Transcript of How to Develop the Right Idea at the Right Time
John Jantsch: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch, and my guest today is Allen Gannett. He is the CEO and founder of TrackMaven, a marketing insights platform. He’s also the author of a book we’re going to talk about today called The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea at the Right Time. Allen, thanks for joining me.
Allen Gannett: Thanks for having me, man.
John Jantsch: A big premise of the book is to kind of debunk the creativity myth that you sit around and get this inspiration from a muse at some point in your life and that, in fact, there’s a science behind it. You want to tell me kind of your … it’s really the big idea of the book, I suppose, so you want to unpack that for us?
Allen Gannett: Creativity is one of those things that we talk about a lot in our culture. It’s on the cover of all these magazines. It’s this big topic in boardrooms. In Western culture, we have this notion of creativity as this magical, mystical thing that strikes a few certain people each generation, and there’s the Elon Musk and Steve Jobs of the world and the Mozarts and the JK Rowlings, but for the rest of us normies, we’re just sort of left out in the cold.
Allen Gannett: The thing that always bothered me is I’d always been someone who’d been a big reader of autobiographies and some of the literature around creativity. I run a marketing analytics company, so I spend a lot of time with marketers, and I didn’t realize the extent to which this had internalized with people. I thought people sort of knew that was the story but knew that, of course, that’s not actually how it works. I realized that, no, no, this is really how people believe creativity works, and so the book sort of came out of this frustration I had that I saw all these very smart people limiting their potential.
Allen Gannett: The book is split into two halves. The first half of the book I interviewed all of the living academics who study creativity, and I break down the myths around how creativity works using science and some of the real histories. I tell some of the real stories behind things like Paul McCartney’s creation of the song Yesterday, which has been over-hyped and over-sold for decades, and Mozart, which there was a whole bunch of, literally, things like forged letters and forged articles about Mozart that have become part of our common myths around Mozart.
Allen Gannett: In the second half of the book, I interviewed about 25 living creative geniuses. These are everyone from billionaires like David Rubenstein, Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer at Netflix, Nina Jacobson, the former president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures. She’s the producer of The Hunger Games. I interviewed even folks like Casey Neistat from YouTube and … really eclectic set of creative geniuses with the goal of saying, okay, if the science shows us that you can actually learn to become more creative, well then how have people actually done that? How have they accomplished that? The book is meant to both be a sort of myth-busting book but also actually be a practical guide to actually leveraging this yourself.
John Jantsch: I think there’s actually a lot of misunderstanding or misuse of the word creativity anyway.
Allen Gannett: Oh, totally.
John Jantsch: I do think that a lot of people that I run into, “Oh, I’m not creative,” which means, “I can’t paint like Picasso,” or something when, in fact, in my business, I’m not … If you set me down and say, “Make something,” I’m not a maker, but I could … I’ve built my entire career around taking other ideas and seeing how they fit together better, and I think that’s a creative science.
Allen Gannett: Oh, and totally, and this is one of the things that people … We have sort of a book cover mentality of creativity, I like to call it, where I wrote a book, there’s one name on the cover, but there’s so many people involved who are creative who make that happen. I mean there’s agents, editors, marketers, copy editors, proofreaders, research assistants, feedback readers, right? Every creative endeavor you see actually has a lot of different people involved, but we sort of have this book cover phenomenon, or I sometimes call it the front man phenomenon. In a band, we talk about the lead singer all the time even though there’s five people in the band. With creativity, we sort of talk about Steve Jobs and Elon Musk as if they’re these sort of Tony Stark-esque characters, and we forget the fact that Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak. Elon Musk literally has the world’s best rocket scientists working for him.
Allen Gannett: The idea that these people are rolling these boulders up a hill by themselves is just not true, and so I think we’re surprisingly susceptible to these sort of PR person propagated narratives around creativity, because I also think, John, we kind of like it. We kind of like the idea that there’s something out there for all of us that’s going to be easy. When we talk about our passion, I think we’re slightly actually talking about, well, waiting for something to be easy, but nothing in life is easy.
