#56: Allen Gannett [Inputs]

David Perell of Write of Passage

Writing The Creative Curve, receiving feedback gracefully, and tapping into your innate creativity

Allen Gannett is the author of The Creative Curve (Penguin Random House, 2018) that shows how the creative process can be learned by anyone.

He founded and served as CEO of TrackMaven, a marketing analytics platform that merged with Skyword, the leading content marketing platform, in 2018.

In this episode, we talk about how Allen built TrackMaven into a multi-million dollar company in his twenties, the challenges that come from being ambitious, how to receive feedback, strengthening your innate creativity, and how all the Inputs we receive better inform our creative work.

Allen Gannett of The Creative Curve

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Show Notes

Show Notes

Allen Gannett is the author of The Creative Curve (Penguin Random House, 2018) that shows how the creative process can be learned by anyone. By interviewing people from billionaires to neuroscientists, he developed four steps, backed by science, that you can follow to achieve creative success.

He founded and served as CEO of TrackMaven, a marketing analytics platform that large brands such as GE and the NBA and high growth-startups such as Dollar Shave Club and Mailchimp have used to power data-driven creativity. In October 2018, TrackMaven merged with Skyword, the leading content marketing platform.

Visit Allen Gannett's website

Learn more about The Creative Curve

Follow Allen Gannett on Twitter

Follow Allen Gannett on Instagram

Creative Elements is brought to you by The Podglomerate.

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Allen Gannett 0:00
I interviewed 25 living creative greats. These are Oscar winners, Tony Award winners, billionaires, Michelin star chefs, very eclectic set of folks. And one of the things I found that was so interesting was that to a person, they were all huge consumers of their craft.

Jay Clouse 0:20
Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show.

Hello, my friend. Welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. You know, there's actually a blog post that I wrote back in 2015, titled Can We Stop Using Nreative as a Noun. It's no longer published because I'm so embarrassed by it. It was basically a rant from an insecure version of myself saying that the term creative as a noun, creates an exclusive group of people and implicitly says that not all people are creative. I know now that when I wrote that I was feeling angry and insecure that I wasn't creative myself. And it was part of me that desperately wanted to be longtime listeners of the show may recall episode number 39. When I spoke with my coach, Chris McAllister, it was working with Chris in 2017, that finally helped me to identify that limiting belief and to squash it. Here's a short clip from that episode. We worked through I think it was week two where we identify one of the lies that you're telling yourself at the same time that I was identifying the lie that I was telling myself, I came across the preview the trailer for that Steve Martin masterclass on Comedy. And it like, was the perfect timing fundamentally changed my life, I'll try to find the audio clip. Because he basically said everything that happens to you is material, like you can use that.

Steve Martin 1:59
I never actually thought I was funny. You may think I don't have any talent. I guarantee you. I had no talent. None. Remember, you are a thought machine. Everything you see here, experience is usable. Oh, what? Oh, whatever makes you unique as a performer do it. And know that there's room for you. Hey, welcome to Steve Martin's masterclass.

Jay Clouse 2:32
And that was so empowering. Because the lie I was telling myself was, I'm not creative. I can't go out on my own because I don't have creative ideas. Around that same time sometime in 2018. I started talking about this change in my perspective. And I started to write about how I unblocked my own creativity. And one of my friends asked me, have you read The Creative Curve by Allen Gannett, The Creative Curve is a book that shows how the creative process can be learned by anyone. Allen interviewed everyone from billionaires to neuroscientist and develop four steps backed by science that you can follow to achieve creative success. I hadn't read it, but it put the book and the author Allen Gannett, onto my radar. Fast forward to March of this year, and I was tagged on Twitter by a tweet from Aly Merritt saying, okay, Jay Clouse and Allen do you two hang out, because you should. Every time I read something from either of you, I feel smarter, more empathetic and more connected to my fellow humans. Please connect into a podcast or something together, Sunshine lovin, and I need this. So thanks to Aly and Sunshine. Allen and I connected on Twitter scheduled an interview in the world has come full circle. I knew Allen had written The Creative Curve. But it didn't know about his story before that. In 2012, Allen started Trackmaven, a marketing analytics platform that large brands such as GE and the NBA, and high growth startups, such as Dollar Shave Club and MailChimp have used to power data driven creativity. And in October 2018, Trackmaven merged with Skyword, the leading content marketing platform. And around that same time is when Allen published The Creative Curve, which he says stemmed out of conversations he was having while running Trackmaven.

Allen Gannett 4:12
One of the big things you do as CEO is you spent a lot of time talking to customers and prospects. And so I was having these conversations with marketers sort of from the get go. And one of the things was really evident, was that there was a lot of insecurity and self doubt in marketers. They would say things to me, like, Oh, you know, I'm just not that creative. And so I think that that started to rub me the wrong way. And I'm always someone who, when I get frustrated, I tend to say something. And so I think I was just a bit frustrated. And so this this speech was, in part, sort of a way of dealing with that frustration in a way that I thought would help people and maybe unblock some of those thoughts, which I think are pretty destructive. This idea of Oh, I'm not so and so I think once every anytime you start to, you know, in your identity, say I'm not something I think that's pretty detrimental.

Jay Clouse 5:02
The Creative Curve was published by Penguin Random House, which is a big publisher and a big deal for a first time author.

Allen Gannett 5:10
I had a very romantic process for my first book, that was much I would be lying if I said it was like toiling it was sort of a snowball of fortunate events.

Jay Clouse 5:21
And don't worry, we talk about all of those fortunate events. In this episode, we talk about how Allen built Trackmaven into a multi million dollar company in his 20s. The challenges that come from being ambitious, how to receive feedback, strengthening your innate creativity, and how all the inputs we receive better inform our creative work. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen, you can find me on Twitter or Instagram @JayClouse. And you can find Allen @Allen on Twitter or Instagram. tag us, let us know what you think. And now, let's talk with Allen.

