Creativity for Smart People

March 5th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

According to a well-known stereotype, left-handed* people such as myself are supposedly more creative than right-handed people.

For example, in the previous sentence, I just alienated most of my readers while simultaneously giving myself a compliment – pretty creative, eh?

I don’t know if that stereotype has any basis in reality, but when I learned about it as a child, I assumed that because I was left-handed, I was supposed to be highly creative.  That was the rule, right?  I never thought to question it, so creativity became a big part of my value system from an early age.

Creativity has its downsides, but on balance it has served me extremely well over the years.  Perhaps the biggest benefit (and curse) is that it’s pushed me to do some very unorthodox things, which has certainly made my life interesting.  Because the value of creativity is so strongly conditioned in me, if the majority of people are doing something, I almost automatically want to avoid it and do something else.

Most people have jobs and salaries, so I avoid that like the plague.  Most people are afraid of public speaking, so naturally I love it.  Most people eat animals, so I go vegan.  I’m just a cesspool of contrarianism.

When someone zigs, I automatically want to zag.  In my teenage years, I often made this choice irrationally, such as when zagging was dangerous or destructive.  I soon learned that being different just for the sake of being different isn’t very smart.  So after a few years of painful zags, I eventually learned to rein in my creativity and temper it with some common sense zigs.

But if you can avoid being irrational when a common sense solution is superior to a creative one, then developing your creativity can be a personal development goldmine.  It certainly has been for me.

Normality is futile.

Creativity works very well in situations where being normal or average is suboptimal, and there are many situations that qualify.  Consider income generation.  The common sense solution is to get a job and earn a salary.  But a reasonably intelligent person who looks at all the options will soon see that a job/salary has some huge drawbacks.  Just get a job, and you’ll find out what they are.  I explained some of those drawbacks in Podcast #6:  How to Make Money Without a Job.  But basically, having a job is very risky, you receive only a fraction of the value you generate, you pay the highest taxes of anyone, it takes an insanely large percentage of your time, and you give up a lot of freedom.  To me the disadvantages of a job outweigh the advantages.  Why would I want to put myself in a situation where someone might have the power to terminate my employment?  I’d rather not take that kind of risk with my financial security.  Getting a job is a very uncreative solution to the problem of income generation, and it isn’t that hard to come up with a creative solution that’s more secure, more lucrative, and more efficient.  Of course, if you don’t have many entrepreneurial friends, you may be suffering from fear of the unknown, erroneously thinking that owning your own income source is riskier than leasing it.  But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that owning a golden goose is better than borrowing one (especially if the current owner is fickle).

Other areas where superior results can be achieved by avoiding “normal” are health (diet, exercise), relationships (fulfillment, passion, commitment), financial management (debt, investing), personal productivity, motivation/drive, and happiness.

It’s sad but true that if you want to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, you’re more likely to get there by taking a creative path vs. doing what you see everyone else doing.  If you’re not very bright, then following the masses is generally a good idea.  But if you have a half-decent intellect, then you can do much better than average, so hold yourself to a higher standard.

Use creativity to overcome boredom.

Another benefit of creativity is that you can use it to eliminate boredom by boosting the challenge level of something that would otherwise bore you.

When I was a senior in high school taking AP Calculus, I grasped the material so quickly and easily that I soon became bored, so I boosted the challenge by doing my assignments creatively.  Not only would I often solve problems using methods that weren’t taught in class, but I’d frequently do my homework on unusual media.  For example, I’d do my homework in crayon or colored pencil, on a single 2″ x 2″ (5cm x 5cm) piece of paper, or on the back of a cereal box cover.  Every week I challenged myself to come up with a creative new way to do my assignments.  Fortunately, I had an amazing teacher who was willing to tolerate my obnoxiousness.

During Christmas break of my senior year, just for fun I decided to finish all my calculus homework for the remainder of the school year.  Of course I didn’t know which problems would eventually be assigned, so I did every remaining problem in the book and turned in a big stack of not-yet-assigned homework at the start of the second semester, saying to the teacher, “I’m done.  Now what?”  That was my way of challenging him to be creative right back at me.  What would he do with a student who’d already learned the whole upcoming semester that he was about to teach?  Would he force me to sit there twiddling my thumbs the whole time?  Fortunately, he rose to the challenge and pushed me to do more, even giving me special assignments and tests that were different from the rest of the class.

Using creativity to boost the challenge had the effect of giving me a better education than I would have gotten if I merely acquiesced to boredom.  It’s impossible to be bored when you’re challenged.  You might get frustrated if the challenge is too great, but you won’t be bored.

Use creativity to gain a competitive advantage.

