How do we do ambitious creative work?

Hey! It’s been amazing reading everyone’s responses and comments to my leaving announcement from Farm.One. I have a bunch of folks still to respond to - please bear with me! I’ve also been catching up with AgTech people that I haven’t seen for a while. It’s been sunny and warm enough in New York to get moving outdoors again.

This week in Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant I am writing about creativity, in the first post of two parts. I find a lot of writing out there about how to be a ‘creative worker’, but instead I’m trying to present an alternate worldview around creativity and connection. I had fun, hope you do too!


If you’re like most leaders, you want to encourage creativity. This post will make you think more deeply about the process and the output.

If you want to be more creative, this post helps you understand where your individual work fits into the larger process, and how to navigate it.

If you see yourself as a creative, this post will give you a new perspective, and something to share with folks you work with to help your process along.


I wanted to write about creativity early on in Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant. It’s one of the topics I think about the most. I see it as one of the cornerstones of my career and how I think about professional life. The UK where I studied and worked is known globally for its creative industries and musical influence.

Everywhere I look I see companies and leaders talk about how important creativity is. When we talk about the value we make as humans, the topic of creativity comes up again and again — now even moreso within conversations about AI and the future of work.

While gradual improvements are essential (thank goodness for the steady price drop in LEDs and solar panels over the past twenty years), it is unlikely we can get out of our climate crisis, deforestation and other global problems from optimization alone. We clearly need new, ambitious ways of working to reconnect our societies, change our extractive approach, and rewild.

When we strive to do ambitious things like these, essentially we are saying we want to be creative. And I want to talk about how our model for that creativity needs to be part of the solution itself.

This a two-part post. Part one is about understanding the conditions for creativity and how it fits into a wider world. Part two is about creativity as an individual, and how your practices can produce a good outcome. Let’s go!


  1. Ways to think about creativity

  2. The creative process

  3. But wait, that’s all wrong

  4. Elegant solutions

  5. Harmonious solutions

  6. Purposeful creativity


In Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant, I want you to think about the way you think — your worldview.
Worldview is a prime factor in building a healthier world or a worse one.

Because creativity is how we build the world as we go along, how you think about that is critical.

Think about creativity as a process of moving from a situation of possibility, confusion or challenge, towards a new resolved state. Some people call it ‘problem-solving’ - but it’s more than that.

Creativity is in every moment. The simplest example is in talking - taking a non-articulated idea that is in your head and turning it into a message to another person. There are infinite ways to do this, and you create one. Each tiny choice is impactful.

There is a Diné (Navajo) proverb often translated as: "The sacred begins at the tip of the tongue. Be careful when speaking. You create the world around you with your words."

We associate creativity most often with visuals, audio and movement.
But examples of creativity are everywhere - anywhere you are doing anything that does not have a fixed outcome. So always.

  • Painting a picture

  • Figuring out how to establish bedtime routines with your kid

  • Responding to an upset customer

  • Negotiating a climate agreement

  • Inventing an app for dog walkers

The more you start to see creativity everywhere, the more you can find patterns in good solutions across disciplines.

Creativity is a craft. Creativity is something you can learn to participate in at a high quality. It can be improved by thoughtfulness, experience and skill.

How and what we create is connected to an infinite set of factors, including our environment, our practices, our worldviews, and our use of tools.

This is why, as the world moves, creativity is a continual unfolding of our relationship to the world around us, rather than a one-and-done action.

This interconnectedness is why the conditions surrounding creativity are as important as the steps in the process itself. We focus so much on the individual churning away in their ivory tower. But we built the tower!


So guess what? Your understanding of the creative process affects the outcome itself.

As a participant in a creative process (as someone who asks for creative output, who assists the process, who undertakes the process, who reviews it) you always have agency in helping a good outcome. It doesn’t matter if you are the artist drawing the portrait or the patron commissioning it - everyone plays their individual role.

Your mental framework of creativity will inform how the process goes.
You might be handed a framework by someone else. As you engage, try to think about what your framework is for the creative process, and use it as a useful anchor for your thinking and your interaction.

