INTRODUCTION: WHY PREDATORY THINKING?
Over the decades I’ve worked in advertising, I’ve learned one big lesson about creativity in particular and life in general. Nothing exists in limbo. Everything exists in context. Nothing is simply good or bad. It’s either better or worse than the alternatives it’s compared to. And yet 90% of thinking ignores the context. Which is why most thinking doesn’t work. What works is out-thinking the problem. Faced with a problem you can’t solve, get upstream and change the context. Change it to a problem you can solve. Henry Ford said, ‘There’s no problem that can’t be solved if you break it down into small enough pieces.’ So get upstream and break it into smaller pieces and see which piece is the pressure point. Which piece can be changed, that changes everything else.
I’ve never learned much from textbooks. I ﬁnd them dull. The sort of books that break things down into a dry-as-dust formula. The 8 truths, or the 12 principles, or the 10 essential thoughts. Rules you forget almost immediately. For me, that’s not interesting, that’s not creative, that’s not thinking. One of my advertising heroes, Bill Bernbach, said, ‘Principles endure, formulas don’t.’ Lessons that you work out for yourself are much more powerful than rules you memorize parrot-fashion. They stay with you. That’s why this book is a series of stories instead of a list of rules. Stories that have inﬂuenced me, and that I’ve learned predatory thinking from. Examples in as many different areas as possible. That way, you’ll learn the principles and apply them for yourself, in ways I might never even have thought of.
And that is the whole point of predatory thinking.
CREATIVE IS AN ADJECTIVE NOT A NOUN
The creativity of mischief
There’s a story I love about an ex-student of mine. He was very talented, very creative and turned into a good copywriter. He did some nice ads and got a job at a leading agency. The CEO of this agency was rich and famous. He noticed that Charlie Saatchi was into modern art. This piqued his interest. And he decided to get into modern art too. So he visited all the galleries and saw lots of modern art. Eventually he found a large piece he liked. It was an acrylic painting, made up of lots of small, brightly coloured squares. He had it hung, in pride of place, in his ofﬁce. It was very impressive. My ex-student was thinking about this one night after work in the pub. When everyone else had gone home, he went back to the agency’s production ofﬁce. He took a Pantone book and a pair of scissors. A Pantone book is made up of little swatches of every colour there is. He took this book to the CEO’s ofﬁce. He held it up to the painting against the coloured squares.
Then he cut out some exactly matched squares from the Pantone book. And he laid them on the carpet at the bottom of the picture. Then he went home. The next morning the CEO went into his ofﬁce. He stood admiring his new piece of modern art. He called in his PA and pointed out to her the ﬁner points of its artistic merit. Then she asked, ‘What are those squares on the ﬂoor?’ He picked them up and examined them. They were exactly the size and colour of the ones in his painting. He said to his PA, ‘Get the art dealer who sold me this painting on the phone.’ He said to the dealer, ‘Look, I’ve got a bit of a problem with this painting you sold me.’ The art dealer asked what it was. Controlling his anger, he said, ‘Some of the little squares have started falling off.’ The dealer said that wasn’t possible. The CEO yelled, ‘Don’t tell me it’s not bloody possible, I’m sitting here holding them.’ The dealer said, ‘I’m sorry, but that can’t happen. That’s an acrylic painting. The squares can’t fall off, they’re painted on.’ The CEO went quiet.
Gradually the penny dropped. He put the phone down. This was embarrassing. He’d been humiliated in front of his art dealer and his PA. And subsequently, the CEO stopped collecting modern art. And my ex-student didn’t wait to get ﬁred. He found himself another job. I thought what he did was very creative. And what made it so creative was the simplicity. The understatement. He didn’t do, or say, anything. He just left some little bits of coloured paper on the ﬂoor. And let imagination do the rest. I think we can learn a lot about the way the mind works from that.
And the human mind is our medium.
