“You need an idea.”
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Even though I look desperate, I don’t feel desperate, because I have a habitual routine to keep me going.
I call it scratching. You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won. That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.
The unshakeable rule: you don’t have a really good idea until you combine two little ideas.
(Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit)
As I have often said, I believe this: “the more you know, the more you know.” The more you read, the more you hear, the more you experience, the deeper the reservoir of “stuff” that you have to draw from in any and every situation.
In the new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson, the author makes the case that good ideas come from such a reservoir within. I have already chosen this book as my selection for the December First Friday Book Synopsis, and now I have read this article on the Daily Beast about the author and his book: The Origin of Good Ideas by Joshua Robinson. Here are some excerpts:
Sparks of brilliance, Johnson argues, are actually more like slow burns that develop in places, such as universities, that are teeming with ideas. Even wrong ideas help. An expectant genius waiting for the muse to deliver a fully formed, humanity-advancing idea into his lap can be kept waiting for a long time. Things like evolutionary theory, the internet, and the printing press did not appear miraculously in a dream. Or on a piece of burnt toast.
“I didn’t want it to be a straight sort of business, self-help, management-type book—which I have no interest in writing,” he says. “I did want it to have a feeling where you read it and think, ‘Oh yeah, I could use that.’ When you succeed in writing an idea-book, it becomes this platform that other people get to build on, or take and put to new uses.”
On the final page of the book, he summarizes how the abstract patterns can be applied practically in everyday life to foster more creative, open environments. “Go for a walk,” he writes, “cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.”
All innovation comes from good ideas. So learning how to find good ideas is a pretty good challenge to tackle. And since innovation is one of the great needs in business, and society, I suspect this will be a fun and valuable book.
You can watch Steven Johnson’s Ted Talk, Where Good Ideas Come From, here.
Update: I’ve now watched the video, and can”t wait to read the book. He talks about the value of a “slow hunch,” he begins and ends with a great coffee house story, and his last line is: “Chance favors the connected mind.” The video is worth watching!
As I have observed many times, there are themes that crop in multiple books. And when this happens, I think they hint at true truth. That is, the kind of truth that is genuinely important, something to pay a lot of attention to.
Here’s one that was reemphasized again this morning. My colleague Karl Krayer presented his synopsis of The Way We’re Working isn’t Working, the new book by Tony Schwartz. And the book, with lots of really useful counsel, says this about our multitasking world:
The most surprising drawback of multitasking is the growing evidence that it isn’t even efficient… Once we’re distracted by something new, we often forget about the original task… The ultimate consequence of juggling many tasks is not superficiality but rather overload.
There are so many books and articles that are making this point in one way or another. The point is this:
MULTITASKING DOES NOT WORK!
Singletasking is the need of the hour, not multitasking.
Here are some other quotes to reinforce this now seemingly everywhere-present theme:
From ReWork by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson:
Instead, you should get in the alone zone. Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive. When you don’t have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings. Just shut up and get to work. You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.
From The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp:
The irony of multitasking is that it’s exhausting; when you’re doing two or three things simultaneously, you use more energy than the sum of energy required to do each task independently. You’re also cheating yourself because you’re not doing anything excellently. You’re compromising your virtuosity. In the worlds of T. S. Eliot, you’re “distracted from distractions by distractions.”
From Superfreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner:
A person using a computer experiences “cognitive drift” if more than one second elapses between clicking the mouse and seeing new data on the screen. If ten seconds pass, the person’s mind is somewhere else entirely.
I think the jury is in. Learn to singletask, really well. Work with depth and attention and focus on one-thing-at-a-time.
You can leave the multitasking to those who will be left behind by their lack of focus.
What’s wrong with getting better? The libraries, archives, and museums are packed with early bloomers and one-trick ponies who said everything they had to say in their first novel, who could only compose one good tune, whose canvases kept repeating the same dogged theme. My respect has always gone to those who are in it for the long haul. (People) abandon their gift through a failure of perspiration.Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Aim for better! Get better at what you do — and then, keep getting better. It is the never-ending challenge.
So, here’s the request that came in an e-mail:
We are going on a cruise in September and I want to load my Kindle with three books. What are the three best books you would recommend for my reading? The request came from a very sharp, keen-minded, successful, independent business consultant. He attends one of our book synopsis events. This is my attempt to answer his question.
