A key scene in 2016's Hidden Figures portrays Katherine Johnson solving an orbital riddle. Her breakthrough:

"It could be old math. Something that looks like the problem numerically and not theoretically. Math is always dependable."

The film's heroine, like her real-world self, was deeply acquainted with numbers (which is still an understatement).

This scene reminds me of another, which unfolded in early January of 1969 on the sound stage of Twickenham Studios. Paul McCartney begins strumming his acoustic, then adds some mixture of skatting and humming:

A few seconds later, "Get Back" was born (must watch TV).

These Pictures Are The Same

Yes, these are superficially different — one is holding a guitar, the other a math textbook, but they are the same fundamentally: both Katherine and Paul are so steeped in their crafts that they're able to create where others only know to observe.

(It really hurt to resist a detour into the co-evolution of music and mathematics — Ed.)

And they're able to do this because (1) they how to get closer and closer to the solution without being fatally wrong and (2) they know how to stay in this space until the solution emerges.

Fatal mistakes are the kind that kill momentum and creativity, the muse and the gestalt. The twist? In creative endeavors, the mistake is viewing mistakes as harmful, or surrounding yourself with people that harbor this misunderstanding. These are people that don't understand the creative process. Whether through conditioning or nature, they perceive a deep need to be right the first time. This is toxic and stifling to a creative culture. As Ed Catmull summarizes: originality is fragile.

With the right people in the room, or in Katherine's case, the right level of inward determination (her ability to be creative even among hostile teammates makes her even more remarkable), it becomes possible to sketch your way towards the solution, doubling down on what the new iteration gets right while discarding what it gets wrong, and then repeating.

Katherine lingered in front of the chalkboard and its incorrect expressions for long enough to perceive the underlying shape. Paul strummed for long enough to bark out an awkward "Get back!" against a nascent rhythm. These messy formulations were then developed among wider and wider audiences, each new horizon providing less constructive feedback and more unproductive criticism, until it was polished and hardened, suitable for mass adoption.

The Creative Founder

How deep is your understanding of your business, your craft, and your prospect's needs? Do you have to approach them at the surface, or can you approximate them first?

When you're creating your product, does it feel like you're painting by numbers, or does it feel like sketching — working with shapes and light strokes first, then filling in the details based on filtered feedback? Can you, and do you have permission to, hum, strum, squint, and linger?

The former demands neither skill nor cultural excellence, but it creates binary outcomes: you either put the right colors in the right places the first time, or you're dead wrong. The latter allows for revision that can push your team to the limit of finding fit — but as Paul knew music and Katherine knew math, it demands a determined love for creativity and a mastery of the underlying elements, themes, incentives, and structures of your market.

What can you sketch?