Interview with Mark Levy, Author of Accidental Genius


Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. ~ Lewis Carroll

Mark LevyLewis Carrol would be right at home chatting with Mark Levy. I have no doubt that between the two of them they would have thought of at least twenty impossible things before breakfast.

So who is Mark Levy? Glad you asked. Mark is the founder of Levy Innovation, a marketing strategy firm that helps entrepreneurial companies increase their fees by up to 2,000%.

David Meerman Scott calls him “a positioning guru extraordinaire.” Fast Company Expert Blogger, Cali Yost, says “Mark helped me rethink my entire business in a day. He’s a miracle worker.”

Mark has written for the New York Times, and has authored or co-created five books. His latest is the newly revised and expanded edition of “Accidental Genius: using Writing to Get to Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content.” The book helps liberate businesspeople from their status quo thinking. 

In his interview for Diva Marketing, Mark not only shares his insights about creativity in business but gives us a holiday gift .. a special free writing exercise that will take our posts, tweets or campaigns to the next level. 

Diva Marketing: Creativity is an illusive concept. What does creativity mean to Mark Levy?

Mark Levy: Creativity is looking at a situation from an unusual perspective. It’s making connections among phenomena that may not have any organic connection. It’s following the logical progression of an idea until the reality of that idea falls apart and you have to start guessing as to what might happen next. It’s stepping off the worn path that your thinking typically follows, so you can surprise and disorient yourself – and thus stumble upon something new.

The best way to be creative and summon up a good idea is to come up with lots of ideas first. Think of creativity as a numbers game rather than a quality game.

When you’re being creative, you’re going to make a mountain of mistakes. Turns out, though, that your mountain isn’t really composed of mistakes. It’s composed of the steps you needed to take to reach your golden idea.

It’d be nice if the mind could create more efficiently, wouldn’t it? But the mind isn’t orderly. To arrive at something novel, you need to take leaps: some logical, some illogical.

Diva Marketing: When I think about being creative, my thoughts turn to the arts. How would you describe a creative ‘business person?’

Mark Levy: Most businesspeople seldom get a chance to be creative, because they have to follow their organization’s routines and protocols. Sometimes, though, those routines and protocols fail, and the businesspeople have to get creative in a hurry. (For instance, they have to figure out how to unblock a bottleneck in manufacturing, or think up a way of entering a market that’s kept them out.)

For most businesspeople, then, having to create is tough. Why?

For one thing, since they haven’t been asked to create anything all that often, trying to come up with something new can be intimidating.

But even more important: Most businesspeople don’t know any techniques that’ll help them create. They’re told to “innovate” or “think different” or “be creative,” and that’s all the guidance they’re given. Good luck.

Trying to create without knowing any techniques is like trying to cook without pots and pans and utensils. Sure, it’s possible, but why make things so needlessly difficult?

There are hundreds of creativity techniques out there. Businesspeople need to play with a few, and practice the ones that seem natural to them. Natural is key. When a fast-breaking problem presents itself, you don’t want to rely on a technique that’s too complicated to remember or is arduous to use. The right techniques are a joy to use.

Diva Marketing: In your new book, Accidental Genius, you approach problem solving with a unique and creative technique .. freewriting. First, please tell us what is freewriting.

Mark Levy: Freewriting helps us beat our internal editor.

See, inside each of us is an internal editor that does an important job: it edits what we think and say as we think and say it, so we look smart and consistent to other people. For the most part, our editor draws upon the same thoughts over and over again, because those thoughts have worked for us in the past.

As helpful as our editor is, there’s a time when it gets in our way.  It hurts us in those situations that call for thoughts that are different from those we normally use.

The editor won’t let us think potentially valuable new thoughts, because those thoughts are untested. By keeping things predictable, the editor unintentionally keeps us stuck. It guarantees that – if we keep going the way we’re going -- we’ll never be able to solve certain problems.

