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The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry - Book Notes, Summary, Review

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry - Book Notes, Summary, Review - Cover Image

Published: January 29, 2021

Reading Time: 16 min


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Reading The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry really opened my eyes to the fun and creativity that can be found in the world of designers and creators. As a UI designer, I now have a renewed motivation to continue to improve my craft and to create new things.

If you take nothing else away from this book, then schedule time each week for unnecessary creating. This will build your creative muscle and help you to develop your idea generation muscles.

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Who Should Read This Book?

I would recommend this book to any type of creative worker, i.e. a UI UX designer, a graphic designer, or someone whose job relies on churning out creative ideas and designs.

What’s more, this is a particularly helpful book to read if you find that you are frustrated at work due to a lack of ideas, low motivation, and maybe how projects are managed.

From reading this book, I have begun to look at my day job differently including how I can derive value from that work and create better solutions or ideas.

A few of the concepts talked about in this book, I believe, could be applied to anyone creative, including content creators.

For instance, there are strategies in this book for developing your ability to generate creative ideas that I feel could be applied in several different areas, not just UI design.

How This Book Changed Me

  • This book certainly struck a chord with me for some reason and I absolutely enjoyed reading it.
  • I felt as though the author was speaking directly to me and offering me advice on how I can build my creativity muscle and be more effective at work.
  • The realization that I am the ultimate owner of my own creative growth really stuck with me as I read the book.
  • As a result, I have taken a lot of the practical aspects of what I’ve read and started to apply them to my work:
    • I will schedule a time for Idea Generation once a week for 30 minutes (or 1 Pomodoro timer) for a few weeks to see how much I benefit from that process.
    • I would also like to schedule a time for Unnecessary Creating. My next step with this is to figure out what that looks like for me. Should I take up a new hobby or try to build on an existing one?
    • Finally, I’d like to write out my own 7-word bio that describes me and my work.
  • By developing a regular practice of being creative or generating ideas, I will be able to be more creative i.e. come up with better creative insights and new ideas, without hitting a wall quite as often. (I hope)

My Top 3 Quotes That Resonated With Me

“Regardless of your circumstances, you are the ultimate owner of your own creative growth.”

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry p11

“No matter how talented they are, the only path to consistent, long-term success is to maintain focus on the basics as the foundation for everything you do.”

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry p68

“Our most significant work will nearly always come from a deep understanding of not only what we are doing, but the why behind it. When we gain a sense of mastery over how we engage our work, we are better able to connect with this deeper sense of motivation.”

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry p204

Book Notes

Part 1 – The Dynamics

1 The Dynamics Of Creative Work

  • The create on-demand workday: each day you go to work you are tasked with:
    • creating brilliant solutions, that meet specific objectives by defined deadlines
    • This is how you keep your job.
    • The term “create on-demand” was coined in this way by the team at Accidental Creative.

“Working harder and staring more intently at the problem to achieve better ideas is like trying to control the weather by staring at the clouds.” (p16)

  • Instead, you need to create a space to let your creative process work.
  • The creative process is an unseen force that can seem uncontrollable.
  • Once we understand some basic attributes/dynamics of the creative process, we can begin to control it to great effect.

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations” – Orson Welles (p20)

  • We need constraints in order to operate effectively. They allow us to focus our energy in the correct place. True freedom is healthy constraints.
  • To embrace your creativity, you need to develop your own creative rhythm. This rhythm allows you to work effectively by working with five elements (FRESH):
    • Focus – in order to focus, you need clearly defined objectives
    • Relationships – relationships can be very powerful sources of inspiration
    • Energy – managing your energy throughout the day will help you to work consistently. This concept is referenced in the book The Productivity Project.
    • Stimuli – these are your creative inputs, the ideas you are taking in. Quality is important to generate great ideas.
    • Hours – forget about being your most efficient and look instead of becoming more effective with the time you have