Allen Gannett 6:00
I have been doing some version of technology related stuff since maybe 2008, 2009. When I was in high school, I was starting online websites that were I remember, I started one of them sort of like a pop punk review, news source type thing. I was like, you know, pop punk kid from New Jersey. And then when I was in college was sort of the moment when social networks were really taking off in terms of cultural awareness. So the movie Social Network came out maybe like 2011. At that point, big tech was like, could only do good things. Obviously, that's changed a lot since then. But that was a time when like big tech was amazing. And so I had been doing a bunch of various sort of digital marketing things. And it developed a reputation locally as sort of like a guy who got digital marketing. And I ended up meeting someone who became sort of a mentor, who was a SAS entrepreneur. And he was like, Hey, why don't you come be CMO of my SaaS company, and I was still in college. And it was like a full time job. And I was like, okay, sure, that sounds great. Let's do it. And so I started taking all my classes at night. And I took this full time job as CMO of this, you know, 10 person venture backed SaaS company. And we also mean, the CEO of that company, he was really busy, he had a lot of things going on, he had this idea for doing a SaaS focus startup accelerator back in 2012. This happened, startup accelerators are not as prevalent as they were today that there was YC, in TechStars. But now there's 700 of them. And so I think he was sort of like, you know, Allen 's responsible and able to get things done. So he made me an equal partner in that, which was a lot of responsibility, and really interesting, but I learned a ton. And that fund that did accelerate actually became a pretty successful Fund, which was cool to see. And so I sort of stumbled my way into SaaS. And I think what I liked about SaaS is that it's very, very logical, it's very practical. So Software as a Service, there's a lot of metrics, you can track everything. And maybe after a year or so, of working for someone else, I also had this realization of I don't like working for other people. And so I started my own company, in part, as a reaction to that. And as part of just being like, I need to do my own thing.

Jay Clouse 8:19
Let me back up to this moment where you were in college and offered a CMO position for a venture backed company. You know, you mentioned you were doing this digital marketing type stuff on the side, this pop punk website, that doesn't necessarily say cmo material off the bat, I think you're being humble. So talk a little bit more about what this person was seeing that he thought I need to bring this person in at an executive level to help us with our marketing.

Allen Gannett 8:42
Sure. So the pop punk website was in high school and college, I started a startup that was doing basically online marketing for colleges and universities. And we built a bunch of different Facebook apps that students could use to connect with colleges, this was back when Facebook apps were these inframe things that you could do anything with you really wild. And we bootstrapped. And we spent half of our month doing consulting, building websites for the people and half a month building the startup. And in doing that, it was just one of these things where we captured a pretty good amount of attention, I think, relative to our maybe intentions where we didn't raise millions of dollars. We were scrapping by, but we were pretty good at getting attention and growing stuff. And so I think locally, people sort of knew, okay, that guy he like gets marketing, he gets PR he gets he gets that stuff. And, you know, I think what happened with my mentor was, you know, he recruited me, I think it was more of like, he wanted me to work with him. And I think I, I was like, well, I want to be CMO. And he was like, okay.

Jay Clouse 9:53
That's great negotiation. So was there an insight or a moment where you realize that there was an opportunity with these Facebook apps because it sounds like you know, you were you were following your interests in starting things. But a lot of times people do that. And it doesn't necessarily go anywhere, or it's kind of derivative of stuff that already exists. And it's not this new and exciting discovery. But it sounds like you hit kind of a magic time in the world of Facebook apps like that was a huge opportunity. Did you know that as you were discovering it?

Allen Gannett 10:20
No, I mean, the real story is much more. I was interested in technology with thought I wanted to become a lawyer. I went to school to get a political science degree. And then I was like, shit, this is so slow. And everyone I know who's a lawyer is frustrated. They're a lawyer, why am I doing this? And I think I realized that I'm very, very impatient. And so I was a what could I do that would work well, with a sense of impatience. And since tech was so sort of, in the conversation in the air at that point, I was like, well, I could do that. And I think I just started doing things. And you know, the things the startups and the ideas and the project was building, you know, all of them had, they had to be marketed, they had to be distributed. And so that's sort of how I sort of stumbled my way into digital marketing and Facebook marketing, and happened to be a really good time to do that, because people weren't very good at yet, the markets were very inefficient. You know, you could get Facebook ads that were wildly successful for very small amounts of money, because people didn't really spend money there yet, in the same way they do today, where it's like a very professional operation. And so I think it was a bit of a right time, right place. You know, I would hope if the same situation happened today, I would have stumbled my way into Tik Tok ads, and, you know, whatever would be the contemporary equivalent, but I don't know, I'm like, maybe it was just luck.

Jay Clouse 11:42
Part of the reason why I'm sticking on this point, so long as I'm jealous, honestly, because I think we were in college about the same time and I was going to parties, and I was playing flip cup and beer pong and stuff. And it sounds like you had a lot of ambition as driving towards trying new things and finding your way into this world very actively. And I was wondering, what was driving you to do that?

Allen Gannett 12:02
I would say definitely was ambitious. But I don't know if that's a good thing, like in a normative sense. So I think we sort of assume that ambition is a good thing. But if I look back, you know, I didn't have much sense of clarity of purpose. I wasn't I was sort of moving forward, because I thought I needed to move forward. I thought I needed to prove myself. You know, I mean, this is like a much longer answer. But, you know, I just generally think I had a chip on my shoulder for a large number of reasons. And I think there was this sort of subconscious drive to prove myself very, very quickly. And so I was, you know, I graduated college, even with a year of it being night school in two and a half years, I was moving credibly quickly. I think, mostly just because I wanted to sort of make a point to the world. But I don't know, looking now back, you know, 10 or 11 years of hindsight, just turn 30. And I don't know, looking back, if that was a particularly good or healthy or correct, you know, and it's no way to know, but I don't know if that was the right decision. Like, I don't think those things made me particularly happier than other decisions would have made me for example.

