"The Creative Curve" by Allen Gannett

Book Summary:

“The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea, at the Right Time” by Allen Gannett debunks the mythology around creative genius and reveals the science and secrets behind achieving breakout commercial success in any field.

From writing a popular novel to starting up a successful company, recent research shows that there is a predictable science behind achieving commercial success in any creative endeavor.

By understanding the mechanics of what Gannett calls “the creative curve”–the point of optimal tension between the novel and the familiar, and the four laws of creative success (consumption, imitation, creative communities, iterations) and the common patterns behind their achievement, everyone can better engineer creativity.

Book Lessons:

  • Become a consumer and spend 20% of your time familiarizing yourself within your chosen field.

  • Imitate the style of great creatives in your field before you start adding your personal spin to your art.

  • Develop a creative community that consists of a mentor, collaborator, modern muse and prominent promoter.

  • Iterate your work by talking to customers and using data-drive processes to refine ideas and turn them into great pieces of work.

Law 1: Consumption

Painters show up at numerous art exhibits. Chefs eat at cutting-edge restaurants, visit farms, and travel to food shows. Songwriters are constantly listening to music, new and old.
— Page 113

There is a common pattern among successful creative artists, they are all consumers of their craft.

  • Great painters visit art galleries.

  • Skilled chefs explore different restaurants.

  • Successful authors read hundreds of books a year.

Gannett writes that creative artists spend about 3-4 hours a day or roughly 20% of their time on consuming their respective art.

He calls this the 20% principle:

  • By consuming material in your creative field, you develop an intuitive, expert-level understanding of the field, where it is on the creative curve, and where it is heading.

Take Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer at Netflix, as an example.

As a kid, Sarandos worked at a video rental store and spent all of his free time at work watching movies. Within a few months, he had watched almost every movie in the shop. He had become a human recommendation engine as was constantly being asked by customers which movies were worth watching.

By going on a consumption binge, Sarandos was able to differentiate what makes a movie great and was makes a movie bomb. He continued to consume movies as he was promoted to general manager of the video store chain and then went on to join Netflix in 2000, where he led content acquisition.

Even today, Sarandos continues to watch 3-4 hours of film and TV today, except now he does so from his corner office in Beverly Hills.

The 20% principle is critical for creative artists because you need to have a certain level of established knowledge of what people like and what already exists in the world before you attempt to create something new.

As author Allen Gannett writes, “If your goal is to achieve mainstream success, your first step should be to immerse yourself in the field you’re interested in, exposing yourself to and consuming as much as possible. This will allow you to identify ideas that are familiar to previous successes” (131).

Only once you have a baseline understanding of your art field can move on to creating something original.

Law 2: Imitation

You may think that breakout success comes from breaking the pattern. In reality, it is only by following a pattern that you tap into the right level of novelty.
— Page 141

There’s an old saying that before you can break the rules, you must first master them. That is especially true for creatives.

Great creative individuals all follow some form of structure, formula, pattern or norm.

  • Almost all books are 200-300 pages long.

  • Almost all songs are 2-3 minutes long.

  • Almost all sitcoms are 20-30 minutes long.

These constraints ensure familiarity to consumers, while also allowing the artist to spice things up by changing 10, 20 or 30% of the art.

Take Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of the bestselling book “Too Big to Fail” and co-creator of the hit show “Billions” as an example.

After graduating from college, Sorkin was hired as a business reporter for the NYT. However there was one problem, he was 22 years old and had no real experience.

So what did he do?

He started to imitate the greats. He sought out NYT stories from previous years and studied their formats. Sorkin began to build outlines of an ideal format based on what worked and then fit his own story into the outline.

Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, Sorkin learned the formula of what makes an article great and applied it to his own writing. The result? It “helped skyrocket his career” (152).

Sorkin used the same strategy when he began writing the book “Too Big to Fail.”

“I went to the bookstore and bought five or ten of my favorite business narratives and studied what they were doing, how they do it, what was it that I liked about it, and what didn’t I like about it,” Sorkin said.

Sorkin then emulated the book style formula of the writers he admired into his own book. By doing so, he was able to communicate his most persuasive new ideas into a time-tested framework.

