Unleashing Ego-Free Creativity

Last month we had the opportunity to speak at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity! In this post, managing partner and author, Mitch Warner, shares about his experience including his thoughts on ego and creativity.

By Mitch Warner, Managing Partner and Author, the Arbinger Institute | July 20, 2018

The Mistake We Make When Trying to Unleash Creativity

Cannes Lions is unique. As an international celebration of creativity, it brings together many of the most innovative and progressive thinkers in advertising, entertainment, and marketing. With an opportunity to be on their stage last month, I desperately wanted to find a way to help those who wrestle to see others as people in an industry that too often feeds on and is fueled by an inward mindset.

As a creative, I know what it is like to identify myself and my worth too closely with what I create. With a driving need to be cutting-edge, new, daring, and innovative, I also know all too well how quickly we can become self-absorbed in the pursuit of achieving new levels of creativity and become untethered from the reality of other people in the process. The irony, of course, is that becoming untethered from the reality of others is what kills creativity; it is only in deeply understanding and feeling the needs, challenges, goals, and hopes of other people that we can unlock creativity and innovation to create meaningful experiences for them.

Too often we mistakenly believe that unleashing creativity is about tapping into some reservoir of productive energy deep within ourselves. The problem with this view is that it assumes that to achieve heightened creativity, we must turn more and more inward. Messaging that takes this premise as a given urges us to find ourselves, be ourselves, express ourselves. But this progressively consuming self-focus cuts us off from the reality of others, and it is only in response to the needs and challenges and desires of others, some discoverable and others as yet unarticulated or unexpressed—that stunningly creative innovation is born.

The End of Ego and the Beginning of Creativity

Think of the organizations or individuals whose consistent creative output you most admire. Isn’t their success a function of creating something that connects and resonates deeply with others because it helps people find and feel greater meaning or it meets a true need and fills a void felt in the lives of real people?

But how can you rid yourself of the self-focus of ego when success is a function of credit lists and awards? (A question asked verbatim by one audience member at the speech in Cannes last month.) When you dig into the process that both individuals and organizations follow in producing remarkable levels of creativity you see the outward mindset pattern at work—a pattern you can discipline yourself to replicate even in an industry that is fixated on personal credit and acclaim. And this pattern begins with seeing others. People who consistently achieve high levels of creativity pay attention to the people around them. They get deeply curious about the needs and challenges of others. Then they respond to what they see. This responsiveness to others is at the core of creating deeply meaningful experiences. Every truly creative innovation that has staying power and profound impact is a response to the deeply understood needs and challenges of human beings. Finally, they measure their impact. They want to know whether or not their efforts enrich the lives of the people they affect.

Create for Others

Pixar is an example of a creative powerhouse where this pattern is evident in the process they have created. Their process is more important that any single individual contributor—a principle they prove by using a different director on every film they produce. Their process helps them eliminate the self-focus of ego in order to consistently achieve truly groundbreaking products over and over and again. They have found in their own efforts the following truth, expressed by Michael Arndt, the writer of Toy Story 3:

To make a great film, its makers must pivot, at some point, from creating the story for themselves to creating it for others.

I’d invite you to consider your own work—the work you do as an individual, the work your team is currently producing, or the work of your entire organization. What would it look like to pivot from doing your work for yourself to doing it more for others? Is there any way in which our work at home is work done too often for ourselves? What would it look like to give ourselves more completely to the people around us? Wherever we are, in whatever we do, this pivot marks the end of ego and the beginning of creativity.

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