Summary of David Usher’s book “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”: David Usher offers a simple method to develop everyone’s creative capacities. He invites readers to step outside their comfort zone (music or entrepreneurship for example) to explore new areas of activity.
By David Usher, 2015, 240 pages.
Full title: “Let the Elephants Run: Unlock your Creativity and Change Everything“.
Chronicle and summary of the book “Let the Elephants Run! – Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”
David Usher is a well-known Canadian singer song writer, as well as a speaker and innovator. He was born in 1966 and grew up in a family of artists and academics (his mother is an artist, his father an economist). After studying political science, he turned to his first passion: singing.
Whether you are an artist or not, you need creativity! But this is sometimes lacking. David Usher draws on his experience as a musician, a Web entrepreneur and speaker to help us bring forth our lost creativity…
Freedom and structure: these are the two central concepts of the Usher method to develop creativity. They are also the two main sections of the book. It teems with examples, illustrations, quotes and exercises to get into the habit of writing down your ideas to better put them into action.
Are you ready to change?
Children have natural creativity and curiosity. They must never be lost. And yet, life tends to progressively separate us from this childhood mentality. The “important things” are what end up becoming important.
But creativity remains present, hidden in the shadows. This boundless imagination needs to be discovered once again. By chance, as well as through work and analysis, Usher succeeded in keeping this part of himself intact. It has allowed him to have a number of different professions: singer, entrepreneur and writer…
Creativity irrigates each of these activities and it exists inside everyone, with varying degrees of expression. It is quite possible for anyone who has lost contact with their creative side to find it again. It simply requires work, time and a willingness to start learning.
There are no miracles. It requires concrete action. This is the first and most decisive habit to acquire – practice, practice and more practice.
It will be worth it! Without creativity, the human word would disappear. Creativity can literally change everything! It is what truly makes a difference to the world. So, are you ready to change?
Action no. 1: Take notes
Usher advises writing in the book, scribbling on it. “Let the elephants run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything” is filled with spaces for readers to do this. The author also recommends writing in other parts of the book. He invites readers to not treat the book like something sacred. On the contrary, you need to own it and integrate your own personality to it.
But above all, the most useful key point here (for those readers who don’t have the paperback version of the book) is the following idea: you need to pay attention to the world and gather ideas together, in a notebook for example.
So, if you haven’t already done so, grab your pen and some paper while you read this article and do all the exercises (Usher calls them “Actions”) on offer!
The creative ape
According to Dr. Spencer Well, humanity has been on the path to extinction on several occasions. How did we survive? The size of our brain makes us different and it allowed us to populate the world. A connection was made: Usher calls it (with no scientific pretension) “the creative gene”.
Talking about creativity does not mean sudden inspiration. 95 % work and maybe 5% inspiration are needed for this “gene” to produce genuinely significant results. So you have to persevere. That is why if you say “I’m not creative” straight out of the gate, then you are holding yourself back. You are refusing the status of “creative ape” that lies inside each of us.
Usher warns readers: “Stop looking at creativity as the lottery that someone else won at birth. Start looking at creative thinking as a skill set you can master if you invest the time to learn how.”
Action no. 2: test your level of creativity
First exercise: Usher offers the following questionnaire to analyse your level of creativity.
Answer honestly: it will help you to gauge the efforts you will have to put in to do the 17 other exercises!
Once you get the hang of creativity, you will find it everywhere, in everything and beyond. “It exists in the connections we make, how we formulate sentences, the way we negotiate with our bosses, and how we choose to look at the world. […] Every moment and interaction becomes an opportunity to apply the principles of creative thinking.”
Some people develop it in a limited way in a specific field, for example developing new software programs, but they are unable to generalise the process. It is a pity and that is why Usher proposes developing genuinely multidimensional creativity.
Action no. 3: Make a list of the changes you want to see in your life.
Start right now and write them down. Make a list of the concrete changes you want to make. What bad habits would you like to give up? What new routines do you want to put in place? And what project that is dearest to your heart have you given up on until now?
Nothing is “too big”. Aim high at first. This gives you a better chance of obtaining interesting results.
Answer these three questions in writing – in your notebook:
- What things would you love to make?
- What habits would you like to alter?
- And what relationships do you wish were different?
Freaks & geeks
On one side of creativity, you find the freak: the bohemian character, the genius who gets inspiration at 3 o’clock in the morning. On the other side, you find the geek: the analytical type who quantifies, reasons and plans. Usher is adamant: you have to combine the two. “For my creativity to function, I need to engage both sides of myself: the freak and the geek.”
Creativity is not an elitist thing, it’s not even a talent thing. However, what is certain is that it requires determination and courage. In fact, believing in divine inspiration and claiming that you have no talent are strategies to avoid getting down to work.
Usher does not neglect the chance factor: sometime the efforts made and the talent invested come together as a matter of luck. It is true that not everyone is successful despite combining talent and effort.
Nevertheless, one thing is sure:
“Creativity itself – the ability to think of an innovative idea and then follow through with the steps of the process and deliver something new – is something we can all learn to do.”
Freedom and structure are the two watchwords. Curiosity, an open mind and whimsy on one side; discipline, logic and concrete effort on the other. In“ Let the elephants run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”, Usher puts it like this:
“Freedom without structure is just chaos, and great ideas float away on the wind. But it all begins with freedom of imagination. To think creatively, you first need to get your imagination firing again…”
So let’s start with freedom!