2 The Dynamics Of Team Work

  • When working with others, we also work with systems, processes, and rules.
  • Working in a team can generally produce more & better results.
  • Creative productivity comes in ebbs and flows. There will be periods of high output, then periods of low output.
  • Creative teams face the pressures of creating consistent, timely work that is brilliant.
  • We are forced between trying to create something amazing and getting it done in time and on budget.
  • This dynamic can be seen in three types of tensions:
    1. Time-versus-value tension
      • as a creative, you’re paid for the value you create
      • you can’t just show up and work through a pre-defined task list each day
      • your job is dependent on always creating more value
      • this tension can cause completion anxiety – we’re never really sure when we’ve done enough.
      • This can cause us to work outside of hours to get something even better. You want to be able to prove your worth and always get it right.
      • This pressure can negatively affect our creative process as it can paralyze us. We don’t feel confident fully engaging with our work.
    2. Predictable-versus-rhythmic tension
      • This occurs when we are pushed towards predictable creativity. We are expected to perform like robots that just crank out widgets.
      • In this way, our current work is always compared to our previous work.
      • This can negatively affect creatives as they’ll begin to conserve their creative energy for only a few projects where it may have the most impact.
      • This is not the organization’s fault. We can overcome this by mastering our time & focus.
    3. Product-versus-process tension
      • This occurs where we do the bare minimum as we don’t want to face any disapproval at the end.
      • The only way some people i.e. project managers etc. experience what you’ve done is with the finished product and whatever words you can scrounge up at the time.
      • You are having weeks’ worth of work judged in a few moments. It can be de-motivating.

3 The Side Effects: Dealing With The Assassins Of Creativity

  • When we ignore our creative rhythm i.e. fail to manage our time, energy, and attention, there can be unhealthy side effects.
  • We can become bored, tired, frustrated, and lacking in ideas.
  • The 3 assassins of the creative process are:
    1. Dissonance “Dissonance is a musical term used to describe two notes played simultaneously that seem as if they don’t belong together and don’t resolve. This creates a kind of musical tension, and because the human mind craves resolution of unresolved patterns, it waits expectantly for that resolution” (p49)
      • The feeling that something isn’t right
      • Our minds have only so much “RAM” to process information. So when our environment causes dissonance, your creative capacity is reduced.
      • This can happen in our work when the “why” isn’t lining up with the “what” in our day to day tasks.
        • This can be overcome by regularly reminding team-members of the overall strategy and how it aligns with day-to-day work.
      • Dissonance can be found in unnecessary complexity, unclear objectives, and opacity
      • unnecessary complexity
        • we tend to make things overcomplicated to hide the fact that we don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing
        • sometimes a system can develop over time that eventually becomes outdated. Unfortunately, the system has been there for so long that no one questions it.
        • You need to ask yourself: can I make this process simpler?
      • unclear objectives
        • it’s always a good idea to clarify the rules of the game before you start playing
        • you need to define what “winning” looks like.
        • Ask the Five Ws to establish the root of the project.
        • “The more comprehensively we define our objectives, the more likely we are to experience creative insight.” (p55)
      • opacity
        • opacity refers to how creative decisions are made and shared with the team.
        • Often these decisions are made in secret top-level management offices and handed down with little to no explanation.
        • The clearer the decision-making process is, the easier it is for the team to understand and follow.
    2. Fear
      • fear can strike when we are afraid of what might happen if we make a mistake. As a result, we can then just play it safe which will result in mediocre work.
      • In a lot of cases, we are overreacting to this fear.
      • We can be afraid of failing or afraid of succeeding
      • “A lifetime of mediocrity is a high price to pay for safety.” (p60)
    3. Expectation Escalation
      • This occurs when we start to compare ourselves with others or even to our past selves/past work.
      • As this escalates, we become overly concerned with having great ideas immediately and we don’t give our creative ideas enough time to develop.
      • It is important to remember that all ideas begin as seeds to start with. It’s overtime that they grow and develop into better fully formed ideas.
      • “no matter how talented they are, the only path to consistent, long-term success is to maintain focus on the basics as the foundation for everything you do.” (p68)

Part 2 – Creative Rhythm

4 Focus: Zeroing In On What’s Critical

  • It’s important to be able to develop the ability to focus for blocks of time. We need to be able to work deeply to come up with new ideas or solve problems.
  • We have the ability to solve problems and form patterns using our minds.
    • Unfortunately, sometimes we can create or develop systems that attempt to replicate our previous successes.
    • We incorrectly assume that what brought success previously can bring us success all the time. This can cause us to misplace our creative energy.
    • These false assumptions cause us to become inflexible to new or better thoughts and ideas.
    • The way to get over this is by accurately defining the creative problems you’re trying to solve.
  • To do our most effective and creative work, we need to develop the ability to stay focused on our objectives.
  • A drifter – someone who does whatever work they feel like
    • they have no priorities
    • effort and attention are spread across a lot of things instead of one thing causing you to progress slowly
  • A driver – someone who focuses on specific work or objectives
    • they are driven to map things out and to break down goals into smaller tasks
    • they have a narrow focus which means they are reluctant to move their energy onto new things
  • A developer – someone who has a strong sense of the overall goal but can purposefully approach each task as an opportunity to develop new ideas.
    • A developer can define, refine, and cluster (organize) their work to be able to experience more creative insights as they progress through a project
  • Clustering is similar to task batching
    • you are finding logical similarities in your work and clustering or grouping those tasks together.
    • This can allow you to carry out focused work for longer.
    • You are minimizing the mental cost of rapidly switching between tasks and constantly re-focusing.
    • When done across multiple projects or areas, this can lead to unexpected breakthroughs or new ideas
      • you may see how a similar issue in one project could be tackled based on your experience with another project

