Some Ideas on Creativity and Failure

Posted On: November 17

Last week, I got an e-mail from one of my most treasured friends and professional colleagues, Hirofumi Leung – or as everybody calls him: Hiro.  I met Hiro years ago when he was just graduating from college and told me he was about to start a sushi restaurant in the most expensive building in our town.  I was extremely skeptical that this “kid” would ever follow through on his wild scheme, but am happy to report that nearly 10 years later his restaurant: “Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company” has won numerous awards and he has become one of the most respected restaurateurs in this area of Florida.  I have enjoyed a long relationship as a mentor and friend to Hiro and he often asks me for input, suggestions and ideas.  Here is the e-mail that I received from him asking for some help in preparing for an upcoming talk he had been asked to give on creativity in entrepreneurship...

Original email from Hiro:


I am kicking off for the Global Entrepreneur Week at the University of Florida next week for their workshop on “Creativity in Entrepreneurship.”  Any information you can provide me would be of great help. Some of the ideas they asked me to discuss are:

Theme: Creative Blockers vs. Creative Helpers

Learning Objectives:

1. Fear of Failure as a blocker/Failure is okay
2. Rapid Prototyping
3. Opportunity Recognition
4. Feasibility/Market Research

Thanks for your willingness to help me with this John.  Yours, Hiro

Hirofumi P. Leung, Concept Development

My response:


Before I even start giving you ideas on the questions below, let’s talk about creativity and entrepreneurship.  There are three things that come to mind:

The first is that creativity is all about relaxing and having fun.  Yes, I understand that some of the folks you’ll be speaking to at this conference are trying to change the world and make a gazillion dollars in the process, but you don’t have to be so damn serious about it.  Creativity, especially for an entrepreneur, comes from relaxing, letting go, and playing with ideas. People who are uptight, too serious, and too focused… are not too creative.

That brings me to the second idea, which is to have a really good creative ideas… you have to have lots, and lots, and lots of ideas.  Quantity eventually leads to quality.  And the best way to get tons of ideas is to expose yourself to the widest possible array of information and ideas from other people.  A lot of people know that I read at least 100 business books a year, but I also read dozens of other books on history, philosophy, physics, Buddhism, international politics, psychology, art history, architecture, Egyptian culture… and some pure, fun fiction too.  The truth of the matter is I usually learn more about how to run a great business in the books that are not about business!  And let me make it clear that I’m not just talking about learning from books.  You need to be just as adventurous and going to lectures, plays, concerts… hanging out with weird, freaky, creative types — anyone and anything that introduces new ideas, points of view, and information that will help you spark creative ideas.

Lastly, one of my favorite things to spark creative ideas is to “shock” my normal routine.  Whether that is driving to work a different way, buying a crazy-ass pair of tennis shoes that people think I am loony when I wear them, getting some funky sunglasses, wearing a wild Hawaiian shirt to a meeting, or trying a new food that is completely scary to me — anything that gets you out of your comfort zone and looking at things in a new way is a great way for you to shake up your thinking and generate truly creative ideas.

1. Fear of Failure as a blocker/Failure is okay

I have several ideas on how to address the fear of failure.  The first is to realize that there can be absolutely no progress, without some level of failure.  Failure is how we learn. It’s obvious: for everything you can do now, there was once a time in your life you that did not know how to do it — and you had to keep trying and failing and practicing and failing and trying again until you figured it out.  From riding a bike to making sushi to driving a car… everything is a process of trial, error, failure, practice, practice, practice… success.

Also, if you are afraid to fail — just read the biography of any great entrepreneur, inventor, business leader, or national/international leader.  Every single one of them, without exception, has a long list of failures and screw-ups in their history. The path to greatness is across a minefield of failure.

To me, the best way to handle failure is to get good at it!  In other words, try simple/safe things, which have little consequence… and have fun failing miserably at them!  I took painting lessons a few years ago – man do I suck at painting.  I promised myself I would paint 100 canvases before I gave up. At horrific painting number 54, I was such a total, utter, complete failure, that I chucked everything in the garbage and called it a quits.  However, it did not kill me.  My friends still like me.  My neighbors still talk to me. My dog will still play with me… even though I was a dismal failure at painting.  So the question is; what 10 things can you rush out and fail at right away?  The more you practice at failure, the less you fear it.

2. Rapid Prototyping

In the old days, we used to call this “chunking.” How can you get some new ideas, some new product, some new invention — out into the marketplace and in the hands of real customers as fast as is humanly possible?  The goal here is to completely rid yourself of the belief that something has to be 100% perfect before anyone else can see it.  I’m not saying put something totally crappy out there, but what I am saying is if it’s 85% of the way there, the then get it out in the market, let people play with it, see how it works, then come back and do… as it’s called in our lovely computer age… version 2.0. That means you take $100 or $1,000 or $10,000 and you throw it at a cool project and tell your team that they have to have something on the street in the next 30 days. Hey, if you’re a start-up it’s not like it’s going to make the 6 PM news or MSNBC if you test some little thing and it turns out to be dog poop.  You put it out there, you play with it, your chunk it… you can always pull it back in real quick and work on it a bit — then release version 2.1, version 3.0, version 3.4 and sell the hell out of it.  But if you wait for it to be absolutely perfect (take my word on this from more than 20 years of experience) it will never make it to the light of day.