Part 1: Freedom – Let the imagination run
If a child is given some freedom, in school or in a playroom, for example, they will naturally turn to creative things. They invent, they let their imagination run free. It’s instinctive. “It is as natural as breathing.”
Exploring through play is their way of understanding the world.
This is what an experiment carried out by a researcher at the Massachussets Institute Of Technology (MIT), Laura Schulz, revealed. If you tell a child how to use an object (and what not to do with it), then their creative capacities will be limited. They will only play in the way they have been told to. However, if you allow the child to explore the different aspects of the object for themselves, they will discover several ways to have fun with it.
Quite often, learning (in school particularly) cuts a child off from their natural curiosity and above all their mental capacity to explore through play by announcing rules that are too strict right from the start.
Action no. 4: Awaken your inner child
“Let the elephants run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything” is filled with pictures, drawings, etc. Place photos of yourself as a child at strategic locations in your home or in your car and paste them into your notebook (or the physical book). What you are looking for is to get back in touch with this 4 or 5-year old person, through the rust of adulthood.
A cog in a wheel
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was the beginning of large scale linear thinking. Production lines and city factories are not like the fields in the countryside. Mechanisation turned us into human machines performing repetitive tasks. Out with thought, a sense of accomplishment and imagination. The famous economist Adam Smith already talked about this at the time.
They educated children for their future life in the factory, and school itself became a kind of factory. They wanted docile and efficient labour. To do this, they created the appropriate school system, one in which creativity disappeared. The child had to remain calm, seated at a desk, all week long.
The same applies to the private sector today. With the Industrial Revolution, normalisation of work spaces came into being. All the institutions – school, factory, company – were built in line with the same model of productivity. We began to start thinking in the same way too.
Straight line thinking
This is what Usher calls straight line thinking. It is the dominant method: the one that gets you from point A to point B in the fastest way, by following a straight line. No deviations are possible! The death of creativity and imagination is the result. The straight line (normalisation) erases any other possibilities, in other words the multiplicity of possible options.
It is also a thought form that prefers identical copying. It is better to copy something that works well. You save time and money. You don’t lose yourself in trying new things.
This is why “we love patterns”, says Usher. We love routines, conformity. “Human beings are creatures of habit”, he adds. “It is completely natural for us to want to retreat to the safety of our routines.
But to be creative, we need to go against our nature and step outside these patterns.” This requires capacity for observation, looking at things from different angles. It allows us to seize upon the other possibilities, to see the other patterns that were not visible at first glance. The message is: “Start messing with your patterns!”
Action no. 5: Mess with your patterns
In “Let the elephants run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”, Usher offers the following advice: “Practice breaking your patterns. Start with the small things.” He suggests some simple exercises that are hard to apply because patterns and repetitive habits are so ingrained in us.
Here is the list of small things to do differently every day:
- Make your coffee a different way;
- Eat at a new lunch spot;
- Choose something different on the menu;
- Take an alternative route to work;
- Sit next to someone new at a meeting;
- Sleep on the other side of the bed;
- Wear that funky pair of shoes;
- Read fiction / read non-fiction / read poetry;
- If you normally go to yoga, try kick-boxing instead.
We love the rules
We love rules. Just like habits, rules frame our actions. That is why we like to follow them – they reassure us. Thousands of little rules govern our lives every day; there are hundreds of conventions tethered inside us that we never question. Once again, they guarantee us reliable results and that is why we want them.
“In the real world, we want and need predictable outcomes.” We want the car to stop at the red light so that we can cross the road safely. Rules give us a degree of certainty. We know that people we work with will probably react in such and such a way to such and such a circumstance.
Embrace unpredictability: step outside the fourth wall
Creativity invites us to step outside the rules and our habits. What we are looking for when we activate our creativity is not a reliable and ordinary result. We are looking for an unstable and extraordinary result.
“For creativity to work, we need to embrace unpredictability. Step outside the rules.”
In theatre, the fourth wall is the imaginary wall separating the actors on stage from the audience. It is located at the edge of the stage. Directors usually respect the rule that actors do not step outside this imaginary wall. The public has to remain on the other side of the imaginary world of the actors on the stage. They all observe the stage in a similar situation: sitting down with nothing obstructing their view.
Usher likes to step outside this wall. He gives an example of this in «Let the elephants run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”: “Every show I play or presentation I give – whether it’s for 400 or 40,000 – I always try to cross the 4th wall, and the reason is simple. When you do, it automatically changes the relationship you have with the audience and blows open the possibilities of what can happen.”
What are the consequences of violating the rule of the fourth wall? “The level of risk goes up.” The distance between the public and the actor (or performer) is removed. Anything can happen. The public may react in an unexpected way, either negative or positive. More often than not, it is worth it.
Try curved line thinking
Curved line thinking is the opposite to straight line thinking. If you think about it, almost nothing is perfectly straight. Creativity is not efficient. “It meanders around corners and weaves through empty alleys.” Following the curves means letting what happens happen, going with the flow and seeing where it takes you.
“It is in these curves that creativity happens”. And it is about following your dreams, even if they do not earn you money, for example. You have to be capable of having a goal (your dream), while searching, with no certainty, for a way to turn the vision into reality.
