How the world’s most creative people break out of a rut

Jeff Goldblum has got you.
Jeff Goldblum has got you.
Image: Getty Images For Cannes Lions/Christian Alminana
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I’ve spent the last week at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. If you think that sounds like Burning Man on the Riviera, think again.

The “festival” is in fact an advertising conference, where the world’s biggest agencies and consultancies, social media platforms, and brands gather to celebrate, well, themselves. Executives gather in corporate-sponsored beach huts and grand old hotels while helicopters buzz back and forth from the landing pad at the end of the marina. Tech companies rent yachts at said marina, which they mostly leave parked on the dock for a busy schedule of schmoozing.

That said, there are a lot of creative people here, and disciplined ones at that. People whose jobs require them to have good ideas, again and again, under great scrutiny. The actual “Lions” are awards for creativity in advertising, and a favorite this year was Nike’s “Dream Crazy,” starring Colin Kaepernick, by the Portland, Oregon-based agency Wieden+Kennedy.

As we covered this week’s conference, we asked many of those people how they get over the fear of the blank page and keep on creating. What do they do to break out of a creative rut?

Don’t resist it: include it.

“Well, put effort into it, that’s what I say. I say, you need the magic of inspiration and something to happen—but those things you can’t do anything about much. But you can do plenty with hard work. And I think there’s plenty to do, whatever it is—to sit down in front of a typewriter or get the paints out and just start doing it. Get at the piano and start playing. There’s no mystery about that.

Other than that, include—whether you’re nervous or insecure—don’t resist it. Include it. It’s a cliché to say, ‘Hey use it, use your nervousness,’ but that continues to be profoundly true for me. Whatever is going on, trust it. It’s yours, you’ll find something uniquely you through it. And see where it goes. Mmmmm, like that.”

— Jeff Goldblum, actor, jazz pianist, and internet zaddy

Take a nap.

Jenna Lyons.
Jenna Lyons.
Image: Getty Images For Cannes Lions/Christian Alminana

“Nap. The two years that I was off was the most incredible time I ever had. I didn’t realize, I never gave myself time to think and I didn’t realize what it was doing to me. Actually taking time off—I’m not joking—not forcing it, and sleeping, is the best thing I’ve ever done. I literally sat on my couch for two years; it was the best two years. My ass was happy. My couch was happy…

The biggest mistake in my career was not leaving myself breathing room, and I crashed a little bit.”

Jenna Lyons, who is working on a new content-and-commerce project (including TV show!), after more than 25 years at J.Crew and a two-year sabbatical

Use analogies.

“In the history of science, a lot of new, creative, brilliant theories were created as analogies.

Heat is like a fluid. An atom is like the solar system. Evolution is like pigeon breeding. Regulation of blood sugar is like a thermostat. Now, probably a lot of these analogies turn out to be dead ends, because it just doesn’t work that way. But a number of times it does work, probably because the universe has a lot of complex systems that have the same laws and mathematics, but show up in different guises …

The human mind is very good at seeing abstract commonalities. Most of them turn out not to be not particularly useful, but some do. When we try out enough of them, we can find the ones that work.”

Steven Pinker, Harvard psychology professor and author

Have faith.

“You have to flail a little bit… I’m fortunate, having been part of a few great companies, where I have been allowed to drift a bit, and not have to know the answer. A lot of times I say, ‘I don’t know now, but I might know later.’ And that letting go is something, I think it only comes from experience.

The best thing I learned was just to be okay not knowing—just having the faith that it’ll get done, and it does. It always gets done.”

Reed Krakoff, chief artistic officer at Tiffany


“It’s very common in the creative industry to say, ‘make it simple.’ But it’s actually not that easy to simplify. If it was so easy, the world would be a much simpler place.

When you are coming up with ideas, people tend to add things when they doubt their decisions. That’s precisely when you have to resist that temptation. When in doubt, subtract.”

— Rei Inamoto, founding partner of IxCO, an agency whose clients include Toyota, Uniqlo, and Sotheby’s

Say it a different way.

“The strongest work in advertising comes from a point of view (the idea) and the execution (the flair). We spend a lot of time coming up with what I call ‘the argument.’ The stronger that argument is, the more powerful the work will be.

When I get stuck, I change the words for the argument. You’re still saying the same thing, but you just rephrase it and say it in a different way. It’s amazing what happens: you suddenly think of completely different things…

For example, instead of ‘Just Do It’ say something like, ‘You won’t know until you go.’ It’s the same idea but rephrased.”

— Jan Jacobs, co-founder and chief creative officer of Johannes Leonardo, an agency whose clients include Volkswagen and Adidas

Respect your deadlines.

quartzy lorne michaels
Lorne Michaels.
Image: Getty Images for Cannes Lions/Richard Bord

“If there was an infinite amount of time, it would take an infinite amount of time. But since there’s a deadline, since we have to go on at 11:30 [for Saturday Night Live], it all just happens.

There is no creativity without boundaries. You can write a sonnet with 10 lines but you can’t really call it a sonnet… If you’re throwing out good stuff, it’s probably a good sign.”

— Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer, Saturday Night Live