Adam Grant and Tim Urban: Mastering the Creative Process

“If it’s not the kind of thing you wish that you were talking about at a dinner party, I don’t think you should spend a lot of time writing about it.”

Wharton professor and New York Times bestselling author Adam Grant sat down with Tim Urban, the writer/illustrator behind super-popular website Wait But Why, to talk about the creative process. From procrastination to research to choosing what to write about, Grant and Urban discuss their biggest struggles and most effective strategies. Despite their differing careers, their insights on creativity apply to anyone who’s ever had a great idea. 

(This conversation has been edited and condensed. To watch the full interview, click below.)

Adam Grant: What is a creative career to you? Is it doing a job where you create something new? Is it being a writer, an artist? Where do you set the boundaries?

Tim Urban: Creative is the right word because it’s not necessarily just artistic. Entrepreneurs are creatives; they’re creating something new. It’s when you carve a new path that has to do with giving the world something that it’s going to love. That can be a startup. That can be a book. That can be a song. That can be so many different things. It applies to art and business alike.

There are three things that you can aim for as you create something. The first thing is: I want to do something that, deep down, I think is great.

The second is external success. This can be showing it to a few of your friends and they love it, all the way up to writing a book and it sells well and gets good reviews or people read your blog or listen to your music. The success ladder goes from small all the way to huge. That can be your goal, to have this be as big as possible.

The third goal can be to stay true to yourself. So the first is your own taste. The second is ambition. The third is integrity. Am I doing something that feels like this is core to me? This is what I should be doing. I wouldn’t want someone else to do this because I care so much. This is my baby.

Adam: I just finished reading a forthcoming book called Take Pride by this amazing social psychologist, Jessica Tracy. There’s one sentence in the book that stopped me in my tracks. She said, “We all have things that we aspire to do. Why is that?” She says, “Well part of it is we have great taste, but we also want to be the one who created it.” That’s what separates taste as an audience member from taste as a creator. That’s to say I can recognize other people’s work and appreciate it, but I’m so interested in this thing, or I care so much about this domain, that I actually want to be the one who did this work. If that’s what’s motivating you, it almost seems to merge the first and the third.

“The hardest thing to figure out early on is your voice.”

Tim: People feel guilty about that, as if it’s all about ego. I’ve been saying to myself, “What’s the core?” If I’m making something, what really is gratifying to me? Is it me getting appreciated or is it the act of creating a good piece of art?

I did a thought experiment. “What if I created a great piece of art, but someone else’s name went on it and everyone thought it was theirs, would I be satisfied?” I was like, “No, not really.” It would be painful, so I thought, “Oh no, that means that this whole thing’s about me.”

Then I said, let’s do another thought experiment. “What if someone else created a great piece of art, put my name on it, and everyone thought it was me?”

Adam: You wouldn’t like it.

Tim: No, that would be empty. That would be terrible. You need both.

Along those lines, when I say I did it versus someone else, those are extremes. It’s really a spectrum. On one end, there’s ‘I went into my hole. I worked on this. It was all my original thoughts, and then I put it back.’ That’s the far end of the spectrum that no one really is on because everyone is influenced by some other thoughts and people. Then there’s ‘I took other thoughts that I’ve been influenced by, but I created my own thing.’ You’re a little farther along the spectrum. Then you start getting to ‘I’m reinterpreting this person’s thing’ to ‘I’m a fraud, and I’m taking things that really aren’t mine and I’m pretending they are.’ And the final endpoint is literally ‘I took a piece of work that’s not mine and I put my name on it.’

Adam: When you think about this spectrum, most of the time we’re somewhere in the middle. We know we have a bunch of other people’s ideas that we’re influenced by and we’re trying to take them and synthesize them and reorganize them in a way that says something new or that delivers a message to a new audience that hasn’t been exposed to these ideas before.

Part of what’s so useful about thinking about this is it helps with topic choice, which is one of the things most frustrating for writers — “What am I going to choose? Where do I start?”

How do you put these three corners of the triangle together when you actually choose what you’re going to write a post about?

Tim: I take a look at a topic. In one zone I’m like, “What can I do really well? This can be a good post. Or, this one sounds fun to write about, but I’m not sure if it’ll really come together as a blog post.”

The second one is, “What’s going to be viral? What’s the headline? What’s going to get clicked?” You can be in that mode. You’re thinking about the success of it.

Adam: Which never works, by the way. You have no intrinsic motivation. You’re doing it for all the wrong reasons.

Tim: Although if that’s combined with one of the other ones, it can be motivating in a good way. But if that’s the only thing, that’s usually not going to get your best out of you.

