The value of stupid obsessions

One of the career hazards of being a professional creative is running out of fresh material.  Or not having enough fresh stimuli that will lead you to fresh output.

One thing that i’ve found really helps in this regard is constantly having new interests.  New things that capture your imagination and make you think about something you’ve never considered before.

A few years into my career I was working on a national brand with a  lot of creative freedom.  so potentially, anything i could come up with, could get produced.

So i had no limits, right?  Wrong.

I found, somewhat to my dismay, that rather than feeling like a limitless universe, my mind felt more like a really big hotel that I walked around in looking for something: ideas.

And after a while i would open a door and go “Oh, I’ve been in this room before! Damn!”.  If that makes any sense.

In other words, simply racking my little brain alone wasn’t making it for me.  So I actively turned my focus outward.

On more than one occasion i’ve found that following things that caught my fancy led me to have ideas i would never have otherwise had.  Sometimes these interests turn into full-blown obsessions.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes they lead nowhere.  But at least I have followed them.

Currently I have three obsessions/interests on the go:

The life and work of director Sam Peckinpah.  I am taking this one to the next level.  I am hopefully meeting a friend/colleague of Sam’s for dinner in LA in a couple of weeks. I couldn’t be more excited.  I have a good feeling about this one. And it obviously has potential since a lot of my work is shooting film.

Professional Irish poker players.  I listened to an amazing radio documentary about three Irish poker players.  They were real characters and i have learned a lot more about them.  And poker.   And the reality of being a poker pro. In my head it’s become an HBO series about these guys.  Sort of like a downmarket ENTOURAGE with more boozing and funnier lines.

Stephen Sondheim talking about writing musicals.  I recently became transfixed by hearing Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim talking about his craft. I don’t have a musical bone in my head but when he talks about it, i feel like i could write a great musical too.   No idea why.  Not even that interested in plays or musicals.  Have since listened to lots and lots of interviews with him.

I like to think, somewhat grandiosely, that fate is leading me to these interests.  That’s probably overstating it.

But if nothing else I am utterly convinced it’s imperative that we never stop listening to, and acting on, the mysterious voices in our heads.

Maybe they know something we don’t.








8 responses to “The value of stupid obsessions

  1. Vinny,
    I remember reading an interview with our country’s legendary actress where she said something really interesting (at least to me).
    she said there’s something fundamentally ironic in playing Juliet ( in Romeo&Juliet): when you’re the right age for the role you just can’t get the depth of that character, but when you actually get it – you’re inevitably too old to play the role.

    I think there’s similar irony in being an advertising creative. being new and fundamentally naive gives you enormous energy to do the job. the problem is you lack experience to get it when you said it (the right idea). you’re like a volcano. just erupting.
    but when you mature as a creative you get so-called experience that can in fact be a huge obstacle.

    you’re right about having stupid obsessions. I don’t think it’s fate or anything really “deep”. it just that you have a playful mind.
    and playful mind hates routine. it hates what it knows cause it bores him. it’s out there to play.

    or in the words of great Hafiz:
    We have a duty to befriend
    those aspects of obedience
    that stand outside of our house
    and shout to our reason
    “oh please, oh please
    come out and play.”

  2. great comment riki! wow.

    the funny thing is that over time i have gotten much faster at coming up with ideas but it hasn’t really gotten any easier. the ideas are still only as good as the intensity with which I attack the problem.

    and you’re right. it probably is an involuntary reflex of my mind (which i view as something separate from me. more like my partner) simply needing new fodder to do the job that I ask it to do. it’s funny old game for sure.

    but hey, i’m meeting someone who worked with Sam Peckinpah! we’ll probably end up having a knife fight in a brothel in Mexico. Or just have some sushi ;-)

  3. I like the sound of a peckinpah poker themed musical.
    I saw this a while back.'s_Choice_(play)
    Thought it was grand.

  4. that sounds great john. love to see it. poker is so dramatic. and filled with characters. the irish guys were cool because they weren’t internet idiots with hoodies and shades. they were having good craic as they played.

  5. I am not a creative in my most work life (I am but in a different way I come up with strategy). But i do have one client which has allowed me to be creative helping her with Branding and Image.