The Ship of Theseus
Plutarch used a conundrum to illustrate how the human mind works. The Ship of Theseus was built to travel to the furthest points of the known world. During the voyage it was tossed around by storms, battered by wind and waves. Sails had to be replaced. Ropes had to be replaced. The planks in the hull, even the nails holding them, had to be replaced. By the time the ship returned, not a single piece of it was made from the original material. So, could that ship still be considered the real Ship of Theseus? Some people thought not. Because not one atom remained from the one that left port. In which case, when did it stop being the Ship of Theseus? When the ﬁrst piece of wood was replaced? Surely not, that’s just a minor repair. OK, how about the second, third or fourth repair? When there isn’t one original plank left, is it still the Ship of Theseus? Hmmm, probably not.
OK, when does it change, when does it lose its identity? Some people said it never lost its identity. It was still the Ship of Theseus. It had just restored itself bit by bit. The basic concept hadn’t altered. In which case, what was the Ship of Theseus? Was it just an idea? That couldn’t be true either, because you could see it and touch it. So what was the actual Ship of Theseus? Two thousand years later the philosopher Thomas Hobbes took it further. He said, assume the crew of the Ship of Theseus didn’t throw any of the old parts away. As they replaced them, they stowed them in the hold. Then, when they got home, they unloaded them in a big pile on the dock. Splintered planks, bent and rusty nails, frayed ropes, torn and faded sails. Now, which one is the real Ship of Theseus? The beautiful ship that looks exactly the way it did when it left? (Although not a single atom of the original ship remains.) Or the rusted, rotting pile of junk that looks nothing like a ship?
(But every atom of it is made up of the original Ship of Theseus.) There isn’t an easy answer. But most of us would choose the thing that looks like the Ship of Theseus. At least it ﬂoats; it looks and behaves like a ship. The alternative, the pile of wood and metal and cloth, doesn’t do anything. Without a mind to envision a ship, to build a ship, to use it as a ship, there isn’t a ship. It needed a mind to think up the concept of a ship. Then the mind shaped matter to ﬁt the concept. And then the ‘ship’ existed. And that’s what creativity is. Having an idea for something that doesn’t exist. Then shaping matter to make it exist. Concepts aren’t sitting around waiting to be discovered. We have to create concepts, in our minds. Then we have to make the concept real, out of matter. Only then does it ‘exist’.
Creativity is creating something out of nothing.
The power of ignorance
A few years back, our phone bill was way higher than usual. I checked through it and one call alone cost £60. The children were too tiny to use the phone. Our little boy was about four and our little girl was about six. That left me, my wife Cathy and the nanny. I knew it wasn’t me, and they both swore it wasn’t them. So Cathy called BT to check. The operator checked the number. She said it was a phone call that had lasted about two hours. Cathy said, ‘That’s ridiculous. No one here has made a call that long.’ She asked what the number was. The operator said, ‘It’s an 0900 number, madam, the sort they use for chat lines.’ Cathy said, ‘Chat lines?’ The woman said, ‘Yes, madam, have you had a word with your husband? Sometimes men use these lines and . . . er . . . forget to mention it to their wives.’ Cathy put the phone down and asked me if I’d forgotten to mention it. This was getting silly now. The chat lines are the little adverts you see in the back of Time Out and the Sunday Sport.
‘Naughty Girls, Up For Fun (And Anything Else)’. Fair enough, whatever ﬂoats your boat. But, apart from anything else, how can that take two hours? There was nothing for it but to call the number. A recorded voice answered. It sounded like a chirpy, well-brought-up youngster. It said, ‘Hello, this is Jimbo the Jumbo. Would you like to hear my latest adventure? It all started at the airport one day . . .’ There it was, problem solved. There used to be a comic supplement with the Sunday Times, called ‘The Funday Times’. I used to give it to the kids so I could get ﬁve minutes to read the main paper in peace. My son’s favourite character was a little aeroplane called Jimbo the Jumbo. At the top of the cartoon strip was a phone number to call for a story. My son had dialled the number and listened to the story. When he’d heard it, he just put the receiver down and walked away. It must have lain there, repeating Jimbo’s adventures over and over, for two hours. Until someone eventually noticed and popped it back on the phone.
