Creativity Takes Courage (or How a Ball Pit for Hamsters Made Me More Creative)

Time for roll call.

Cyprus. Check.

Chile. Check.

Philippines. Check.

India. Check.

Washington D.C. Check.

Oregon. Check.

We were six men and women on a sketchy Skype connection, ready to dig into our first group project for an online creativity course we were taking through Stanford University. As the team leader/gatherer of creative people, I had spent no less than 3.5 hours researching and verifying time zones, school schedules, sleep times and lunch breaks to make this meeting happen.

Our first assignment: Reframe Gum. “Look at gum in a new way. What’s the most interesting and creative thing you can do with it?” our syllabus challenged.

My brain launched into creative fifth gear.

“I have the most awesome idea ever!” I shouted into my computer’s microphone. “A ball pit for hamsters!”

Skype silence. I wasn’t sure if they heard me, so I repeated it.

“A ball pit that people’s pet hamsters can play in! You know… using gumballs instead of plastic balls.” My fertile mind traveled to a magical place where hamsters catapulted off of springboards into pits of gumballs. They frolicked and backstroked and dove for pieces of lettuce. It was so weird. I loved it.

The silence, however, was unnerving.

It was then that I realized our language barriers were going to be problematic. Four of the six team members barely spoke English. Most had no idea what a hamster even was.

“It’s a small, furry pet… like a mouse, only better. People buy cages and fancy food and exercise wheels for them to run on.”


“When hamsters get loose, you often find them under the dishwasher.”

And that was the last coffin nail.

I watched my brilliant idea fade into obscurity.

After agonizing, molasses-slow conversations back and forth, our team decided that our idea would be “Chewing gum that makes you happy.”

We worked up a boring ol’ PowerPoint presentation showing how, with the help of a secret formulary ingredient, our chewing gum could vastly improve a person’s mood.

Not horrible. But also not good.

As expected, our project was swallowed up in the swarm of hundreds of other presentations that were submitted for peer review. We failed to stand out.

The remainder of the course bumbled along the same trajectory. Due to time zone logistics and cultural misunderstandings, my team could never quite break the creativity sound barrier.

It was heartbreaking to hunker down in mediocrity.

Unfortunately, our worldly creativity collaboration did not produce stellar results. I blame myself. In order to please five people, I downplayed my creative vision as the team leader. Rather than pressing forward with an idea that would have been both unconventional and hilarious, we tightened the screws on our creative mind shackles and churned out a whole bunch of vanilla.

I often refer to this experience as “The Creativity Class that Stifled my Creativity.”

Here’s what I should have done instead:

Been perfectly clear from the beginning, as the leader, that boring, obvious ideas would be chucked. Our motto should have been, “Be weird. Be bold. Or get the hell out.”

Trusted my instincts when an intriguing idea entered my brain and took root

Maybe this would have actually happened:

Rad, right?

I’m inspired to rock my creative power every time I look at it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ideas and the creative process (so much so that they’ve settled into my brain couch with a family-size bag of Cheetos and a six-pack of beer… these thoughts won’t be going anywhere for a while)

So, how do you know if your idea is any good?

I have a mental checklist that I use when determining whether or not to move forward with an idea:


There’s a good reason why it hasn’t whooshed in and out like other random thoughts. When an idea becomes a squatter in your brain, it’s probably because you need to act on it.


What’s the point if it doesn’t help solve a problem, make a life easier or induce a laugh that will make someone’s day better.


Weird stands out. Weird is brave. Weird gets noticed.


Status quo kind of sucks. Standing still garners apathy. Always be moving forward.


It’s a good sign when you’re not quite sure how to make it happen. The best ideas are often the most challenging.

If I can answer three out of five with a resounding “yes”, I’ll go for it.

Let’s talk about using this checklist in business.

Say that I am the CEO of Bold Betty Brewing, an eclectic women-owned-and-operated brewery in Portland, Oregon. [Bold Betty is a dream client I conjured up recently and they are my favorite make-believe company on the face of the planet. We’d probably compare tattoos while swigging a delish Porter during our creative meetings.]

As the kickass CEO of Bold Betty, I have an idea to launch a storytelling series about the people who drink my beer. I see a lot of offbeat patrons enter my tasting room every day and their stories are important to me. Why are they here? Why “my” beer? These are things I want to know. Other people probably do, too.

My idea is to have a slideshow on the homepage of my website that visitors can scroll through to read the stories of beer drinking human beings. These stories come from snapshots I have taken and conversations I’ve had with my beloved customers.

Good idea or bad idea?