Allen Gannett: You look at Mozart, and we talk about him as if he popped out of the womb playing the piano, but the reality is, when he was three years old, his dad, who’s basically a helicopter dad, was like, “You need to become a great musician.” Under the conditional love of his father, he started taking lessons with literally the best music teachers in all of Europe, and he practiced three hours seven days a week his entire childhood. This is not the story of it being easy for Mozart. This is the story of him doing the really hard part when he was young. I think we like this idea that, for some people, it’s easier, for some things it easy, because it kind of gives us an excuse.
John Jantsch: Well, and I also think that the narrative that is simple is a really useful device too because people can then share it, and they don’t have to … What you just went through, nobody wants to tell that story.
Allen Gannett: Of course, 100%. Everyone wants to believe it’s just straightforward.
John Jantsch: Yeah. I think you go as far as saying that just about anybody with the right motivation and the right process could practice and develop a skill, so let’s … Since I mentioned Picasso, could I paint if I had the right motivation?
Allen Gannett: Yes.
John Jantsch: I mean, right now, I will tell you I can’t.
Allen Gannett: Yes.
John Jantsch: I don’t think I could paint anything that anybody would see commercially interesting, but-
Allen Gannett: Totally.
John Jantsch: Right.
Allen Gannett: There’s two different parts of creativity. There’s the technical skill, and then there’s creating the right idea at the right time. On the technical skill side, we actually have now decades of research on talent development. What’s amazing, this is something I didn’t … I didn’t expect it to be this much of a consensus when I started writing the book, but the people, the researchers who spend their time studying talent development have come to the conclusion that, at best, natural-born talent is very rare and [wholefully 00:06:47] overblown, but more likely than not, the idea of natural-born talent actually doesn’t really exist.
Allen Gannett: It’s really that these people typically start very young. They have access to a lot of resources or maybe they were working on another skill, like the daughter who always played baseball in the backyard with her dad and then, by the time she was 12 and she went to her first-ever track practice, she was such a fast runner, and they’re like how did she learn this? It’s like, well, she was playing baseball in the backyard for seven years.
Allen Gannett: In the book, I actually profile the story … It’s actually one of the few stories we have of someone tracking their skill development over a long period of time. It’s the story of Jonathan Hardesty, who’s this painter who, at the age of 22, having never painted before, decided that he wanted to become a professional painter, and he proceeded to … For whatever reason, he was active on a online forum, and he created this forum thread which said that, “Every day, I’m going to post a picture of my painting. I’m going to paint every single day,” and for the next 13 years he did this, 13 years.
Allen Gannett: It’s a really amazing story being able to see he was such a terrible painter when he started. I got permission from him to use one of his first-ever sketches in the book and one of his sketches from much later, and it’s shocking. What he did is he followed, actually, all of the best practices that we have from research on talent and skill development on becoming a great painter, and now he teaches all these courses and classes on becoming a fine art painter and all this stuff, and his paintings sell for five figures, and so he’s a really great rare example of someone starting when they’re old. I think it’s hard because, when you’re older, you’re busy. You don’t have that much time, and there’s not a father or mother figure sort of bearing down on you, forcing you to get through the hard part.
John Jantsch: Well, and I do want to get to your four laws of the creative curve because I think that’s … obviously, that’s a big part of the book, but I think it’s also … I think people need to hear that process, but I want to start with something before that. One of the things that I have observed in my own life and in watching a lot of other people is that motivation has a tremendous amount to do with this.
John Jantsch: I’ll give you an example. I taught myself how to play the guitar when I was in junior high, and it wasn’t because I ever envisioned becoming a famous rock star. I saw it as a great … It turns out junior high girls love guitar players. That was a huge motivation for me to just take this thing on and do it myself. As silly as that example is, I think that that is probably the key to unlocking the whole thing. Isn’t it?
Allen Gannett: I mean this is one of the things that people sort of don’t realize. I think the reason why we see so many young people who seem to be very creative, it’s because their parents forced them. Right?
John Jantsch: Right, right.