In reality, when you embark on a project, 1001 unexpected things will occur. Nowadays, new companies have learned from this experience. They no longer plan an entire project as firms used to do until quite recently.
How start-ups operate
Start-ups and the new corporate culture take the unexpected into account. They change their initial plans in line with what actually happens: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
These days, particularly since the arrival of internet, things change at planning level when it comes to corporate projects. Usher summarises this new process in six steps:
- Idea for a business;
- Build a minimum viable product (MVP), the smallest possible version, so that you can put your idea to the test in a viable way (minimum characteristics);
- Go out into the world and test the MVP with clients, to see how the product works and the reactions of the users. Gather feedback;
- Based on these comments, start to produce new versions and rapidly offer new characteristics and new options;
- If it works, if customer interest and traction grow, continue;
- If it doesn’t work, it is time to turn around and make a radical change of direction.
Reid Hoffman, at LinkedIn, believes that “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” Usher sums up why this approach is interesting in two sentences: “The destination is visualised, but not written in stone. The discoveries made along the way have immense influence on the course of the journey.” Instagram, PayPal, YouTube, Twitter: these are just a few examples of successful businesses that followed a curved line!
This new way of acting is the fruit of another industrial revolution. While creativity was a luxury for old-fashioned businesses using straight line thinking, it is a very profitable investment for new companies.
The example of Google
In “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”, Usher also uses the example of Google, where an employee can spend up to 20% of their work time developing new and potentially worthwhile projects. Every employee is free to explore new paths and suggest them to the employer. Gmail, Google News, Google Talk and AdSense all came from this type of parallel project development.
Ahead of its time, 3M, for example, already did this for many years. 3M is a US company that manufactures 55,000 different products and launches more than 1000 products every year. It is particularly well-known for its “sticky” products, post-its and scotch tape!
As these examples prove, putting creativity into practice is not just possible for small companies; it can be carried out on a grand scale.
The contrast with old companies: the example of EMI
To highlight the contrast between the old world and the new, Usher takes the example of a record company: EMI. When internet came on the scene, their revenue fell drastically, leading to a number of redundancies. EMI was unable to act appropriately.
Usher analyses this immobility from the point of view of historic company culture and routines that were in place for many years. EMI founded its business on a scarcity model: vinyl records, then CDs gave music a value that instant downloading took away. EMI, with wealth based on record sales, was hit by lightning.
The company had to change, fast, and it did not succeed because of the inertia of straight line thinking that was in place at the company for so many years.
Action no. 6: Invest in curved line thinking
Usher draws one lesson for businesses from this example:
“In the internet age, where everything is moving so much faster, you need to weave innovation and creativity into your company culture. This is a long-term project. Creativity is something you have to learn and slowly breed into your DNA […] Creativity is not a luxury or a risk. It is a genuine necessity.”
Think about your own relationship with creativity.
- Do you consider time spent on creative thinking an investment or an expense?
- How has your industry been affected by the internet revolution?
- What are the specific changes you have witnessed over the past 5 years?
What changes do you see on the horizon?
The creative half-hour
In “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”, Usher wants us to become aware of the importance of devoting time to our imagination. He uses a strong example to illustrate this.
His friend Shelly is a magazine and internet editor. Her work is quite routine-based. “Shelly gets up every day at 6 am, puts on the coffee, takes half an hour to dig into her email and check the news, and then launches into her writing. Every day rolls out pretty much the same way, divided between writing, researching, interviewing, talking to editors, bookkeeping and invoicing. By the time the day is done and she closes up her computer around 6 pm, Shelley is spent and exhausted.”
Whenever they meet up, Usher gives her this advice: “Shelley, maybe as an experiment, try taking the first half hour of every day – before the emails, before reading the news, before scrolling through facebook, before you start working – and spend that time on ideas. Use that time to generate ideas to grow and change your business, on creative ways of getting off the treadmill. Invest that time in yourself.”
The normal reaction – and indeed Shelley’s – is this: “’I’d love to, but I can’t. I’ve got way too much to do.”
Usher wants to show that a routine is not the opposite of creativity. In fact, you can make creativity a routine! “Developing a routine and a ritual is the key to keeping your creativity alive.” Some people prefer to take time for themselves in the morning, others prefer to free up some time in the afternoon.
Observe yourself: when are you most “awake”, when are you most open to your creative side? Once you have identified the time slot, book that period of time and create a ritual that will allow you to give free rein to your imagination.
Usher comes to the following conclusion:
“Creativity is an investment, and like any investment there are risks and there are no guarantees. The only true guarantee is that if you don’t invest in your imagination, you will not become more creative.”
Action no. 7: Start the half hour habit
In “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”, Usher keeps returning to the same point. Genius and creativity are not innate gifts. They require work and practice. “Working artists know that to get really good at their creative discipline, they have to work incredibly hard. You have to put in the time and invest in your craft.”
No artist, entrepreneur, or so-called “talented” person gained recognition without devoting a great deal of effort to practising and developing their talent. Usher’s point about progress can be summarised this way:
- Observe the time of day when you are especially active and awake;
- Create a half hour creative ritual inside that period of time;
- Write down what you accomplish during that half hour every day;
- Note the time, then rate the session on a scale from 1 to 10 (it sucks – I’m a genius);
- Discover the very precise moment when you are at your most imaginative and focused, within that half hour window;
- Never let it go!
