Sparking Your Fire: Ian Wharton on Creativity

Cloud I’ve wanted to write an article about creativity for a while: how does one nurture it; what working environments help; what blocks it?  But until a chance encounter one winter’s eve, I was at a loss about how to approach such a vast topic.

In December 2014 I was invited to talk at Kingston University on the subject of creative careers. The speaker that followed me was far more qualified to do so: Ian Wharton is an award-winning Group Creative Director at innovation and ideas company AKQA.  His career has spanned every creative field you can imagine: film-making, animation, art directing, publishing and writing.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he spent his free time developing modern dance interpretations of Icelandic sagas.

He has even written a book on creativity, “Spark for the Fire,” which I picked up the next day. Ian’s key message is that, as children, we’re naturally creative. But conditioning, discouragement and misguided education, gradually eliminate some of the skills essential to creative success.

I met up with Ian after reading the book to ask him a few questions. Below that are my notes from the book, and at the very bottom (if you don’t want to read the whole article) are my top take-away points from our conversation.  All the same, I’d recommend reading the book yourself, as his ideas are much more powerful within the context of the narrative that he skilfully weaves.

1. Embrace The Ridiculous – don’t let reason and experience determine “a good idea”

Youthful creativity is good because of a lack of “mental furniture”.  As we get older, we second-guess our intuition and rationalise good ideas away.  Initially, at least, there are no wrong or stupid ideas in creativity, so we must have the confidence to say illogical, fun and outlandish things.  Because reason is based on precedent, it can reduce innovation into repetition and mediocrity.

2. Creativity Is Transferable – do lots of different things

Sticking to one skill doesn’t necessarily generate mastery: there’s a world of difference between 10,000 hours of passion and 10,000 hours of tolerance.  Setting ourselves challenges and stepping out from our comfort zone is how we improve, whilst being good at a single craft suggests we’ve found a good process and learnt how to repeat it. A skill is a launchpad, and a platform to perform on: it might not be the end-point, but a catalyst to achieve something else.

For Jamie Oliver, a career as an educator, TV personality, entrepreneur and writer came from a willingness to explore beyond his primary skill. Cooking was the catalyst, the platform that allowed him to explore other fields, and the approach he brought to cooking could be applied to those other fields.

Don’t just “do one thing and do it well,” but do whatever your imagination and desire demands of you.  Then you can’t help but do it well.

Do Something 3. Beware Invisibility – sell yourself

Ian defines “selling yourself” as two things:

  1. To make known the things we have already achieved (showcasing our talents & ability in the work and things we have done)
  2. To communicate the things we have yet to achieve (Expressing our goals and vision of where or who we want to be)

Self-promotion begets recognition, which builds career momentum. But you have to put yourself under the right spotlight to be recognised. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, but a habit that is essential to building a profile. It’s something of a myth that great creativity is discovered and awarded: you have to enter competitions (even the Oscars have a submission process!).  Too many people believe that “if I just do good work, they’ll find me.” Unfortunately, unless you are very lucky, you may be waiting a long time to be found.

Recognition also leads to collaboration. A large part of Ian’s career has been shaped by opportunities and advice from AKQA founder Ajaz Ahmed. They met during an award ceremony for Solar (Ian’s first animated film). Had Ian not submitted an entry to a competition, they may never have met.  Serendipity favours those who create opportunities for it.

And tell people what you want to do next because, if you don’t ask, you don’t get: Arnold Schwarzenegger was told he couldn’t go straight to serving as a governor, but should serve in lower offices such as city council and the mayor’s office first.  He broke the rules and found a way to become the Governator.

Be ambitious. When pitching, don’t make it a multiple-choice scenario and offer different choices. Why would you dissipate your energy on developing ideas you don’t fully believe in? Pick your best idea and pitch that.

4. Curiosity And Purpose

Compare the Purpose of a business leader: “To generate profit, grow the company and reward shareholders” to the Purpose of a surgeon: “To use the skills and knowledge I have acquired to save and improve lives.”  The surgeon’s reply comes from a long-term belief.  It denotes Purpose, rather than outcome.

Purpose is the sense of “Why” we do things. In business and creativity alike, it’s more rewarding and fun to create products, content and services that start with a why.  This requires curiosity, or having a sense of wonder. And appreciation, that process of continuously noticing, which provides a master-key for unlocking creative potential.

There are 3 muscles of creativity that we must exercise to stay creative:

  1. Curiosity: Our capacity to learn relies on asking questions.  “He who asks is a fool for five minutes.  He who doesn’t ask is a fool forever.”
  2. Appreciation: This is the ability to step into the shoes of others, to understand who they are and how things work. By listening and understanding to what people need, we could solve many problems by creatively adapting existing technology and solutions.
  3. Imagination: Question your behaviour.  Challenging the habits that helped individuals and companies grow is scary and uncertain.  But diversity, rather than conformity is what makes us thrive.

5. Learn Forever and Play

Because we invest so heavily in our self-image, drawing attention to our weaknesses feels dangerous. But it’s only by asking how to do something that you’ll learn and grown.  Listen to, learn from and be inspired by those who are successful in your field.

Becoming good at a job can mean your time is too precious to be spent exploring unknowns. But there’s an innate hunger to learn new things, which must be fed to allow continuous development. This requires a playful work culture, where people aren’t afraid to look a bit stupid.

Over the long haul, when these two things (play and desire to learn) are missing, it stops becoming a labour of love, and we miss out on our true potential.

6. Dare To Fail

Creativity is just being stupid enough to not realise that you can’t do something. Nearly all of us have been struck by a great idea that we felt had to be pursued. But most never fully executed it. Is is fear of failure that we succumb to. Creatives have an obligation to put their ideas into practice.  It challenges the way things are, and results in breakthroughs and evolution.

Adam Bird of McKinsey & Company points out that “failure” has negative connotations and we should instead consider “experimentation.”  Dyson says that he made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum cleaner before he got it right.  There were 5,126 failures.  But he learned from each one, which is how he came up with a solution.

It would be inhuman to have no self-doubt, but it’s easy to see people at the top and think that they have no fear of failure.  They do.   They’re just courageous enough to carry on in spite of that fear.  If you have an idea driven by a passion that you are not sure you can achieve, do it anyway.

Ian’s book, Spark for the Fire, is available from Amazon

60-second summary

  • Back yourself
  • Don’t worry about those older than you or above you in the creative industries.  Just because they have spent more time in the industry doesn’t make them better than you. People often become more conservative with time, so their ideas become less innovative. And given the pace of technological change, you might even have more relevant experience than they do.
  • Don’t limit yourself to a certain practice. Be happy to try things that you want to do.
  • Don’t make or do things that you don’t want to be known for.
  • Be careful of the notion of the 10,000 hour rule. Passion trumps tolerance.
  • Sell yourself and get agencies to represent you. No-one will notice you if you quietly beaver away in the corner. Enter awards to raise your profile
  • Be careful to not do things purely for the money, or you’ll hate the work. Pitch big and pitch creatively.

About Ash Bhardwaj

A storyteller, travel writer, journalist and film-maker. I am a regular contributor to Huffington Post, The Telegraph and the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. I spent much of 2013 working on Walking The Nile, Levison Wood's attempt to walk the world's longest river. I founded Digital Dandy, a video storytelling company, in 2012 to produce content for brands and businesses.
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