Lesson from Harry Potter

The world has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter. One can now spend hours going through thought-provoking analyses, insightful lists, and entertaining content created for the occasion. Yet, there is one aspect of this story that is essential for anybody who strives to create ideas, be it a writer, an artist, or an entrepreneur.

That part is soul-crushing, sleep-depriving, appetite-robbing rejection.

When it was first written, Harry Potter apparently got rejected by not one, not three, not five, but a dozen publishers. Even the person who eventually agreed to publish it reportedly did not jump on the idea and initially published only a thousand copies. Think about your experience with Harry Potter over the past two decades and ask yourself: how is that possible? This has got to be one of the most interesting aspects of this groundbreaking saga, and it is both upsetting and great news for the rest of us.

Was Harry Potter a bad idea right before it was great?

Given the size of Harry Potter’s eventual success, one would expect that publishers, filmmakers and agents from all over the world would be racing to sign Rowling the minute she finished writing the first book and started to show it around. One would imagine that the experts in the business, who stood to make millions in terms of money and prestige during decades to come, would have seen Harry Potter light up as a bright blip in their radars long before it became a smash hit.

But the opposite occurred. When Rowling approached publishers, they weren’t impressed. All the incentives, experience and expertise in the world did not help them identify Harry Potter as an opportunity. So, right before Harry Potter became an extraordinary success story, it was an ordinary failure.

It’s easy to write glorifying stories of why something became successful after the fact. When I ask my students — some of whom are executives — why Harry Potter is so successful, they always offer some concrete reasons:

“It’s about an underprivileged boy who becomes the unlikely hero.”

“It’s beautifully written, easy to read.”

“It takes place in an amazing world.”

All true, yet they were also true while the book was being rejected. And these features are also presumably true for other books that were rejected and never heard of again. Luckily, Rowling persevered until someone finally gave it a shot. Yet this is upsetting news for those of us who are creating new things, be it a book, a film or an enterprise. Would most of us be that patient? How many times would you get rejected before giving up?

How many times have you been rejected recently?

In the complex, connected and chaotic world we live in, even Harry Potter can get summarily rejected by those minding the gates. This means that nobody — including the experts or even the creators themselves — know much about the true potential of new ideas. Harry Potter is one of many recent (positive) Black Swans: a highly improbable event with an unprecedented and wide-ranging impact.

In domains where predictability is low and the number of creators is high, expertise and rejections don’t really matter. Anyone who works hard and tries relentlessly has the capacity to create value that eventually grows beyond their wildest dreams. While the probability of success of one trial or one particular project is undoubtedly minuscule, with enough ideas and perseverance, the impact a creative person can make is demonstrably huge.

How many times have you been rejected during the past three months? If it’s not at least a dozen, you are not “alive.”

Drunk or not

There are many rumors about the relation between drugs and creativity. There seems to be no established link between the two, but there are a lot of anecdotes proving or disproving the effect of alcohol or other, harder stuff on creativity.

For instance, some suggest that the name of the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (by Beatles) was actually inspired from LSD. John Lennon, though, said that this was purely coincidental (more on that here). In any case, the debate about drugs and good playing/painting/writing is out there. Here are more anecdotes on creative people on drugs.

All I have is also a personal anecdote. Recently, I had to arrange a song for a project. The song was about a drunken guy’s frustration towards women and his past relationships. He longed for some of them, wanted to forget others, but most of all he was drunk and frustrated and unpredictable. The song had to be like that. I had to come up with that feeling.

So, needless to say, I got wasted and handled the song in that state. I do not have absolutely any idea whether or not alcohol scientifically helps you become more creative, but that was the perfect opportunity, the perfect case. The producers liked the result and the arrangement is ultimately being used for the song.

However, I did change several things the next day. Perhaps that is the key notion about the relation between drugs and creativity.

The song was essentially handled by not one, but two people; drunk me and sober me.

Future perfect

“I knew that was going to happen” is something that I used to say frequently as a child. Obviously I was wrong and annoying for saying that often, mostly because I did not know what was going to happen, but after the fact, it felt as if I knew it all along.

This is called the hindsight bias, which is related to how things seem foreseeable once they occur. We tend to forget that what had occurred was only one of the possibilities. Now that we know what happened, everything seems obvious. Hence, “I knew that was going to happen.”