I am tempted to simply list some of my all time favorite reads (not necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, although they are close — but definitely books that I am very glad I have read), like: The Doorbell Rang, one of my favorite Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout; and The Powers That Be and The Reckoning by the truly great David Halberstam; and Defining a Nation, edited by the same Halberstam.
And then there is this: what are the business books from the last few years (and even a little longer ago) that should be on your “I’ve definitely read that book” list? I would certainly include Good to Great by Jim Collins; something Gladwell (it’s tough to choose — probably Outliers); Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf and The Leadership Engine by Noel Tichy; almost anything, but definitely at least one thing, by Peter Drucker. Add to this The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, and a major personal favorite, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.
But – I still have not answered the question. If I had but three books to load on my Kindle for a September cruise, what titles would I choose? Here’s a list of five; you will have to narrow it down to the three that most interest you.
Choice #1: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize winner with his earlier book Guns, Germs, and Steel, has written a tour de force in Collapse, sweeping us through the societies that collapsed, and providing warnings regarding the decisions societies make. An important book!
Choice #2: Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia by Carmen Bin Laden, or, The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. Of course, the Wright book is the heftier of the two; it won the Pulitzer, and provides an amazing education about the rise of Al-Queda, what went into their thinking, and especially their animosity toward the West. But there is a personal tone and a very personal take on life in the strict Muslim world of Saudi Arabia in Carmen Bin Laden’s book — the former wife of Yeslam, one of the brothers of Osama Bin Laden. It is a captivating read, and noticeably shorter than The Looming Tower. (You can tell, from this response, that I think we ought to seek to understand this “other” culture that is so foreign to our own).
Choice #3: OK, which two business books to put on the list? Not necessarily which books to read for enjoyment, but which books provide the most important and useful information? I list two choices. I would put The Other 90%: How to Unlock Your Vast Untapped Potential for Leadership and Life by Robert Cooper, because everyone would benefit from reading an occasional “let’s aim high, and take things higher” book. Unfortunately,this book is not available for the Kindle. (Yes, I checked on all the others). So, for this category of business book, I recommend The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. (I haven’t yet read the new Schwartz book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, which could be a better choice). And, for the other business book, I would have to go with The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, just because I think it deals with the complexity of this age and provides really valuable suggestions. (And, it gives every patient going in to surgery an important question to ask his or her surgeon: “do you use a checklist?”).
And you will notice that there are no novels on my list. I read about a novel a decade (except for my relatively frequent re-reading of the Nero Wolfe mysteries). But I have actually bought a novel – in the past week. It is: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I might actually read it – one of these days soon.
Two personal footnotes:
#1 – thanks, Tom, for providing a great idea for a blog post. I apologize for answering you in this fashion.
#2 — And, it would be interesting to have Bob Morris give his list of “only three” in response to this request? I’m pretty sure he would have different titles – all absolutely worth the investment of a Kindle purchase and a few hours of reading. So many books… so little time!
update: I definitely should have put The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis into the mix — as the book I would recommend to help you understand the financial meltdown of the last couple of years. So now I am up to six to choose from, to then narrow down to three. Sorry about that.
Things were simpler when we knew less.
As I think about the books I have read, and especially the books I have presented, I always ask myself: “what is the best book of the whole lot?” I have presented synopses of a minimum of one business book a month for over 12 years. There are some really good books: books that have important lessons and principles to teach us, books that are good-to-great reads. (By the way, I’m back to my old favorite as my “favorite” book of the 12+ years: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp). But, I am increasingly convinced that the most important book I have read in this span is The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.
On the New Yorker website, you can read Dr. Gawande’s commencement speech which he delivered to Stanford’s School of Medicine: The Velluvial Matrix. It includes numerous reminders of the core truth from The Checklist Manifesto. Here’s the key paragraph from the book:
Every day there is more and more to manage and get right and learn. And defeat under conditions of complexity occurs far more often despite great effort rather than from a lack of it.
It is not clear how we could produce substantially more expertise than we already have. Yet our failures remain frequent. They persist despite remarkable individual ability.
(our) know-how is often unmanageable. Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields – from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.
That means we need a different strategy for overcoming failure…
In this speech, Dr. Gawande tells the story of a many who had his spleen removed. The doctors who removed it did a great, remarkable job of saving his life under difficult circumstances. A medical team rallied, pulled their diverse and comprehensive knowledge together, and performed a series of life-saving procedures successfully that saved the man’s life. But… they forgot something – something rather important..