See, the only time he used the phone was talking to either of his grandmas. We’d never told him you had to hang it up when you’d ﬁnished. We’d never told him it cost money. He thought it was free, like the radio. At four years old, you don’t even know the world of paying for things exists, or how it works. You don’t know, and you don’t know you don’t know. A child’s mind works the same way as a grown-up’s mind. We think what we know is all there is to know. So we interpret everything according to what we know. Stanley Pollitt, the founder of the advertising agency BMP, had always wanted a little farm in Kent, complete with sheep. So when he’d made enough money, he bought some. It was everything he wanted: picturesque and idyllic. Except the sheep began to get fatter and fatter. Stanley realized he didn’t know the ways of the country yet. And it was obvious he was over-feeding the sheep. So he cut the amount of feed down. But the sheep still kept getting fatter. So Stanley cut their feed still further.
And yet still the sheep got fatter. So he cut their feed again. And one day the sheep all died. They starved to death. It turned out they hadn’t been getting fatter after all. Their wool had been growing. Which may be pretty obvious to someone from the country. But Stanley wasn’t from the country. And all he saw was the evidence of his eyes. And we are forced to interpret any situation using the only tool we have. Our own experience. Until we know something, it doesn’t exist as a possibility. Once we know it, we can’t believe everyone doesn’t know it. And yet there was a time when each of us didn’t know anything. Not a single thing. In fact there is still an inﬁnity of stuff we don’t know. Maybe, rather than defending the tiny bit of knowledge we do have, we should be embracing what we don’t know. Lao Tzu said, ‘The wise man knows he doesn’t know. The fool doesn’t know he doesn’t know.’ We think it’s a sign of strength to have an immediate opinion on everything.
But actually all that does is shut down the enquiry. It can be much more powerful to say, ‘I don’t know.’
That opens up the way to something new.
Creativity takes effort
Years ago, the UK was being converted to run on North Sea gas. They had to dig up all the old pipes, all over the country, and lay new ones. In some cases the pipes ran under houses. Then they had to come in and dig underneath. I read about one frail old lady who didn’t want to be converted. She just wanted her house left alone. British Gas told her it was compulsory. The main supply pipe ran under her house. But she refused. Her neighbours said she was just a little old dear who’d had a rough time in the past. She’d lived in that house ever since she’d got married, many years earlier. Unfortunately her husband was a violent drunk. He’d come home every night, after the pub, and beat her up. All the neighbours knew it was going on. But in those days wives didn’t complain to the police about their husbands. They just accepted it quietly. Then one night, after years of abuse, her husband left her.
He got drunk at the pub as usual. Came home, gave her the usual slapping, and walked out. No one ever saw or heard from him again. This was a mixed blessing for his wife. On the one hand it meant the beatings stopped. On the other hand it was shameful for a woman’s husband to leave her. So everyone was very kind and sympathetic towards her. But all of this cut no ice with British Gas. They said they’d have to dig under her house, and that was that. So, as the old lady stood by weeping softly, they lifted up the carpet. Then they lifted up the lino. Then they lifted up the ﬂoorboards. And there was a pit with a human skeleton in it. The skeleton had a crushed skull. And the little old lady confessed. One day she’d decided she couldn’t take the beatings any more. So every night, when he went to the pub, she rolled back the carpet, took up the ﬂoorboards, and began digging a pit. Then she put it all back before he came home. It took many months of hard work. Just a few hours every night.
Digging a little bit and disposing of the soil. But ﬁnally she decided the pit was big enough. So, when he came in blind drunk again, she hit him as hard as she could. With a cast-iron frying pan. When he went down she hit him again. And she kept on hitting him until he was dead, Before dragging his body to the pit and dropping it in. Then she put back the ﬂoorboards, the lino and the carpet. And she told everyone her husband had walked out on her. And everyone was kind and sympathetic to the poor thing. I think what she did was very creative. Not all creativity happens in a ﬂash. Sometimes, as with her, it’s more methodical. She analysed the situation. The primary problem was her husband’s violence. The secondary problem was that she couldn’t leave, and he wouldn’t leave. So the brief was deﬁned as: How could she stop the violence without either of them leaving? And the brilliantly simple solution was: He doesn’t have to leave, he just has to appear to leave. Then she actually made it happen. And that was the real creativity.