Jay Clouse 13:13
Yeah, it's interesting question, like, what is the quote, unquote, right decision, you know, I turn 30 here in like three months. And I would say I'm in a place now where I'm trying to move forward with that same type of velocity and improve myself and I have this ambition. And we just bought a house we moved in, and I'm asking myself,.

Allen Gannett 13:31
Noble.

Jay Clouse 13:31
Well, thank you. I'm asking myself, why am I not just making more time to enjoy this?

Allen Gannett 13:36
Hmm.

Jay Clouse 13:37
You know, so I don't know that, you know, there's a right or wrong time to do that in your life. I do feel like I have some some grounding and some clarity around who I am, which is nice. But part of me wishes I was doing this type of pace, even earlier, as you were because as we'll get into here shortly, you know, it's it's opened up some doors for you and a lot of new opportunities. First, which sounds like you know, you said you didn't have you didn't love having a boss. So you started your own company, then. And you said part of that was in reaction, but that company with the benefit of hindsight, I know had some success. We're talking about track Maven here. What insight? Did you have to say this? Is a company worth starting? Or did you get lucky and start a thing because you want to start a thing, and I happen to find success,

Allen Gannett 14:19
I would say that I was doing in marketing work at the time, it was just 2012 there was all these new digital platforms, and I was spending a lot of time building reports. But it was really tedious and really time consuming. And so I had this idea where I was like, clearly there should be a piece of software here. And I think that match timewise with my sort of feeling of I shouldn't be working for someone else. Like I don't enjoy this I need to do my own thing. And so again, I don't know if there was some like deep sense of purpose with you know, analytics. You know, I've always liked being very I'm very much a logical systems thinker. I overthink things. I'm very data driven and decisions I make generally. And so I think there was some natural proclivities towards that. But I don't know if that was necessarily like my purpose in life. And so I definitely started it to some degree with a bit of, you know, I was just running and I was moving and I was going, I was moving really, really quickly. And it was an idea that was like, clearly there's a need, I want to do a company want to do this. And so I started it. And, you know, we had a bit of a right time, right place where, you know, we launched the product, and we went, and in six months, we had a million dollars in annual current revenue. And then we went in the next year, we went from a million to three and a half year after that, three and a half, six and a half. So we were moving on a pace that was just crazy. Now, eventually, for reasons we can talk about, but that pace stopped. And we spent like years going from six and a half to seven and a half. And so, but that initial sort of moment was I think, a bit of had this idea, wanting to start up, it was right time, right place, it just sort of took off. And so all the sudden I was, you know, 24, managing 100 people, not necessarily with the intention of doing that, not with the I didn't have the non intention, I wanted to do something big, but I don't think I was like, new, okay, you know, three years from now I'm gonna have, you know, 105 people working for me.

Jay Clouse 16:20
After a quick break, Allen, and I talk about what it's like to be responsible for over 100 employees as a 24 year old. And later, we dig into tapping into your creativity so stick around, and we'll be right back. Welcome back. Allen had just told us that as a 24 year old, the company he started had more than 100 employees, I think back to being 24. And I can't imagine having that type of responsibility. So I asked Allen, what that felt like, at the time.

Allen Gannett 16:50
At times, it was the most wonderful magical ride you could possibly imagine. So, you know, it was learning it was earning, right, because on paper, you're like seeing the value of your company grow. It felt like you're building something significant, you know, you're building up people, obviously, when you're growing that fast, the people that you work with are able to also grow really quickly, because there's a lot of opportunities for growth. And so that feels very good. You know, there's, there's a sense of self efficacy and just oh, wow, I can do something like this, like, I have the ability to do it. And that's a permanent change, right? That's something where once you do it once, and you know, oh, I can do this, you have a permanent mindset shift, oh, I could always do this, again, you might not work sometimes, but I know I can do it, which is a very liberating feeling that feeling of self efficacy. So those are the positives, I think, on the negatives, you know, there wasn't a lot of time for reflection or self awareness yet. So I didn't have a lot of at bats to know what I was good at or bad at. And so I was learning things I was bad at by being bad at them. And so versus a lot of CEOs, I think hat know, when they, you know, become a CEO, or know, when they take a new CEO job. They know, here's the things I'm good at, here's things I'm bad at. And they're good about bringing in other people to fulfill their weaknesses, which I think is a really important trait for leaders, whether you're a creative leader, or a business leader, is knowing Okay, I'm bad at this. And that's just fine. You know, I what I'm gonna do is I'm going to hire someone, maybe it's you're really bad at product. And so you hire a really strong Chief Product officer early on, whatever it is. And I didn't know those things. And so I think I had a lot of blind spots. And learning those blind spots was pretty, like, tough and painful. Because, you know, they're happening in real time. And they're happening in a very concentrated way, because we're growing so quickly. And so you're constantly discovering new blind spots or new weaknesses, that otherwise you might have had, you know, two decades to learn about and figure out how to manage.

Jay Clouse 18:53
How did you think about hiring? Did you hire people with industry experience? Or do you hire people that were kind of your age, I imagine in your position, I would have hired people like I knew and were my age, like, I felt like I could trust but I probably would have wanted then in hindsight to hire somebody older. So what does that look like?

Allen Gannett 19:06
I did a pretty good job of hiring people that weren't just very similar to me, I think, in part because I had always been someone who, I always had a lot of people who had been there, done that around me. I really like learning from other people, too. You know, I had a group of I don't like the word mentor, but I use it because it's sort of functional. But I had a group of mentors who were very successful SaaS CEOs who have returned to you and give me advice on this stuff. And so I knew some of the things there that I need to be doing. And so, you know, I hired senior talent pretty early. There's areas where I didn't and that was often where I made some of my biggest mistakes. But yeah, I think, you know, I did you know, throughout the process, hire people who were significantly older than me. I eventually hired a president who was at the time I hired him literally double my age. And that was we sort of laugh about that. We're like, you know, very, very good friends now, but that was definitely phenomenas are funny, but you kind of learned to get over it. Because at the end of day, you're the one you're metaphorically signing the checks. You're like, okay, and people know, like, there, it wasn't like a secret that I was young. So if you're if you're opting in to work with me, it's kind of like, okay.