    In my personal life I am very creative recreationally. I paint (acrylics), draw (charcoal and pastel), photograph and I make decorative mirrors. Its mostly manic. I won’t do anything for awhile then pump out a bunch of stuff. The kick start is always a new influence from the outside. Often its nature. Sometimes its seeing other art, especially street art. I can’t control it. Meaning sometimes I feel like creating but I can’t. Usually I see something and go Oh My God I must begin!

    So when I read your struggles and triumphs Vinny it makes me glad my work does not depend on it. It will also make me a better project manager when I need a creative and they struggle I will have empathy vs just saying ‘What is wrong with you I need an idea! Now!’ LOL

    • howie, we’re all creative. just some of us actually enjoy that pressure of coming up with stuff. much like poker players enjoy the uncertainty of their game and the struggle to play the game!

  6. I wrote a piece for Adweek years ago entitled “Why Some People Have More Ideas.” It wasn’t about the fear of running out of ideas. Instead it was about how some people seem to breeze merrily through the business and how the rest of us, if we ever got stuck, could catch up with them.

    Here’s the text of the article:

    “Here’s a confession: During my agency career, I worked at more agencies than most people can list. The places included big agencies, small agencies, great agencies that filled me with joy, crappy agencies that made me wonder why I’d signed up, agencies that have vanished and agencies still in existence, even agencies with my name on the door.

    “My record isn’t one that will earn me a place in the Hall of Fame, unless a Ripley’s wing is opened. Nonetheless, working in all those different places gave me a unique view of the one thing that matters in the ad business: coming up with ideas.

    “Why are some people so prolific? Why are other people duds?

    “The truth of the matter is that some people in advertising – the really, really bright ones – are members of the Lucky Sperm Club. They were born with right-hemisphere dominant brains. They can’t be anything but bright, brilliant and creative. It’s often true, of course, that their ‘luck’ at birth is also a curse; that their brilliance at coming up with wild, crazy yet wonderfully effective ideas so quickly comes from the mild to moderately severe levels of manic-depression that plagues them. Barely one person in 10 has this ‘advantage.’

    “The rest of us are stuck with our left-hemisphere dominant brains. Yet when it comes to extraordinary work, we aren’t completely out of luck. With a little training, we can compensate for the biological oversight that occurred at our conceptions. Instead of allowing our left-hemisphere brains the opportunity to plod forward serially, arranging one fact after another in a neat line of orderly, logical piles, we can learn to mimic the childlike, ‘why not?’ thought patterns of those born to be inventive.

    “I can think of at least 11 ways that can help lay the groundwork for such a miraculous transformation.

    “1. Stock your brain with goodies.

    “Those who are truly creative seem to devour all knowledge in their paths and often everything that’s off on all the spur tracks as well. As David Ogilvy suggested, they possess a ‘well- furnished mind’ and are ‘relentlessly curious.’

    “Do you read? Go to museums? Go to the theatre? Do you watch movies on DVD and then try to deconstruct them? Have you ever gone to Google, ferreting out details of odd subjects just for the sheer fun of it? Have you ever had long conversations with people considerably different from you – chronologically, politically, economically, racially – in an attempt to see the world through a different set of eyes?

    “Try any of them. Creative thinking, after all, is no more than an echo of all your personal perceptions, often ones formed in the oddest ways imaginable.

    “2. Learn the difference between fertilizer and manure.

    “Hemingway once told a reporter that the most important intellectual attribute a good writer can have is ‘a built-in, shockproof crap detector.’

    “You need one of those in advertising, too. Use it with yourself and with others. How much of what you do, say, think and contribute has any nutrient value whatsoever? How much of it just stinks up the place?

    “Question authority: A briefing that doesn’t make sense, a strategy that doesn’t add up, research that leaves too many crucial issues unanswered, even a client’s comments on occasion.

    “3. Escape from ‘concept prison.’

    ‘Concept prison’ is the dreary place you occupy when you’ve convinced yourself you have to do things the way they’ve always been done.

    By resisting ‘concept prison’ – a term coined by Edward DeBono, the brilliant Cambridge thinker – Phil Knight built a company that doesn’t sell shoes but instead lets you ‘just do it,’ i.e., fulfill your personal aspirations. Then there’s Amazon, Starbucks, eBay and craigslist, the creative offspring of Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Pierre Omidyar and Craig Newmark, respectively.

