What The Hunger Games Teaches Us About Creativity

This Thursday night, I’m going to the movies. At midnight. Like many parents of teenagers, I’ve been swept up (literally and figuratively) by the teen hysteria that is The Hunger Games. But here’s my confession: I can’t wait to go.

I found The Hunger Games a thoroughly engrossing book, with plenty of symbolism and cautionary social commentary woven in. Yet, the new-product marketer in me couldn’t help but wonder where the idea came from. It turns out that as author Suzanne Collins flipped through TV channels one night, she happened upon a fortunate juxtaposition: on one channel, a story about the Iraq war, and on the next, a reality show featuring young adults. She put them together, added a touch of Greek mythology, and voilà—The Hunger Games.

You might leap to the conclusion that the creativity lesson is about serendipity. About being in the right place at the right time. Not so fast. There are two important lessons, but neither is about getting lucky. I’ll take you through each, then show you how to put them together to become more creative in your job.

The first lesson is about the power of “what if.” This simple way of thinking has inspired all kinds of things—from Einstein’s theories to Stephen King’s novels. Perhaps Einstein’s greatest creative talent was his ability to conduct thought experiments—to imagine a what-if scenario in his mind and then visualize the implications it created as the scenario unfolds. He called them thought experiments because they didn’t occur in a laboratory; they played out entirely in his imagination. Whether he imagined his body pursuing a beam of light or traveling through space in an elevator, Einstein’s imaginary what-if scenarios transported his mind to new places, allowing him to discover clues toward new theories that would revolutionize science.

Ever wonder how Stephen King comes up with so many different and bizarre ideas for his bestsellers? On his website King writes about his version of thought experiments, “I get my ideas from everywhere. But, in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’ ‘What if?’ is always the key question.”

I imagine Collins followed a process similar to King’s: seeing two things, then asking “what if they came together?” Her thought experiment eventually led to her breakthrough story.

The second lesson is about the power of hybridization. We use, eat, listen to, and drive hybridized ideas every day. Toyota Prius. Flatbread Pizza. BOSU balls (a hybrid of exercise balls and step-class platforms) and Queen’s hit song Bohemian Rhapsody (rock and opera). When making hybrids, the result may be literal (like Prius) or in principle, as in The Hunger Games, which combines the narrative formulas of war stories and reality shows. If it were a literal hybrid of the two formats, The Hunger Games might feature celebrity rehabbers taking shrapnel on the front lines in Afghanistan.

So how can you make use of “what if” and hybridization? First, think about what you need to be more creative about. Generating store traffic? Building publicity? Teaching students? Coming up with new product ideas? Whatever it is, when you come across related stimuli, ask yourself “what if I combined this with something I’m currently working on?”

Remember, your combination may be literal or, as is usually the case, in principle. So if you work in publicity and see a news story about KFC’s secret recipe moving to a new location, extract the principle behind why the story made news. Then ask yourself: “What if we integrated a secret element into our product, service, or company story? What could that secret be and what would it look like?” If you’re a teacher watching Dr. Oz, ask yourself: “What if I added vivid demonstrations to my class work and had students participate in them? What would that look like?” If you’re developing new product ideas for an apparel manufacturer and see someone spraying OFF! insect repellant, ask yourself…well, you get the idea.

Highly creative people continually use these sorts of generative thought experiments and hybridizations, and there’s nothing magical about it—except the results. With a little practice, anyone can learn to think this way. Who knows, next time I go to a midnight movie—it may be your story idea on the screen!

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