The third thing is, “I just personally am shaking with excitement at the concept of writing about this thing. I want to dig into it. I have so many things to say. I’m just dying to put this on paper.”

Adam: I feel that often the hardest thing to figure out early on is your voice. I wrote about Matthew Bradwell telling me that he’d gotten his start as a writer by literally taking his favorite writer, I think it was William F. Buckley, and re-typing the pages of his novels, to get a feel for the voice. At some point, he found his own through trying on somebody else’s.

I don’t think most people are going to do that. A lot of creative work doesn’t lend itself to that.

Tim: I also think it’s dangerous. If I’m going to write about something, I don’t want to read other articles on it because I don’t want to be influenced by what I find.

Adam: You’re not alone in that. One of my all time favorite interviews when I was writing Give and Take was with George Meyer, who wrote for the Simpsons for 16 seasons. The guy never watched a single Seinfeld episode until after he was done with the Simpsons because he was afraid that some of that sensibility or humor would work its way in, and he would commit klept-amnesia and accidentally steal somebody’s idea.

Tim: I worked musicals for a while. I was a composer, so you work with the lyricist. The music comes first, and then you make a melody. Then, what you do is show the lyricist the cadence you’re looking for. You make dummy lyrics, fake lyrics that say whatever. Then, they go and write it. The worst thing you can do is write a lyric that’s actually related to the thing because the lyricist suddenly is in that groove and it kills their fresh slate. It totally hinders the creativity.

Adam: That anchoring effect is so hard to escape. How did you figure out what is uniquely you? When do you come to a point of ‘this is something I want to write about’ as opposed to ‘this is something I’d like to read about’?

Tim: You have to do some self therapy. Who the hell am I? Which sides do I want to show? I’m writing a blog or nonfiction, do I want to show all parts of me? Am I choosing to show only certain parts? You have to figure out, “What am I proud of in terms of something that I want everyone to associate with me?”

You’ve done something I haven’t done, which is written books. You’ve had to make such a big decision. If someone said if you want to write a book, be prepared to talk about it for the next 5 years, you better feel good about that topic, or you’re going to hate yourself every time you’re go and do a talk on it. Inside you’ll think, “Why am I talking about this?”

Adam: Even if you love the topic, at that point you’ll say ‘I can’t believe I’m still talking about this.’

Tim: How are you able to figure that out? What is worthy of a book topic for you?

Adam: One of the best pieces of advice I ever got on topic choice was from one of my advisors who said, “Draw a 2×2. One axis is how important is this topic?” If people knew more about it, if they understood it better, their lives would be better, some problem would be solved. “The second axis is, how much has already been written about this topic?”

I have that 2×2 in my head a lot. The last question that I’ve added is, ‘Do I have something to say that is in some way counterintuitive or surprising?’ It’s not that fun to write an entire book about something that reaffirms what people already know.

“If it’s not the kind of thing you wish that you were talking about at a dinner party, I don’t think you should spend a lot of time writing about it.”

Tim: This 2X2 is exactly what entrepreneurs trying to figure out a start up should be thinking about. How important is this? How much is this product or service going to change people’s lives in one way or another? Is this something that people are going to want and be happy to have in their lives? That’s one axis.

The other big axis is that it’s filling a hole. Meaning no one is doing this. That’s the beautiful product, the AirBNB. If you create a great product, and it’s already another Twitter type thing, it’s kind of like, “Okay.” You need that quadrant that is both.

If you care about your writing it’s incredibly gratifying to have people read that and absorb the message. The things I write always come from a message I had to teach myself or I’m still teaching myself. It’s a lot of camaraderie.

If you’re a business, if you’re doing a start-up, to have it wildly succeed is also both. My point is that it’s okay if the, “Hey this is fun to have it succeed. I’m proud of myself,” part comes along with the ‘I’m also proud of this.’

Adam: I’ve found this a bunch of times in research where if you look at extrinsic motivation or if you’re doing something for external rewards that are not part of the task: status, pay, other kinds of incentives. It’s fine as long as there’s intrinsic motivation attached, too.

The same thing happened when I started writing for a broader audience. I believe in these ideas. If you read it and you find them interesting or useful in your life, that’s validating to me, that the time I spent writing a book was reasonably well spent, and I shouldn’t have been doing something else with that time.

But topic choice gets complicated when you get feedback about what your audience wants to read.

When I wrote Give and Take, it was all about the workplace. People kept asking, “How do I raise a giver as a parent?,” “How do I develop values associated with generosity?” My gut reaction was to say, “Look, I’m an organizational psychologist, not a developmental one. I can’t write about that.” Then at some point the question came up so many times that I needed to say something about it, just to be able to answer people’s questions. Once I had an answer to it, I thought, “Oh, I’ve given this answer 20 times. People seem to find it interesting. Now I’m going to write it down.”