This is a problem, but some people saw the upside. If we are so good at “predicting” things backwards, what if we do the same thing before they actually happen. This is the essence of “future perfect thinking.” When you are trying to predict something, you transport yourself in your mind to a distant future where the outcome you are trying to predict has already happened. Then you look back from that hypothetical place to guess what has happened. It turns out, this exercise will give you a clearer idea about what might actually happen.

Makridakis, Hogarth and Gaba’s extensive discussion on future perfect thinking by can be found here. Some scientists applied this concept to the organization of Sydney 2000 Olympic events (can be found here).

I was wondering whether or not one could use this method to improve the creative process. I could not find any suggestions or clues on the subject.

Say, you are tying to come up with some original music. Would it help if you started thinking about people’s reactions to it when they will have listened to it? Or your feelings once you will have finished playing it?

Would it lead to enjoy the creative process more?

The separation

There is a red tape, a division. It is between doing something for money and creating something for the pleasure of it. Although this separation can be fuzzy, there has to be some degree of it. One should not completely mix creative hobbies with mandatory tasks that require tedious and consistent productivity. There can be some overlap, but they should never be one.

I read about this subject in great detail in Hugh MacLeod’s book “Ignore Everybody.” He is a cartoonist who started displaying his creations in his blog. Then he issued a manifesto in the same site where he shares his advice on how to be creative.

He talks a lot about the line one has to draw between creative endeavors and routine jobs that have financial rewards. The idea is that creativity is damaged beyond repair when one tries to do things for the non-creative reasons.

The trick is, then, to do some things just because you can! Forget everything else. Then the rest will follow. Or not. If you think about it, it does not matter really.

I guess creating something should be like eating your favorite meal. Nothing more, nothing less.

Big surprise

The relation between success and creativity is complicated. Clearly creativity is considered to be a determinant of success, but the correlation is far from perfect. An idea could be impeccable, but apparently chance has a lot to say about the outcome.

How then can one predict whether or not a creative process will lead to a desirable outcome? How can one judge the quality of one’s insight and brilliance when introducing a new concept or product?

When thinking of creativity, we primarily base our judgments on how successful the idea will be. We even use creativity and success interchangeably sometimes. Is that a healthy way to look at things though?

Makridakis, Hogarth and Gaba’s book Dance with Chance is full of illuminating anecdotes on the issue. For instance it quotes instances from recent history of technology, where it emphasizes the surprise factor in creativity based success. It tells the story of Google, whose $1.6 million price tag was considered unacceptably high by internet giants, just a decade ago. Silicon valley success stories did not see coming one of the greatest ideas in their own world.

But wait a minute. Google’s insightful creators tried to sell their own super-successful idea for just $1.6 million. It seems the success of their idea was a surprise for them too.

The book provides many other examples, including how Apple’s visionary and creative leader Steve Jobs was rumored to have almost given up his stock options in 2003, which made him a multi-billionaire, just 4 years later. Somehow, he also failed to foresee his own uncontested success.

I wish you surprise yourself big time one day.

It cannot be done

“Hey. I had an idea. Why don’t we try to do it like this?”

“It cannot be done!”

That is the expert speaking in an expert way. It is frustrating to hear these same words for the hundredth time.

Part of being an expert is indeed about defining and encouraging boundaries. Experts are experts also because they know the limits of the subject they are expert in. That is what defines their expertise. That is their expert area, where they tend to dig deep, but sometimes lose vision in that darkness. That is where creativity and expertise go opposite sides.

“It cannot be done!” is one of the first phrases an expert learns and uses. However, it is an indication that the expert is not expert enough. It is a dangerous weapon that not only would inhibit innovation, but also in the wrong hands it can cause a lot of talent to go to waste.  The true expert would not allow that to happen. The true expert keeps an open mind, at all times.

In her 1998 article in Harvard Business Review, Prof. Teresa Amabile identifies expertise as one of the three main factors that leads to creativity. But still, without mixing it with appropriate amounts of motivation and creative thinking skills (whatever the hell they are) one does not get to be creative.

That is why sometimes the combination of a true expert and a naïve rookie, mixed with a motivation to reach a common goal can lead to a productive and highly creative synergy.

Here is more on the subject of creativity vs. expertise from New York Times.