perceived best by their peers and teachers in art school were the ones who were most artsy. They were weird, they were quiet, they didn't talk to other people. That was them. But, ten years later, the artists who were most successful -- by the way, none of those artists who in art school who were successful were successful in real life. The ones who were successful were the ones who were best at salesmanship and marketing, at communications and interpersonal skills. A huge part of creativity is intertwined with other people.
I even think about making it meta. For me, part of why this book is sitting here is, I had a really good friend who wrote a book. He's been really close for a long time. He wrote a best-selling book and he introduced me to his agent. His agent took the call because his friend, who's a successful client, recommended me. Then, my publisher knew my agent. There's this whole social capital and social credibility that plays a really big hidden role in creativity.
It's also the reason why creative fields are some of the least diverse. Since social capital is so important, since getting people to vouch for you, mentor you, teach you is so important, and people tend to like to support people who think like them, look like them, act like them, there's an inherent structural problem in making creative fields diverse. That's why you see some of the problems we see in Hollywood and some of these creative fields. You think, "Oh, it's arts and entertainment, it should be very liberal," but in fact, it's some of the most closed-down systems.
Douglass: And then, what does somebody do?
Gannet: So, once you have a good group of people around you, you have to find a way to listen to your audience. When you create your first draft of your young adult fiction novel --
Gannet: -- you have to get external readers, you have to get that feedback, you have to actually ingest that information. For example, I was writing this book. There were probably about 15 external readers who I had, who were friends, business people, who were in the target market, who I had reading it throughout. It was so interesting, because I would write a chapter and I'd be like, "That was a great chapter!" Then I would send it to my friends, and they'd be like, "This is terrible!" And I'm like, "Oh, s***, it is terrible." And then, by the time I actually fixed it and incorporated their feedback, I was like, "Wow, that feedback is such a critical part of the story," because that's how you get it from OK to good to great.
So, getting that way to listen to your audience, whether it's surveys, focus groups, whatever it is, that's such an important process. That was a seven-minute version of a two-hour talk.
Douglass: And, to be clear, as you noted earlier with Ben & Jerry's, this doesn't have to be a resource-intensive thing. You can do it with MailChimp.
Gannet: You can literally do it with MailChimp. You can literally even just text people, "Which one of these do you like more?" With the book cover, we did a whole bunch of testing on which book cover people liked more. The testing we did, we used a service called PickFu that was $40 to survey 200 people.
Douglass: That's wild. I just have a couple more questions, and then I'll open up to the audience. We'll have a few minutes for them, so hopefully you have a few. I'll give you another minute or two to think about it. What that seems to imply on creativity is that, really, the inputs on the individual person's end, are time, focus, and interest. Is there anything you'd add to that?
Gannet: No, I'd say that's good. I'd say the only thing is that interest is a funny thing. We're really good at tricking ourselves into not being interested in things. If we feel like we're bad at it -- one of my friends told me when I was writing the book, he was like, "Well, Allen, good book, but I could never be a good dancer." And I was like, "OK, Joe, have you ever taken a dancing lesson?" And he was like, "No." I was like, "Have you watched Dancing with the Stars?" He was like, "That's a good point."
If you want to ever see this really come true, go watch YouTube, Google before and after voice lessons. There's this whole genre of people showing their before and after singing lessons, one year. It's crazy! People go from singing like me to singing like Cher -- I don't know if that's a good example, but, singing really well, over a year.
One of the things we forget, because we see the Elon Musks of the world, and we see the Taylor Swifts of the world, and we see these people, we forget that at one point, they were just starting their careers, and it was hard for them, too. Maybe they did it when they were younger, and there were people pressuring them. But just because it's hard for you initially does not mean that you won't eventually be "passionate" about it.
Douglass: To head back to an earlier thread just a little bit, you noted that creative communities tend to be very closed. How might we, as a company that's been around basically since the advent of the internet --
Gannet: How old are you guys?
Douglass: 25. Well, in a month. There's Alison, she knows.
Gannet: You're younger than me.
Douglass: How might we as a company, how might we as individuals who might have some social capital, help break down some of those barriers?
Gannet: The biggest one is actually recruiting. In some of the most creative industries, recruiting is the biggest problem. There's a talk in Hollywood, Hollywood doesn't really recruit. People come climbing to their door wanting to work there. So, you end up with this sort of, Little Johnny, who's the son of Big Johnny, calls his friend Big Fred -- I don't know why I keep saying it like this -- and Big Fred says, "OK, I'll take Little Johnny on." And Little Johnny, of course, looks like his father. And you have this circular thing in these industries.
