7 Habits of Highly Effective Creative People

Creative people think they defy convention. They believe they are anomalies — each one an intricate, complex web. They remind me of dungarees — a badge of non-conformity until everyone conforms to them. Most people in the communications industry think they are creative, except for the bean-counters. Ironically, it is the Controllers that have had to be the MOST creative people at the agency these days (especially when figuring out how to monetize their Social and Digital offerings).

The problem however, is that true creativity is on the wane. This is not exactly a watershed era for artists, writers, poets; and not just ad men and women. Where’s the work? Where’s Mona Lisa? Who’s our Beethoven? What’s the new Great American Novel? Who’s the next Jack Kerouac? F. Scott Fitzgerald? Where’s the great ad tag line of this century? And what in the hell has happened to rock and roll? Does it even exist? There are all kinds of theories about how and why, nothing can be proven — but there has to be some inextricable link to technology. Does it make us use our minds (our creative minds) more or less? What will we call this creative generation? The Googlers? The “I’m Feeling Lucky” Age? Or maybe Generation WTF.

What I’ve found is that truly creative people tend to downplay their “creativity”. And pseudo-Creatives tend to overplay it and dramatize it. But this post is not about attitudes or cerebral posturing. Intelligence is somewhat relative and subjective, anyway. Sometimes I believe that the smarter you are, the dumber you really are. Columbo always cracked the case by asking the dumb questions. This post is about habits — proactive habits. Things creative people DO, not think.

Of the many myths, the notion of “eccentricity” is most often assimilated with creativity. Creative people often have a peculiar trait or two, but no more so than the average schmuck that makes your sandwich for lunch. We just pay closer attention to the creative Shaman and become smitten with their oddities. Another myth is that creative people are “deeper” — they’re heavy — more sensitive to the human condition. At least I know that I’m shallow — an inch deep and a mile wide. A dilettante. I don’t confuse my one great gift with intelligence or creativity. I’m blest. Blest with what? I forgot. Oh yeah, I was born with a great memory (but, it’s short). Fortunately, our world rewards a good, short memory.

“Curiosity” has recently emerged as one of those agency-speak buzzwords. Due to it’s current popularity in the creative vernacular, I’ve chosen to leave it off this list. Maybe one day I’ll write an entire post on curiosity and it’s link to creativity. But there seems to be enough of them out there in the blogosphere already. Here’s a goofy one from a guys that calls himself a “creativity coach”: link.

Nobody asked me; but these are some of the common denominators that I’ve observed in working with highly effective creative people:

1. “Painters paint”– Writers write. Designers design. Singers sing. The great Al Jolson, in his dying days, would stop people on the street and tell them he was Al Jolson. When folks didn’t believe him — he would sing to them — right there on the street. True, today he would be diagnosed with dementia, but the illustration is that he had to sing. It was in his DNA. And when he could no longer sing, he died. Quickly. Effective creative people create. Constantly. They don’t talk about it. They do it.

2. Compulsive addiction to their craft — I’ve noticed that the most effective creative people can’t stop. They can’t walk away from the table. And if they do, they come back shortly. They either stay up ridiculously late at night, or rise ridiculously early to create — but they can’t rest easily because their active, creative mind won’t allow them. They do not think about getting better or improving. They just know that the more they do something, the better they will get. They create while on vacation. They wake up in the middle of the night and write ideas. They can’t stop learning all they can about their craft.

3. Unhurried — Truly effective creative people are able to “slow the game down”. They won’t be rushed . They love what they do too much to rush it. They savor their craft like a foodie savors a meal. We sometimes confuse this unhurriedness for slowness and we bellyache when deadlines aren’t met. But effectiveness should not be confused with timeliness. In short, effective creative people are on their own schedule. And often in their own world. This is not “eccentricity” — it’s the ability to recognize and adhere to a process. It’s actually quite opposite from “eccentricity”.

4. Purity of Heart — The best creatives I’ve been fortunate to observe are purists. They reject and abhor anything that is impure as unnatural. They possess moral turpitude and a respect for the gods of their discipline. Their craft is sacrosanct. I play golf with my dentist. He’s a great dentist, the best I’ve ever seen. When on the links, he wears two golf gloves, one on each hand. His hands are that important to him. Great creatives treat their mind the same way.