The dogged determination to do whatever it takes. That’s where most of us fall down. We have a good idea but we stop there. We wait for someone else to make it happen. If no one does then we give up. But she didn’t. That frail, frightened lady did whatever it took. However hard, however long. Night after night. Month after month. And that’s the difference. Unless we make it happen it never exists.
It just stays as another good idea that never happened.
I’ve always been very short-sighted. So I’ve always worn contact lenses. Years ago I heard about laser eye surgery. It sounded great. You could have your eyes ﬁxed and you wouldn’t need contact lenses. You’d have real eyes like a normal person. Because it was still in the early stages I didn’t know anyone who’d had it done. But I decided to take a chance. They told me it was a minor operation. Just a local anaesthetic, and I could go back to work afterwards. So I booked an appointment for midday at the Cromwell Hospital. They sat me in a chair and held my eyelids open with clamps like the ones in A Clockwork Orange. Then the laser beam vaporized the top layer of my cornea. (Apparently they have to burn off enough to reshape the cornea into a corrective lens.) Then they bandaged the eye up. I got a taxi and went back to work.
I sat down at my desk and picked up a script, but it swam in front of my eyes. I couldn’t focus. Some letters seemed really close and some seemed far away. I kept blinking, trying to get it in focus, but the type kept getting bigger and smaller. It was like trying to read through the rippling surface of a pond. I’d move my head back to try to see the bigger letters, then forwards to see the smaller letters. I was beginning to feel really queasy. I looked at the other scripts on my desk. The top one was swimming so much I didn’t even look through the rest. I was beginning to feel seasick. I looked at the clock. The face of the clock was rippling with strange wobbly numbers. I couldn’t even bring the clock into focus. I felt like throwing up. Obviously my brain must have been affected by the laser treatment. I wasn’t expecting that. Maybe the best thing to do was get some sleep, and hope my brain unscrambled itself.
So I got a cab, went straight home and crawled into bed. The next morning I woke up and felt better. I looked around the room and everything seemed OK. I got dressed, I went into work. I went to my desk and all the paperwork was there. I looked at it and it looked ﬁne. Everything was the right size, nothing swam before my eyes. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Then I noticed the waste-paper basket was full of crumpled paper. I ﬁshed some of it out and the letters started to swim again. They were big and small and wobbly. So I called our secretary. I said, ‘Nicky, do you know what this is about, all this strange, uneven paper in my waste basket?’ She laughed and said, ‘Oh yes, Gordon photocopied everything on your desk to appear wobbly. He wanted it all bendy for you when you came back from your operation. He even did it with the clock face. I told him I thought it was a bit cruel, but he assured me you’d ﬁnd it amusing.’ And to be fair, he was right. Some ideas are too good not to do. Even if they are unkind.
How can we each get what we want?
When my daughter was young, all she wanted to do was watch TV. She’d sit in front of it hypnotized. This didn’t work for me. I wanted her to use her imagination, develop her mind. In short, I wanted her to be learning. But I didn’t want to force her to learn. I wanted her to have what she wanted. But I also wanted what I wanted. This seemed to me just like an advertising problem. How can we set it up so that everyone gets what they want? What’s a creative way to approach that? Mainly she loved cartoons. So I looked everywhere for interesting cartoons that I thought she’d like. Eventually I found a series of all Shakespeare’s plays. They’d been made by different Eastern European animation companies. Some were drawn animation, some were 3D stop-frame. In each case the play had been reduced from several hours down to half an hour. They kept the main plot lines, and the most important speeches.
Just what I wanted. It wasn’t enough to bore her, just enough to stay interested. She would watch anything that was animation on TV. And without knowing it, she was getting a good grounding in the works of Shakespeare. Stories of love, honour, confusion and betrayal. All told in fancy costumes and elegant language. Just the sort of thing to interest a little girl. I knew it was working when I found her and her little brother in the kitchen one day. There was a large puddle of milk on the ﬂoor and they looked guilty. I said, ‘Who’s spilt this all over the ﬂoor?’ She stood up straight, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Thou canst not say I did it. Shake not thy gory locks at me.’ How can you get angry with a very little Lady Macbeth? She was two years older than her little brother. And little boys are different to little girls. So several years later, he needed a different solution. Because I was at work, he would come home from school and plonk himself in front of the TV. So no homework would get done. The most obvious solution was to take the TV away. But what happens when the grown-ups want to watch it? We needed a more creative approach to the problem.