Jay Clouse 20:13
Yeah, you know, you know what you're signing up for. So you're on this revenue rocket ship. Did you guys raise funding? Did you have to also perform to levels of the expectations?

Allen Gannett 20:21
Yeah, so we raised $22 million in VC funding. So we did A, then a series B,

Jay Clouse 20:27
Did you feel equipped to go out and do that?

Allen Gannett 20:29
Yeah, that was easy. I mean, when you're growing really fast, raising money is super easy. When you're not growing fast. Raising money is very hard, which I've also had to do, and that is very, very, very difficult. And so fundraising is a bit of a, when the going is good, it's very good. When the going is bad, it's very bad. There's very few outcomes that are sort of in the middle.

Jay Clouse 20:50
You're about to hear Allen use the word horizontal in an interesting way. So let me cut in here to give you some context. As companies grow, they often choose to grow either horizontally or vertically. And to give you an example, I'm using a road microphone right now, if road were to grow vertically, they would take on projects or acquire businesses that are at points in the value chain to their existing products, things before or after the microphone. Maybe they acquire the warehouse that manufactures the parts of their microphones. If they wanted to grow horizontally, they take on projects or acquire businesses that are serving their existing customer in a different way. Like a podcast editing software, or maybe podcast analytics, companies expand horizontally when they believe customers want an all in one solution that serves a ton of needs, instead of just one need very, very well. Okay, so after six years Trackmaven merged with Skyword in 2018 to become an all in one content marketing platform. It was so much of his professional career wrapped up and tracked me even up to that point, I wanted to know where Allen's headspace was around the time of the merger in 2018.

Allen Gannett 21:56
So in 2018, we sort of had this realization that our product, which was an analytics for marketers, we had had this thesis that marketers would want to have a best of breed solution that was just that. And that thesis turned out to be wrong. Marketers wanted a very horizontal platform that analytics was a piece of the puzzle. And we had made the wrong by we, I mean, I had made the wrong path in terms of we went the sort of best of breed route. And so we had this moment where we either had to raise money, or we had to combine with a company that was more horizontal. And so we looked at a lot of options. We talked to a lot of different people, you know, we got term sheets for raising money, even though it was incredibly grueling. And eventually, what we decided was the best thing for the business, the customers or investors was to merge with a company that was in this rough horizontal product position where they needed to have an analytics tool. And so we ended up merging Skyword, which is a really great content marketing platform just got Gartner is in the new Gartner report is like one of the leaders, but they didn't have a strong analytics function. Yeah. And so where we realized that we had this gap, they had a gap there sort of a nice, perfect little match right there.

Jay Clouse 23:07
How did that feel to take this baby that you had started six years ago, and build into this rocket ship? And now you hit more turbulent waters? How did you feel as a still 20 something?

Allen Gannett 23:18
Yeah, yeah, it's definitely a weird feeling. There's a sense of identity when you're running a company, and you have a job like that that's very integrated with the company. And so that can be sort of weird. But, you know, it also is so much work. And so there's a sense on one dimension of relief. And there's excitement, right? Because it's a new chapter, a merger is different than an acquisition in that, you know, it's you, there's still all of the sort of fruits of the labor still in the sort of future value of the company. And so there's a sense of, okay, where could this go, possibility is all that kind of stuff. But it's definitely weird. I would say that we talk more about this, to say the last two years, a big thing for me has been thinking about my identity and realizing that actually, like not having identity that is overly structured to one thing. And I find that that can throw people off quite a bit, even though it's actually pretty healthy, I think, to have an identity that isn't, you know, just this is me, this is my job. That's who I am. Because as human beings, like we're much more diverse than that, and our interests and thoughts and you know, habits and all that sort of stuff.

Jay Clouse 24:25
And all those things are meant to go away in some degree at some point and like yourself, and your sense of self is not.

Allen Gannett 24:31
Correct. And so if you if you tie yourself to your company too much in terms of your identity, I think it can become really limiting. And it can also make you make worse decisions for your business because you're also wrapping your serve ego within the decisions you make for the company.

Jay Clouse 24:48
After the merger. Did you stick around with the company for some period of time?

Allen Gannett 24:52
Yeah, so I left in January 2020.

Jay Clouse 24:55
But you published a book in 2018. Before or after the merger about the same time

Allen Gannett 25:00
Before, but just a few months before.

Jay Clouse 25:02
Talk to me about where that came from, why did you decide you're gonna write a book as you're building this SaaS company with 100 employees,

Allen Gannett 25:08
Basically, in the marketing tech industry, sort of like every martec CEO writes a book. It's just like a thing. It's kind of funny. If you look at all the big mar tech companies like they all did it, they all did. It's around the Series A Series B. So I knew in the back of my head, I was like, Okay, I need to write a book at some point, like, it's part of the job. And then I would do a lot of speaking. And I gave this speech about sort of the mythologies around creativity. And, you know, because of speaking to marketers who have a lot of feelings about whether or not they're creative, and they can get sometimes a little tight up about it. And I would always argue that they are, I gave the speech about the myths of creativity, and what creativity really is. And the speech really resonated with people in a way that was, took me aback a bit. And so I've casually mentioned to a friend who is a published author, that I had this idea that maybe it could be a book, and he was like, yeah, the absolute should be a book. And he was said, You should talk to my agent. And so he introduced me to his book agent, his book agent was like, Yes, this should be a book like, I want to do it. And his book agent turned out to be this agent, Jim Levine, who is basically a super agent. He's Ray Dahlia's agent, he's Eric Schmidt's agent, he's, you know, somehow my agent and and so I didn't know that I was just talking to the first person I talked to. And then so we sold the book to a major publisher and.

Jay Clouse 26:26
When do you think that meeting was about? If the book published in 2018? How early before that had you had that conversation?

