Here are ten action items you can start right now to improve yourself, your productivity, and become more creative.
By Evan J. Cholfin
Creativity is the most important skill in the world. 35% of workers are only given time to be creative a few times yearly. Creative problem-solving sessions with groups trained in creativity tools and principles generated 350% as many ideas, which were 415% more original than those from untrained groups. This skill is just as vital for entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, C-suite executives, employees, and self-employed people to be better at their work and improve their well being.
As a creative producer, manager and executive in film and television (working on Moneyball, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Night Of for HBO, and The Irishman among others) and creative director and producer in marketing and advertising (working with brands including JW Marriott, Mattel, Essentia Water, and Japan Airlines), I’ve had the incredibly good fortune of working with some of the most brilliant creative minds. I’ve picked up some of their wisdom and suggested reading along the way, and developed my own insights through my experience. I want to share some tips for anyone who is or wants to be more creative.
Tip #1 - Keep Your Day Job
As a manager, I always tell this to my filmmaker clients, “You know what the great documentarian Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) did between his Oscar-winning and most highly regarded documentaries of all time? Direct KFC commercials.” It’s important to keep that base, whatever it is, to provide a sense of stability to operate from a position of strength when creating. We go through plenty of struggles in our lives that can serve as inspiration for our creative work, but without food on the table, it’s hard to eat.
Tip #2 - Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Don’t be afraid to try something new. This is when you really grow. When I was tasked to come up with creative ideas for a campaign that would raise awareness among global travelers outside Japan about Japan Airlines, it was my first opportunity to step up as a creative director at a major agency. I could have let fear or imposter syndrome take over, but I let those feelings and thoughts instead guide me toward my purpose. I wanted to do something big and completely out of the box and send a universal message to the world that represented the airline’s (and the country’s) philosophy of omotenashi, or hospitality centered around care for others. I pitched and sold the idea of sending Japanese GPS artist, Yassan, to 34 stops across 6 continents in 41 days in order to track his GPS coordinates and create the world's largest artwork: the word "PEACE" on Earth spelled out on Google Earth. It ended up being the social campaign we launched that holiday season. Even with great planning, with so many things that could go wrong, and within such a short time frame, we didn’t know for sure if we could pull it off, but we did it anyway. We documented the whole thing for folks to follow on social media, and got messages of hope back from people around the world. By letting yourself take a leap of faith and starting before you’re ready, you’ll put fear in the passenger seat and open up your mind to a world of possibility.
"Combining two disparate ideas into one is the basis for creativity."
Tip #3 - Be Curious
Combining two disparate ideas into one is the basis for creativity. Explore the world around you. Through books, travel, nature, watching hundreds of movies and series classic and new, the theater, dance, sports, science journals, historical accounts, talks and conferences, literally anything and anywhere can be the playground for your creative mind. Life experience and lived experience are crucial to understanding who we are as people—what makes us tick. And ideas for your own creativity come from getting outside your own head and seeing the world, often through a different lens. Keep asking questions about your subjects, think critically, and dive deeper. That fountain of knowledge will become your source of inspiration the next time you create.
Tip #4 - Make a Creative Habit
It’s important to create a space when and where you do your creative work, and to do it at that time and place consistently. One of my busy screenwriter clients likes to wake up early, before any distractions from the world and fresh from a dream state, and sit on his couch by the window with the pre-dawn light coming in, and write. An hour or two each day becomes a script in three months. With consistency, over time you form a habit, and your brain unlocks a wealth of creativity just by doing. This is your “flow state”. You get excited to get up each day, and look forward to the next time you get to create. As a creative director, I might come up with 300 ideas on day one. Narrow it down to 30 ideas on day two. And finally three ideas on day three the client will love. Each person forms their own creative habit. What begins as work starts to feel inspiring as you enter your creative flow.
Tip #5 - Find Your Key
Creativity can be challenging. It may force you to open up areas of your mind you might prefer to keep locked away. But don’t lose sight of why you have your creative endeavor in the first place. Find that “reason why” your work speaks to humanity and what it has to say. Write that down in one sentence. Any time things get difficult, refer back to that sentence. It’s your key to answering any question or challenge along the way. It also gives you the reason and motivation to keep going. When I put on my creative producer hat, I think each story should have its own key. At a 30,000-foot view, it’s two key ingredients I believe that are important for any lasting story: truth and spectacle. Spectacle is what gets people to pay attention, and truth is tapping into the human condition, exploring who we are as people, through the characters and the challenges they face. This is my key when looking for a great story to tell.
Tip #6 - Write the Vomit Draft
Get it all out on the page. Unfiltered and raw. Let your creative mind do its thing and don’t stop it, don’t analyze it, until it’s done. Analysis is for the second draft. That’s when you look back at your work, think critically, and assess. When I review any material, and what I teach those who work for me, is to act like an auto mechanic. Someone has brought you their work, and it’s your job to open it up, look under the hood, and evaluate what’s going on. Acknowledge what’s really working well, and the areas that could be fixed for the “car” to better operate. Some readers find themselves criticizing the work. I ask them, “Would you like it if you brought your car to the mechanic and they told you your car sucks?” You have to really understand what makes a car run well, and be able to make the suggested fixes. And if that’s hard, or regardless, you should follow…
Tip #7 - Get Creative Feedback
We don’t live in a vacuum (unless you’re in space). It’s essential to let other people experience your work. This gives you an outside perspective and allows you to catch things that either you may have missed, or may be “bumping” (not quite working) for others. The best screenplays are often that because they have been developed with great creative producers. Having someone who cares about your work who is an expert at your form of creativity and who will protect it like no other as your creative partner is just as important as having a close-knit peer review group, or eventually people you don’t know who will be your test audience, before it goes out to the world.