You also have a problem with apprenticeship models. If you want to work at a talent agency in Hollywood, you literally start in the mailroom or as an assistant. And there's all these kids with Harvard degrees who work those jobs even though they pay $14-15 an hour because that's how you get your way in the door. If you're a poor kid with student loans, you can't afford that.
So, some of the biggest things you can do if you want to break that is, one, pay entry-level employees more, pay interns more. Two is recruit, and have rules around nepotism, and have ways to prevent there being too much influence from pre-existing structures. One of the biggest things is, you're in Washington D.C., be sure you're recruiting from Howard, not just GW, Georgetown, and American, right? So, where are the pools coming from, is a really important part of it.
Douglass: That's everything I've got, folks. Allen, thanks for coming.
Gannet: I had fun.
Douglass: Awesome. Questions from the audience. There's a mic right behind you, maybe, I think that's working.
Kristine Harjes: Hello! In your Ben & Jerry's example, you were talking about how they created a list of ice cream flavors, and then they sent that out for feedback. You cited a very similar story about your own book creation, where you started with something, a draft, and then you sent it out. At what point as a creative do you send out the thing that you've been working out and seek that initial feedback?
Gannet: I think it's earlier than most people realize. I don't think the specific time really matters that much. As long as you contextualize what you're doing and tell people, "This is a very early draft," or, "This is just an outline," or, whatever it is, I think it's whenever you start feeling comfortable, but the earlier, the better. One of the things you start realizing is that, sometimes, when you get feedback, part of what's beneficial is, you send feedback to 20 people, and six people say the same thing. And you're like, "Oh, there's a pattern here." So, I think, when it comes to feedback, the more, the merrier. If you can get it, get it. If it's not finished enough where people will give you time and attention for it, it's probably a little too early.
Douglass: One thing you talk about as well is, part of the creative community that you're around helps give you guardrails for what is or is not acceptable within the genre or within the particular target market you're going after.
Gannet: Yeah. That's one of the reasons, when you're thinking about what's familiar, having people around you who've been there and done that can help give you that guidance of, "Hey, this is too weird, this is too different, stop that."
Man: Hey, Allen, how you doing?
Gannet: Hey, man!
Man: How do you use this philosophy or principle in TrackMaven? What's the best example of how this is used in your company?
Gannet: I think the biggest thing for me is that, when you write a book about creativity and you finish the book, and you've never wrote a book before, you get this meta-self-awareness that, learning is actually something you can get better at. It's been interesting as a CEO, because now, there are things that I want to learn or lean into or do, and one, I feel much more comfortable and confident learning those things. I feel like it makes the world more three-dimensional in terms of my own skills and abilities.
Two, in terms of coaching people, I really focus on coaching, I think this is a really, really scary belief that's seeped into people's psyches really young, this idea that, "Well, I have these innate talents, and I need to maximize these and I can't develop new ones." So, it's made me as a coach, I think, much more pushy and aggressive with people, in terms of pushing them to stretch themselves. What I find is that if I push them, they're often surprised by how quickly they can learn something and get better at it. And that builds a self-reinforcing confidence, which is a really powerful thing.
Douglass: Other questions? You can just say it and I'll repeat it. Or you can do that.
Gannet: He was so comfortable.
Douglass: I know. I'm just terrible to work with.
Man 2: Thanks, Allen, for coming out. I really appreciate it. It's really good.
Man 2: Do you invest?
Man 2: How do you select your investments?
Gannet: I don't know if you'll either love me or hate my investment style.
Douglass: Here it comes!
Gannet: I'm the worst. I'm probably 60% passive. It's literally, check, robo advisor, have a nice day. 40% extremely illiquid private investments. I invest a lot of my liquid net worth into start-ups. I've done pretty well at it. I tend to invest in things that are this blend of familiarity and novelty. I find that those are really interesting and compelling. And I like the private start-up stuff because I find that it's just more fun, I can be helpful and active. And so far, I'm not terrible at it.
Douglass: Out of curiosity, as a follow-up, do you compare your returns with --
Gannet: I also shorted Bitcoin for a while.
Douglass: Well, you're probably not alone. Do you compare that 60% passive to the 40% illiquid? How are you doing versus passive? If you don't mind.
Gannet: No, no. The illiquid private stuff, I think the oldest thing is five or six years. Startups take like ten years. So, if you looked at mark-to-market, in terms of previous round valuation, the private stuff is doing about on par. My hope is that over time, it outperforms. But, if it ends up matching the passive stuff, I'd be happy, just because it's a lot more fun and it's interesting, and it feels like there's an element of giving pack.
