What does creativity mean? here’s the best 10-word definition I’ve heard

Join maverick teacher and singer-songwriter Phil Beadle for a no-holds-barred tour of what it means to be creative

October 23, 2018

What does creativity mean?

A few weeks ago, an unusual man walked into our pop-up podcast recording studio in LinkedIn’s London offices. He wasn’t somebody who would usually be found in an office of any kind, still less one occupied by a marketing team. He had an unusual air about him, and an unusual intensity that made interviewing him face-to-face both thrilling and just a little bit intimidating. This man was Phil Beadle. He’s known as one of the most innovative, inspiring and iconoclastic teachers ever to step into a classroom. And he’s not somebody who plays by the rules.

Phil is a world-renowned speaker and writer on education, who’s built his reputation on leftfield techniques that turn around results for struggling schools, overcome behavioural issues and transform the potential of struggling kids. And yet despite being widely acknowledged as one of the most able teachers around, he freely admits that he’s usually hired by schools at the start of the term in September – and then shown the door by January. Why? Because Phil doesn’t fit into hierarchical structures very easily. He’s got little patience for agendas that aren’t focused on the core objective of student achievement, and he’s prepared to challenge anything that he sees as getting in the way.

This can make Phil pretty tricky to work with – but it’s also what makes him one of the most respected authorities in his field, and beyond it as well. His new book, Rules for Mavericks, is his attempt to set down some philosophical underpinnings for his lifelong approach to escaping and challenging the mainstream. And these principles don’t just apply to teaching. Phil is a committed singer-songwriter and composer, and Rules for Mavericks is as much about staying creative and retaining your identity in these areas as it is about being a teacher. As such, it’s one of the most challenging books on creativity that you’re likely to read.

All of which suggested an obvious starting question as I sat down opposite Phil and turned on the microphone: what does creativity actually mean? His answer was the best and most concise definition that I think I’ve ever heard:

For me, Creativity is the most elegant response possible to the constraints you’re under.”

As a marketer, I believe that perfectly captures what our profession should be about. It’s not about flamboyance or showmanship. It’s not necessarily about doing something that grabs an audience’s attention or which shouts about how different or original it is. Creativity is wider than that – and also more subtle. It’s not an output or a style. It’s a way of thinking, of looking at the world, and of approaching different situations with the same commitment to finding the most exquisite response possible. You might even say, it’s a way of life.

I had cause to ponder this recently, when working with the photographer and artist Brian Cannon on LinkedIn’s Read Me series of guides to advertising, building brand awareness, and generating leads on our platform. In its way, this was the most constrained project I’d ever worked on as a marketer, with a brief from sales that specifically asked my team and I to strip all of the creative bells and whistles away. Our sales team wanted us to drop everything we normally do as a marketing team. The response we delivered is the best example I’ve ever worked on of constraints producing a more simple, elegant and effective response.

Phil Beadle has been thinking this way for decades – and this episode of The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast is a unique opportunity to see how the world looks from a dedicatedly creative perspective. Click on the link below to hear it in full. Then scroll down for five further thoughts from Phil on how to apply true creativity to developing as a marketer and as a human being. I hope you find the conversation as unusually inspiring as I did:

Don’t walk into a brief through the front door
Phil talks about people being prone to go through the front door of a problem – adopting the most obvious solution that springs to mind. The secret of his approach is to be conscious of this sheep-like tendency – and proactively seek alternative approaches. This can often involve imposing constraints, putting oneself in a box that you then have to think (or write) your way out of. Sometimes these constraints make sense given the brief: finding a way to teach sentence structure to disengaged schoolboys through football, for example. Other times, they are there just to force you to approach something differently. Phil talks about the poet Simon Armitage describing how he would start a day with the idea to “write something 13 lines long, with 11 syllables per line, that examines teenage jealousy through the metaphor of Batman.” There’s no logic or rationale to writing a poem that way. However, it guarantees you won’t produce the same poem as anybody else.

Want to build a more creative team? Model leftfield approaches to everything
We discussed whether creativity is something that can be taught – and Phil quickly picked the question apart and took it in another direction. The way he sees it, everyone is inherently creative – but very few people (and very few teachers) encourage people to explore that aspect of themselves. How do you bring out inherent creativity in all members of a marketing team? By modelling it as the natural way to approach situations. The more you deliberately take leftfield approaches to every brief, the more you’ll encourage your team to always look for a more creative solution.

Consume widely to avoid being a bad cover version
The best content producers are usually the best content consumers. Creatives borrow all of the time. The question isn’t whether you have sources of inspiration and influence; it’s how diverse, varied and interesting those sources are. “Everyone starts out as a bad cover version of something else,” as Phil puts it. “The trick is not staying that way.” No matter what cultural form you work in, it’s vital to consume as wide a range of examples of that cultural form as you can. For marketers that’s basically a manifesto to become ‘renaissance dilettantes’. There are endless dimensions to what we can do: writing features and books, filming video content, creating visual art, the list goes on. That means we have a responsibility to keep reading, watching, appreciating, and searching for that next potential source of inspiration.

The only secret to a fulfilling working life is taking a profound pride in what you do
Every marketer at every business has encountered a situation where the pressure hasn’t been to create great work, but just to knock something out that’s good enough and move on. This pressure to act mediocre is probably the hardest type of pressure to deal with. The crucial thing is how you respond – and I think Phil puts it perfectly:  don’t play that game.

He argues that any creative person should be passionate about what they do and apply that passion to every task they embark on. Why? Because that’s the only way to stay sane: “The secret to having a really fulfilling work life is taking a profound pride in what you do. No project is too small for me to give it my upmost attention. I’ll put as much thought, as much artistic value and as much craft into writing the last 10 minutes of a lesson as I would orchestrating an album.”

This approach really strikes a chord with me. As per Phil’s definition of creativity, the output of all of that craft doesn’t have to be provocatively different. It’s just thoughtful; As exquisitely perfect as it can be. That’s what every brief deserves – and it’s a philosophy to take into every marketing role you have.

Sometimes style is the substance
I’d say the most surprising insight to come out of this episode of The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast is Phil’s assertion that “sometimes the style is the substance.” It took a double-take and a couple of minutes’ thought to figure out what he was driving at. After all, we’re so used to style over substance being a criticism, so used to being told that it’s the content that matters over how you present it, that this kind of idea feels very counter-intuitive.

It’s all part of Phil’s devotion to craft, and his professional understanding of the way that human attention and interest work. He’s immensely proud of his writing style – and immensely proud of his teaching style. Both are very different, and both have been carefully honed over the years through careful study, and close attention to what switches audiences on. As he describes it, you might have all the information and all the facts, but if you don’t have the creative verve and the stylistic voice to express those things in a distinctive way then you’re left with very little. His advice to writers? “Learn your scales”: practice, practice, practice and read as much as you can in the writing styles that you admire. It will help you to take an expertly creative approach to any constraints you may face.