Accepting a High Failure Rate for Creativity

The Onion is consistently hilarious. For those who don't know, The Onion is a spoof newspaper with satirical headlines and a few paragraphs of fake quotes and commentary.

The radio show This American Life recently reported on how The Onion does what it does. Bob Sutton picks up on this interesting factoid: to get the 18 quality headlines needed for each week's edition, the writers have to propose 600 headlines in total. That's pretty refined filter, and as Bob notes, not unusual for a successful creative operation. At IDEO's toy group only 3% of proposed product ideas survive.

To come up with good ideas, you need to turn off the self-censor and crank out as many ideas as possible. Most of them will suck. But that's part of the process.

For the more visually inclined, here's what creativity at The Onion looks like:

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7 Responses to Accepting a High Failure Rate for Creativity

  1. Pete says:

    I love The Onion. I have it right next to my other “news” sources on my bookmarks toolbar. I especially enjoy the American Voices section with the same people every time but with different names and occupations. Hilarious.

    Signed,

    William Sprerino,
    Dental Hygenist

  2. Jesse Farmer says:

    It reminds me of this anecdote:

    “The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

    His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an “A”.

    Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

    It’s true for every productive field, I think.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Awesome anecdote, Jesse. Totally agree.

  4. The really amazing thing about the Onion is how prescient they are. Here are a couple of scarily predictive articles:

    Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over’

    Point/Counterpoint in the weeks before the Iraq War, which pretty much sums up the arguments: http://www.theonion.com/content/point/this_war_will_destabilize_the

  5. Cal says:

    The same holds true for academic mathematics. If I took a snapshot of the white board in my office here at MIT you’d see something similar: many equations and diagrams, in lots of different color, probably none of which is quite right…yet.

  6. I loved listening to that radio show. I’d always wondered what their creative process was, considering how consistently hilarious they are, week after week.

    Very similar article about Steve Jobs and ideas at Apple:
    http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/10/wisdom-from-steve-jobs-the-importance-of-killing-good-ideas.html

  7. Bob says:

    Jesse, that’s a great anecdote. Do you know where it comes from?

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