    “Getting back to advertising, lots of people in the business spend their entire careers in ‘concept prison’ and often seem to get by quite handsomely. But they’re usually called ‘hacks,’ a term you never want to have attached to your name.

    “4. Avoid searching for ‘the right answer.’

    “‘That’s not it.’ ‘That’s not it.’ ‘That’s not it.’

    “Imagine what happens if your brain keeps telling you that your answers aren’t the right answer.

    “Here’s the truth: In all likelihood, there’s more than one answer.

    “Says DeBono: ‘The purpose of thinking is not to be right but to be effective. Being right means being right all the time. Being effective means being right only at the end.’

    “So learn to accept failure en route to success, okay?

    “For a good case history that illustrates this point, just spend a little time thinking about Steve Jobs’ ups and downs at Apple. He started the company. He gave us many, if not all, of the wonderful things about computers we now take for granted. He got tossed out in a management shake up. When the company fell on hard times, he came back with business- altering ideas so strong – carrying all your music in your pocket, as just one example – that in the eyes of many he now walks on water.

    “5. Get off the monorail.

    “The monorail is the train of logic most people feel riding. The best example of a monorail is probably a computer. All a computer does is make a series of yes/no decisions based on previously programmed data. That isn’t creative.

    “Try attacking a problem obliquely from time to time. Be haphazard, even a little sloppy. Make your thinking playful. Be less serious, more serendipitous. Surprise yourself. Scare yourself.

    “6. Explore.

    “Look for parallels in other businesses you’ve worked on. For parallels in business success stories you’ve read about. Not to mention parallels in art, literature, history, science, nature, etc.

    “Set a quota for your explorations: Five completely different ideas by noon, 15 by the end of the day, etc. Reward yourself when you hit your quota – give yourself an extra half hour at lunch, for example, or go home early.
    Whatever. Don’t cheat and set quota too low, or make it impossible by setting it way too high.

    “When you’ve exhausted the possibilities – or just exhausted yourself physically – put all your ideas up on the wall. Then look for the major themes that emerged from your exploration. They could very well be the beginnings of a Big Idea or even the Big Idea itself. Rearrange the ideas on the wall. Look for holes. See if there are new routes you could take.

    “Don’t discard anything. Build a ‘rustle pile.’ Those scraps of paper that were up on the wall as idea fragments during your exploratory thinking are valuable kernels for copy as well as good ways to jump start future idea sessions on the business.

    “7. Avoid perfection.

    “’Perfection is spelled ‘paralysis,’’ wrote Winston Churchill, who could have become the greatest of all British copywriters given choice lines such as this. (Though if he had entered advertising instead of politics it’s likely England would now be speaking German.)

    “Searching for the perfection of artistic detail in the idea-generation stage is like spending your bonus before your boss has presented it.

    “8. Curb your ego.

    “Don’t be so quick to find the faults in a thought, especially in a team or group setting. Making a definitive yes or no decision early in the game freezes others and makes them hesitant to share their innermost thoughts.

    “It’s not only counter-productive, by the way, it’s totally rude.”

    “9. Simplify.

    “Boil your problem down to its essence. Throw out every detail that isn’t relevant.

    “Said Albert Einstein, a man probably a good deal smarter than you are or ever will be: ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler.’

    “10. Don’t knuckle under.

    “Having the courage to think outside the lines is only half of it.

    “When you finally have an idea that’s different, unexpected or otherwise off the well-trodden path, count on running into others who’ll whimper and retreat to the land of ‘yes, but we’ve never done it that way before,’ the place where they think it’s good and safe.

    “Anticipate them. Build a case and prepare to fight for your baby.
    Remember those memorable words from an anonymous sage: ‘Every great oak was once a nut that stood its ground.’

    “If those words don’t do it, keep George Bernard Shaw’s admonition in mind: ‘All great truths begin as blasphemies.’

    “11. Have some fun.

    “Advertising is the toy department of the business world. As are marketing and branding. So play!”

    Sorry for such a long comment, Vinny…

    • thanks for that curvin. as you can see i loved it so much i turned it into an unwitting guest post by you. hope you don’t mind. really great advice.

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