Creativity and rock candy

Did you ever, as a kid or a parent, do the science experiment where you dissolved a bunch of sugar in water and then tried to make rock candy?

Rock candy

I’ve done it both as a kid and as a parent, and it’s gratifying either way. But here’s what I noticed as a kid and had to explain as a parent: when you place the supersaturated sugar solution in a sunny window to slowly begin evaporating, putting it in a glass with nothing else makes crystallization take a really long time, on the order of days.

When you place the solution in the same window with a pencil across the top and a bit of string in the water, crystallization happens much sooner, within hours.

When you place the solution in the same window, with the pencil and string, but you moisten the string and roll it in sugar before you dip it in the solution, crystallization happens within minutes.

The reason why is simple science: crystals grow best when they have a point to start from. The stronger that starting point, the faster they grow.

This simple truth applies to more than just kids’ science projects. Creativity works the same way. Ever stare at a blank page for minutes, not even knowing where to start? That’s the equivalent of a sugar solution with no string at all. Your ideas will crystallize much more slowly. Why wait? Put something, anything on that page or that blog post to start. Copy and paste something random out of Wikipedia. Copy and paste some tweets. But get something – anything – to be that little bit of string that your ideas can grow off of.

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Whose rules are you playing by?

Over the weekend, my daughter came to me to tell me all about a new iPad video game she had found called Wonder Zoo. If you’ve never heard of it (I certainly hadn’t), Wonder Zoo is a free-to-play (with in-app purchases) game that resembles Zoo Tycoon or Sim Zoo. You collect animals, assemble a zoom, follow quests, and level up. It’s got all of the stock tropes of a typical time-killer video game that wants you to spend lots of real world dollars to make gameplay more fun.


When she brought it to me, my daughter was looking at the selection of buildings available in the game. There was a drink stand, a hot dog stand, a balloon stand, and a few other ones. She said she wasn’t sure which one to pick, they were all so cute. I said, what’s the goal of the game? Is it to make coins so that you can go and capture more animals? She agreed, and I switched applications to Google Spreadsheets. I said, let’s get the data. How many coins does a drink stand earn in what time period? How many coins does a hot dog stand earn in what time period?

We did the math and it turns out for efficiency’s sake, even though they’re not nearly as cool looking, balloon stands generate the highest rate of return. Even though from a real-world perspective it was illogical to build a zoo without refreshments, rest rooms, or decorations, from a gaming perspective, a zoo filled with balloon stands made the most financial sense. Likewise, when it came to laying out the zoo, I suggested that instead of laying it out randomly or by attractiveness, that she lay out the zoo in a perfect grid system to maximize the number of revenue-generating exhibits she could place before having to invest in more land.

She asked me why I don’t like cute zoos. I said that cute is irrelevant in this particular case. I told her that the game developers are counting on you to make emotional decisions and follow rules that are only in your head about what a zoo is “supposed” to look like. The actual rules of the game are different than the rules we assume in our heads. I mentioned that the developers – and their revenue model – are counting on these assumptions and the subsequent bad decisions you’ll make from them in order to make money on you. She could do what they wanted and not have much fun, or make rational, logical, forward thinking choices that aren’t as much fun in the beginning, but would provide a solid foundation for her to play the game how she wanted later on.

The core life lesson for my daughter – and for all of us as business professionals – is that we can do what other people want us to do, or we can set ourselves up for success so that we can do what we want to do. Make sure you’re optimizing for what the rules of the game actually are, and not what you think they are.

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The curious question of pumpkin spice lattes

I’ve been watching yet another meme pass around on Facebook, this time about the “hazardous chemicals” inside of a popular coffee brand’s pumpkin spice latte coffee drink. There have been opinions offered on all sides of the debate about whether X chemical is healthy or harmful, whether X ingredient is in the drink or not (and if it’s a retail product vs. an intended for home purchase or not).

Storyville Coffee

What astonishes me is this: very, very few people ever see either the article or commentary and say, “Well gosh, I can do better than that. I’ll make my own.” Pumpkin pie spice is as old as… well, pumpkin pie. Here, take a look at what constitutes pumpkin pie spices, based on about 5 minutes of Googling:

Dry Goods

  • 4 parts cinnamon
  • 3 parts ginger
  • 2 part nutmeg
  • 1 part allspice
  • 1 part cloves
  • 1/4 part salt

Wet Goods for something like a pumpkin spice latte

  • 4 parts honey

You’ll need high quality spices from the store or Amazon, especially if you have specific dietary needs. Mix the above ratios in as little or as much as you need. Because spices oxidize quickly, only make as much as you need at any given time, especially if you’re grinding your own spices. If you seal the dry goods in an airtight container, they’ll stay reasonably fresh for a couple of weeks. Your best bet is to mix the ratios of whole spices, bag those in little containers, and then grind on demand. Note that there is no pumpkin in it because it’s assumed you’d use pumpkin spice on pumpkins.

Now, bear in mind, I’m not a professional chef. I’m not even an amateur chef. I’m a marketer, a marketing technologist, a hacker (in the most ethical sense of the word). That means when I see something, the first question that leaps into my mind is, “How can I do that?” How can I reverse engineer it, figure out how it works, what makes it tick, and ideally, improve upon it?

If you find yourself saying, “How hard can that possibly be?” and wandering off to experiment with things, if you’re not afraid to fail frequently and spectacularly, then you have one of the most powerful traits of those who are successful in marketing:

You’re curious.

Curiosity is an incredible personality trait. It drives you to want to know more, to want to discover more, to seek out new ways of solving old problems and to understand as much as you can about what interests you. Curiosity is what transforms a marketer from average to awesome, because the more curious you are about your business and the industry you operate in, the more effective you will be at marketing what you do. Curiosity is what defines marketers and marketing technologists; we want to understand how something works so that we can make it better.

So whether it’s pumpkin spice memes, ice buckets, or whatever the issue of the day is, get curious! Explore, challenge, and expand your boundaries and knowledge. You, your career, and your company will be richer for it in so many ways.

Oh, and enjoy the pumpkin spice recipe.

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