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The Power of Creative Cross Training: How Experimentation Creates Possibility

Illustration by Atipus
The Power of Creative Cross Training: How Experimentation Creates Possibility
Published February 8, 2016 by Srinivas Rao
For most creative professionals, we have a tendency to live within the limitations of our labels: copywriter, web designer, filmmaker, illustrator, and author. Those are the things we do and we get paid for.

But if we only do things we get paid for, we’re missing out on a huge opportunity for creative growth. Our labels don’t have to limit us to just one domain. When we’re willing to play outside our primary domain, and experiment we open up a lot of possibilities that may not have occurred to us before.

What is Creative Cross Training?

In the world of athletics, cross training is working on some element of performance that will impact your primary sport. For example, if a surfer lifts weights, he builds upper body strength to be able to paddle and push himself up on waves. The point of creative cross training is to immerse yourself for a short period of time in an art form that is not your primary one.

  • For a writer that could mean designing or drawing something.
  • For a visual artist, that could mean learning to write code.
  • For someone who plays an instrument, it could be singing.

It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s not something you’re already extremely proficient at.

The Benefits of Creative Cross Training

Google’s 20 percent time policy has been responsible for innovations such as Gmail, Google News, Google Maps, and all sorts of other things that have not only generated billions of dollars in revenue for the company, but are things that we now take for granted in our lives. The underpinnings of cross training are the same as 20 percent time: The unstructured work allows new muscles to develop and nascent ideas to germinate.

Drawing and photography teaches you to see

When I read the book Teach Yourself to Draw in 30 Days, I learned so many things about why nothing I drew ever looked real. I learned about the role that light and shadows play. I learned about how to create depth in my drawings. But more than anything, I learned how to see all the things that I had never noticed before when I looked at everyday objects.

Music teaches you to hear

Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing in her book writes:

I see how that piano was my training ground- at least as important as any writing workshop. I was preparing myself for a lifetime of working with words. The phrasing, the pauses, the crescendos, keeping time, the creating of shape, the coaxing out of a tonal quality. All of these are with me as I approach the page.

Building things with your hands teaches you about function, form, and design

In many books, Steve Jobs has credited his father who built things by hand, for his obsession over making even the parts of a product we’ll never see beautiful. When I interviewed Lee Zlotoff, creator of the TV show Macgyver, he said would work on puzzles or build things, in an effort to come up with ideas for the show. When he came back to the drawing board, he’d be filled with ideas and insights.   

Getting Started

1. Develop a "keystone" creative habit

In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg talks about the power of keystone habits (more on that book here). Keystone habits create a ripple effect in our lives. For example, when somebody decides to start running everyday, suddenly they feel compelled to make changes to their diet. They start eating healthier. Then that starts to trickle down into other areas of their life. The discipline carries over. The idea behind a keystone habit is simply to commit to the act of creating on a regular basis.

For creative cross training to be truly effective, it’s important that we have some sort of creative keystone habit. My personal one has been writing 1000 words a day. It’s something I do rain or shine, hungover or sober. It’s something that has changed my life. As Paul Jun noted, great artists write. If you’re not sure what a good keystone creative habit would be, this is one of the easiest to develop. It doesn’t require much more than pen and paper, or a laptop and a Word document.

2. Document your progress

Documenting the work in some form is important. When you document the work you’ll be able to see your progress from one day to the next. By documenting the project you’ll notice patterns and make connections. Remember, the goal of a creative cross training project is progress, not perfection. To get started, think about an art form that interests you.  

If you want to learn how to write code, consider enrolling in a course. What I love about their courses is that you’re not learning theory. You’re actually building something. In their Ruby on Rails course, you’ll learn how to build Pinterest from scratch.  

Copywriter Sean D’Souza and his team offer a six month cartooning course. At the end of it, people who have never drawn before are asked if they’re professional cartoonists.

My personal filter for a creative cross training regiment was “what am I curious about.” As a non-designer, I was highly interested in anything visual.

Two great frameworks you can use to start your project are the following:

3. Capture its byproducts

Creative work has byproducts. You rarely think of a successful software company as a group of people you would expect to write, not one, but two best selling business books. But it’s exactly what Jason Fried and the team at Basecamp ended up doing as a result of their popular blog Signal vs Noise. As Jason says:

When you make something you make something else. Just like they say you can not not communicate, you can not not make something else. Everything has a by-product. Observant and creative entrepreneurs spot these by-products and see opportunities.

Our creative keystone habits are like planting seeds.

  • Each time you write a blog post it could be the seed for a book or collection of essays.
  • Each time you sketch or doodle something it could be the seed for a comic you end up creating sometime in the future.
  • A series of interviews you conduct with people could be the seed for a conference.

The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit by my friend AJ Leon, is a compilation of essays he wrote at different times. When he combined them together, it led to a collection that has been downloaded over 100,000 times and a kickstarter campaign that was funded in four hours. It’s infused with amazing artwork, layout, and design.

When Peter Berg made the movie Friday Night Lights, he laid the foundation for what would end up becoming one of the best TV series ever written. What began as a movie ended up becoming a five season TV series.

My own creative cross training effort, a 30 day drawing project resulted in a significant visual element becoming part of the Unmistakable Creative brand. In addition to this visual element, it’s also resulted in the production of an animated series based on our interviews in partnership with the amazing team at Soulpancake.  Those are just a few of our many byproducts from our own creative cross training efforts.

Once you’ve captured all your byproducts review what you’ve created. Then take what resonates with you and incorporate what you’ve learned into your primary domain. Maybe like the Basecamp founders you’ll see the potential for a book or like Peter Berg see potential for a TV show in something that started as a movie.

If you happened to be incredibly skilled at one particular art form, your natural temptation might be to take your creative cross training very seriously. When you do that only to discover that you’re not good at the skill you’re trying to cross train, you might get frustrated and give up. Treat this as a chance to play like you’re a kindergartener again. Have fun, and most of all, don’t worry too much about the actual results of your efforts. As with all creative works, it's the process that counts.

How about you?

What side hobbies have influenced your "main" career?

More about Srinivas Rao

Srinivas Rao is the host and founder of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes.  You can download his free guide to being more prolific and productive here.

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