The pretext of time and place
Usher warns readers against a common and pernicious form of procrastination: waiting for everything to be perfect before getting started. The dream of a great studio or a perfectly organised office, in other words a nicer space that the one you currently occupy. The chimera is that when you get it you will have more time, even unlimited time to think, to devote yourself…
But procrastination also involves the hope of acting with other people, as part of a community, the desire for recognition before you even begin… Usher warns readers: to be creative, you have to keep your feet on the ground.
“The reality of the creative life is that there is never enough time and space, and conditions are never perfect. Our lives are always full of a never-ending list of things to do that fill our time and separate us from the work we know we should be doing.”
In the cracks and spaces of this overwhelming life is where we must learn to be creative. Perhaps it is also good to begin in solitude.
Dissipation is a constant temptation (tweets, DMs, emails, etc.). Breathe: nothing bad will happen if you miss that message or if the post you just published is less popular that you hoped. Take a breath and put that to one side for a moment. Then begin, very gently and simply, to train your creative muscle.
Start dreaming of elephants!
You may look a little crazy for a while, but as you know there is a thin line between madness and genius. “You have to risk a little crazy if you ever hope to escape the gravitational pull of the ordinary.”
Do you have a burning desire to do something or create something? Do you feel the need to move in this direction, even if it means leaving the box? Rid yourself of the idea that there is some kind of “pot of gold” waiting for you at the end of the journey. Nothing could be less sure than financial success. That is the price to pay for your passion.
Accepting the creative experience means accepting to live an “experimental” life. Perhaps not all the time, but from time to time.
“The ability to vacation our imagination on the edge gives us the ability to expand our mind, opening up to a whole new world of possibility.” That is what we are invited to do in “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“.
Action no. 8: Expose yourself
“It’s time to leave the nest”, declares Usher. To get your imagination moving, you need to expose yourself to different ideas, people and places. “Take your brain out for a walk”.
Are there events that you have never been to? Then go! Act in a disciplined way.
Over the next four weeks, find four places to visit, four things or four people to see, listen to or taste. This exercise builds on the previous one by inviting us to step out of our comfort zone to try something new.
Make a note of what you are going to do every week, as well as the result of your peregrinations:
- 1st Week
- 2nd Week
- 3rd Week
- 4th Week
If you feel the need, continue to take notes and plan outings after the first month, until this new exercise has become a new habit.
Standing out means trying to be different to the mass of ordinary things. At a time when internet allows everyone to show off their work, good, bad or indifferent, finding an original path to travel is not an easy thing. But it has become essential.
“Your ability to be remarkable is what separates you from the herd and allows you to rise above the endless sea of creativity that flows past every day.”
In order to stand out, you need a good idea. When you let your imagination run, big pink elephants will inevitably charge in: they are crazy ideas that are detached from reality.
What should you do with them? Send them back to the jungle? No! You can give them a minute of your time. We are too used to thinking in terms of efficiency and realism. A crazy idea can become an interesting idea and – eventually – a realistic idea.
“Start by letting your imagination run wild. Let the pink elephants loose and see where they lead”, says Usher in “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“.
In fact, it is better to dream big – pink elephant style – than to dream too small and too “do-able” at first. If you half-fail, you will have greater success than if you had dreamt small.
However, to turn a crazy idea into something else, you need to get people on board with you.
You have an idea, but it also has to become someone else’s idea – or desire. You need to convince people to help you, perhaps because you do not have the same skills and you need those skills for your crazy idea to become achievable over time.
Go and see that person. Present your idea. Perhaps they will also want to see what might happen if you make the idea come true.
Little by little, you will get more and more people involved. In the end, it is no longer just you, but the other people who will want to see what happens if… you achieve your crazy idea. In other words, if you create interest in your idea among the people around you, that very interest is what can make the idea become reality.
To get there, you should not judge your idea directly. You should simply ask yourself “what could happen”? Try this experience and the intrinsic value (is this a good or bad idea, etc.) of your idea can wait.
“Let the pink elephants loose and see where they lead.”
Action no. 9: Write down your pink elephant ideas
Think back to all the crazy ideas you have had over the course of your life – or invent new ones. Ideas that were too ambitious, too complicated; write some of them down on a piece of paper or in your smartphone.
- Pink elephant/Crazy idea 1:
- Pink elephant 2:
- And pink elephant 3:
Dark passengers: resistance and fear
It’s not always easy to let your imagination run away with you, to face the obstacles that appear along the path of the creative process. “It creeps in quietly, that voice in my head, the small doubt that grows throughout the night. It is a constant and I beat it back daily for fear it will take me over.”
This is another habit to adopt. Control the dark passengers that harm creativity.
Fear and resistance come from our natural tendency to neutralise risk and pain. Because creativity leads to risk-taking and emotions that can be painful, the internal voices of fear and resistance become louder.
These voices talk about failure and shame. They try to take you back into your comfort zone with the people who have already accepted you. The creator must conquer these voices and find the path outwards.
Friends and family are well-intentioned, but they have conservative tendencies. They often prefer to see you doing what you do already, something in which you have already demonstrated your ability.
When you tell them about your new project (or your pink elephant), they will have an annoying, albeit natural, tendency to play to your doubts (because they have doubts). In this way, they increase the difficulty; they create a mountain that stands in your way before you have even begun anything.
