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Creativity is a To-Do List

When most of us experience something amazing, we tend to attribute it to magic. Not real magic, of course, but some abstract quality that helps us understand why it’s so great.

If we enjoy a great concert, we assume the artist must be larger than life. A great restaurant must be a culinary phenomenon. And a great book must be once-in-a-lifetime. These experiences seem to transcend human capabilities, so we pass them off as magical.

The trouble is we’re wrong. Amazing experiences are planned moment-by-moment, page-by-page, and ingredient-by-ingredient. Thoughtful designers follow certain rules to create desired outcomes. Let’s just say there’s a lot more perspiration than inspiration when it comes to creativity. Here’s why: From 30,000 feet, creativity looks like art. From ground level, it’s a to-do list.

In the best-selling book The E-Myth, author Michael Gerber describes how he accidentally stumbled upon a hotel called Venetia on the northern coast of California. From the very first moment he stepped into the lobby, his experience was transcendent. Everything from the outdoor lighting and turndown service to the specific brand of coffee that was brewing in his room the next morning had been perfectly orchestrated.

As Michael investigated the reason for his amazing experience that next day in the manager’s office, he discovered a thick, three-ring binder labeled, “Operations Manual.” It outlined all of the steps that employees undertook to create this magic, including when the fireplaces were lit and how the outdoor lighting was timed to raise and lower with the sun. In other words, it was all happening because of one, giant to-do list.

You and I don’t notice the to-do list. We’re not supposed to know it exists. But you can’t have a beautifully executed, well-timed, and unforgettable experience without one.

Even the Walt Disney Company admits to a less-than-magical formula for success. Here’s what they wrote in Be Our Guest: “For the customer, the magic is a source of wonder and enjoyment. For the company and its employees, magic is a much more practical matter.”

The overall feeling of visiting a Disney park is hard to define, but their Imagineers have created a science. They place trashcans no more than 23 feet apart (the longest distance someone will carry a piece of trash), their hotel doors include shorter peepholes for kids, and they even change the texture of the pavement from one area of their parks to another so that people instinctively feel when they’ve entered a new environment.

So much for the magic of Disney. What we’re experiencing is an operations manual, a to-do list. Magical moments require detailed planning, and Disney puts a lot of hard work into it.

Nothing demonstrates the power of a to-do list like the work of an actual magician. When David Copperfield walked through the Great Wall of China on national TV in 1986, the overall effect was astounding. With no cut-away camera shots, David climbed a rolling staircase, entered a cloth box, and appeared to walk through the wall.

But what no one noticed amid the magic was how the staircase got quickly rolled away with David inside it. Out of the view of cameras and the audience, the staircase was hoisted over the wall in plenty of time for David to re-emerge on the other side.

What stops many of us from creating amazing experiences is the misconception that other people are creating magic. We look at their work and say, “I could never do that. They must be special.” But in reality, they’re just better at creating a to-do list than we are. They have concocted a recipe with all of the right ingredients for success and put them together with much focus and hard work. If they’re good at the process, we never see it.

To be creative, you don’t begin with great art. You start with a to-do list. One by one, you list the action steps that make for an amazing result. And you do it over and over again until you get it right. It may take days, months, or even years to perfect, but one day, everything will click, and people will say how magical you are.

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Ben Arment helps people launch great things. He’s the founder of Dream Year, The Whiteboard Sessions, and STORY in Chicago, and he also wrote a book called Church in the Making. He and his wife Ainsley live in Virginia Beach and have three cowboys, Wyatt, Dylan & Cody.