Allen Gannett: That’s powerful [inaudible 00:09:37]. It’s Freudian. It’s developmental, whatever sort of psychological perspective you want to put on it, but over and over again we see that the idea of a stage parent is actually … plays a huge role in a lot of these young, creative lives. It’s a lot easier to be world-class by the time you’re 30 if you started when you were 3 than if you started when you were 25.
John Jantsch: Right, right, right. Yeah, I had to beg my parents to buy a used guitar, by the way. All right, so let’s talk about, then, the four laws because I do think that a lot of … there are definitely a lot of people, this is kind of ironic, a lot of people that are more left brain, and they need a process to be creative. I mean it makes total sense. You should pick up the bird, the book, I’m sorry, The Creative Curve.
Allen Gannett: And the bird.
John Jantsch: And the bird, to get really in-depth in this, but I’d like Allen to introduce his four laws.
Allen Gannett: Yeah. Basically, when we talk about creativity, there’s two types of creativity. There’s lower-case C creativity, and there’s upper-case C creativity. This is how academics differentiate them. Lower-case C creativity is just like creating something new. Upper-case C creativity is what most of us actually want to do, which is creating something that’s both new and valuable. Value is a subjective assessment, right? Creating something that we deem society to be valuable, well, people have to see it. They have to experience it. They have to deem it valuable, so there’s a bit of a circular phenomenon that happens.
Allen Gannett: The back half of the book deals with this sort of upper-case C creativity. How do you actually get this? How do you actually develop the right idea at the tight time? It turns out that we actually have a lot of really good science about what drives human preference. I explained it a lot more in detail in the book, but the short version is that we like ideas that are a blend of the familiar and the novel. They’re not too unfamiliar to be scary, because we’re biologically worried to fear the unfamiliar because we worry it might kill us, like if we went to a cave as a caveman that we’d never been in before versus a cave we’ve been in many times, but then we also … turns out we like things that are novel because they represent potential sources of reward. You can think about when we were hunter-gatherers why this was important.
Allen Gannett: These two seemingly contradictory ideas, our fear of the unfamiliar and our pursuit of the novelty, lead to this really elegant relationship where we like ideas that are a blend of the familiar and the novel. The first Star Wars, for example, was a Western in space. Right now, every city has a bunch of these sushi burrito places popping up. They’re just giant sushi rolls. They’re familiar but they’re novel. You see that this is a huge driver of human behavior, and so the four laws really explain how do you nail this timing?
Allen Gannett: The first law that I talk about is consumption. We talk about how creatives are always doing. They’re very active. There’s that annoying social media meme you might have seen, which is like, “90% of people consume, 9% engage, 1% create. #HUSTLE.” It’s not only stupid, but it’s also wrong because it actually turns out that, since familiarity is such an important part of the creative process, consumption, so you know what’s already out there, is actually a huge part of it, and so I talk about why and how.
Allen Gannett: Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix, told me this wonderful story about how he started his career as a video store clerk who watched every single movie in the store. JK Rowling, when she was a kid, would close her bedroom door and just read book after book after book after book. The second-
John Jantsch: Right. I think the piece that maybe people are tripping up on is what I just heard you describe. It was intentional consumption.
Allen Gannett: Exactly, so it’s actually … What’s really interesting-
John Jantsch: It’s not just like, “Oh, I’m going to go on Facebook and see all the blah, blah, blah.” There’s intent in what you’re doing.
Allen Gannett: Yes, and it’s not just how much they consume, but it’s … exactly. It’s how they consume, and that goes into the second law, which is imitation. How these great creatives actually consume is in this way that’s very interactive. The best way you could summarize it is they’re imitating it.
Allen Gannett: I tell the story in the book about Ben Franklin and how we think of him as this great writer but, at the age of 18, he viewed himself as a terrible writer, probably because his dad told him so, again, this parent thing. He decided that he was going to start imitating some of the structures of articles he loved in a magazine called The Spectator. What you see is this sort of Mad Libification by these creative geniuses of other creative works where, instead of just reading a novel, they’ll outline, well, how is it structured? What’s the story arc?