In “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”, Usher offers a piece of advice that I find particularly well-chosen:
“Getting a new creative project in motion is hard enough without the doubt of others stacked against you. Do yourself a favour and keep your mouth shut. When your ideas are still new-born, treat them as something precious that needs time to grow and develop and change. There will be plenty of time to talk and discuss and defend your ideas later. Plenty of time.”
This advice should not be placed in opposition to the other advice about procrastination. If you want to ensure that something gets done “for real”, talk about it. Social pressure will force you to achieve what you have said you will do. In one case, an idea is not yet fully formed and you need to protect it from any destructive doubts. In the other case, the idea is already mature – you are setting it in motion. Talking about it will strengthen your motivation to take the process all the way to its conclusion.
Another danger is the monster A monster is someone who acts like a wolf hunting down its prey. As soon as someone says something new or expresses an idea, the monster pounces on it and tears it to pieces. Each one of us can become a monster – can “monster” someone else, says Usher. This attitude is devilishly negative; it hunts down the pink elephants and kills imagination.
If you are a monster, that’s okay, but it means that you find it difficult to listen. You miss out on what other people are proposing. You are too focused on yourself. Learn to listen, to hear. It will help others and – who knows- perhaps give you some new ideas of your own!
In fact, the person with the loudest voice is not necessarily the person with the best idea. “There is great value in listening and giving ideas a chance to exist and germinate.”
In a group, it is important to try to strike a balance between the extroverts (who need to check themselves from talking too much) and introverts (who need to make an effort to speak up). “Ideas can come from all sorts of places. Give everyone’s pink elephants a little room to run.”
According to Suzan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” introverts have their own requirements when it comes to feeling comfortable and giving the best of themselves. For her “they prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”
Introverts have the ability to listen, a better developed sense of empathy. They can also summarise different proposals around them more easily, they have an overall vision of the situation.
There is nothing to change here. Everyone – introvert or extrovert – can act in a way that contains creative power. The important thing is to avoid abusing the situation. In the case of the extrovert – by becoming a monster. In the case of the introvert – by becoming a little mouse, the victim of “painful, heart-stopping shyness”.
The creativity of the mouse is paralysed by fear of others, fear of being judged. But creativity doesn’t care about perfect conditions and being judged. The monster needs to learn to listen, and a mouse who wants to unlock their creativity needs to learn to shout.
Action no. 10: Are you a monster or a mouse?
“Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything” offers a scale – at one end is a mouse, at the other a monster. Assess yourself.
Let’s say you are an introvert who likes to write alone. You have written a book. What do you do now? Let the editor do all the work? Self-publish?
In both cases, you have to learn to shake hands, to convince people, maybe give conferences, etc. If you want your message to be heard – for your book to be read – coming up with it and writing it down will not always be enough. You will need to fight the monsters and make noise so that the world knows you exist.
Adapting your body: Dominant positions
There are certain bodily positions that indicate inner power, strength and self-confidence. Body language says something about you, and there’s more. It can change you. Amy Cuddy offers the following equation: “Our bodies change our minds, and our minds can change our behaviour, and our behaviour can change our outcomes.”
Strike a victory pose, one that show self-assuredness, a pose that demonstrates your strength. This can change your self-image and even change the chemical balance in your brain. You not only appear to be more confident, you become more confident.
Does this really work? Well, try it out. Strike your pose and see what happens! Judge for yourself.
Action no. 11: Adopt the power pose
The next time you have a stressful appointment (a meal, a conference, whatever it may be), go to a calm quiet place on your own and adopt the following position: your arms outstretched or gently pointing upwards, your body straight and your bust slightly pushed out. A posture of self-affirmation
Hold this position for two minutes. Make a note of the results:
- Did you manage the stressful moment better?
- Did you feel more comfortable during the event?
Repeat the experience and make a note of your progress.
Part two: Structure
The second part of “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything” is simply called “Structure”. Structure is necessary to support freedom.
Spontaneously, creative action (in the arts especially) is cloaked in a certain air of magic. You don’t have to think about creativity. It is there in spades – take advantage of it!
However, when you start to compare the practices of entrepreneurs with artistic practices, as Usher did, you will begin to notice differences, certainly, but above all you will notice similarities. You will begin to understand – and therefore demystify – the creative process. And you may lose some of your naivety, but you will gain mastery. You will learn about yourself and go on to teach others how to behave in a creative way. In short, creativity will become a discipline that requires practice and learning.
This learning process allows you to control inspiration with a view to getting a result. It is all very well to have lots of ideas, but you also have to finish your project/book and deliver the promised work (to yourself or other people). You also have to repeat the operation every time you get a new idea.
Structure is there to support freedom. “There is no single structure that works for everyone. But for everyone there is a structure that works.” Usher’s formula contains 11 steps:
- Moment of creative collision
- Ship it
This is the key formula in “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“. Despite appearances, the process is endless in the sense that delivery will release curiosity in something else – and the cycle starts all over again.
Action no. 12: Fill the blank pages
To overcome the anxiety of the blank page, try to fill one page in your book of ideas every day. Don’t let the pink elephants die on your sheet of paper. Do not seek quality or style, simply look for a way to jot down the largest number of secondary ideas. Then file them.
“The easiest way to overcome the daunting blankness at the beginning of a project is to just start filling up space. Don’t think. Just start working. Generate material. It doesn’t have to be good because at the beginning all you want is bulk. You are the Costco of creativity. Forget about quality. You need to fill the aisles with stuff.”
