How to be a creative success

Branding has finally reached the snobs who think they are above it.

Every Gen Y-er knows about personal branding, and every Silicon Valley social media maven has one eye on their Klout score. But this year the New York Times declared that branding is a must-do for psychologists. You can’t make money if you don’t have a brand.

I was thrilled to read this because I have thought for many years that my therapists could benefit from having me help them run their careers. But whenever I ventured into this territory, the therapist invariably did something annoying like reminding me of client-therapist boundaries. Now, though, it’s clear: they should hire me.

Also, in case you think you are not in a field that requires branding, there is now officially nothing without a brand. Because look, even Liechtenstein is rebranding itself as a party room: Harper’s magazine reports that you can rent the whole country for the evening for $20,000.

The thing is that most people don’t want to brand themselves as a party room; they want to be known for being creative. Which makes sense because really, we are all creative – to be human is to be creative. But you have to work hard at it to be good.

Jonah Lehrer wrote a great article about how to be known for being creative. Of course this is before he made the famously stupid, but certainly creative, blunder of manufacturing quotes from Bob Dylan and subsequently becoming a persona non-grata in the journalism field. Lehrer shows that creativity is something that is learned, from practice.

Part of how you learn it is by collecting a wide range of information so that you can put things together in new ways. (Which is why you should always click on the links in my post. In fact, here’s one answering the question, “What does it feel like to have a trophy wife?” How can you not be curious about that?)

Another way to be creative is to look at trends, for how creative people are gaining traction. There are plenty of people known for their creativity who tell you the rules they follow. The well known comic strip author Hugh MacLoed writes some rules he uses for cultivating creativity. Here are three more rules about creativity that are gaining traction.

1. Being a misfit is something to brag about.
We have entered the age of the misfit. The Economist made a formal proclamation that business is benefitting from people with Aspergers, dyslexia and ADHD. At least twenty people sent the article to me, which makes sense, because I have all three. So I’m excited for my big moment, where ads for seven-figure job openings specify that the person should have all three of those mental aberrations. And I’m excited that the job opening will be for something where I don’t have to sit in an office all day long being nice to people, since I can’t do that.

2. The starving artist has made way for the SEO artist.
It used to be that there was no way to make money as an artist unless you could wow a gallery owner with your art, or sleep with him. Now, though, artists can take sales into their own hands. James Maher is a great example of this artist entrepreneurship – he’s selling his prints direct, from his site, and he’s so smart about SEO that he told me not to link to his name, but link from the keyword street photography instead.

And look at that photo up top. It’s by Elly Mackay and she calls it papercraft theater. I found her work on the art site My Modern Metropolis, which links to her etsy store, which means she’s getting traction without having to get into the Whitney. Fine art gatekeepers are falling in favor of the long tail marketers, and this means determined artists can support themselves. And we all get to see a lot more great art.

3. Plagiarism is finally getting some respect.
Quentin Rowan is featured in the New Yorker because he applied his photographic memory to maybe-plagarizing a whole book in such an artful way – using an incredibly large number of sources – that it’s hard to get angry at him.

The kids at Stuyvesant, the kids who scored around the top .0001% of all New York City high school students, came up with a really clever cheating ring that got them caught, but also got them enough respect from the school-is-stupid press to give the kids a voice. The tests are stupid – it’s just memorizing. The kids who do best on the tests don’t do best in life. And it’s impossible to regulate cheating these days.

Nick Denton, media mogel and fearless leader of Gawker, pointed out that most publications are reprinting stuff from other publications, and no one seems to care, which is very similar to kids reprinting phrases from the Internet. At least in so far as no one cares.

The only people who care are people whose jobs are to be the enforcers, but we probably don’t need enforcers: if you don’t like it, don’t read it. And if you give kids tests that measure something important in life – like grit and determination – there is no way to cheat.

And that, probably, is what you want your personal brand based on anyway – grit and determination. It seems to me that it’s the core of creativity. And it also seems to me that it’s what we would want most from a theapist that we hire – that they should have grit and determination themselves and know how to help us get it.

So the truth is that the way to be known for your creativity is to work really hard at being creative. That’s the bad news. Because everything worth aiming for is hard work and I wish that were not true. I wish I could sneak in one easy thing and get a lot of credit for doing it.

The good news is that there are things you’re working hard at – like coping with being a misfit and finding clever ways to plagiarize – that you didn’t realize were, in fact, the hard work of achieving recognition as a highly creative person.


37 replies
  1. Cassie Boorn
    Cassie Boorn says:

    I totally tried to talk my therapist into working on her personal brand. Most people find therapists through search now because noone wants to ask their friends on what therapist to go to. The problem is that IF a therapist has a website, not only is it poorly designed but they only share general info about their speciality. How much easier would it be to find a great therapist if their site said something like “I have helped 100 couples save their marriage by implementing a customized approach of X, Y, Z?” People invest so much money into a therapist, yet therapists are terrible at marketing themselves.

  2. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    That is all good news for me, I think, since I studied English– basically creative plagiarism– and now I am leveraging my writing skills to help in my dating life. And the ultramarathon I am training for is in two weeks so I am going to run 26 miles to celebrate my 26th birthday on Friday and perhaps even show that there is some kind of grit to me. So now I just need to apply those things to getting on a career path. I think I’m almost ready.