Allen Gannett 26:32
Probably sometime in mid 2015?

Jay Clouse 26:35
And how long do you think you spent writing the book.

Allen Gannett 26:37
I don't know, it was slow, because I had a job, right. So it was like a nights and weekends and occasional airplane ride kind of thing, probably all in maybe 18 to 24 months.

Jay Clouse 26:47
So 2015, about three years into the Trackmaven journey. And you're starting to give this talk about creativity and how there's myths around it. This is interesting to me. Because when I interact with people in the world around me, oftentimes people who will identify as creative, and people who identify as data nerds are not the same person. And it sounds like you did not have that struggle you believed in both.

Allen Gannett 27:09
Correct. I think that I think that they're essential now on creative teams, sometimes creative teams can be comprised of people that are maybe more siloed in one or the other. But you need to have both. And I think a lot of people actually are both, I just think we often have these narrow definitions of data that are sort of silly. So you know, a lot of screenwriters, for example, are very notes driven. So they, you know, send their their screenplay to people, they ask for feedback, they get feedback, those notes are a form of data. It's more qualitative data, but it is definitely data. And so I think we have maybe this overly narrow image of quote, unquote, data that then makes creative people think, oh, that's not me. But in reality, every good creative should be data driven in the sense that they incorporate feedback into their creative process, we can talk more about why it's important. But you know, there's lots of evidence that if you look at the most successful creatives, they are pretty aware about listening to their audience and getting external feedback, which is all form of data.

Jay Clouse 28:09
When we come back out, and I talk about how to give and receive useful feedback without making someone feel defensive. And then we dive into what he learned from the 25 creative greats that he interviewed for The Creative Curve. right after this. Welcome back to my conversation with Allen Gannett, the author of The Creative Curve, we were just talking about feedback. And the thing about feedback is a lot of people are pretty bad at receiving it, because they take it so personally. But that feedback is such a critical input in the creative process. So I asked Alan, how he learned to gracefully receive feedback.

Allen Gannett 28:46
Yeah, I'd say I'm good at taking feedback in certain scenarios, situations, which is probably pretty human, we're probably all have things that were better or worse to taking feedback on. For me, when it comes to there's in a creative process, and people other people have said, you know this, but there's a initial phase where when you're working on something, the feedback is essential to the process where you are trying to get it right. And so feedback actually is part of the process. And once you frame it like that, it actually is annoying when people don't give you direct feedback, because you're like, No, no, I need to know what's not working. And then there's a part of the creative process. I think this nuance is why it trips some people up and there's a part of creative process where you serve 95% of the way done, you're sort of like maybe doing a little polishing, but then you really don't want feedback because you don't want to reopen the Pandora's box. And I think that for a lot of people both on both sides of that equation, it can be hard to know what to ask for, and hard to know what to receive. And so I whenever anyone asked me for feedback, I always ask, you know, what kind of feedback are you looking for? Because if it's just Hey, you know, you want me to tell you, there's a couple little missed commas here. But overall, I like it or do you want me to give you like detailed structural critiques? And you know, and sometimes people don't know what they want. I remember I had a friend who's running a book. And he asked me for feedback. I said, What kind of feedback do you want, he's like, I want you to be as tough as possible, be as harsh as you can. I was like, Okay. And I have a lot of friends like that. And I'll give them very tough feedback, and they thrive on it. And he couldn't handle it. He got very defensive, he got kind of angry, it was weird. And he was just, like, really frustrated about it. And I told him, I was like, look like you asked for this. And I'm happy, like, I don't need like, there's no, like, I'm doing this just because I think you're smart enough to incorporate it and can make it better because you asked for it. And so I think with feedback, we have to understand where we are in the process, how to ask for it. And that I think makes it all feel a lot more comfortable. If we're like, Okay, I need this. And I want this right now.

Jay Clouse 30:50
I love that. That's a great reminder, because every time I hear this idea of the follow up question, what type of feedback? Do you want? Such a good question. Because even if they don't have an answer, at least it's forcing them to articulate they probably implicitly have some sort of answer. Yeah. Right. So if they haven't, they haven't thought in terms of how to answer that. Do you have like categories of types of feedback that you would recommend people use?

Allen Gannett 31:11
Yeah, usually, it's, you know, do you want a sort of a gut reaction? Do you want structural feedback? Or do you just want sort of, you know, small polish type things. And so those are probably the three sort of biggest things, sometimes someone will just ask you to read something, just give like a gut, this is good is this bad is this on is this off, whereas this year, the feedback that I think I'm pretty good at giving as detailed structural feedback, which I think is the feedback that often can be the most helpful, but is you have to be in the right mindset to receive because otherwise, it can feel like whoa, I'm being attacked, which, obviously, if you're asking for it, it's not the intent. But I think you have to be in the right mindset to receive it. And new and I'm working on a book, my feedback readers are essential part of the process. So important. Those people who are willing to do that, for me, it just means the world because I just think about my my first book, The Creative Curve, and I think about the version of what it would have been like, if I didn't have feedback readers, and I, it would be terrible.

Jay Clouse 32:12
Such a gift feedback is if you just realize that not all of it is going to be exactly relevant. Like you need to be thankful for all of it, and very careful about what you accept and move forward.

Allen Gannett 32:24
And that's a reason for asking for I think a lot of it, because my thing has always been with feedback readers is I try and have like, three to five people read each chapter. Because what I find is that if one person's like, hey, that joke is a little weird. But then it's it might be worth ignoring it. But if three of the five or four of the five, say, hey, on this joke that I don't really get why it's funny. I'm like, okay, that has to go.

Jay Clouse 32:49
And this is where creativity kind of re enters things too, right? Because if you receive a bunch of feedback, and you get some that are conflicting, what you're invariably going to get, it's kind of on you then to Intuit or, or understand, like, what am I trying to accomplish? Who is this feedback coming from? and parse that, because a lot of feedback that I hear is often justification of somebody's own decisions, or invented because they feel like they need to provide something or they're not helping you at all. Like, sometimes people will read something. And you'll ask for feedback. And they won't really have constructive material feedback. But they almost feel like they need to invent something, because you ask them.