The goal is simply to set things in motion. It doesn’t matter if half of it (or more) will probably end up in the bin.
The peripheral 360° childhood vision of things gradually becomes specialised as we grow older. As an adult, our vision is often reduced to a specific area of activity. Both of these have their advantages, but in order to be creative we have to become children again: curious and willing to learn.
The process is what counts, so choose a topic to study or experiment with, anything you like, and get started. Light the match and spark the fire of curiosity and learning. Allow this new world to open up to you and remove your blinkers as a specialist.
Explore new fields that will change the way you look at the world. It will make it richer. “Having many lenses is the key to looking at our problems from different angles and perspectives, and to finding new, innovative solutions.” Every discipline, and every individual, offers a different lens or perspective. It is determined by their own interests.
In order to learn there are universities and official forms of study. This is great and it is particularly suitable for certain kinds of skills and professions. But there are many other ways to learn. For example, by building an “idea accelerator”!
If you can manage to not let yourself get distracted by pictures of cats and a never-ending succession of posts, then facebook and the Internet in general can be an idea accelerator. Blogs are powerful idea accelerators when it comes to learning new things.
By bringing your different sources together, a “river of ideas” can appear that will carry you away. That is the idea accelerator. Make a network of the blogs or people you are interested in that can offer you new forms of enlightenment.
“Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything” recommends using RSS feed readers. They allow you to classify the contents of your favourite blogs into folders that you create.
Feed readers present the title of each article and the first paragraph, making it easier to search. They also avoid you becoming “distracted” by everything else you may come across online – you only collect what you know to be relevant. Long live RSS feeds! There’s nothing old-fashioned about them.
Action no. 13: Create your own idea accelerator
Choose a blogger in a field you are interested in and create an RSS feed. Every week, add a source. You will read more and more on the topic that interests you. Your idea accelerator could look like this (to be completed of course).
Writing and reading are great ways to get your ideas flowing. But in order for them to take hold, to take root inside you, there is no miracle: you have to make notes and file them – other people’s ideas and your own.
In “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”, Usher reassures readers: Ransacking and stealer other people’s ideas – is that really what creativity looks like? “We absorb and steal, rob and plunder – whatever it takes to get our creativity moving.” The thought will germinate in the compost of reading and borrowing.
It is a remix, a transformation, the search for new forms among what already exists. We don’t create from nothing.
Action no. 14: Opt for a mobile filing system
What kind of filing should you choose? Pen and paper? A notebook is always modern. One notebook per project (or per album you are composing, etc.) is a winning formula.
An application? There are so many to choose from. The most important thing is to find the one that works for you, that you feel comfortable with, and that you can use every day. Write down your ideas where you can find them when the time comes.
Of art and commerce
“There is a battle that rages in the land of creativity between the forces of art and commerce.” It is an age-old debate that opposes what Usher calls the “artistic creators” and the “commercial creators”.
The former produce a work based on their own idea, their core aspirations and they refuse any corruption from the commercial aspect. The latter, in contrast, build a product based on the market itself. They compose their end product on the basis of comments, market research, etc.
Most of us navigate somewhere between the two. It is a position we can adjust and therefore, it is a choice we make. Where should you position your creative intention in your project? Act with a clear conscience whether you decide to lean one way or the other. Own your decision. You can also try to change the cursor. Nothing says you have to remain on one side or the other at all times. This may require some work, but it is not impossible.
Action no. 15: Analyse your creative intention
Think about the fact that these days, you have to be able to “put yourself out there” more than ever before. “In a world where everyone is a writer and thinker, an Internet entrepreneur and a video producer, protecting your ideas becomes far less important than your ability to execute them.”
- What is your current situation?
- Where would you like to be?
Being curious and learning to generate new ideas is good. Filing is great. Filtering is essential. As you let the flow of ideas come, you need to filter them afterwards. Let’s face it – not all ideas are great. Some of them, when you read over them or listen to them a second time, will lead to nothing in the end. They will cease to inspire you.
The author of “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything” offers some good tips on this topic.
Initially, keep all your ideas (in your notebook, for example). Then, once a week or so, go back to them and sort them. The ideas that you find “promising”, the ones you decide to keep are the ones you are going to pursue and nurture. The other ones can simply be discarded, or kept in a specific file (trash, rejections, etc.).
Learn to be a good filter. Learn to know what gives you a good feeling, what lights your fire when you look at it a second time. These are the ideas that count.
It involves acquiring a certain taste. Usher puts it like this: “My job is to know what I like and what I don’t, to be able to make quick decisive choices about what to keep and what to throw out.”
Action no. 16: Develop a filtering system
At the end of each week, return to your work and assess it. What are the best ideas? Create a sub-section or a new file for the ones you want to keep. Prepare to turn them into ideas that can become reality.
“As you start to collect and filter ideas you begin to experiment with them. It’s like banging rocks together, looking for the ones that spark.” Test the combinations to see which ones work. This is one of the main activities of the creative person.
You will have to face your doubts all the time, or if you work in a group, face the personalities of your collaborators. External physical elements (a computer that breaks down or starts working again) may let you down or support you. In short, there are a thousand and one things, a million different ideas to lay out and organise: “A thousand elements have to be filtered and melded together and then ripped apart again.”
From small test to small test, from small result to small result, your project will begin to evolve and your work will start to take shape.
