Monday, March 21, 2005

The Waitress, The Muse, and the Editor

Toward more creativity in business decision making

The other night I took my wife out to dinner. As I was looking at the menu of this particular restaurant, I remember feeling a little overwhelmed by the choices. With the waitress standing there, um… waiting… for me to make up my mind, I started to remember how difficult some of my choices in life had been.

As you’re setting up and running your business, you face a lot of choices, all of which require decisions. Some are small, some are big. Whenever you are faced with a decision, you often struggle with coming to a final choice. Often points of decision are made more difficult because there seem to be too few options, and none of them seem to be good ones.

Whenever I’m faced with a decision, the first thing I do is explore all of my options. The tricky part of that is that often I haven’t discovered all of those options at first. And that’s where brainstorming comes in. You have to let loose your creative mind and discover all the options you have. But how can you pick from a list that’s short? Or empty?

Often I hear people say that they aren’t creative. They can’t think of any ideas. But that’s not because they have no creativity, it’s just that their creativity is out of balance.

Let me tell you how it goes…

Inside yourself there are two, well, let’s call them people. I’m not talking other personalities here, but bear with me. They are named “The Muse” and “The Editor”.

The Muse is named after the greek goddesses (called “The Muses”) that inspired all creative and intellectual art and endeavor. Check out the article in the wikipedia for more details. The word “muse” is where we get the term “music”.

This is the part of you that inspires ideas. The creative side. It shares new and innovative ways to deal with things. Left to itself it would sit there in your brain spewing out clever ideas all day.

The other side of you is the Editor. In most people (who are out of balance) this is the voice in your head that says, “That’s a stupid idea! That would never work! Don’t even go there!” It seems to revel in destroying dreams hopes.

So, here we sit with ourselves, with these two parts of us fighting it out. Back and forth, and nothing ever comes of any of it. Before you start thinking that one is right and the other wrong, consider what life would be like ruled by either one. A person driven solely by the Muse would be full of exciting ideas and new approaches. The problem is, few of those ideas would be any good, most would be unfocused drivel, and even the good ones would never get implemented.

But in people ruled by the Editor, nothing gets done either. Why? Because nothing ever gets started. No idea is good enough to pursue. After so much persecution, the Muse finally gives up and shuts down. “He never listens to my ideas, so I’m just gonna shut up and sulk!” And the whole person comes to a dead halt.

In order to be truly effective these two have to work together. In balance. They each have their role, and they have to play it correctly and out of each other’s way. And to do that, they have to take turns.

The first to step up has to be the Muse. That’s because if the Editor comes in too soon, he shuts down the process. Let’s pick a simple task to use as an example: choosing the domain name for your website and your business.

The Muse is all about brainstorming. Coming up with possibilities. Begin by writing down every possible name you can think of. Anything that pops into your head, no matter how weird, silly, over the top or under the bottom it is, gets written down. I’ve heard people that were brainstorming say, “There are NO BAD IDEAS”. Hogwash. There are lots of bad ideas. It’s just that we’re not going to decide which ones are bad yet. I tell myself that the act of writing an idea down doesn’t commit me to acting on it, right? So I’m not losing anything by adding it to my list.

In many cases, it’s not a bad idea to let the list season for a day or two. Keep adding things to the list as you go about your day. The Muse is flighty and inconsistent. She doesn’t work your hours. She pops in when you’re doing the dishes, driving to work, even when you’re sleeping. So, carry the list with you and add to it when you think of it. Remember, the more things on your list, the more options you have, and the better informed your final decision will be.

After a while, you’ll start to feel like the list is getting complete. The Muse gets tired of the game and it feels like she’s given you all she can.

Now it’s the Editor’s turn. He’s going to come in and look the list over and help you decide which options are truly the best ones. I find the easiest way to start is a bit negative, but more practical. I start by eliminating the ideas that are not feasible, not workable, impractical, impossible, illegal, or that I just don’t like.

In our example of finding a domain name, the very first step I would do is to go to a domain name registrar and test which ones are even available. Forget which ones are good ones, first eliminate the ones that are impossible.

Then, with the list trimmed, I can look the remainder over and remove the ones that I don’t like so much. Maybe some have spellings that would be confusing over the web. Maybe one sounds too much like someone else’s trademark. It can be difficult, but gradually, the cream rises to the top. Pretty soon, you’re left with the best options, and you can choose from those.

The Muse has its place, inspiring the ideas. The Editor has its place, sorting them out and implementing them. If you apply them in the right place they both work very well together. Get either one out of balance, and they’ll mess with your life.

Now, you might find that after all that brainstorming that you end up back at the choice that you thought of first. “Why go through all that work?” you might ask. I feel that when that happens, I return to that idea with renewed confidence that it TRULY IS the best option, because I’ve explored all the others.

Now, I certainly don’t go through all that while the waitress is standing there. The solution is simple. “Can you give me a few more minutes to make up my mind?”

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