“If we imitate the people we admire, and reconstruct their past successes, we are that much closer to absorbing the patterns we need to create content at the right point of the creative curve,” writes author Allen Gannett.

Law 3: Creative Communities

Studies show that building a community of people around us is essential to achieving world-class success...research demonstrated that an innovator’s network could predict prominence, productivity, and even the length of their career.
— Page 156

There’s a common myth that creative geniuses simply sit alone in a house in the woods and create masterpieces. However, more often than not, this is completely false.

The truth is that most creative geniuses have a creative community.

One study found that the “strength of an artist’s reputation was correlated to the number of relationships they had with other successful artists, both within and beyond their own generation” (156).

Author Gannett discovered that creatives had 4 different types of people in their networks:

  • A Master Teacher

  • A Conflicting Collaborator

  • A Modern Muse

  • A Prominent Promoter

Together, these form what Gannett calls a “creative community.” Each role can be filled by either an individual or a group, and all four roles play a critical part in becoming a successful creative artist.

Here is a short description of each role:

  • A Master Teacher

    • Master teachers serve two essential roles: they teach constraints and they assist with deliberate practice through feedback. A master teacher is needed to take your game to the next level, even professional athletes have teachers (coaches).

  • A Conflicting Collaborator

    • You don’t want to collaborate with someone who is so easy to get along with that they don’t push you. The goal is to find a person who will help you discover and overcome your flaws.

  • A Modern Muse

    • A modern muse is an individual or a group of people who continually inspire and motivate you. This support system will help supply you with energy to power through the low moments of your creative career.

  • A Prominent Promoter

    • Prominent promoters are people with credibility who will advocate for you and your work. This could be an agent, publicist or fellow artist with a solid reputation and has influence in their field.

Near the end of the chapter, Gannett writes that “The best innovators know that creative success isn’t a solo adventure, and also know that a single key partner is insufficient. We all need in our orbits a community of people who will fill a variety of roles” (182).

Law 4: Iterations

The biggest secret to creating something your audience will love? Listen to them.
— Page 212

The 4 steps of iteration are conceptualization, reduction, curation, and feedback.

During the conceptualization stage, creatives generate a set of plausible ideas that can later be refined.

In reduction, creatives put their early work in front of an audience to test the ideas and get a sense of which ideas are worth investing time and energy into. This stage can be scary because it involves criticism and rejection, but it’s better to have 3 great ideas that you feel will succeed instead of 30 random ideas.

Then in the curation stage, you take your ideas one step further and allow people to dive deeper into your work so that you can gather extensive information to confirm data and intuition.

The final stage is feedback. Creators need to constantly measure and assess their work to fit customer needs. This can come from phone calls, emails, social media, sales figures or any other data points. Just as authors constantly rewrite their drafts, use customer feedback to improve and refine your product until it is a polished piece of work.

Here’s how Ben & Jerry’s, the famous ice cream company, goes through the iteration process:

  • Conceptualization: Ben & Jerry’s R&D researchers come up with a list of 200 possible new flavors.

  • Reduction: Ben & Jerry’s emails those 200 flavors to their newsletter subscribers and asks which flavors interest them and move forward with the top 15 flavors.

  • Curation: the Flavor Gurus start to make small batches of the 15 flavors and tests them with other teams and stakeholders.

  • Feedback: During the early release, Ben & Jerry’s looks at fan reactions to see if people like it or not. Then during the official release, the company looks at phone calls, emails, social media, sales figures and any other data points that indicate whether customers like the product and if any improvements are needed.

Book Review:

“The Creative Curve” blew me away. It’s not a NYT or WSJ bestseller, and yet it is a fantastic book filled with engaging stories and wonderful pieces of practical advice.

The book debunks many common myths around creative geniuses and provides insightful recommendations on how anyone can improve their creativity. Author Allen Gannett did an excellent job presenting his ideas with the support of both original research and published scientific studies.

This book is a must read for artists, writers, musicians or anyone in a creative industry. I can’t recommend it enough, I’ve already added it to my list of books that are worth reading more than once.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

If you’re interested in this book, you can get it here.

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