That is me on the left in the photo above, with Muhammad Ali throwing a mock punch directly at my face. My brother looks on, as stunned as I am to be in Ali’s presence.
The photo was taken in the early 80s, at a chance encounter with Ali — my mom had the forethought to ask to take a photo.
Today I want to talk about creativity. How, with so many creative professionals I work with, the answer to their challenges of reaching an audience, of perfecting their craft, of managing their craft amidst the chaos of their everyday lives — the answer is always creativity.
I want to use Ali as an example of this, then share some practical way put his inspiration into practice in your life.
The documentary When We Were Kings, tells the story of Ali’s 1974 fight with George Foreman. Two things you need to know going into this story:
The first: while many of us mostly know George for his amazing grills, back in 1974, he was the undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World, and considered one of the best boxers of all time — a powerhouse in the ring. Going into the fight with Ali, Foreman had a 40–0 record with 37 knockouts. It is difficult to put into context how powerful Foreman was at the time.
The other thing to know is that Ali was 10 years into his career. It was widely believed at the time that there was simply no way that Ali could win a fight with Foreman. Most of the people around Ali — trainers, reporters, friends — genuinely feared for his life when Ali stepped into the ring.
They worried that this fight would not be about if Ali could pull an upset, but rather:
- Exactly how badly would Foreman injure Ali?
- Will this be Ali’s final fight ever?
Ali famously won this fight, and he used creativity to do so. There is no one else in the history of boxing that has fought like Ali.
“He was the savviest of savvy fighters. He had no recurring pattern. He operated outside of predictability. And he was able to fight on successfully long after he should have retired due to his mind, much more than his body.”
“You would never teach anyone to fight like Muhammad Ali. That would be crazy… Muhammad Ali was called the greatest not because he won, but because he won in a way that no mortal man could reproduce. Many young up-and-comers give it a try, and after catching a varying number of punches to the face decide that perhaps the Ali style is not for them after all.”
On a practical level, this is how Ali won:
- He used a punch that Foreman wasn’t expecting called a “right hand lead.” Foreman didn’t expect it because it is a punch that leaves Ali dangerously open to a counter-punch. A professional wouldn’t use a punch like this, so Foreman didn’t expect it.
- Ali kept hyping before the event that he would “dance.” He set an expectation in Foreman’s mind that Foreman would have to be chasing Ali around, and Foreman may have set his strategy accordingly. Instead, Ali did the opposite. He remained in place… more on that in a moment…
- Ali went to the ropes — something you avoid in a fight with someone as powerful as Foreman — and he stayed there. He literally stood there, letting Foreman pound on him. Ali leaned way back — almost comically so — to protect his face, but Ali’s body took a massive pounding.
- Ali hung on Foreman — literally wrapped his arms around George as if hugging him, and held it. This may sound insignificant, but it isn’t. This became a mainstay of the second half of Ali’s career — in the years beyond the Foreman fight. Hanging on Foreman allowed Ali to do two things: annoy Foreman, who simply wanted to fight. Nobody wants Muhammad Ali hanging on them. The second is it allowed Ali to use his other great talent: his mouth. You can see him talking to Foreman, and those by the ringside heard Ali egging Foreman on, “George, you disappoint me, you don’t hit me as hard as you thought as you would.”
- And this is where Ali’s strategy came together. It turns out, he knew that Foreman was far more powerful than he was. So his goal was this: tire George out. Get him to hit as hard as possible, as quickly as possible, and wait. Take the hits that no other fighter can.
By the fifth round, George was indeed worn out. When you watch the video, it is astounding to see how out of it Foreman is. Ali won in a knockout in the 8th round.
For you — the creative professional who passionately believes in their work, but finds it an immense challenge to finish work, release it, develop an audience, earn money from it, and create a sense of momentum — let’s talk what we can learn from Ali.
While I am a big believer in research (I often do lots of market research and competitive research with my clients), the goal is not to copy.
We seek best practices to find safety. We want the safe bet, because we are confused at how to succeed.
We seek best practices to make the journey easier. We want shortcuts — a clever hack — to turn something complex into something simple.
For many tactical elements of your craft and your career, sure, there are places where best practices are helpful. That using Mailchimp for an email newsletter is a nice best practice. So is sending a ‘thank you’ card. Or backing up your writing so that you don’t accidentally delete it.
But when it comes to truly reaching your audience.
To sharing your work in a way that is deeply meaningful.
To create momentum in your craft and your career…
I think best practices hold people back. To me, it can be akin to cutting corners and calling it “wisdom.”
Too often, a “best practice” is a copy of a copy of a copy that stopped working two years ago.
Copying is not the answer.
Creativity is the answer.
What made Ali win against Foreman? His ability to evolve, to forge a new path, and stay creative.
When you think about the biggest challenge you have with your creative work — how can you approach it from a wildly different and creative way?
Too often we are sold that there is a “secret answer” just out of your reach. And that if you sign up for some webinar or course, and you gain this secret best practice or hack, you all of the barriers before you will be removed.
Instead, I offer the advice that Tina Roth Eisenberg shared with me when I met with her: when you face roadblock, ask yourself this: How can I flip it? How can I turn this challenge into an opportunity?
She put it this way:
“When some bad news come in, my team says, “Let’s flip it – let’s make it good.” It’s become my personal sport.”
Ali approached the Foreman fight in the same way.
What will you flip today?