5. Minimalism — Great creatives travel lightly. They are not seduced by the treasures of this world. Their treasure is between their ears. They are other-worldly. They would do what they do for free if food, clothing and energy were gratis. They see money as a necessary evil. If they collect anything at all, it’s something associated with their craft. Objects almost embarrass them.

6. Don’t understand “no” — They often ask for forgiveness and rarely seek permission.The surest way to get them to do something is to tell them they can’t do it. “You can’t write a great radio commercial for a cheap hotel chain.” Huh? Next thing you know, we get Tom Bodett. They are not belligerent about the word, “no”, nothing malicious about them. It’s just not in their nomenclature. They simply don’t understand the language of “no”.

7. Laugh, cry, get goosebumps — Until this last habit, you might be getting the impression that creatives are compulsively driven Fascists devoid of emotion. I’ve found quite the opposite to be true. Creative people are “feelers”. They laugh and cry freely and often. The world gives them goosebumps. They are eternal children. It’s how they cope with fear. It’s how they deal with success. Every day.

14 thoughts on “7 Habits of Highly Effective Creative People

  1. Paul

    As always, well written Mike.

    Sadly, I feel like Paterno, though not technically an ad legend, fell under your number one observation, painters paint. Once he couldn’t coach, he passed. Quickly. There was a man addicted to his craft.

  2. Deborah Wolfe

    I call total BULLSHIT on #5. It just perpetuates that screwed up idea that artists must be STARVING to be ‘real’ artists.

    Real creatives have a deep appreciation for the creations of OTHERS and love to surround themselves with those creations.

    Sick, sick, sick perpetuation of a LACK mentality.

    1. mikepalma Post author

      thanks for the note, Deborah. I certainly didn’t intend to convey that artists should ever starve (although it helps to have a little fire in the belly). But I was just relaying my observations from 20+ years of working with thousands of creatives. There are no absolutes, everyone has there own little toys. I could recommend a few for you.

  3. Stephanie

    Hello Mike,
    The intro to this post is spot on. What HAS happened to rock and roll? I write occasional rock reviews, but have a hard time finding good subject matter.

    If these are the habits of creative people, how do they make a living as a writer? These habits seem implicitly discouraged by agencies, yet writers are supposed to have agency experience to be considered worthwhile! My employer expects me to sit at a desk for 8 hours in a deadline driven environment and produce inspired copy. How does that work???

  4. Daren Scot Wilson

    #5 is a no-fly for me. As an electronics and physics tinkerer, and artist, I like having extra stuff around – stuff to look at, take apart, steal parts from, use in unforseen ways. It is essential to anyone who tinkers in the physical realm, who isn’t living purely in an intellectual world.

  5. Alice Teeple (@creeple)

    Mostly well observed, although I admit I agree with the person who took issue about artists “working for free.” Sure, if the necessities of life were gratis, we’d probably all be dabbling in something fanciful and life-enriching, but unfortunately, the reality is that we creatives are forever dealing with people who assume that if we would work for free in a perfect world, we should work for free ANYWAY. And minimalism isn’t always a signifier for effective creativity. I feel more inspired by seeing objects and experiencing them, as if they’re story or art prompts. I feel empty inside my head and heart if I’m not visually stimulated by an object, a song, or a phrase.

  6. Luci

    Creaters have to create! I know this to be true. I am a ceramic sculpture and I gave it all up for a family and husband. I gave up myself and it drove me crazy, literally. I never could understand why I was so unhappy I had everthing I thought. One day tragedy struck and I found myself completely helpless the only thing I could do was create . I had no choice! I didnt, eat, sleep, shower, etc. for days all I did was model the clay. My husband told me it was the happiest he had seen me in years. Like for the first time he was seen the person he fell in love with a person who had been gone for a very long time. It is true I must create or I will die not in the traditional since, but in a very slow and painful way. I was dying. I am starting ti come to life again.

    seen me in year


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s