We normally use a linear framework for creativity. There are dozens. I want to share the kind of thing you might see a lot:

E.g. Imagine your boss asks you to come up with better packaging for your widgets, which are getting broken in transit:

  1. Prepare: You try to gather the needs of stakeholders, get a general understanding of the packaging landscape, your resources.

    In this phase, you are trying to create a coherent social reality - a map of all the relevant factors that can be understood by everyone. Of course, if you could perfectly understand the problem you would have actually solved it - so instead, you do the best you can.

    You create a brief that frames the worldview and the constraints. This is why briefs are so pivotal in shaping a project outcome and the experience of working on a project.

    I will write more on the next two parts, which go deeper into the individual creative process, in Part 2.

    For anyone involved in these steps, a key quality is patience. It takes time to learn how to continue working or waiting while a problem remains unsolved, and avoiding leaping to an early solution. Some of the best creative folks either work intensely to block out that sense of uncertainty, or just never get stressed about it in the first place.

  2. Incubate: You are now trying to work and play with the problems identified within the brief and the constraints. You are trying to experiment and see all the different configurations.

  3. Illuminate: The process of expanding on a good idea and turning it into something understandable and concrete (shedding light on it).

  4. Review: In this step you evaluate the creative output. Read on for ways in which you might do this.

  5. Implement

This mental framework is useful to align folks around a common schedule. You see variations of it all the time. It works.


Don’t believe the lies I told you above. Creativity really happens in a cycle. Whatever role you are playing, you join the process at one part of an ongoing cycle. There is no beginning or end. You’d be crazy to think otherwise! 🤣 

This is a subtle, obvious thing. Of course before you started working on the packaging, someone had made a previous version. Of course this is a process of iteration, where your design will be superseded by the next. Of course.

In formal work communication, we tend to linearize the cycle, to create a useful bounding-box for a corporate structure, a project, a team. The obvious problem is we believe we can ‘move on’ after the project is complete.

We also tend to solidify the cycle into a specific level of depth and rigid containers - we don’t always ‘think bigger’ or interact with other cycles going on. These cycles might be moving at different paces in different parts of an organization.

For example, in a packaging project, you might just look at packaging, and not the company’s distribution system, or the materials of their product. The solution you come up (new packaging) might be less effective than an approach which takes into account other variables, like changing to a safer method of distribution, and making the product waterproof, requiring less packaging. You might not even talk to the folks involved.

Imagine how common this is within a company. Now think about all the things we are missing between companies, organizations, people, by thinking as things as closed loops that don’t interact.

The ring-fencing of creativity into containers runs counter to a truly connected process that incorporates the full complexity of reality.

When you look at each stage itself, it also has its own loops. So within the incubation stage you are re-gathering information, illuminating specific areas, reviewing etc.

Inbetween the stages of this cycle, we have choices on what to do and how to do it. So the hand-off processes between stages (presenting a pitch, thinking about how to gather feedback, integrating new knowledge) have as much space for attention as the stages themselves. They have their own creative loops. This is one way to show that the division of people into ‘creatives’ and ‘non-creatives’ is also a fabrication.

The visualization of these steps as a self-contained system will make you forget the connections around you and produce inelegant output.

A down-to-earth example of this is the disaster of plastic waste - in which case there is no such place as ‘away’ to throw our plastic waste and it is now ending up in our waterways and even in our water bottles as microplastics.

The creative process is more like a fractal — a landscape where the more you zoom in, the more detail you see and the more you see the cycle repeated in miniature — and equally when zooming out you see the cycle repeated again.

The fractal creative process

Coming back to earth, it’s of course totally fine to hold the old, linear model in your mind while you go about certain tasks. The trouble comes when:

  • You reify a model, seeing it as a true representation of reality

  • You instruct others to see it as such

  • You build systems to solidify it further into reality

    • Ways of working with humans

    • Schedules, deadlines

    • Compensation

    • Hierarchy

    • Evaluations of performance

  • You forget the connections outside of it

In Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant, I will keep on encouraging you to see our models for what they are - ideas created by previous generations, sometimes elegant, sometimes not. You can discard and rebuild. Always as an interconnected element in their environment.