Freewriting, then, is a journaling technique that temporarily pushes the editor into the background, so we can get at our more honest and unusual thoughts. From these thoughts, we can create intriguing and often valuable solutions. Accidental genius by mark levy

Diva Marketing: Can you tell us a story of how freewriting has been used to help solve a business challenge?

Mark Levy: One of my favorite stories: An executive vice president was trying to win pay raises for his entire department. Who did he have to pitch to? The organization’s Board of Directors, which included the former head of The Federal Reserve Bank, Alan Greenspan.

As you can imagine, the vice president was a wreck.

Instead of biting his nails, though, he prepared for his meeting. He bought a pen and a notebook, and every night for a week he’d do an hour of freewriting about what might happen in that meeting.

So, he’d quickly write about who was in the room, and what he’d say to them, and how they’d respond, and how he’d counter any arguments they presented. He didn’t softball the situation. In each night’s scenario, he had the Board raise the toughest objections they could, and he’d answer them.

By the time the meeting rolled around, he’d felt as if he had already lived it. He was confident that there was nothing that they could throw at him that he couldn’t handle.

He did his pitch, they loved it, and he won the raises. 

Diva Marketing: It’s not unusual for people who routinely develop social media content to hit a writer's block. How would you suggest using freewriting to discover new ideas?

Mark Levy: You can use freewriting in dozens of ways to create new material. Here’s an exercise your readers can do immediately.

Open a blank document in your computer, and set a timer for seven minutes. You’re about to start writing, but first some ground rules:

  • No one is going to see what you’re writing unless you want them to, so be honest and bold.
  • Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar.
  • Don’t worry if what you’re writing is interesting or even coherent.
  • Write as fast as you can for the full seven minutes, without stopping for any reason. (As Ray Bradbury says, “In quickness there is truth.”)
  • And, if during the writing you feel like digressing, by all means follow those digressions.

In essence, I want you to approach the page without worrying about the normal rules of writing. You’re using it as a means of watching yourself think. If you write something “good,” well, that’s a bonus. It’s not necessary.

What, then, are you going to write about?


That is, think about your usual subject, start the timer, and begin putting down image after image as they appear in your mind. When one of those images seems promising, write about it. Describe what you see, and take guesses as to why you’re seeing it.

For instance, suppose you normally write about prospecting. Start your seven minute timer, and begin hitting the keys. Perhaps you’ll write:

“This guy Levy tells me to write about images. OK. Sounds like a plan. But what images come to mind when I think about “prospecting”?

Well, I think of Jane, my latest client, and how I met her at that social media conference and how she wants me to build a sales funnel for her company. So I could write about her.

But another image just came to mind. I teach people how to prospect for clients, but the word prospecting is really just a metaphor. It’s probably from the gold rush of the Nineteenth Century. So I see an unshaven prospector crouching in a river bed, the water running past him, using a pan to sift for gold.

Prospecting for gold. I never thought about that analogy before. How is prospecting for clients like prospecting for gold? How is it different? Well, gold prospectors would have to leave their old lives behind them, because they had to live in the mountains for a year or more. When prospecting for clients . . . “

Images often get to ideas that we know implicitly, but haven’t yet made explicit. By following the call of images, we can create rough-draft material that, for us, is genuinely original and has inherent drama.

By the way, if you don’t come up with anything interesting in the first seven minutes, don’t fret. Do another seven minutes. And another. The more images and ideas and stories you pour onto the paper, the more likely you are to come across something you can use.

Continue the conversation with Mark on his blog and on Twitter @@levyinnovation.

Thanks to Nettie Hartsock for introducing me to Mark. In social media disclosure, Mark sent me a comp copy of the Accidental Genius. In all candor, it's more than a great read. It's a problem solving solution that works!


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It was really very insightful indeed. Thank you so much for sharing the interview.Look forward to more such ones.

Posted by: pi social media on Dec 1, 2010 10:56:24 PM

Thanks for sharing it.. appreciating work.. :)

Posted by: Ash on Dec 23, 2010 1:49:04 PM

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