Let’s run it through the checklist.


Yes. I need to make my business more personal. People love stories. I love my customers and I want to tell their stories.


Probably, depending on the story. Some of my customers are delightful characters. And my beer is REALLY good.


Some stories are very interesting… and shocking. I don’t think any other breweries in the Pacific NW are doing anything like this.


Definitely. This would be just the beginning. I can totally see a link between beer and storytelling. Perhaps use the brewery as an “industrial”         storytelling venue, a la ‘The Moth.’ Print customer short stories on product packaging. Use customers’ stories in our print ads and advertising So many possibilities.


Not impossible. Just a lot of work. I can do this.

I say, “Go for it, Bold Betty.”

•   •   •

Why is it so difficult to trust our creative ideas? They come from a brilliant, bottomless part of our brain. Mold them. Refine them. Shove them through a checklist machine. If they’re good enough, you’ll make them happen.

As Henri Matisse said,

“Creativity takes courage.”  

What idea are you ready to rock?


11 comments leave a reply
  • October 2, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Loved this, Maisie (no surprise there)! My mind immediately when into calculating how long each piece of gum would need to be chewed to create the perfect consistency to make a gum ball without being too sticky to mess up the hamster’s fur. And then it occurred to me that you might be thinking of pre-formed gum balls rather than sticks of gum mashed into balls, which is a far more beautifully colorful solution though possibly less comfortable for the hamster (hard candy shells and all).

    I would have liked to be on your team.

    And on that note… holy hell, chica, we really do have to work together – I don’t know how or when, yet, but my antennae are up. xo


    • October 3, 2014 at 9:14 am

      Emily, you are a gem! Thanks for the comment.

      I often found myself thinking “Well, hell, what’s going to keep the hamsters from eating up all of the gumballs?”, followed by horrifying thoughts of hamsters being rushed to the veterinarian en masse to have stomachs pumped. Ah, imagination.

      And, yes, we should collaborate. I am sure we would come up with something so fabulous it would make the world’s head spin. *brain cogs are spinning*


  • October 2, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    If only you had that illustration to show your group! I think that really would have sold it. Love the hamster helmet.


    • October 3, 2014 at 9:16 am

      I know, right?

      The real conundrum is: How do you teach a hamster to climb the diving board stairs?

      Thanks for the comment, my friend!


  • October 2, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    “Be weird. Be bold. Or get the hell out.” Yes! I want to be a part of this group, yo! You have such a beautiful way with words. It’s funny how the majority of our lives are spent with groups that really don’t get us – think about any forced group in high school and college. You get stuck with people who just don’t get it. And we have the choice – to either flow with our own weirdness, or to get taken over by mediocrity and convention. I’ll admit, I’ve been stuck in the mediocrity groups before, but it was only until I stepped onto the ledge of my own weirdness that I started doing the real, meaningful work. I think that’s why I tend to work best on my own, but then work alongside a group to reaaaally make something come to life. I feel a little empty if I just spend my time working on one thing alone FOREVER. We need connections… and good beer.


    • October 3, 2014 at 9:19 am

      Hello, Kristen! Thanks for stopping by the blog.

      I often get caught in that weird place, too, between flying solo and group collaboration. Most of my best work is done when I am hunkered down at my desk, alone, at 1 a.m. But I agree… some of the best results come from the collaboration of a group that is on the same page and ready to make some huge dents in the Universe. Balance is key.


  • October 2, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Love this post! Also, that idea for Bold Betty is fantastic. You should sell it to someone, or, hell, open the brewery and do it yourself! I’m definitely bookmarking this post for future inspiration and the creative idea checklist! And so that when I’m having a bad day I can look at a hamster diving into gumballs.


    • October 3, 2014 at 9:21 am

      Hi Sara! Thanks for the cool comment.

      The more I develop the persona of Bold Betty, the more I want it to happen for realsies. I’d jump on that wagon before it even came to a stop! I live in Bend, Oregon (Beer Town USA), so maybe something fab like Bold Betty will happen one day.

      That hamster pic will always be within my line of vision while working. Such a great reminder to dream big, eh?


  • October 3, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Your checklist and hamster photo are now next to my desk as daily remidners. Also, your profile for Bold Betty is one of the best I’ve read.


    • October 3, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Ah, thanks Yoneco!

      I’d love for Bold Betty to become a reality. As I develop this business persona, it just gets better and better. 🙂

      Take care, my friend.


  • October 6, 2014 at 2:56 am

    “Be weird. Be bold. Or get the hell out.”

    I’m getting that tattooed! Very wise words to live by!


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