When I was working as a producer with the filmmaker Daniel “Malakai” Cabrera on JW Marriott “Two Bellmen”–an action-heist comedy about two bellhops that go to great lengths to serve their customers, in this case stopping an art heist from happening, during script development, we wanted to go a little deeper to make the script even stronger. So we talked about what the story was really about. To me, it was about two guys that were like brothers. They fought, they argued, but in the end, they were there for each other. I believe this was the emotional core of the story that made the work even better. The film ended up raising brand sentiment in its target audience of millennials by two points, creating a 65% search lift, gaining nearly 250 million media impressions globally ($34 million in earned media), and launched a three-film franchise.
Tip #8 - Find Mentors and Mentees
I can’t stress enough how important it is to not just find one mentor but many. They may be someone more experienced in your field, older, younger, or even your peer. Some of my mentors have included Oscar winners Edward Saxon (The Silence of the Lambs, Adaptation), Cathy Schulman (Crash, The Woman King), and the late Larry Turman (The Graduate, American History X). Equally so, I have learned a great deal from my colleagues and interns who have brought their own unique perspectives to the table. We can learn from anyone who will take the time and effort to provide you feedback to help you navigate life. The best mentorship relationships are the ones where you set a goal for a win, and you may get advice on how to achieve that win, but it’s your job to go out and achieve it. So when you talk to your mentor next and let them know you accomplished that win, it makes them feel good for providing you value. And don’t forget, having more than one mentor, especially in different areas, is a good thing because it gives you more perspectives to help you tackle your challenges and celebrate your wins.
On the other side of the coin, be a mentor. You will learn so much by mentoring others. Your mentees may be in the same boat you were in the past, and helping them get unstuck with their creativity or know where to go next to get a win will mean the world to both of you.
Tip #9 - Rejections Cost Nothing
When getting your work out there, you may be turned down a thousand times before you get that one yes. I know I have. But it’s that one yes that matters. The truth is that some rejections do sting. Getting to the final round of an agency review, passed over for a promotion, or having a film project passed on is a common occurrence. It took The Irishman nearly a decade to get made and it had Martin Scorsese directing Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci attached to a gangster movie written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster)—all Academy-Award winners—until Netflix picked it up. Acknowledge a rejection, but let that fuel your next effort to get back out there and go after your yes.
In my many years in business development, I've learned that rejection is a necessary part of the process. Some of my outreach has led me seemingly nowhere, and some has led to near-projects that were ultimately passed on. But by staying patient, consistent, and learning from each rejection, I've landed some incredible opportunities in my career. One such opportunity was being asked by filmmaker Daniel Robert Cohn to help on a film for a new oral healthcare brand, SuperMouth. Together, we launched a massive campaign to raise awareness that resulted in an entire branded entertainment universe for kids and parents (including the film, comic book, music video, interactive experience, and more) that reached just over one billion unique monthly visitors across media.
Without staying patient and working through all those "no's" along the way, I never would have had this opportunity.
Tip #10 - They Want You to Succeed
If you’re pitching or presenting a creative work or idea to someone who has granted you this opportunity, remember that they want to hear the best pitch they’ve ever heard. They want your idea to be great, so that they can take it to their boss and say how amazing it is to get it greenlit, or even “buy it in the room”. If it fulfills their dream, it will certainly fulfill yours, and you’ll be off to the races.
Please let me know if you have any of your own tips to become more creative.
About the Author
Evan J. Cholfin, CEO and Founder of LUXHAMMER, creates and produces unforgettable film, TV, and branded entertainment that helps brands make powerful and lasting connections with their audiences and reach over a billion people.
Spending the last two decades developing, packaging, selling, and producing film & TV, Evan has worked on beloved projects including the Academy Award-nominated films The Irishman, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Sony), and Moneyball, as well as the Emmy-winning series The Night Of (HBO). An avid genre fan, some of his more recent projects include film and TV adaptations of SEGA video games where he partnered with top-tier filmmakers.
In the branded world, Evan produced “The Rise of SuperMouth” for oral health care company SuperMouth with a reach of over one billion unique visitors monthly across media, “Two Bellmen” for JW Marriott which garnered nearly 250 million impressions globally ($34M earned media value), and “Overachieving H2O” for Essentia Water which led to the brand becoming the fastest-growing water company worldwide. His work with Mattel and Barbie, including “Inspiring Women,” featured female hero dolls such as Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart, and the brand saw a lift in sales YOY. Evan's creative direction on Japan Airlines “#PEACEOnEarth” led to the creation of the world’s largest artwork that spanned across 19 cities and six continents.