5 Relationships: Being Brilliant Together

“Introversion doesn’t mean that we don’t like being around people; it simply means that we derive our energy from being alone rather than from being around others.” p96

  • unfortunately, as introverts, we tend to isolate ourselves more than we should
  • relationships can force us out of our comfort zone but they also allow us to see problems or ideas from a new perspective.
  • Starting or joining a mastermind group can help in this way.
  • We need others to challenge us and our ideas so that we can learn and grow.

6 Energy: Your Invisible Ally

  • We need energy in order to focus on our tasks and everything we do throughout the day.
  • Energy is an important thing to manage – see The Productivity Project where the author describes that we need to manage our Time, Attention, and Energy effectively in order to be sustainably productive.
  • Make planning an important part of your reflection process whether it be weekly, monthly, yearly.
  • Prune back the things that you are saying yes to so that you can focus on your best things with more energy.
  • Similarly, each thing you say yes to is a choice to say no to something else.
  • Establish a buffer between work and home life so that you can mentally shift from one to the other. Consider your commute home or a daily shutdown routine.
  • Recognize the importance of negative space for developing creative ideas. This is the time between your active moments like walking or cooking.
  • Focus on your “Red Zone” activities to allow you to generate forward momentum towards your goals/work/life These activities include:
    • Activities you can uniquely do to move a project forward
    • Activities that increase idea generation like reading, writing, mind mapping, brainstorming
    • Activities that affect your energy like sleep, exercise, meditation
    • Focusing on these types of activities regularly ensures you are moving the needle.

7 Stimuli: What Goes In Must Come Out

  • Stimuli are the raw materials that stimulate thought.
  • The stimuli we experience can cause us to think differently about how we see things.
  • If you are stuck or have hit a wall on a project, consider different stimuli that could give you a new perspective.
  • What determines high quality stimuli?
    • It’s challenging – to improve your ability to comprehend complex new things
    • It’s relevant – to your personal growth, growth at work
    • It’s diverse – consider looking into ideas or opinions that you disagree with. This forces you to approach a problem from a new perspective
  • Purposefully structuring the stimuli in your life through regular reading and study can help you to synthesize more thoughts and ideas which can in turn develop answers to your creative problems.
  • Develop a regular study time to focus and develop your knowledge

“Our best creative work comes from a mind-set of abundance and generosity rather than one of scarcity.” p150

8 Hours: They’re The Currency Of Productivity

  • If we view time with an investment mindset and develop practices that develop our creative process, we will achieve long-term results.
  • Set aside time for the sole purpose of generating ideas
    • Start off with 1 hour a week
    • Begin with a clearly defined problem, in the form of a question – this is your challenge
    • Ask yourself what would a solution to this problem look like? what would be the definition of done?
    • What are some assumptions that you are currently stuck on? Are there any assumptions that need to be challenged?
    • What other problems are similar to this one? Is there anything I learned from those problems that I could apply here?
    • What are the specific concrete attributes of this problem? break the problem down into 3 words and use free-association to spark new ideas.
  • If you make idea generation a regular practice, over time you’ll be more effective at generating ideas when you need them
  • Create time for unnecessary creating
    • spend time doing an activity that you enjoy and that has no time frame for completion
    • this will provide you with an outlet for your creativity and curiosity.
    • developing skills during this time can be of benefit as these skills could be applied in other ways. You’re developing your creativity.
    • Keep a project queue for things to work on during our unnecessary creating time

9 Putting It All Together: The Checkpoints

  • “Simplicity is key. Simple rituals become habits, and good habits yield results.” (p184)
  • the best reason to establish practices is to increase your capacity for creative insights and great ideas.

“Our most significant work will nearly always come from a deep understanding of not only what we are doing, but the why behind it. When we gain a sense of mastery over how we engage our work, we are better able to connect with this deeper sense of motivation.” p204

  • What are the deep points of resonance in your life?
    • Develop a 7-word bio that expresses your deep passion for life and or work.
    • e.g. “A storytelling approach to life and work.” “Igniting people to thrive in their purpose.”
    • This is a kind of mission statement that will guide your daily activity.

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