Then it becomes the most shared thing I’ve ever written, even though I know nothing about children. The question gets raised, should I write a book about this? How do you think about that because you’ve dealt with the same situation?

Tim: The danger is letting other people define your path. There’s a lot of people pulling on you or suggesting things, and if you’re not vigilant about it, you can end up looking back and thinking, “How did I get so astray of what I care about?” The first thing that can happen is people can suggest something to the point where you’re like, “If I do this, it will have a big impact.”

That’s easy to turn down if you don’t think it can be something you’re proud of. The really hard thing is when you think, “It would truly impact a lot of people and I would also do really well at it. But I’m not personally excited about the topic.”

Adam: When did all the research that led into Give and Take, I wasn’t a parent yet. My wife and I had our first child before I started writing it. Our second arrived while I was writing. By the time the book came out, we were expecting our third. Even since then, I have so many more questions about parenting. If I go to my younger self, I was not interested in parenting. Now, I have so much more experience with it. I’ve watched lots of friends and colleagues grapple with the kinds of parenting questions we struggle with. Maybe I do care about it. At what point do you find yourself allowing your taste to evolve or your interest to evolve?

“You start to confront the hard parts of it, the less fun parts, the parts that no one’s excitable about. That’s when you calm down about it. You see the negative side of it. That’s when you can often say, ‘I don’t want to do this.'”

Tim: Your taste evolves. That’s okay. If you’re like, “I guess I’ll write about that,” then you’re not that excited. Someone asks that at a Q and A, and it’s, “Okay, yeah we can talk about this.” Then someone else asks a different question and you light up.

Adam: You light up.

Tim: You can talk about it forever. If it’s not the kind of thing you wish that you were talking about at a dinner party, I don’t think you should spend a lot of time writing about it. One article is one thing, but a book is another thing.

Adam: I find if somebody’s interested in lots of things, they can get excited about just about any topic initially. Then you start working on it, especially when you’ve committed to someone else that you’re going to do it, and you’re like, “What in the world was I thinking? Why am I doing this? This should never have happened.”

Tim: Excitable people are in danger because they can get excited, and you can forget that you don’t care.

Adam: Yes. If you assume that the emotion you feel the moment you had the idea is going to carry you through. The only way I’ve been able to deal with that is when I have an idea I put it in a file. For at least three weeks. Then when I come back to it and read through, half the time I think, “Why did I even write that idea down? That’s totally uninteresting.”

If there’s enough consistency between past me and current me, I’m excited about it. The next step is I have a conversation with someone about it who knows nothing about the topic. If I’m not excited to share it, and they’re not interested in it even though it’s not in their wheelhouse, I’m done.

That has helped me avoid some of the worst ones. What about you? How do you figure out if you’re going to stay enthusiastic about something?

Tim: I’ll start researching or brainstorming. Doing that, you start to confront the hard parts of it, the less fun parts, the parts that no one’s excitable about. That’s when you calm down about it. You see the negative side of it. That’s when you can often say, “I don’t want to do this.”

Adam: Someone who’s very close to me has written two novels and never shown a single person a sentence. If you can be that person and still be interested enough to finish the project even if no one was ever going to see it, it’s pretty clear that this is consistent with your third question, “Is this uniquely me?” That is a very, very serious test.

It’s the desert island test. You’re stranded. You can work on anything creative you want. It’s never going to leave the island. What are you going to do?

Tim: That’s why the very cheesy question, ‘what would you spend your time doing if you had a million dollars?’ keeps you thinking, what really is exciting to me? It removes the success factor. It really allows you to think about what sounds fun.

This reminds me of an interesting question that Peter Dion asked about how to figure out what you care about when it comes to the world. If someone gave you access to a billion dollars and you couldn’t use it for yourself, you had to donate it to something, and no one was going to know (this is key because it takes your ego out of it and your reputation), what would you do? No one else is allowed to know this ever happened.

All these other factors that are usually in play are out. I think it’s an amazing question. His point is, whatever that is, that’s what you should dedicate your life to.

Adam: That’s really challenging though because you might care about the outcome a lot, that doesn’t mean you want to be engaged in the process.

Tim: I agree that sometimes you’re like, “I want to be donating to this thing, but I don’t want to spend my time on it. I want to spend my time painting in a basement or something.” That’s okay. But it helps reminds you what you care about in the world. Not what you want people to think you care about, not what is sexy to care about, but what you heart goes out to.