THE GEE WHIZ DINER is not, by all appearances, a hotbed of creativity. It is a standard New York City greasy spoon a few blocks from the Fast Company offices. Yet it was there, over corned-beef hash and eggs, that we cooked up the idea for this issue's cover gatefold of Conan O'Brien.
Creativity often arises in unexpected places. NBC, certainly, didn't see Conan as a creative horse to bet on when it booted him from his dream job. And Conan, at first, had trouble seeing his public firing as an opportunity. He turned it into one by embracing social media and signing on with cable network TBS. Now, his new show is a commercial and creative success, helping him earn a spot on our annual list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business. As senior writer Chuck Salter shows on page 84, Conan's creative process is both high pressure and messy. And that's why it works.
Creativity is unpredictable and disruptive. The quest for a new idea often inspires fear — about whether the idea is the right one; whether executing it is possible; whether the costs of change will swamp its benefits. At Fast Company, we try to provide a bridge over this fear with coverage like our Most Creative People list. Here are four of the lessons embedded in our package:
1. Creativity can come from anywhere. The top-ranked person on this year's list, Al Jazeera director general Wadah Khanfar, is based in Qatar. Blogger Han Han (No. 25) plies his trade in China. Chief Almir of the Surui (No. 53) is bringing technology into the heart of the Amazon jungle. Creative breakthroughs can happen at large firms, as Gabriel Charlet (No. 62) has shown at Alcatel-Lucent, and at indie shops, as Laura Ching (No. 60) proves at Tiny Prints.
2. Creativity can solve problems that seem insurmountable. The hand-wringing over America's embattled education system didn't deter Sal Khan (No. 7) from creating an online video "academy" that has had 50 million views on YouTube alone. Giovanni Colella (No. 57) found a way around a barrier to affordable health care by building a portal that allows comparison-shopping for doctors. Google's Sebastian Thrun (No. 5) is using robotics to envision a future of safer driving with cars that actually drive themselves.
3. There is a limitless supply of creativity. We set one rule when generating this list each year: No repeats from past years, no repeats of people previously profiled in Fast Company. Yet despite that, we discovered hundreds of inspiring candidates — from Reshma Shetty (No. 20), who is using synthetic biology to create fuel out of carbon dioxide, to Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu (No. 61), who is educating impoverished Nigerian farmers via radio broadcasts.
4. Creativity implies reinvention. Conan isn't the only honoree who has redefined himself. So have Arianna Huffington (No. 10); Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (No. 29); and Brazilian fashion designer Oskar Metsavaht (No. 73), who found inspiration for a new clothing line in the ashes of his burned-out Rio headquarters.
We hope you find inspiration in the pages that follow and in our digital editions, which offer more insight into these 100 individuals' creative processes.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.