I have just finished reading Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative, a solid, fast-reading program of advice for people who want to have creative ideas and be energized and productive every day.
Todd’s is a fresh approach, which probably not coincidentally is summarized by the acronym FRESH. I will summarize for you here what his tried-and-true approach is, but remember there is a whole book that offers further elaboration.
The F in FRESH stands for Focus, which for Todd has three components. First, he recommends that we list each project on our plates and describe them in terms of the specific challenges they entail, the nuts we must crack, or the bottlenecks obstructing our progress.
For me, one of my projects is running the discussion board for a university course on Creativity. My challenge right now, my current open loop in the project, might be to improve my effectiveness in guiding the quiet third of the students to pose their own generative questions. This challenge is important not to save me the work of posing questions myself, but because “problem finding” is a fundamental prerequisite skill for doing novel and useful work. Learning to pose interesting, generative questions lays the groundwork for students’ future creative endeavors. This course aims to help students along that road, so helping students learn to find problems is an important part of my job.
Todd says that every week we should identify our three most important open loops for the week and focus on these first.
His third recommendation for focus is called “clustering.” Remember in high school taking six unrelated and disconnected classes and having homework every night for each of them, so you never had a chance to sink deeply into any one? Todd says we really cannot do breakthrough thinking if we give a real, non-routine project or design problem less than half an hour or an hour at a time. Furthermore, there is a tremendous attention cost in switching gears continuously among unrelated projects.
His solution is not to chop projects into little bits and to arrange work so that we approach related projects in succession. This strategy reduces the attention cost of switching gears and takes advantage of synergies among projects.
I couldn’t agree more with this sort of scheduling advice.
Looking back at the word FRESH, R is for relationships. Todd looks at three vital types of relationships he believes are key for a creative to keep energized and to have great ideas almost every day.
First, he suggests each of us be a part of a group of four to six people he calls a circle. The members of the circle need to be invested enough in each other to provide support but also to share ideas on each others projects and to give honest feedback.
Second, he says we need one or a few people for what he calls head-to-heads. A writing buddy or a close colleague in the trenches are good examples. These head-to-heads offer the most focused, serious collaborations. The relationship is ideally one of colleagues facing the same issues and providing mutual assistance. This should be a professional, collegial relationship rather than advice for hire.
The third form of relationship he calls the Core Team. Here he envisions a group of more experienced people who have expertise or a successful track record in the things we are trying to do. For a novice writer, this team might consist of published writers of great books rather than people who have never published in a selective setting themselves. For a consulting practice this team might include mentors with successful consulting practices.
I will describe the E, S, and H of FRESH in my next post. For now, go ahead and ask yourself these questions:
What are the three most important open loops or bottlenecks you’d like to make progress on this week?
Do you have that circle of four or six people with whom you can really work on the nitty-gritty of what you are trying to do? Someone who makes a really productive partner in thought? A core group of advisors who have proved themselves with truly excellent work in your field?