Allen Gannett 33:30
Yeah, I think that when it comes to giving and receiving feedback, you'll learn over time that there's certain people who are really good at it. And certain people who you seek out and certain people when you're working on a project, you know, and a lot of times authors will form sort of informal cliques or networks of other authors that they trust for feedback and give good feedback and sort of give each other feedback. So I have author friends who we are very much a multi directional, always on feedback thing. And I think it just comes down to learning who's good at that, who's willing to give it, you know, what does that what does that look like? And once you're able to build that network and build that community, it can be incredibly powerful.

Jay Clouse 34:09
Now that the book is out, you had the time like writing, researching, and now getting years of feedback from readers even how would you approach somebody who says, I'm not creative? I'm not really an ideas person. I can implement things, but I just don't have my own ideas. Where would you start with them?

Allen Gannett 34:26
Well, I would start with the science just says they're wrong. So as far as my book, but there's a ton of science that basically says that creative potentials incredibly well spread. In fact, above a relatively average IQ threshold, we actually all have the same creative potential. Even below that IQ threshold, there's quite a bit of creative potential. And so the question that I'm really interested in that I tackle is, why is potential so widespread and achievement isn't that gap? That is what's really interesting to me, and to me a huge part of that which speaks exactly to your scenario. Is that we are heavily conditioned, especially as children, that creativity is for select few. And if we weren't given the sort of semi divine magical ability, then we shouldn't even try. add on to that our sort of system of you know, capitalism has basically equated money with morality. And traditionally creative fields have paid less, which is changing, by the way. Now, a lot of times, it's the opposite. But traditionally, creative fields have paid last. And so there's also an element of, Oh, it's bad, or it's not like prestigious to be a creative, because you'll make less money, and money equals good. And so we have a lot of cultural conditioning, that prevents people from even trying, and everything we know about deliberate practice tells us that you have to be working at something for an incredibly long amount of time to become truly exceptional at it. And so, you know, if you start when you're three or four, by the time, you're 18, you've been doing it for 15 years, versus if you try and start when you're 25, you're way behind, because you're trying to not only undo that conditioning, but catch up with people who've been painting since they were four.

Jay Clouse 36:09
At the risk of this getting kind of abstract, when you talk about creative potential, and the science saying creative potential is widespread. How does science define creative potential.

Allen Gannett 36:20
So there's basically tests that academics have made that they've found are statistically valid and significant and repeatable and correlated to other measures that can measure creative potential. And so it's basically measuring creative ability on a very pure sense. And so there's different sorts of activities that they might do, for example, might be, hey, we give you these three objects, come up with, you know, ideas for how you can use these, for example, that would be example, then the number of ideas is equated to a creative potential score. There's other forms of measurements too. But basically, in sociology, and psychology, there's a bunch of different sort of creativity tests, so to speak.

Jay Clouse 36:57
How does Allen Gannett, the author of Creative Curve, think about creativity? Like how would you define what is creative and what creative potential is,

Allen Gannett 37:05
I like the definition from sociology, which is the ability to create things that are both novel and valuable. And I like that, because I think a lot of people mistake creativity for productivity, which is just creating something. But that's actually not creative. Because when you think about, like, if I painted a perfect replica of the Mona Lisa, that would be productive, or apps, that would definitely be skilled, but would actually not be creative. And that's really interesting. There's this entire social context to creativity, that is basically the most important part. And we know that because if you think about Andy Warhol, who didn't even paint a lot of his own stuff, we've deficit, he's creative. And so it's actually that element of timing. And having that timing line up with where your audience is an interesting way, that I think is the most essential part of creativity. Also, for many people, the part that I think feels the most abstract or feels the most intangible, in reality, you can get better at it. But that is why to me, the sociology definition is so great, that ability to create things that are both novel and valuable, because I think it hits really well. That core idea of creativity, something more than just craft.

Jay Clouse 38:18
Love that definition. And the question that brings to mind is, well, what makes something valuable? Does that be extrinsically valuable? Or is it intrinsically valuable and valuable to me that I did that, to me usually, like value is in the eye of the beholder, right?

Allen Gannett 38:31
Ding, ding, ding. So the whole idea of Ray's values of social construct. And so in order for something to be valuable, people have to agree that it's valuable. Now, things can be valuable to a big group or small group, right? So we've all decided that money is valuable. That's a big group. Now, there's also maybe you go to a conference, a really niche conference, and there's a hit session at the conference or hit academic paper, we would say that is novel and valuable. But it's even though it's on a small scale. So whenever a group of people say that something's noble and valuable, that is when we define something as creative, which is why oftentimes, things can sort of be deemed creative by, you know, small groups of fashionistas, right? But then also more mainstream audiences can also pick up something and sort of run with it. And so that's why it's actually interesting. Sociologists spend a lot of time studying trends and hits when they do work around creativity, because it's actually really interesting. Like, if you think about pop music, a lot of times we would say contemporary pop music isn't creative. But if you go back in time, people said the same thing about the Beatles, or Elvis when it was contemporary, but in actuality, look at Shakespeare, things that were wildly popular during the day are often the things we actually historically say are most creative, because we can all say, Oh, they were novel and valuable in their time.

And so it is a both it's not a one or the other.

Correct.

Jay Clouse 39:50
It's both at the same time

Allen Gannett 39:51
Pure value is just utility, right? So that that's a whole different phenomenon.

Jay Clouse 39:56
And this explains why what when people tell me they're not creative, I often point to like prop problem solving, and how even just in your day to day life, you're often committing creative acts just to solve problems. Because if you have a problem, you need a solution to find a solution. If it's a problem, you probably don't have a solution already. So finding a solution is not, it's also valuable, because now you don't have the problem. Totally. So I like that definition. How else do you tell people? Like, how do you get people out of their heads on this? Because they can hear that they can hear you say you are creative, you can do novel and valuable things. But how do you actually make them feel it?