How to get what we both wanted? He wanted TV, I wanted him to do his homework. So, start with researching the market, and come up with a brief. Two things we know about boys: they love to play games, and they’re very competitive. So how could I make that work for both of us? Eventually, I thought, let’s change all the TV plugs to French plugs. They’ve only got two prongs and won’t ﬁt into UK three-prong sockets. So that’s what I did. I bought several French two-pronged plugs, and several three-pronged converter plugs. You could only use the TV if you also used the UK converter plug. So, every evening before I went to bed, I hid the converter plug in a different place. I’d tell him he couldn’t have it until he’d done his homework. Of course, at ﬁrst, he’d spend an hour looking for it. Then eventually, he realized he was just wasting TV time and he’d be better off doing his homework. So he’d do it, then call me at the ofﬁce, and I’d tell him where the plug was.
Then, before I went to bed the next night, I’d ﬁnd a different place to hide the plug. This worked well, and gradually the homework began getting done with as little disruption as possible. Like all the best creative solutions, we each got what we wanted. But there’s a sequel to this. Recently on holiday we were talking about this and my son, now a grown-up, told me that actually he knew where the hiding places were. But he didn’t want me to know he knew. So he’d come home, watch some TV, then do some homework and call me up to ask where the plug was. Pretending he didn’t know. I was really pleased with this. Because instead of just getting his homework done, he had been developing his mind. He’d worked out how to give me what I wanted while still making sure he got what he wanted. He was working out how to out-think me.
In short, he was learning how to be creative.
A creative mind is an enquiring mind
I recently went to a talk at the Science Museum. Stephen Hawking, James Dyson, Robert Winston and Richard Dawkins. Four people who range from merely brilliant to genius. What I loved best was that as they talked, these brilliant men changed into little boys. They were bubbling over with fun and playfulness and eagerness to ask questions about the world. To discover everything they could about their environment. Dying to share what they’d found out about how things work. Full of questions and excitement. The way a little child is knocked out just to be alive. James Dyson talked about how Frank Whittle invented the jet engine before the Second World War. And if the government had only listened we could have had jet planes ﬁghting the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Robert Winston talked about his medical hero. Who, around 1780, had been able to remove a tumour twice the size of the man’s head. Without anaesthetic, and without disﬁgurement. Predating plastic surgery by nearly 200 years. Richard Dawkins talked about the man who discovered natural selection at the same time as Darwin.
But humbly gave Darwin all the credit. It was riveting to listen to these people because they loved what they did. Dry, dull, academic subjects like science, chemistry and biology came alive. And gradually it dawned on me what they all had in common. They all had enquiring minds. And I realized I was watching not only four very brilliant people. But four creative people. Because that’s what makes people creative. An enquiring mind. As the thinker Edward de Bono says, ‘There are many people calling themselves creative who are mere stylists.’ And what separates creative people from stylists is an enquiring mind. Not just people who want to reshape or restyle an existing solution. But people who say, ‘Why does it have to be that way?’ People who question the question. People for whom the ‘?’ at the end of a sentence is the most important part of the sentence. I loved the energy, the buzz, the vitality, the aliveness. The sense of discovery.
Not just rehashing what other people have done and trying to do it slightly better. Questioning the very basis of what’s being done. Seeing it doesn’t have to be done that way. The thrill of upsetting accepted wisdom. Discovering a new way. A way no one else had found. Or a way everyone else said wouldn’t work. That’s true creativity. And those four scientists/inventors/philosophers had it coming off them like sparks. Asking what every creative person should always be asking: ‘Why?’
Excerpted from Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott. Copyright © 2013 by Dave Trott.
First published 2013 by Grand Central Publishing, USA. This edition published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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