Now, and only now, will the moments of discovery happen, the ones to which the creative practice is often reduced. The moments of revelation or discovery are always a surprise. They emerge from the earlier work in unexpected ways. They bring joy and make all the effort feel worthwhile.
A moment of creative collision
The moment of creative collision causes sparks. In “Let the Eelephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”, Usher uses the example of a song he wrote that got 10 million views on YouTube. It was also in the charts in Canada and Europe (the song is called Black Black Heart).
He wanted to reproduce a bass sound similar to that of another song (Stan by Eminem), a melody scribbled on a scrap of paper in the middle of the night, while a friend working on music for an opera added another element, and the combination took shape.
“And it all started with one flash. One light-bulb moment. But none of it, no part of this whole story would have happened if I had had that initial melody idea and just rolled over and gone back to sleep in my bunk rather than writing it down. Filing those ideas was the key to being able to access them later.”
Once again, Usher insists that there is no genius without work, without effort. Many people don’t want to do this part of creation. That is why they don’t create much. An idea by itself is not enough.
“Will you stick with it and drive through? Will you ignore detractors and soldier on? And will you push through all obstacles and make it to the finish line?” These are the questions you will have to ask yourself. Without the investment, without giving it time, your grand project will turn out to be an illusion.
In fact, giving up when you are well on the way can be very damaging. It’s an opportunity to rest, certainly. But if you rest for too long, it becomes dangerous. You will start to think about something else, something easier. Fear and resistance take over. You will need to find additional energy to start again.
The best thing is to keep moving once you get started. Don’t stop until you get to the end.
Working hard is important, but so is working smart. When you hit a wall, sometimes it is better to let your sub-conscious take a breather. Take some time to do nothing and recharge your batteries. Once the river of ideas starts to flow again, you will be ready to get back to work without delay. Your subconscious will pick up the baton, discreetly, but surely.
Breaks are a good way to let the underground, unexpected connections flow. You can also get up early, when everything around you is still quiet.
This is what Usher does. “I write every morning because while I am half asleep, before the real world has woken up, I can still access my subconscious. I can see ideas and connections that are not available to me once my “awake” mind takes over,” he writes in “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“.
Work is one thing, operational infrastructure is another. Accounting, scheduling, renting space, finance, etc. All these elements support the creative work and cannot be neglected by the creator – at least not until he or she has sufficient resources to delegate these tasks.
From this point of view, the life of an artist looks very similar to other professions. Tasks that are generally considered thankless (looking for grants, organising rehearsals, accounts, meeting, etc.) take up a considerable amount of time, often more than the creative and supposedly fun part.
Action no. 17: Outline your own operational infrastructure
First think about what you need, then progressively fine tune the list of your needs. Take different criteria into account:
“Eventually, you have to stand up and own what you are making.” It is time to talk to the people around you. Be prepared to receive positive and negative feedback. You have built up momentum and gained self-confidence.
Showing your work will be to your advantage now. You can use the precious feedback that your work will provoke. “Your job as creator is to filter all this information and use the pieces that you think have merit to make yourself better.” And reject the elements that seem out of place.
“Not all feedback is created equal”. Some people will elevate you, but others will only drag you down.
The hard part is to filter the feedback without being too defensive (and rejecting it all). You also need to be humble. Look for the opinions of people who are better experts, more experienced than you are.
They are the people who will teach you the most. They will help you to find new paths, as well as to defend your work in a more radical way. Comments are capital, never underestimate them.
“The final reason to commit to your creativity in public is that it raises the stakes. It increases the consequences.” The ego factor plays a role when you are faced with the opinions of other people. It forces you to raise your game, to not give up too quickly. Alone, when nobody knows what you are doing, it is easy to give up.
Once you have talked about what you are doing to people around you, you won’t want to disappoint them. The size of the failure – and that of the potential success – becomes greater. This point is particularly relevant in “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“.
Action no. 18: Describe what you are working on and establish a timeline for completion.
We often start a project full of energy and vigour, but after leaping a few hurdles, we begin to feel tired and alone.
To stay on course, Usher recommends gathering a team around you – a few well-chosen specialists in the field (music, publishing, etc.) and/or people with specific skills (drawing, sound, etc.) – who will support the project with criticism, encouragement and their own productions.
The emotional arc
Managing your emotions can be tough when you decide to let go of your work and send it out into the world, whether an album, a book or anything else. You need to recognise them and analysis them (why not write your feelings down), perhaps take a few days off to avoid becoming an emotional wreck and yelling at everyone around you.
It is vital to monitor your emotions, not just when handing over your work, but throughout the creative process. Taking risks, putting yourself out there is a personal thing. “Creators need to recognise that emotion is an integral part of the process and has a large influence on outcome.”
Keep an account of the journey. It will be important in improving over time. It’s not a question of becoming immune to these sensations, simply of taking stock of what you are feeling.
Usher puts it very well: “If you never document your emotional process, you will be forever destined to repeat it, unchanged, over and over again. If you write the process down, you will begin to understand the intricacies of your reactions and you will markedly improve your creative journey for yourself and everyone around you.”
This is the final stage in the process. It must not be ignored, or neglected. “Shipping is what frees your mind to think about what’s next.” So you can see why good delivery is important. Without it, you will remain with the ghosts of all the things you did that you didn’t quite accomplish.