Creativity, when used intelligently, can yield a significant competitive advantage in business.  Most people in business are about as creative as Borg drones (the fodder kind with no shields).  A high degree of creativity is unusual in business, even in so-called creative fields like computer game development.  Obviously not everyone in the business world will appreciate your creativity, but if most of your competition is wholly uncreative, you’ll stand out from the crowd and get noticed, which can bring you opportunities that uncreative people will never be offered.

When I started Dexterity Software in 1994, I was sadly uncreative.  Out of the gate I played it too safe.  The first couple games I released didn’t sell very well, but I gradually re-embraced my creativity and hit my stride in 1999 when I released Dweep.  It took me four solid months and countless iterations just to produce the game’s five-page design doc.  By comparison the programming, artwork, music, and sound effects took only two months.  Most other game designers were pushing the technology side, so I settled for moderate technology and pushed the design side.

My hard work and creativity paid off.  Dweep won the Shareware Industry Award in 2000 and 2001 as well as the ZDNet Shareware Award in 2000.  Plus it generated a healthy six figure$ in direct sales and enabled me to further grow the business and hire a full-time producer to help publish more than a dozen other games.  I even got a write-up and my photo in the New York Times thanks to the success of Dweep.

In designing Dweep I basically looked at what everyone else in my market was doing and then did the opposite.  Instead of creating yet another violent shoot-em-up, I designed Dweep to be nonviolent.  I got lucky too because the game was released shortly after the Columbine high school shootings, when there was a media-fueled backlash against video game violence.  Dweep is also a very mental game, which makes it appeal to smart people who want to challenge their minds instead of their reflexes.  And lastly, because Dweep’s gameplay consists of original puzzles not found anywhere else, I enjoyed less competition because this type of game is extremely hard to design, not unlike solving tricky calculus problems.  You have to be something of a masochist to attempt such a project, so there’s a higher barrier to entry for this segment of the market than there is with simpler, less design-intensive games.  When competition ultimately poured into the downloadable games market (as I knew it eventually would), my segment saw much weaker competition than more casual, less cerebral games.

Now 6-1/2 years later, Dweep Gold is still selling.  Why?  Because people keep buying it.  Even though the game can’t compete with today’s game technology, it runs great on slow or fast PCs, and it’s still fun and unique.  Even though I officially retired from the computer gaming industry in 2004, I still enjoy passive income from ongoing sales of Dweep Gold, and I haven’t updated the game since 2002.  I love that it challenges people mentally and pushes them to think both logically and creatively, so continuing to support it remains congruent with my desire to help people grow.  I continue to receive positive feedback about the game from people who love a good mental challenge, and I happily concede the less cranial part of the market to everyone else.

Update 8:06am:  Someone asked me if there’s a free demo of Dweep Gold.  Yes, there is.  You can download it from the main Dweep Gold page if you’re curious.  It includes the first five levels.  It’s PC only — no Mac version.

Figure out what everyone else is doing, and then do the opposite.

You may observe that I’m using a similar creative approach in building this personal development business.  Again, I basically looked at what everyone else in this field was doing and then did the opposite.  Instead of making ridiculous promises to fix all your problems overnight in order to sell you the “cure” like many self-help marketers do, I tell you up front that personal development is hard work (it’s right there on my home page).  I give all my content away free.  I have no products to sell you.  I maintain a blog.  I use a predominantly online strategy.  Zig Ziglar zigs.  I zag.

Compared to what most of the established pros in this field are doing, my approach is creative — or at least contrarian.  But is it working?  Yeah, I’d say so.  I’m earning a decent income from it already (expecting six figures this year), and I only started in October 2004.  I’m helping people every day.  I don’t need a lifetime supply of tooth whitener.  I’m doing what I love.  I enjoy a ridiculous amount of freedom.  And I’m having a hell of a good time.

Don’t give up if you’re right-handed.

Even if you’re cursed with being right-handed, you can still be creative.  Just switch to using your left hand.  Hehehe.  :)

Playing follow the follower and applying “common sense” solutions may seem intelligent, but it’s often smarter to go a different route.  In many cases the common path is popular because it’s expedient, not because it’s smart.  As a general rule, playing follow-the-follower is unnecessarily risky, boring, and inefficient.

Don’t be afraid to be creative.  Notice what everyone else is doing, and then do the opposite whenever it seems intelligent to do so.  Take the road less traveled.  Even if you don’t fare as well I do with this approach, you’ll at least have some interesting stories to tell your grandchildren.  Now more than ever, this planet needs creative problem solvers more than obedient drones.

* Long-time readers are invited to add “left-handed” to my ever-growing list of symptoms.  Please let me know when you think you have a diagnosis.


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