Allen Gannett: Kurt Vonnegut, for his master’s thesis, literally created these charts showing the different story arcs of great novels, and this was one of the foundational things for him as a storyteller. You see that it’s not just that these great creatives consume a lot, and they do, but they also do it in a way which is much more interactive than we typically do and much more focused on imitation. That’s this-
John Jantsch: Yeah. Actually, a process that I’ve used for years in writing my books … I wrote a book called The Referral Engine, and so I’m looking for ideas on building community, and referrals, and different word-of-mouth things. I’ll read book that are unrelated to business, on math, on architecture. It’s amazing. When you go into it with that filter, I’m looking for ideas that I could apply to community building and referrals, and it’s amazing how the book is a whole different book in that [crosstalk 00:15:09]-
Allen Gannett: Oh, 100%. I mean I obviously … If you ever want to feel a lot of pressure, write a book on creating hits.
John Jantsch: Yeah, right.
Allen Gannett: It’s a lot of pressure, or write a book on creativity, and it has all this meta stuff to it. I mean, for me, it was like one of the things I, as a first-time author, was struggling with was the best way to go to switch between chapters. It’s just something I didn’t have a natural knack for, and so I went … ended up, as I was writing the book, using a lot of the methods in the book, and so going and seeing some of the different ways that other people did it. That helped give me the framework for realizing, okay, what are the different was I can do it? What do I like? What do I not like? How can I repurpose this in a way that fits my voice and my style versus, if I just kept sitting there looking at it and hoping an idea would hit me, I’d still be here, right, thinking how to end my chapters.
John Jantsch: All right, so I think we’re up to number three, creative [crosstalk 00:15:57]-
Allen Gannett: Okay, number three. Yeah, so number three I talk about in the book is that we think of these creative geniuses as these solo actors, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Oprah, but reality is, since there’s this social construct element to creativity, since it’s about what is valuable, you actually have to have a lot of different people involved, and I describe the different roles that you have to have in your creative communities, and there’s four that I talk about in the book.
Allen Gannett: Then the fourth and final law is all about data-driven iterations. I think we have this notion of the novelist who goes into the woods and writes their book in a writing cabin and, only once they write the end, period, do the come out. The reality is that, since these … The creatives who are the best at it realize that there’s this whole social construct element, that the relationship with their audience is so important that they are actually very focused on, early and often, getting feedback and then using that to iterate over and over again.
Allen Gannett: I talk about, in the book, everything from the movie industry to romance writers to … One of my favorite stories is I spent a day with the flavor team at Ben & Jerry’s who creates new flavors. That process, which is a culinary process, is shockingly data-driven. They literally do surveys and all this fascinating stuff. It’s not super expensive what they’re doing, they use a lot of email surveys, but it is data-driven.
Allen Gannett: I think that’s one of the big mistakes that aspiring creators have is that, oftentimes, aspiring creators are creating for themselves, and they’re not creating for their audience. The best creators are creating for their audience. Since they know that, they are much more likely to actually listen to their audience.
John Jantsch: Well, and it’s interesting. Over the last decade, I think that the adoption of blogging, wherever that is today, 10 years ago, I think some … there were a heck of a lot of authors that were iterating every day-
Allen Gannett: Completely.
John Jantsch: … because they were writing content that eventually made it into a book. I know I’ve done that numerous times, and I’ve seen a lot of other people that their blogs kind of blew up into books because of comments, and feedback, and the ability to say, “Oh, that resonated. I should go deeper there.” I think there are plenty of examples of a lot of books that became big hits started out as daily blogs.
Allen Gannett: Oh, 100%, and you see this, and they become … I mean Gary Vaynerchuk’s done a great job of this, right, just sort of getting community feedback, Tim Ferriss, obviously. You see this a lot of times. You’ll see these guys, they’ll … Even journalists will write an article for The New Yorker. It does really well. It goes viral. Then they’ll sell the book, and then they’ll sort of work through that.
