How Do You Create Something Special?

Almost anything I have ever created, built, designed or written that anyone else in the world cared about, I did on my own initiative, out of love of the work, love of the process, love of the team, and the sheer enjoyment of the experience of creating something new.

I’m not saying everything I’ve ever created of value was easy or fun. Creating something that didn’t exist before is hard. Building a company is hard, frustrating, yet sometimes deeply rewarding. Cycling across America can be difficult, exhausting, yet interrupted by moments of elation. Writing a book about the experience is time-consuming yet gratifying.

Robert Berger is a strategic planning professional who has spent his professional career building teams, running successful government initiatives and projects. But the most gratifying and engaging work he does is pro bono. Through the Taproot Foundation he gets engaged with projects he cares about and applied his project management skills for free. He has dedicated over 800 hours of time, and says it’s the most rewarding work he has done in his entire life.

When we do things that we aren’t expressly being paid for, we are more creative and engaged in our efforts. If we are being paid to deliver a specific piece of work, we ask our client lots of questions about what they want. We ask how long the article should be, or what color the image should be, or where the painting will hang in the house when we deliver it.

In other words, when we work for someone else, we are working to their expectations. And the result is that we stifle our own curiosity and creativity in the process. We subsume our own creative inclinations and instead try to figure out “what the client wants.”

I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.
– Stephen King

Almost twenty years ago, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and her colleagues conducted an interesting study. They asked 23 artists to randomly select 10 of their commissioned works and 10 of their non-commissioned works. That is, 10 works of their art that they were paid to create, and 10 works of art they created entirely on their own initiative.

They then took the 460 works of art to a big room where they could be displayed and evaluated by a team of art curators, historians, and experts. All of the experts evaluating the art had not been told which was commissioned (paid) art, and which art was created at the self-direction and initiation of the artist.

Amabile and her colleagues reported their findings:

“Our results were quite startling…the commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality.”

It was the non-commissioned, self-directed art that was found to be more creative, interesting, and valuable to the experts. Do more work you care about, and other people are likely to be more interested. If you care.


SmallActs-3DShawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful online learning courses based on the work of best-selling authors. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? Let’s talk.