Imagine if, before you tackle today’s creative work, you first needed to stand by your desk and say this:
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
Of this client who so excitedly hired me,
To shepherd their story,
And help build their brand,
On this hallowed internet ground.
Ridiculous, right? Well, for thousands of years, people didn’t think so. Creators throughout history, like all of those Ancient Greek poets you learned about in school, would routinely open their works by invoking the Muse. Without it, they believed, they were incapable of being creative.
Although that seems ludicrous, we suffer from distant echoes of that belief today. Of course, instead of the Muse, we now outsource our creativity to other things, invoking them before we feel ready to begin anything: the guru, the industry expert, the trend, the case study, the expert who we just need to meet for coffee to hear about their best practices, and so on.
We search for our answers “out there.” Our creativity is not ours to control. Apparently.
However, we all possess an inherent tool to be proactive about our abilities: our intuition. Unfortunately, we shy away from discussing the idea because it’s often viewed (mainly by those who control budgets) as something no more practical than invoking a Greek deity to do our work for us.
Why intuition isn’t taken seriously in business
In researching for my new book, I found countless definitions of intuition. Albert Einstein allegedly called it “a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” Authors like John Naisbitt (who defined it as “deriving meaning from data”) and Malcolm Gladwell (“rapid cognition”) have explored concept, while in business, entrepreneurs like Chase Jarvis, the CEO of CreativeLive, and even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos often refer to it as an internal guide to make better decisions. In research psychology, people like Gary Klein and Gerd Gigerenzer conclude that our ability to pattern match and find coincidences between situations help us either arrive at better conclusions (Klein) or weed out irrelevant information en route to one (Gigerenzer).
Regardless of how it’s defined, intuition doesn’t feel overly practical to use. To hone the skill, we’re forced to — what? — experience a whole mess of things in the world and hope that we’ve improved our intuition? And so, the business world often views conventional wisdom or trendy new tactics or expert advice as far superior to intuition, because it feels more concrete.
The power is real
What if we could make intuition concrete, too? The benefits seem too powerful not to try. You’ve experienced these benefits before, I’m sure: suddenly, you just know. Like an instant clarity generator, you’ve found your answers. Just imagine if we could be proactive about that!
Well, if we revisit the word itself, I think we can. “Intuition” comes from the Latin intueri, which simply means “to consider.” So, consider that the most creative among us don’t possess any gifts or receive special inspiration we lack. Consider that the best among us are masters at considering the world.
We can master that ability too, if only we’d make one switch in the way we make decisions at work: We need to stop obsessing over everyone else’s right answers for us and start asking ourselves better questions.
By improving our ability to ask great questions of the world, we’d stop acting like experts and start acting like investigators. Experts care about what works on average or in general, but investigators care about evidence. They may know the generalities, but they care far more deeply about their unique environment. They believe context holds the clues.
Our context contains three important variables — none of which have been factored into the conventional wisdom or best practice. Those variables are:
- You (the person or people doing the work)
- Your audience (the person or people receiving the work)
- Your resources (the means to make the work happen)
If we informed our work by seeking answers from within that context, rather than searching “out there” for abstract or inspirational ideas, we’d better tailor our decisions to our own situation. I believe that process is the process of honing our intuition. It’s far from ephemeral. It’s quite practical.
Putting it into practice
It isn’t hard to find examples of business leaders and organizations that harness the power of intuition in making creative decisions. Here are just a few:
- When Merriam-Webster evolved from being a bland presence on Twitter to one of the most beloved and hilarious handles, they investigated that first part of their context, themselves. “Let’s show the world how fun and relevant we are,” said chief digital officer Lisa Schneider. Their self-awareness, rather than general advice, drives their creativity.
- When Death Wish Coffee exploded from a struggling cafe into a global ecommerce brand, founder Mike Brown investigated his customers. He recognized that they drank coffee for a different reason than the average coffee aficionado, and so the Death Wish brand and product makes total sense … for these specific customers. “Let’s create the world’s strongest coffee,” Mike thought. At Death Wish, the customer is the guide — not the expert.
- When Unsplash launched, CEO Mikael Cho had precious little time and almost no marketing budget to drive business to his previous company, Crew. He had a few stock photos he’d previously purchased, one afternoon, and knowledge of free digital tools (like Tumblr) and community forums (like Hacker News). He embraced these limited and unique constraints and become more creative. He investigated his resources, and instead of following a “best practice,” he crafted his own.
Through these examples and dozens more, I witnessed the same behavior in creative minds who break from conventional wisdom, act like investigators, and hone their intuition.
They start by asking what I call a trigger question, an open-ended question about their specific situation. These can only be answered through reflection or testing.
Next, they asked a follow-up that I call a confirmation question, which ensures sufficient evidence that their path forward made sense to pursue, even if it broke from the convention (which, almost routinely, it did).
For instance, Merriam-Webster’s leaders asked the trigger question, “What do we aspire to do with our marketing?” They wanted to show the world how fun and relevant they are. Then they asked the confirmation question, “What’s our unfair advantage for reaching that aspiration?” They were witty and warm people, unlike their rather staid marketing tone of voice. They are lexicographers, which document popular use of language, i.e. track pop culture. They don’t set the rules. In fact, they track changes in them.
Whatever specific questions we ask, we can take control of our creativity by honing our intuition. To do so, we can better learn to consider the world around us. In the end, exceptional work isn’t created by the answers others give us, but by the questions we ask ourselves. So the next time you need to be creative, maybe skip the invocation to the Muse and try something far more practical: Trust your intuition.