Allen Gannett: The reality is that the best creative processes are messy, and gross, and involve lots of shades of gray, and all this stuff. I think we have this romantic notion. JK Rowling’s a great example. I mean the story about JK Rowling is she was on a train. She had the idea for Harry Potter. She started writing it on a napkin. First of all, she didn’t have a napkin. She didn’t have a pen. She was on a train. She had the idea for the character Harry Potter and some of his sidekicks, but then it took her five years to write the first book, five years. In one interview, she actually showed the interviewer the box of all 15 different versions of Chapter One she had written because she couldn’t figure out how she wanted to start the book, 15 different versions. This is not the story of her waking up one day with a multi-billion-dollar idea.
John Jantsch: No. Yeah, and then the process of selling that book was just as messy.
Allen Gannett: Yeah, totally. I interviewed, for the book, her first agent and her first publisher. I mean, that book, there was thought behind how to roll it out to the market. They were very mindful of how to do it.
John Jantsch: Yeah. Well, and the rest is history, of course, but you’re right. I mean I do think that we have a tendency in our culture, the social media, YouTube culture, to really kind of hold those ideas out there and think of the billions of other successes that we’ve never heard of that probably went through the same process. I mean they were successful in a different way at a different level, but we obviously all look at all of the stories that hit the one or two kind of social media viral hits.
Allen Gannett: Totally.
John Jantsch: Tell me a little bit about how this research that you’ve done has shaped or evolved your own business TrackMaven.
Allen Gannett: Oh, I mean it’s super interesting. One, it’s affected how I coach people. I think I always had confidence that people were generally underselling themselves when it came to their own talents and development, but writing this book, which took me even further on the side that natural-born talent doesn’t really exist, has made me, I think, a much more practical but also much more aggressive coach to my team where I think I really push people hard to get rid of those things they’ve put on themselves. I mean there’s these famous studies that were done in the ’90s where 86% of kindergartners tested at creative genius levels of creative potential, but I think it was like 16% of high school seniors, something in the teens.
Allen Gannett: Yeah, and it’s like … and you totally see this. There’s this entire social set of constructs we’ve put in ourselves, the social conditioning where we believe that we were meant to be X, and we can’t be Y, and it’s so, so, so, so, so much not real. It’s just in our heads. It’s what we’ve been told. It’s the result of middle-class parents telling kids to get their safe job, to be professional, whatever it is. I think it’s really dangerous, and so, for me as a manager and as a leader, I think I have become much more aggressive at trying to coach people out of that.
John Jantsch: Yeah. I think that times have changed a bit, but a lot of high school kids, the creatives were the nerds. You know?
Allen Gannett: Yeah.
John Jantsch: Of course, now they’re running the world, but I think that actually … Somebody who was really … peer pressure stopped them from pursuing kind of an interest because of that. I think that’s the real shame-
Allen Gannett: Exactly.
John Jantsch: … in not kind of bringing this out as, hey, this is the cool kids or whatever we want to call it now, so it’s interesting, as I heard you talk about that, I wonder what the implications are just for hiring in general.
Allen Gannett: I think I tend to very much focus hiring around potential. I tend not to be … and this is obviously as a young CEO. I think, also, you just tend to be a little more experience skeptical because you also see the downsides of experience around people having their own cognitive biases around previous experience and, “This worked before, so I’m going to do that again.” I tend to think I’m much more potential-oriented. The result is we have a lot of managers who are sort of battlefield promotions, so to speak, where they’ve grown up in the organization, and I think that makes them … They know a lot of the context. They’re more loyal, all that sort of stuff. I think that’s probably the biggest change for me as a leader is just really, yeah, being willing to take more risks on who I hire.
John Jantsch: Yeah. I mean I think we need creativity out of every position, so I guess if you make that a part of the process where you’re going to, as you said, coach and teach a process of creativity or at least to bring out the creativity in everybody, then there isn’t any reason to necessarily just say, “Oh, you have a creative background.”
Allen Gannett: Exactly.
John Jantsch: Allen, tell people where they can get the book and find out more about TrackMaven and everything else you’re up to.
Allen Gannett: You can check out the book at thecreativecurve.com and anywhere books are sold. Check out trackmaven.com and allen.xyz for more on me.
John Jantsch: All right. Thanks, Allen. Hopefully, we’ll run into you out there in the world someday.
Allen Gannett: Bye.