Allen Gannett 40:26
I often try and get people to think to when they lost that, or what was the time people like most people you find have a story of someone telling them, oh, you're not creative? Or Oh, you're not a good writer, or Oh, you're not a good artist, or Oh, you got a C minus on this creative writing paper. And most people have pretty strong memories of that. Yeah, I remember in one English class, getting a bad grade on paper and being really sort of like, hit by a really hard. And, you know, we have these memories of things like that, that just because of you know, Child Development, how all that stuff works. It's just it imprints on us. And we think these things and, you know, I remember, you know, people making jokes about Oh, if you get an English degree, you'll become a barista in high school, and things like this, that sort of they they wrap around your brain, and they have an impact. I think once you ask people to start thinking back and start thinking about, like, what were those stories that were told to you that maybe you internalize, once you understand where it comes from, I think it makes it feel a lot more controllable, because like, Oh, this is just like, because of that, once something has a cause I think it's much easier to prevent it from affecting you.

Jay Clouse 41:34
You alluded to a minute ago that there are things people can do to kind of strengthen that creative muscle. What are some of those things?

Allen Gannett 41:41
Oh, there's so many. One practice that I talked about along the book that I think is really underrated, is a lot of times in creativity, we obsess over talking about output. So there's a lot of research advice on your read 1000 words a day, do this, do that. Here's a good morning routine, blah, blah, blah. And in actuality, what I found in my book, the first half is sort of a myth bust, myth busting. And the second half his I interviewed 25 living creative greats. These are Oscar winners, Tony Award winners, billionaires, Michelin star chefs, very eclectic set of folks. And one of the things I found that was so interesting was that to a person, they were all huge consumers of their craft. And so so often it comes to creativity, we talk a lot about doing an action. But actually, when you look at the most successful creatives, they're massive consumers of their craft, they consume, like jazz musicians, listen to every single jazz record, like writers consume tons and tons and tons of books. So why is this right? Like, why is that important? Well, it turns out, there's two reasons. One, is that how our brain works is our right hemisphere, where creative thought happens. And basically, it's always processing information, but it's slightly below our level of consciousness. And when it comes up with new and interesting permutations, this is like a gross oversimplification. It sort of pops into our consciousness is like, Hey, I got an answer. And that little pop, is what we talk about when we talk about like aha moments, or lightbulb moments, because it feels like it's from nowhere. But in reality, it's just that the underlying work was done subconsciously. And so when researchers look at, well, how do you actually have more aha moments, the thing, which drives them is having more sort of dots to connect. If you consume more, you give your right hemisphere more material to work with more material to put things together. So that's one. The second element is a lot of creativity, as I said before, is about timing. And what you find when it comes to timing is that the best ideas are actually not the ideas that are radically novel. They're ideas that are somewhat familiar and somewhat novel. Like I think about the iPad, the iPad was an iPhone without a phone. The iPhone was an iPod with a phone, the iPod was a better mp3 player, like we don't actually like radically novel things. You know, West Side Story was Romeo and Juliet, but they're on the west side. Star Wars was a Western space, Harry Potter is the most straightforward, orphan rising story of all time, but they're wizards insert whatever example here. And so as a result, because creativity is actually much more about taking something familiar and adding a novel twist to it, which we could spend three hours talking about. As a result, consumption is a hugely important thing, because it allows you to know what is out there already what will be familiar, what will be too familiar, what will be novel, what will be too novel. And so you have to really absorb sort of what your audience has sort of seen been exposed to, if you want to create things for your audience, because you have to be able to create things that are at that right level of familiar enough to be safe and accessible, but novel enough to be intriguing and interesting and creative.

Jay Clouse 44:49
I love that point. I heard a story A while back when Spotify created their discover weekly which is like their big first innovation on helping you find new music they originally intended it to only be New Music. And it took off immediately. What they found, though, was that there was a bug. And it was starting to give people music they had already listened to on Spotify. So it took that bug out. And then engagement dropped , they realized it was because too new, it was too new. People needed to know that, that they wanted to trust that Spotify knew them because Spotify was pulling in songs that they already knew.

Allen Gannett 45:20
That I talked about in the book, there was a study that was done, it was really interesting that looked at they had people listened to hit songs. And what was interesting, though, about this is that it was actually done prospectively, and through return. But they had done this study, and they had played all sorts of random songs off my space. And then a few years later, one of the researchers had heard one of the songs from the study on American Idol. He's like, Oh, that was one of the songs we did in that weird MySpace study. And he went back to and what they found is that the songs that later became hits, activated the same portions of the brain in these FMRI scans. And the whole idea, which was really interesting is that these songs have a certain familiarity that activates it. So it's not like there's some magical thing that our brain has somehow evolved to register. But rather, there are certain things which give us that familiar sense, which is interesting. And so this is why, you know, musical tastes and musical serve preferences sort of shift in mass over time when we talk about things like disco coming in and out of style, or grunge rock coming in and out of style. Because eventually, things become too familiar. And people get bored of them. And so it's really, really important to balance those two things. I love that Spotify story hadn't heard that before. But that's awesome.

Jay Clouse 46:35
You telling me that pop punk is gonna come back in.

Allen Gannett 46:37
It already is!

Jay Clouse 46:39
That's a good point. That's a good point.

Allen Gannett 46:41
It's having a moment,

Jay Clouse 46:42
Something you just touched on. I have to spend a little bit of time talking about this. If the best creators are consumers of their craft. Where is the balance?

