Over the course of 30 years of plying my trade around the world, I’ve developed some decent strategies on how to make ideas happen along the way. In the lead-up to the release of my latest book, I’m sharing some of them here.
“Thich Nhat Hanh is a special man who has helped millions with their suffering through teaching them mindfulness. But he doesn’t know real suffering, because he hasn’t dated as much as I have.”Garry Shandling
I haven’t dated for a long time, but that quote came to mind recently when someone asked me what it was like making a living peddling one’s creative wares around the world, as I have done. It’s not an easy vocation.
It can be fantastic to find yourself in a great city somewhere on the globe to share your ideas in a talk or create a strategy to improve the city itself; it can also require a lot of suffering and sacrifice to spend months crafting and developing a project only to have it die on the table during a meeting.
The line between the fantastic and the suffering is a fine one—similar to the line Bruce Springsteen describes in Atlantic City:
“Out here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”
The difference between the two sides of the line is the creative strategies used how to make ideas happen before, during, and after an opportunity.
My medium is ideas. Sometimes they transform cities, other times they change how people think about design, their place in the world, or just makes them smile. All impacts are equal. Ideas are powerful, egalitarian things.
“A mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”Oliver Wendell Holmes
Ideas are easy; making them happen is the hard part. This is where creative strategy comes in.
Creative strategies require agile thinking: the ability to observe a system, situation, or scenario, and find an angle; an entry point. See if it works. Then step back and look for another one, and see if that entry point works better.
The path to success is never a straight line:
but a series of pivots, rethinks and reworking
Creative strategies are the things that help you navigate the curves at top speed.
When people ask for the recipe—the “how do you do what you do”—question I tell them that a broad distillation of my approach is learning how to create opportunity inside systems. Systems surround us: cities, institutions, bureaucracies, processes. An increasingly complex world requires systems to make things work. It’s not about being inside or outside a system, or being allowed or denied by the system—it’s about finding the wedge that creates opportunity in the system.
Most importantly, it is also about being resourceful. Creative strategies enable you to work with the resources at hand and maximize the impact of what is available to you. We live in an era of limitations. Resources, finances, space—all are finite, and becoming more so as time progresses. Effective creative strategies allow you to, as Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Or, to put it in the no-nonsense phrasings of my grandfather: “Work hard with what you’ve got.”
Many of the examples I’ll share come from my own experience, the product of decades working with numerous cities around the world. Others come from individuals I’ve had the pleasure to work with, or projects I’ve been involved with, that left me stronger and wiser.
Regardless of the example or source of the strategy, I’ve found that they can be applied with variations to almost any discipline. I’m not an architect, nor a professional designer. I’m an outsider who managed to find a place at a lot of tables on the inside.
To learn a lot more about the power of conditional thinking, my latest book This Could: How Two Words Can Create Opportunity in an Era of Limited Resources will be of interest.
Title Image: Maze by Vasily Gedzun from the Noun Project