3. Opportunity Recognition

Dude, this is a really hard one because you have to walk a fine line between quantitative/qualitative research, data collection, focus groups, industry trends… and just pure gut instinct.  Of course, you look at probability and impact, required investment, competitive landscape, target market, manufacturing restraints, differentiation, sourcing, value chain management, distribution, sustainable competitive advantage… and all that other consultant stuff I always talk about — but at the end of the day if it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck (which is hard for me since I have no hair left) and you and your team look at each other and can’t stop smiling and giggling — then you might just have a really good opportunity on your hands.  At that point in time you go back up to number two — fast prototyping — and do a quick and dirty $500 test to see if real customers think it’s as cool as you do.

4. Feasibility/Market Research

This is quite a bit like number three.  The phrase I always use is “confidence level.”  I typically recommend that a client do enough feasibility/market research until they get to such a point that their confidence level — either positive or negative — brings them to a decision about the project.  For some clients this means spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in research, data collection, and feasibility projections.  For other clients it means they go to the mall and talk to the first 15 people that don’t run in the other direction when they approach them, ask them a few questions, and if they don’t totally trash the idea then they say, “what the hell, let’s give it a shot.” When you’re bootstrapping an awful lot of market research and feasibility studies are simply done by spending hours and hours at your computer searching the Internet for any piece of data or information that can help you.  But regardless of how much time or money you spend on feasibility/market research, when it gets right down to it, it’s all just an educated guess.  Ask the guys who came out with “New Coke” — they had a $#%@ load of market research, they ran hundreds of focus groups, they had a pile of data 34 feet high that said… New Coke totally rocks — old Coke sucks — we will rule the world with New Coke!  Which we know turned out to perhaps be one of the single greatest business blunders of modern time.  That’s why gut instinct and intuition are often times an entrepreneurs’ best weapon.

Well, there are a few ideas to add to your talk — hope this helped Hiro – I know you will do a superb job!


PS — if you would like to see a really superb presentation on creativity in business, here is a link to a fabulous video posted on the TED website:

About this talk
At the 2008 Serious Play conference, designer Tim Brown talks about the powerful relationship between creative thinking and play — with many examples you can try at home (and one that maybe you shouldn’t).

About Tim Brown
Tim Brown is the CEO of the “innovation and design” firm Ideo — taking an approach to design that digs deeper than the surface.

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  1. John,

    Fantastic stuff here, as always – great food for thought. I’m reminded of two great psychologists who were renowned for creating meaningful change when I read your thoughts above:

    1. Dr. Carl Rogers – who said that creativity includes an openness to experience and willingness to “play” with ideas

    2. Dr. Albert Ellis – who got over his fear of asking girls out by goal-setting to ask hundreds out in a few month (I think unsuccessfully each time) No one is sure if his lack of success was due to “crazy ass shoes” or “wild Hawaiian shirts,” but I have my suspicions.

    Seriously, I love this article/email. When it comes down to it, I think it’s all about making a solid plan, executing that plan and being open to identifying and overcoming barriers (including failure) along the way. Whether we’re talking business or life, I think the first step is often understanding that nothing is for sure (even new Coke) – and the second is moving forward in the face of that uncertainty in focused, purposeful, flexible ways.

    I think you describe how to enact these two steps brilliantly above. It’s amazing what can be done when people really “get” what you are saying in your email above, in my experience. Very well done!

  2. John,

    At our lunch appt on friday could we go over probability and impact, required investment, competitive landscape, target market, manufacturing restraints, differentiation, sourcing, value chain management, distribution, sustainable competitive advantage… and all that other consultant stuff you talk about?

    Lastly, I was totally inspired by your responce to Hiro.

    Thanks for being in my world dude.


  3. ‘Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.’
    — Scott Adams
    Maybe the same is true for business. One aspect of my professional work as a child psychologist is about helping children learn how to manage their failure experiences– destigmatize them so that they can learn from them, refine their goals and try again. I write about this in my new book, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness. For the parents on this list, if you want some ideas about coaching your children so that they will be willing to try and succeed, you may want to check out an excerpt at
    All best,
    Tamar Chansky

  4. John – thanks for some great ideas on creativity. I’m reading Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class” and it’s interesting to consider your advice to Hiro coupled with Florida’s take on the US moving to a “creative economy”. Thanks for the food for thought.

  5. Sorry for being off topic, but I am just starting my website/blog. Why did you choose WordPress over blogger or any other blog program? I am trying to figure out the best way, since I am not a techy.

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