7 Steps For Creating Your Creative Process: Learning from MLK's Legacy and the Latest Research on the Art and Science of Creative Productivity
Jan 20, 2021
In the 14 years of his professional career, from 1954 to his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote five books, delivered 2500 speeches, all while traveling 6 million miles across the country and the globe as an iconic leader of the civil rights movement. He left behind tens of thousands of pages of writing, notes and correspondence--the project of publishing these curated papers will run to 14 volumes.
How did he manage to create so much in such a short lifetime? And what can all of us looking to answer our own call to make the world a better place learn from his creative process?
In this post we explore the deliberate process behind MLK's creative genius, along with what we can learn from recent research on the art and science of creative productivity.
MLK's Creative Process
- Deep commitment to a hugely important goal--as he put it himself in words that ring out to this day: "I have a dream that one day this nation shall live out the true meaning of its creed..."
- Tremendous clarity about the "mission maximizing output" he needed to produce every day in service to that goal: he KNEW that he had to write and to speak powerfully and prolifically to inspire and move to action as many people in as many places as he possibly could
- Daily routines and a deliberate process for producing deep, creative work rain or shine. Beginning from his first days as Pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954, MLK followed a regular creative regimen, spending 15 hours writing each Sunday's sermon. On Tuesdays he outlined, on Wednesdays he researched, on Fridays he wrote the draft and on Saturdays he polished it. He had a similar discipline about reading and learning, knowing that the more he took in, the more he could draw on in his creative process. For example, as his biographer Taylor Branch recounts, during his first year as Pastor at Dexter Baptist he reported to the congregation that he had read precisely 26 books and 102 magazines. Even after MLK moved on from his role as Pastor at Dexter Baptist in 1960, and the pace of his work as a movement leader intensified, MLK still engaged his powers of deep concentration. When it came to his writing, he would sequester himself away late at night in hotel rooms, or find time and focus in the back of cars, or most famously in his jail cell in Birmingham.
Answering Your Own Creative Call Sustainably--with Joy and Impact
Inspiring as MLK's example is, most of us couldn't sustainably work the way he did without burning out--and by his own account he himself was physically and mentally exhausted much of the time in the final years of his life.
As Dr King himself reminds us: "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." By implication, all of us with a calling to help bend that curve in our own time and place need to find a way to be in it for the long haul--to maximize AND sustain our own creative contribution to systemic change over the span of our own lives.
It is striking how the essence and the rhythm of Martin Luther King's own creative process is echoed and amplified in a host of much more recent work exploring the art and science of creative productivity.
Drawing on these and other sources, here's a 7 step process for designing and implementing your own creative process as a change
7 Steps for Creating Your Own Creative Process as a Change Agent
1. Envision Your "Wildly Important Goal"
Reflect on your vision: what is the "wildly important goal you have for making change in the world?
- Use the tools of systems thinking and root cause analysis
- Don't be afraid to devote some time and deep reflection to this
- It's OK to start with a general area and then bring it into sharper focus in Step 3
2. Identify the "Lagging Indicators" for Your Wildly Important Goal
Figure out how to know when this goal is actually achieved.
- What difference will you be able to see and measure in the world once the vision is realized?
- This is how you know you’ve succeeded AFTER the change has already happened
3. Apply the "Hedgehog Concept" for Change Agents: Your ONE THING
Get clarity about the most powerful way you personally can contribute over the long run to make the change you want to see in the world.
Your ONE THING is at the intersection of four spheres:
- Root cause of the problem you care about
- “Resource engine” that reliably brings money and other resources to bear
- Your passion
- Your talent
4. Identify the Leading Indicators of Your Impact: Your Mission Maximizing Output
Next, get clarity about your mission maximizing output
- These are the specific, regular activities that will naturally add up to your long-term impact over time
- Figure out how to measure your MMO--these are the leading indicators of your impact
- This is how you live out your ONE Thing from day to day, moment to moment
5. Engineer a Daily Process
Create a system for for organizing your time and your daily processes that supports you to get deep work done on your Mission Maximizing Output
- Begin each day by producing before you react (and yes, that means staying off your email and social media first thing in the morning!)
- Schedule concentrated blocks of time to focus on producing your MMO: 60-90 minutes at a time
- Take DEEP breaks of 10-30 minutes in between deep work: imagine your day as a wave function
6. Track Your Performance
Hold yourself accountable for tracking these leading indicators
- Pomodoros (25 minute timed work sprints) are a great way to focus deeply, and to track your time
- Consider using a physical calendar to keep track
- See if you can build up towards 50% of your time spent producing Mission Maximizing Output
- This is HARD! Be kind and forgiving with yourself, and persistent!
7. Rinse and Repeat, with Joy and Impact
Answer the calling of your soul day by day with the creativity and passion of an artist and the methodical routines of an engineer.
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