Think about how you:

  1. Use models

  2. Understand and articulate their attributes

  3. Understand how they impact other things

  4. Discard them when you want to look at things a different way

  5. Reinvent new ones, treating them dispassionately.

Also, think about how you subscribe to newsletters 😉 


OK OK OK. So, what’s the point of all this, anyway? How do we tell if we’re in a good one of those spinning creative cycle wheel things, or a bad one? What are we actually trying to produce?

I’m going to go into the individual side of creativity in Part 2. But a lot less writing exists out there about the connected aspect. So let’s look at that now.

Our creative job is to produce elegant output. Elegant output means a solution that not only resolves an uncertainty, takes advantage of an opportunity, or solves a problem — but does so in a characteristically high-quality way that satisfies broader requirements and has an intrinsic logic.

Elegant solutions tend to share four common attributes.

  • Simple: Elegant solutions are free of unnecessary elements, and efficiently solve multiple aspects of a problem with one approach.

    For example, a paperclip is a very easy-to-use, safe, low-cost method of paper-fastening, does not permanently damage the paper, and is incredibly easy to manufacture.

  • Aesthetic: Elegant solutions tend to look ‘right’ to humans.

    A well-known example is how during the search for the structure of the DNA double-helix, Watson and Crick were aware they probably had not found the true solution, because their draft attempts were clearly awkward and ugly.

    It is easy to chase aesthetic appeal when you want elegance, but this is normally the wrong way round — form normally follows function.

  • Universal: Often, elegant solutions have a fundamental, universal nature, which makes them applicable to other contexts.

    Think of the idea of stretching skin or cloth (a soft material under tension) over a lightweight frame made of wood or bone (a hard material under compression) - this is a yurt, a tipi, an awning, an umbrella, a glider, a bat’s wing.

    True universality is hard to achieve. For example, USB is literally designed to be ‘universal’ but that universality applies only to consumer electronic devices built in the last couple of decades or so, and will be nearly obsolete within the next decade.

  • Harmonious: Elegant solutions provide value not only within their own space, but also within their context of the environment or system they are part of. The coolest aspect: they use the interconnected nature of the broader system to assist in problem-solving the smaller system.

    Creating harmonious solutions requires the deepest work and is the most difficult. It is the area that we are least effective in.

As you think through these attributes, consider how nature does it. Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant…

How might animals, plants, fungi and other organisms (and non-organisms) display these characteristics in the design of their physical structures, in their behaviors, in their social/networked systems, the ways that they interact with other thigns? Find nonhuman teachers 😀 

The reason the practice of biomimicry is so fascinating is because nature holds fundamentally elegant solutions to many problems.

We can also look to humans.


Harmony is the area in which most modern innovation fails completely. When you look around and operate in the world, it is clear that most of our ways of working completely disregard this aspect. It’s an area of creative thinking that is still under-represented.

I think it’s worth taking the Harmony attribute as an instruction:
How might we use interconnectedness itself to solve problems?

Working with things ‘from the outside’ of a problem is pretty magical. One of my favorite simple examples from math is the 17-animal inheritance puzzle where you lend someone a desert camel temporarily to help them divide up their inheritance. I found that puzzle in a dusty paperback on my grandmother’s shelf about thirty years ago and I still think about it all the time.

Maybe it makes sense for me to care about math and camels. I am a product of my environment: I was born in Australia, a desert nation that is home to some of the world’s most ancient nomadic cultures, my grandfather was a ship captain, my father, sister and nieces are sailors and nearly everyone else in my family is a teacher. My mum is obsessed with the moon and they discuss winds at dinner-time.

My parents live in an area of Australia called Williamstown, the home of the Yalukit-willam clan of the Kulin nation. They refer to the area as "koort-boork-boork", a term meaning "clump of she-oaks", literally "She-oak, She-oak, many.". The Yalukit-willam clan is one of hundreds of different Indigenous Australian groups that share a network of land, culture, trade, tradition and other aspects of life.

Mind-blowing resilience

Indigenous Australians cultivated and sustained a resilient human culture for around 50,000 years before Europeans invaded, based on an incredibly deep understanding of the land. This may be the oldest stable human population outside of Africa.

