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The Surprising Way to Boost Your Creative Genius

The idea seemed innovative in early 2010.  An iPhone app that lets users share their whereabouts with their friends. Afterall, Foursquare had come out around 2009 and made digital real estate all about location, location, location.

In fact, to Kevin Systrom, the idea seemed innovative enough to found a company, Burbn (Systrom apparently is a fine whiskey connoisseur). The new app let you post your whereabouts and your plans. But the app’s HTYL5 mechanics were a little clunky, and it wasn’t taking off as Systrom had imagined.

How Systrom responded is how anyone who wants to stoke their creative mindset could learn from. See what you think and offer your stories and insights in the comments section below. 

Then after a couple of months, Mike “Mikey” Krieger, a user experience designer, came on board. Krieger and Systrom noticed something.

People were using the photo-sharing feature way more than the location-sharing feature.

They scrapped Burbn.

They studied comparable photo programs & apps and landed on an idea that would be Hipstamatic-meets-Facebook. They tested prototypes and experimented some more.

The result? In early October 2010, they launched Instagram. In two months, user numbers leapt from 100 to twelve million. Last March at SXSW, Systrom said the number was 27 million.

Their creative genius wasn’t just coming up with a cool app idea. Timing plus the right product were key to their success. But so was their detached willingness to scrap it, start over, and experiment.

Tina Seelig’s book InGenius

turned me onto this idea. The executive director of the Stanford Technology Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation writes this:

It is important to keep in mind that we perform experiments every single day when we do things as simple as introducing ourselves to someone new or trying a new food…. As the saying goes, ‘Genius is the ability to make the most mistakes in the shortest period of time.’ Each of those mistakes provides experimental data and an opportunity to learn something new. Like scientists, we need to stop looking at unexpected results as failures. By changing our vocabulary, by looking at ‘failures’ as ‘data,’ we enhance everyone’s willingness to experiment.

I’ve latched onto that reframe and tested it out on myself and clients. I am committed to collecting more data. Fail? Sure. I’m collecting data.

One key to doing so?

Detach yourself from your work. 

You are not your poem, your song, your idea, your workshop. You can argue it’s an expression of something unique about you. But until you can extract yourself from your work, you will be challenged to experiment – and even “scrap it” and start over.

Addendum: By the way, Systrom’s final way of detaching from Instagram? Less than two years after its launch, the former cappuccino maker sold it to Facebook for $1 billion in April 2012.


What do you think of the reframe of failing as collecting data? How have you or people you know made use of “failed” ideas and creative work?

See you in the woods,



Acknowledgements matter: Thanks to techcrunch for some story details. -jbd







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