I think right now, as someone who's really busy, as an entrepreneur, investing is one of these weird things where, you typically view yourself as the [knocks on wood table] best investment because you have the most information about yourself. So, I think you tend to reserve a lot of cash, typically, because you want to give yourself a personal runway if you want to start a new company or do whatever. So, I think, entrepreneurs tend to have a really weird view of investing. Like, I wouldn't mind being very, very cash-heavy at times, even if I'm leaving lots of money on the table.
Man 2: Is there a service that we could offer that you would be interested in?
Gannet: Yes. A service that I would be interested in, yes. Generally, I'm impressed when robo advisors tell me they have these interesting little things. As someone who likes to tinker, Wealthfront is like, "We'll do this lock based tax loss harvesting." I'm like, "That's cool. Let me read the white paper, this sounds interesting and not completely stupid. I should do this." That stuff always really impresses me. I think the whole robo advising thing is really interesting.
I think the other thing is that, a lot of these traditional wealth managers nowadays are pitching people on these tangential services, like, "We'll also plan your philanthropy, and we'll plan all this stuff." I'm like, I don't have that much money. But, I do think that's interesting and compelling. I set up a donor-advised fund one year. It'd be cool if Wealthfront had a system for also running a donor-advised fund and gave you advice on how to give that and what years it might be more tax-efficient based on your other income.
I think, if you look at people who have holistic interests, it'd be interesting to me to think about, are there ways, without a human being, to understand how those things all balance out? Because I had to do the math on my donor-advised fund. I had to do a spreadsheet. I don't like making spreadsheets at all.
Douglass: But you can color-code it now.
Gannet: It's color-coded! Which is really amazing!
Douglass: Actually, I have a follow-up. You operate in the tech and marketing space quite a bit. Are there any publicly traded companies that you find really interesting, or leaders of companies, publicly traded or not, who you personally look up to?
Gannet: Yes. Hi, friends. I really like Brian Halligan from HubSpot. That's a company where, on one level, you initially saw them as a marketing automation company. They went public, $1.5 billion market cap. I think today, four years later, it's like $4.6 billion. Basically, what they've done is they've said, "Instead of focusing on marketing automation, we're going to stay downmarket and become a CRM tool and compete more with Salesforce downmarket," which is just a huge market. I mean, if they're able to nail that, which it seems like they are, that's a huge market.
I'm generally always impressed by Marc Benioff and Salesforce. The fact that that thing's growing at the speed it's growing is insane. As a customer of Salesforce, it's a product that gets a lot of bad rap, but we love it. We use it all the time. It powers all of our systems, it's compatible with every tool we'd want to use. It's much better than Zoho or Dynamics or any of that stuff. Sorry, Microsoft! I think Salesforce is really cool.
A lot of the companies I was a fan recently got taken out. There's been a bunch of acquisition by PE funds in the marketing technology space. I generally think marketing tech tends to go through really aggressive cycles. They tend to go way too high and way too low. I think, generally, with SAAS companies and SAAS technology companies, we tend to have these overdramatic ups and downs. It's definitely a segment where I think buy low, sell high works, as long as you're really, really patient.
Douglass: Well, gosh, that sounds pretty darn Foolish.
Man 3: Thanks for being here. If I'm making a mobile game app, how could I measure the familiarity versus novelty?
Gannet: I would break it down into smaller parts. The best example of this in mobile games is Fortnite. Fortnite is literally Minecraft plus the Hunger Games. Minecraft, kids know what that is, they know how it works. The idea of last man standing on an island is not particularly new. Blending them is. You look at that, that's a great example where, you don't necessarily try to create entirely new, brand-new game mechanics. Look at things that people already like and think about, are there new twists or ways we could do this?
You see this across so many consumer products. The CPG companies are so good at this. Tide pen, right? Let's put detergent in a pen. Huge success. It sounds so stupid, but it's so smart and so successful. There's a really good book on creativity called Inside the Box. It's really focused on CPG companies and how they go through the innovation process. It's definitely worth reading if any of you cover CPG companies.
Douglass: Other thoughts, questions? Alright, I guess we're going to go ahead and cut things off. We are basically right on time. That's a win for everyone.
Gannet: Awesome, thank you so much!
Douglass: Thanks for being here!
Gannet: And be sure to grab a booklet. I have a lot of them.
Douglass: And if you'd like, he'll probably sign it for you, too.
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