Think about how close we have come to global destruction in just the past few decades, compared with a thousands-of-generations-long timeframe.

I want to share a staggering example of elegant and harmonious systems thinking, from Indigenous Australian culture. Similarly-smart systems are present in other indigenous cultures. My map is not the territory - I am sharing my naive understanding of information. At the end of this post I have book recommendations that are better.

The first inhabitants came from the North, probably via a short sea voyage.

Around 50,000 years ago, the first settlers of Australia arrived from the North. They may have been numbered as few as 1,000 people. They were immediately confronted with life-or-death questions:

  • How do you figure out how to live? How do you share knowledge of how to understand the land, how to live in it, how to find food and water? To survive?

  • How do you do this in a mostly-desert environment in which, in some areas, the only way to survive is through nomadism?

  • As the population grows, how do you protect the knowledge of your group while trading and interacting with other groups?

  • How and where do you store critical knowledge that might need to span several generations, for example how to adapt to catastrophic natural events, like an ice age that lasted thousands of years?

Memory through song

Humans invented a system that solved all of these issues and more. Over some period in the past 50,000 years the songlines system was developed.

Songlines is a cross-cultural word used for the walking routes created by indigenous peoples that criss-cross the entire land mass of Australia. They encode meaning, including the features and shape of the land, intricate details of flora and fauna, access to water and more.

This is purely an abstract representation. This is not real.

Each walking route is inextricably linked to a representation in song, which has its own meta-attributes around status and group knowledge. The songs are passed down among groups and sub-groups that form an overlaying network over familial inheritance.

Memory Palaces

To get your head around songlines, let’s start with the entry-level city-dweller version, the ‘memory palace’ concept. This is a method of memorization popularly attached to the ancient Greeks, but it’s used in some form by thousands of cultures around the world. In a memory palace, you use:

  1. A mental image of a familiar place (e.g. your apartment)

  2. A defined order by which you explore that place and the fixed objects within it (e.g. first we go to the entrance hall, and examine the umbrella stand then closet)

  3. To attach vivid imaginations of objects to remember 
    (to remember the first card in a deck, a Jack of Spades, you might picture a royal courtier Jack smashing your ceramic umbrella stand into smithereens with a spade).

It’s worth trying a memory palace out for yourself so that you can sample the texture of mental process that it evokes. There is a satisfying vividness to the memorization of items through this technique. It is a creative solution to memory that invites further creativity in the user.

A really dumbed-down illustration of a songline

A songline is far more powerful than a memory palace, because it uses the shared, interconnected and fractal nature of the entire landscape to make shared memory that can be multi-layered, contain public and private information, and can be annotated. Let’s see how:

The basic structure: Imagine you live on a street with a red house, a blue one, a tree, a bar. Try walking along your street and singing the words ‘red house, blue house, oak tree, bar’ as you walk past each of these things, to the tune of ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’.

Now walk this street singing this song with your friends Chris and Leisa a few dozen times and the three of you will never ever forget these things on your street and the order of them. You have a shared memory. You can remind each other of it wherever you are in the world, just by singing the song.

Hundreds of different plants. Easy to remember!

One of the most compelling lessons I learned at Farm.One was about how attuned the human brain is to kinetic, place-derived cues. Walking the farm and touching, tasting and smelling plant varieties made it incredibly easy to remember plants, their names, characteristics. Our farmers easily remember the exact location of hundreds of individual plants within a multi-layer racking system with hundreds of positions - on rollers. We are designed for this stuff. So just think how compelling a landscape can be as a memory tool, given the smells of plants and the feeling of wind as additional aids.

Fractal information levels: Then, go have a look at the blue house - let’s embed some deeper information using a zoomed-in view of the landscape. Look at the four stepping stones leading up to it. Notice each stone has a different shape or imperfection, as all stones do.

Let’s say you and Chris want to remember some local New York birds (maybe you want to hunt). You can show and tell Chris a new, detailed variation to the ‘Red House, Blue House’ song that includes vibrant imaginative stories about those birds, attached to the shape of the four stones.

