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How 13 of the Most Creative People in Business stay creative in their work

Inspiration can be hard muster, even for the pros. Here’s how top execs at The Weather Channel, The Wing, Clorox, Andreessen Horowitz, and more keep the ideas coming.

How 13 of the Most Creative People in Business stay creative in their work
[Images: Daniel Knighton/FilmMagic/Getty Images (Gilligan); Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Parsons (Wainright); Steven Ferdman/Getty Images (Saujani); Tetiana Lazunova/iStock]

It’s a mean feat to keep the creative juices flowing. Even the most successful people still have to work at it. “As a writer, it’s basically job one,” says Vince Gilligan, the creator, director, and head writer of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

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“It’s pretty much baked into the position,” says fellow showrunner Graham Yost (Justified, The Americans).

On the 10th anniversary of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business, we asked some of the list’s notable alumni how they keep the ideas coming.

Sometimes it simply about making the space, when work days are overwhelmed with meetings and other scheduled appointments. “If you pack your calendar every day or remain in the exact same environment, that can short-circuit the creative process,” says Ben Horowitz, founding partner at venture capital giant Andreessen Horowitz.

“You have to find time for inspiration, and to unconsciously dwell,” agrees Denise Garner, chief innovation officer at The Clorox Company. “That’s when creativity emerges for me.”

Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of The RealReal, a luxury goods consignment company that’s now worth $500 million, takes the time to explore art fairs and fashion shows and go to the theater. Audrey Gelman, cofounder and CEO of The Wing, a women’s coworking space and social club, mines magazines, ads, and photos–both digital and print–and surfs sites such as Pinterest.

Often, inspiration comes from personal interactions. Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, says that she often learns as much from the four-star generals she meets at the U.S. Air Force Academy as she does from Girl Scout Daisies. “Because so many of the people I meet are united around making the world a better place, I get to bring the different strands of thought together,” she says. “To me, that’s where creativity comes from.”

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The Wing’s Gelman says that during meetings, “it’s often junior employees who come up with the best ideas.”

Alex Rappaport, cofounder of Flocabulary, takes this a step further, saying that a great way to “recharge creativity” is to mentor people early in their careers. “Not only does it feel great to help others who are making their way on a similar journey–it can also shine light on my own experience.”

Of course, coming up with an idea is only part of it. Turning it into reality requires its own form of creativity. For Gelman, this means sticking to her “no sequels” rule, meaning every creation is original. “As all brands are slowly copying and cannibalizing each other, design and creativity can be a strategic moat,” she says.

Nora Zimmett, chief content officer at The Weather Channel, explains that she and her team wanted viewers to feel immersed in a natural disaster and to viscerally feel the dangers, so they employed augmented reality to create Immersive Mixed Reality, which can simulate a tornado or a forest fire. “I do not believe we would have gotten the [same] response from our audience had we just done what was easy and obvious,” Zimmett says.

To curb overhead and waste, fashion designer Misha Nonoo created her Easy 8 collection, composed of eight pieces of clothing that create 22 versatile looks. “Thinking outside the box is how Misha Nonoo will continue to break new ground,” she says of her eponymous company.

This kind of thinking has been central to Reshma Saujani‘s mission: “Be brave, not perfect.” Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, laments that boys are taught to be brave but girls are taught to be perfect. She is conscious of working with her team to set “goals that feel so completely out of our reach that we have to do away with any notion of perfection,” she says. “In this way, we’re forcing ourselves to be brave, not perfect.”

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Too often, creativity is a skill that goes underappreciated within companies because it’s hard to measure, says Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO of 4-H, America’s largest youth development organization. Yet it’s invaluable to endeavors such as 4-H’s, to advance social and economic mobility for children in underserved communities. “Creativity isn’t something we set aside until it’s needed,” she says. “It’s what drives our work.”

Ultimately, though, truly creative people are creative not because it’s a professional requirement, but rather because it brings them joy.

“Creativity isn’t a hobby or a switch you turn on or off,” says chef Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster fame. “It doesn’t matter which job or project I’m working on. Creativity is the core of why I’m there in the first place.”
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