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“I can’t help but think,” Park would say during taekwondo. “I can’t turn off my brain.” —Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park

We’ve all heard the stories. The novel that was turned down by 31 publishers before Little, Brown and Company bought it and its author, James Patterson, went on to become fabulously success­ful. The screenplay about an archaeologist looking for a lost religious relic in World War II that nobody in Hollywood wanted anything to do with until Paramount took a chance and Raiders of the Lost Ark went on to kill it at the box office.

The thing is, you never know how many times it’s going to take to hit on The One, whether it’s the big novel, the big song, the big videogame or the big advertising idea. If you’re lucky, you might get started, and bam! There it is. All shiny and polished and dripping with brilliance. And if you’re not, well, that first idea might not live to see the light of day. And so you keep going. Pushing this button and that. Pulling this thread and that.

The question is, when do you stop?

Even when you know you’ve landed on something seriously big, is that it? Is that the end of the rainbow? What if you went an hour longer? A day? What if you turned over one more stone? Who’s to say something even bigger and shinier might not be waiting to be discovered?

All our lives, we’ve had it tattooed on our brains. You’re over­thinking the problem. Don’t do that. Just solve it and walk away. Move on. You have a great idea, so enough. Stop. You’re over­thinking it, and everyone knows that can pull you into a conceptual rabbit hole. 

Tim Geoghegan is a freelance writer, and he has no idea what those people are talking about. “To anyone deep in the creative process, there is nothing more frustrating than to be accused of overthinking. Scattering the pieces and examining them is often the first step to seeing what else they can become.” 

Overthinkers are question askers: How does that work? Why is it that color? Does it have to look like that? What does the name mean? What if we tried this? Is this song better? Why is it better? Is there a better story? Where does it begin? How does it end? Thinkers want to know things. Overthinkers want to know everything. And they can’t. And they know that. But curiosity is to creativity what a sharpening stone is to a ninja sword. No stone, no edge. No questions, no brilliance. Creativity is about connecting dots that have never been connected before. The more dots in your possession, the more connections you can make and the greater the chances of giving birth to some truly remarkable work. Dots don’t just happen. Questions make them happen. But questions can only get you so far.

Overthinkers like to dress up in other people’s clothes. They like to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes, feel what they feel. Overthinkers are perspective junkies. Their fresh perspec­tives could be a boon to creatives if they would only search for these new angles. This is the problem with so many creatives. Not long after Interstellar came out, I stumbled onto a weird little book written by Edwin Abbott, an 18th-century schoolmaster, titled Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. In the book, a square lives in a two-dimensional world. He discovers a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. No one back in his two-dimensional world believes him. The squares and circles and triangles only know what they’ve always known. A cube? A sphere? A pyramid? Don’t be ridiculous. Sometimes we creatives are like that. We don’t know, and we don’t want to know. Over­thinkers want to know. 

Not that overthinking is always a good thing. Far from it. As creative people today, we’re juggling more tools than at any other time in advertising. Digital. Experiential. Transmedia. Design. Television. Mobile. All of which is compounded by all the other choices in our lives. It can be massively overwhelming. 

Overthinking can cause you to spend too much time and energy dissecting a problem, pulling it every which way. It can cause you to see opportunities and pitfalls that aren’t there. It can drive you so far down the rabbit hole, you might as well set up house­keeping because you’re never coming back. But do it right, know how to control it, and overthinking can take you to places in your creativity that you might never have thought possible. ca

Ernie Schenck (ernieschenckcreative.prosite.com) is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.
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