Sometimes people give up right at the finish line. From the perspective of the creative gesture, this is wasteful. Shipping means allowing yourself to move on to the next adventure.
In “Let the Eelephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”, Usher talks about his own experience in delivering an album. He spends one year composing the album (generating, filing, filtering, combining ideas), then around six months putting it into concrete format. Then he delivers, whatever it takes. He lets some time go by without listening to his production again.
What happens when he does listen to it again? “Sometimes I love it, and sometimes not so much.” That’s life! But at least he produced something.
Very few people have the Midas touch. According to legend, everything this ancient Persian king touched turned to gold. Artistic or commercial failure is a possibility The important thing is how you manage the failure, how you get beyond the torment, pain and shame. How you start to learn again. Failure is in fact, an opportunity: “Today’s failures are often the basis for the next big win.” Once you understand and accept the emotions that go with it, you can move on to the next project!
At the end of every creative cycle, analyse what you have done. There is no creative process without self-learning, without drawing lessons from the past. It is natural to want to repress certain emotions, especially when they are negative. There are actions you may regret and want to forget or – conversely – you may forget all about the difficulties you endured once you are elated by the success of your creative endeavours.
“We dive right back into the next process like it is our very first time, only to repeat our mistakes again and again,” is Usher’s warning in “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“. To avoid the pitfall of creative amnesia, Usher recommends carrying out a post-mortem.
Action no. 19: Study your most recent creative action
Don’t forget to set yourself a deadline. The deadline will force you to choose what you did well and what you did badly. Creative thinking requires curves and wanders along hidden paths, and this is true at first. Once the project is launched and in progress, you need a finish line.
Take this quote from “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“:
“Without consequences, creativity can meander forever. […] We need to know that if we don’t finish, we will lose something: money, faith, face, or trust. Someone will be disappointed or disillusioned. People will talk and our stock will go down.”
Creating a team is one way to generate consequences. You commit other people to the adventure. These people give you their time, and they expect things from you. This creates pressure that can help you. It helps you clarify your ideas. Sooner or later, you will have to pay the people collaborating with you. This strengthens the serious nature of the undertaking.
Remember: Creativity is transferable
“The creative process is not only repeatable, but it is transferable.” (Usher, “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“).
Most of us, once we specialise, think that our creativity is limited to a single profession. Are you a pianist? Your creativity is limited to that instrument. Are you an entrepreneur? Business is your playing field. But this is not true. Because it is transferable, you can creativity in everything you do, even outside your initial area of skill.
The metaphor of language is a good one: “Instead try to visualise creative thinking as a language. Once you speak the language of creativity you can talk about many different subjects, not just one. You may need to learn some additional vocabulary for each specific subject, but you already speak the language.”
Of course there will be differences. You won’t be good at everything. Interest and the amount of time spent learning a skill count tremendously. But they do not change the fundamental observation: You can use the creative process in every area of life.
Usher ends the book by discussing his creative process in writing this book. He was initially a musician, then a Web entrepreneur, and he did not know exactly how to go about writing a book. He had some false starts and then he put a team together. In the end, he focused on the process he wanted to pursue. The book was finally delivered and now he is ready for a new adventure! Hold onto the process – the key to “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything”:
Explore – Compile – File – Filter – Creative collisions – Work – Deliver
What path will you choose?
Think about this:
“In this new world, in this revolutionary time in our history, the old paradigms about risk versus safety no longer exist. The old world of stability is gone and the only thing you can be sure of is that the future will be volatile. For our jobs and our careers and our lives, change is the new normal. The path you choose right now, at this moment, will determine how prepared you are to handle that change when it comes knocking on your door.”
Conclusions about “Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“:
My thoughts: an enjoyable book
Usher’s book is very attractive and enjoyable to read. There are lots of photographs, prints and shifting graphics that make the book in itself quite artistic and creative. Usher says it himself – he followed his own creative process in writing the book.
The result is interesting overall. There are a lot of good ideas and tips you can adopt. There is perhaps a certain lack of organisation (which I suppose I can accept in a book about releasing creativity!) and some repetitions (but they can be welcome as they strengthen the acquisition of new habits).
This book also has merit in that it demystifies the book, inviting readers to scribble in the margins and to take ownership of the book as a kind of handbook or manual (you can do it with this article too!).
What to take away from “Let the Elephants Run!
“Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything” is first and foremost a practical guide. There are a total of 19 actions to put in place progressively. Here is a summary of them in this final list:
- Take notes
- Test your level of creativity
- List the changes you want to see in your life
- Awaken your inner child
- Mess with your patterns
- Invest in curved line thinking
- Start the half hour habit
- Write down your pink elephants
- Know yourself (monster or mouse?)
- Adopt the power pose
- Fill the blank pages
- Create your idea accelerator
- Opt for a mobile filing system
- Analyse your creative intention
- Develop a filtering system
- Think about operational infrastructure
- Describe your work and establish a timeline for completion
- Study your most recent creative action
Remember: “We are all creative beings. We all have a vast, untapped creative capacity within us”. (“Let the Elephants Run! Unlock Your Creativity and Change Everything“).
So, what are you waiting for?
- The colourful nature of the book;
- The numerous examples;
- The actions proposed;
- The invitation to take complete ownership of the book.
- The lack of organisation into chapters;
- Sometimes repetitive.
My rating :
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