  3. Karyn Gorman
    Karyn Gorman says:

    Go deep! that is what someone said to me recently about personal branding. Much more important than having a personal brand is to be specific (look for your niche). After all, how many “creative” types do you know in this world. Much better to be known as that creative yarn weaver with a speciality in holiday dollies :)

    As to plagiarism: ask any author or book publisher “there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them”

  4. Michael Guidera
    Michael Guidera says:

    Your idea about creativity – that “Part of how you learn it is by collecting a wide range of information so that you can put things together in new ways.” also explains one of the dangers of going to grad school. If through focusing hard on a field you loose your connection with the wide range of interests that got you there in the first place, you might get a form of creative burndown that can take years to rekindle.

  5. O
    O says:

    I read Me 2.0 and remeber that Dan Schawbel said that one’s personal brand shouldn’t include race, politics, class or religion, unless that person wants to be a pundit. I don’t want to be a pundit, I’m just in to things that are polemic (and other, less polemic things as well.) Any suggestions on crafting a brand that won’t get me skewered, or is it just an inevitability?

  6. Joost Faassen
    Joost Faassen says:

    The “Entrepreneur of the Year 2012” winner, Ada Fried, became very successful just by being ‘creative’. Some of the things she did was to inspire others to be creative, be open/share, and… run it like a business. Just because you are creative doesn’t mean you can’t use your commercial common sense ;-)

    Here’s an article highlighting the 7 strategies that worked for her:

  7. Jacko
    Jacko says:


    I can see the ads now:

    Visit your local psychologists.

    We’re not crazy were just consistent in making you believe you are.



    Cheating is regulated these days now isn’t it.

    Shout out to Occupy.

  8. Willena
    Willena says:

    Ya know, I think I’m gonna use this column in a new book I’m writing ’cause its really cool. Who the hell cares Penelope Trunk is. She won’t mind if I steal her stuff and pass it off as my own.

    Or maybe she will.

    –The Plagiarism Police.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      People actually do this all the time. And not just for books. People have web sites that are devoted to republishing other peoples’ content and running ads on it. I would say that pretty much once a day I see someone who has taken one of my blog posts, published it on their site without permission, and run ads on it.

      I ignore it, because the sites are all really small.

      That said, the people who are republishing content are doing it without breaking any rules. It’s the new plagiarism: people don’t care if something is publishing only one place.

      Also, side note: did anyone notice how difficult it is to spell plagiarism correctly? The extra i is such a surprise to me.


      • NetM
        NetM says:

        I’m confused…

        Plagiarism is finally getting the respect it deserves, yet it’s not important enough for you to care when someone takes your words?

        What is the case exactly for why plagiarism is so awesome?

  9. Adam
    Adam says:

    Great links! I especially find Quentin Rowan’s story to be fascinating, I would liken him to be one of the greatest literary mashup-artists of our time, akin to remix artists like DJ Earworm or pop artists like Banksy. While his only error was to pass off his work as legitimately his own, his synthesis of all the great works he lifted is impressive in it of itself. With tools like photoshop and youtube, everything is just a “meme” or a video remix away from social commentary. I think it’s time to realize that creativity and traditional views of originality don’t always go hand in hand. Even though Rowan didn’t write the books he sampled he certainly was the first to combine them the way he did.


  10. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    I was right with you until you wrote, Plagiarism is finally getting some respect… The only people who care are people whose jobs are to be the enforcers, but we probably don’t need enforcers…And if you give kids tests that measure something important in life – like grit and determination – there is no way to cheat.

    Wow, I hope you’re joking. Otherwise, that’s just about the most idiotic thing I’ve ever read. Sloppy writing, illogical, disrespectful, trampling virtues you don’t like to champion the ones you do is scary ethics to say the least. You usually make some astute observations, but you’re off your rocker on this one.

  11. JF
    JF says:

    It takes a strange reading of that New Yorker article to determine that Quentin Rowan’s plagiarism is getting respect. While most people consider plagiarism stealing, apparently some consider it recycling (yes, I stole that.)

  12. Celeste
    Celeste says:

    Psychologists are bound by ethics not to advertise anything but their specialties. We are specifically forbidden to use patient testimonials, mis-leading statistics, or other much-hyped advertising introductions. I don’t know what the rules are for other therapists, but I know you can be cited by the psychology licensing board (with steep consequences) if you err in this department.

    • Dave Rowley
      Dave Rowley says:

      I bet there are ways around that for the canny ones:

      -A blog with posts like ‘What to look for when choosing a psychologist’ ‘How to take what you learned in therapy and use it at home’ or ‘Is your psychologist doing coke between sessions?’

      -A Tumbler account – featuring exquisite couches

      -Advice column

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Dave, those are really fun ideas. Maybe you should be a marketing consultant for therapists.


  13. Amelia
    Amelia says:

    I am not one to leave comments, but I have become an avid follower of your blog and this post literally epitomizes the success my sister has experienced. How wonderful it is that the ‘mis-fit’ and ‘starving artist’ is now leverage in creating a personal brand! She actually spoke at an XOXO function recently and gave a pretty compelling speech that touches on the same concept (albeit her somewhat shaky voice).

  14. Desire Smith
    Desire Smith says:

    U r a Godsend…I have decided to find me a therapist (for the drugs), and a personal Coach (for the motivation to recharge my battery)….thank u so much…I am now your biggest fan….Smoochies

  15. S. J.
    S. J. says:

    I think you read my mind, Penelope. I am working on an article about this now – before reading yours! :)

    To break it down a little more for recent grads, I think branding yourself is for everybody now ESPECIALLY because of the recession. You can no longer sell what you “Could” do. People expect you to go out and DO it in a freelance capacity (or volunteer capacity or some other outlet) and then show that you create customer satisfaction. The internet is an empowering tool It makes that a relatively reasonable demand. And like all technology, it adds a layer of social complexity to the job market arena.

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