You can use the stones and their imperfections to relate to the four birds you want to remember, the mark in the shape of a crow’s beak, a row of imperfections signifying a woodpecker’s rat-a-tat, another for a goldfinch, and a blue jay. You can sing about where the birds live, how they move, how to hunt them. So now to store your hunting information you both have a song and a visual reminder you can share with others. This is a creative use of the depth of our landscape.

Secrecy: But maybe you don’t tell Leisa. She can see the steps but because you have not told her what they ‘mean’ she has no idea. The structure for the information is plainly available but the interpretation is not. In turn, Leisa can have other places that mean other things that she hasn’t told you. She can even independently create her own meaning on the exact same stones, shared only with her own group.

Annotation and public knowledge: Then, to be helpful to weary travelers, you carve a diagram on the back wall of the red house. The diagram shows how far away the bar is, using the blue house and the oak tree as reference points. You could reference where this diagram is in the song you tell to Brandon and Jane, but not to Eric and Tina.

Networks of information: If you talk to your friends on the other streets in the neighborhood, they can share versions of their own songs that contain public information. Where Eric and Tina’s songs cross yours, you might mention them, and they might do the same in turn, giving you a neat method of triangulation. Imagine scaling this up. Across Australia you have hundreds of these kinds of memory song tracks crossing a country that is 2/3 the size of the US, containing the knowledge of literally all of the wildlife, all of the waterholes, all of the groups of people, all of the plant life, down to the detailed resolution of walking steps on a trail.

Completeness: The complete integration of songlines systems with landscape not only makes it a powerful shared memory system, in return it also imbues being and living in each place with a richness of experience because everything has meaning. This is elegance in action - a human-designed system that is completely harmonious.

Resilience: Of course our modern example lacks resilience because we’re constantly changing our landscape, even within generations. When someone knocks down the red house and knocks together the blue house and the bar, we have to rewrite the song. But when we live in a real, geological landscape, this doesn’t happen often, and natural disasters momentous enough to destroy landscape also force an adjustment in our knowledge, so because of the resilience of the songlines idea, this problem is its own solution.

Of course a tragic, effective way to damage the songlines system is to move in, turn it all into farmland and push out the population, which is what the British did in Australia. This is just one demonstration among many of how our modern dominant culture can be so destructive, during a time when we consider ourselves to be incredibly smart and sophisticated.

It’s interesting to look back at how ‘Memory Palace’ concepts may have evolved as a creative solution a few thousand years ago as many cultures were making a destructive shift towards agriculture and city-dwelling — a process which effectively wipes the original meaning from the landscape, and puts humans in contact more with constructed buildings than natural features.

Songlines are just a taste of how elegant and resilient interconnected solutions can be, and how high our standards for creativity can be.


I share the songlines example as an inspiration because it’s time for us to upgrade our expectations of creativity. We do not encounter many examples of truly elegant solutions in our modern work life, and that means we do not hold ourselves to expect them. We seem to be bewildered by the complex interactions that our society contains, and keep on inventing new things that do not heal or interact with those existing structures. Our relationship with land is to use it for resource extraction, rather than trying to re-intertwine our culture within it.

My hope is that when we think about purposeful creativity around climate change and attempts to avert other human crises, we can embody a more complete approach to creativity in everything we do — an approach which uses the land and how we live on it, in a smarter way.

Collectively, we can try to:

  • Be thoughtful about the worldview we have around creativity

  • Examine the processes we use and how they constrain our output

  • See the spaces in-between our work as opportunities for creativity

  • Use interconnectedness as a helper, not a constraint

  • Use harmony as a measure for creative output

  • Look at long-term stable indigenous societies for inspiration


I’m just scratching the surface of this stuff. Some of the books that were helpful in this post and can lead you down interesting rabbit holes:

  • Sand Talk, where I originally learned the songlines concept

  • Songlines, a flawed fictional book that is worth reading.

  • First Footsteps, a TV series and book about the first Australians

Suggested reading on creativity (more in the next post):


In the next post, I want to talk about individual creativity. Because I believe that creativity comes as much from conditions as causes, I will talk further about this and how it can inform how you think about your own work.

I’m always curious to hear examples you might have of creative and elegant solutions. Please feel free to share in the comments below.


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