Allen Gannett 46:51
Yeah, so I found that Well, there's two things. One is what do they consume. And the thing that's really important is that they a are consuming very narrowly is not on Twitter, they're not consuming a little bit about a lot of things, but they're consuming a lot about a little. So that's one, two, is that they're consuming primary sources. So rather than reading synthesis about something, or other people's abstraction, they're going and consuming primary source material about a specific thing. And this is important, because since our right hemisphere is very good at synthesis, you want to allow to do the work by itself. Now, primary sources, by the way, can be for example, talking to other people like interviewing someone in a sort of casual sense of the word is a way to absorb that. But in the book to answer your question with more specificity, what I found was that the most successful creative spent about three to four hours of their days consuming content in their niche. So I call this a 20% principle, because when you write a book like this, you have to come up with cute names for things, and it's about 20% of your waking hours. I was sort of shocked by that, because it's a lot of time. It is it's a lot of time. I think that for a lot of people, one of the issues is we just don't have the time to do that. Now, the thing is, obviously, we don't all have the aspiration to win an Oscar or win a Tony, we maybe just want to be a bit more creative. So you know, if we can't spend three or four hours, maybe we can spend an hour a day. But that is where I think a lot of corporate creativity gets into trouble because we don't give people time for the research phase of research and development. Even though that input is so important. We have all the science we have all this practice, we have all this history where we know that input is so important to creative discovery.

Jay Clouse 48:29
Was this known by these people where it was like actually directing their behavior they knew to be this they needed.

Allen Gannett 48:37
Some of them. So some of the people I interviewed talked very specifically about, you know, I interviewed Ted Sarandos, who's now co CEO of Netflix, when I interviewed him he was Chief Content Officer had been that for 17 years. And he told me about a he started his career as a clerk in a video store, who decided he was going to watch every single video in the store. And then he continued to this day watches in three to four hours of film and television every single day. And he knows he credits that with this part of his success. He called it you know, he called it like I think it was a film, school and MBA all wrapped up into one that sort of intense consumption. And you know, I talked to other people, for example, to Andrew, Andrew Ross Sorkin, who is the Squawk Box host, but he's also the creator of billions. He wrote the book too big to fail. He has been successful in multiple different creative pathways, which I think is kind of cool. He talks about whenever he sort of is learning a new format, what he does, he goes and consumes a lot of that format. And he sort of studies it and sees like, what is the structure? What is the patterns? What's the sort of outline of what good looks like? And that's what allows him to create and so yeah, some people are very conscious of it. Other people, you know, it's sort of casually mentioned to me, I've asked them, oh, how much do you read. Oh, you know, probably like three hours a day, but it hadn't really registered that necessarily was part of their process. So it just depends on the person.

Jay Clouse 49:56
How do you land these interviews.

Allen Gannett 49:57
I started with cold emails. And so Ted Sarandos I cold email. And then I also had some friends of friends. And it sort of snowballed, where once I got the agent, I was able to sort of use that as social proof. And then once I got the first few interviews, I was able to use those name to social proof. Once I got the publisher is able to serve us that a social proof. And so by the end, it became much easier to get the interviews, but it was sort of a I would call it a credibility snowball sort of.

Jay Clouse 50:29
Totally works in podcasting too. How much time were you spending with them? Generally?

Allen Gannett 50:36
It depends. Some people I interviewed once for 45 minutes, and never again, most people I probably interviewed twice, so maybe two hours, but depending on the person and sort of how they how I decided I wanted them to fit into the book. The people were really kind and gracious at spending their time with me, which was really nice. I mean, I think also, when you're writing a book on like, creative genius, it's sort of a flattering thing to totally, you know,

Jay Clouse 50:57
Okay, last question, cuz I know, we got to wrap up here. You are a data nerd. You study all this stuff. So you after having learned all of this, and now away from the SaaS company, how is this informing how you're going to spend your time as a creative moving forward?

Allen Gannett 51:13
Yeah, so I'm working on a lot of different projects right now. And, you know, I launched a podcast, and I historically have not been a huge podcast person. So before we launched the podcast, I listened to a ton of podcasts. And just trying to get a sense of what works, what doesn't work, what's familiar, what's different. That was part of how we landed on our format, which is, it's a call advice show for creators. And basically what I saw was, you know, there's a lot of really great interview shows, so I don't really feel like there's space for more of them. Like, you know, there's this show, there's a lot of them. And so I was like, I don't think the world needs another interview show people have done that better than I could. And so the idea was calling advice shows are really fun. They're really popular on traditional radio, but they're not as popular on podcasts. And there's all this talk about the creator economy in the creative class, but there's not really an advice show for them. And so that was where the idea sort of came together. But that was an example where part of what I liked about it was it's a challenge. Like I haven't done a podcast before. And I like learning new mediums or formats, because I find it intellectually really fun to be able to, like, think backwards about like how to do this, right? What would it take and piece those pieces of the puzzle together?

Jay Clouse 52:22
What about your own business model? Like do you want to go back to the SaaS someday? Or do you want to be an independent creator with with podcast and maybe more books?

Allen Gannett 52:30
I do a bunch of things now. So I do a lot of startup investing. I'm working on a second book. So yeah, I mean, I think as of right now, the plan is have a portfolio of projects. And, you know, I do a lot of speaking and sort of content. You know, running a company is a lot of work. It's very intense. So maybe one day not right now, though.

Jay Clouse 52:54
Man, I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed hearing about the consumption habits of the creative greats that Allen interviewed for The Creative Curve. Over the last year or so I found myself consuming more and more creative primary sources, especially film and television, and watching them through the lens of a producer. Every decision you see in a scene was someone's intentional decision. And by watching the work of great directors and producers, you start to form opinions on why they made those decisions. And it makes sense that our brains are synthesizing this information to help us make connections between what is novel but not too novel, so that we can put our own spin on things while also protecting the connection other people can feel to it. You can of course pick up Allen's book The Creative Curve at thecreativecurve.com, and you can follow the latest from Allen on Twitter or Instagram @Allen. Thanks to Allen for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork for this episode. Thanks, Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show and Brian Skeel for creating our music. If you like this episode, you can tweet @JayClouse and let me know and if you really want to say thank you, please, please, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening, and I'll talk to you next week.

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