Here’s the story:
Earlier this year, I received a letter from a patient named Duane Smith. He was a thirty-four-year-old assistant grocery-store manager when he had a terrible head-on car collision that left him with a broken leg, a broken pelvis, and a broken arm, two collapsed lungs, and uncontrolled internal bleeding. The members of his hospital’s trauma team went swiftly into action. They stabilized his fractured leg and pelvis. They put tubes in both sides of his chest to reëxpand his lungs. They gave him blood and got him to an operating room fast enough to remove the ruptured spleen that was the source of his bleeding. He required intensive care and three weeks of hospital recovery to get through all this. The clinicians did almost every single thing right. Smith told me that to this day he remains deeply grateful to the people who saved him.
But they missed one small step. They forgot to give him the vaccines that every patient who has his spleen removed requires, vaccines against three bacteria that the spleen usually fights off. Maybe the surgeons thought the critical-care doctors were going to give the vaccines, and maybe the critical-care doctors thought the primary-care physician was going to give them, and maybe the primary-care physician thought the surgeons already had. Or maybe they all forgot. Whatever the case, two years later, Duane Smith was on a beach vacation when he picked up an ordinary strep infection. Because he hadn’t had those vaccines, the infection spread rapidly throughout his body. He survived—but it cost him all his fingers and all his toes. It was, as he summed it up in his note, the worst vacation ever.
In his work, his book, this speech, Dr. Gawande reveals the crisis of the era:
“What did we miss? What did we forget?”
Because, the more we know, the more we have to “remember,” the greater the chance that we will not remember it all. And, thus, warning signs are missed. And preventative steps are not taken. (anybody heard of the Gulf Oil disaster?!)
The Checklist Manifesto is Dr. Gawande’s suggested solution — for medicine, for construction, for aviation…for every conceivable kind of job that requires mastering an array of complex elements. Which is, by the way, every job!
So, here are two questions to add to your daily routine:
“What am I missing? What am I forgetting?”
You can purchase my synopsis of The Checklist Manifesto, with audio + handout, at our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.
“I want to talk to the kids at home watching. I was a kid and I watched this show and it seemed so far away from me…. With the world being so fast, I want to remind you to focus on what you love, because it is the greatest passport, it is the greatest road map to an extraordinarily blissful life.”
Tony Winner Katie Finneran, June 14, 2010
Let’s talk about creativity, innovation, and “flow.” And throw a little “self-actualization” in the mix. This may be a little “rambling,” but I think it is important.
I was “surfing,” and caught Katie Finneran’s acceptance speech at the Tony’s last night. I could not get it out of my mind.
It may seem a little like a luxury to even discuss this right now. One of the most viewed posts I have written on this blog is A Jobless Recovery and a Slip Down Maslow’s Hierarchy, and in it I suggest that in this economic climate, we have slipped down a notch or two on Maslow’s hierarchy. People need jobs – they need money – they need to survive. Finding a job that is fulfilling, that allows one to reach “flow,” to attain “self-actualization” is almost a luxury too far.
But… on the other hand. If there is any fact that is becoming more apparent, more important, it is this — we need a very talented, very large group of people always asking “what’s next?” What will the next trend be, product be, innovation be. We definitely need a whole lot of our workers to be able to flourish in an environment of creativity and innovation. And to reach this ability, we need people who are experiencing “flow,” and reaching for self-actualization.
A little background:
Flow: (from the Wikipedia summary)
In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.
In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.
The flow state also implies a kind of focused attention, and indeed, it has been noted that mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and martial arts seem to improve a person’s capacity for flow. Among other benefits, all of these activities train and improve attention.
In short, flow could be described as a state where attention, motivation, and the situation meet, resulting in a kind of productive harmony or feedback.
Self-Actualization: (from the Wikipedia summary)
Abraham Maslow defines self-actualization as “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
And, just one quote from Twyla Tharp (The Creative Habit):
Imagine people dancing into the wee hours of the morning at a club. Most of them have spent all day working at demanding jobs. Yet their energy returns like magic at night when the music and dancing start up. Dancing, perhaps more than any other art form, has an energizing effect on people.
In Daniel Pink’s Drive, he affirms the value of “20% time,” the time that some companies (not enough) like Google and 3M give their employees to work on “whatever they want to.” Out of such creative freedom has come Google News, Gmail, and Post-it Notes. The idea is simple, and profound. Creative work, breakthrough work, does not arrive on a schedule. We need to find ways to let the creative juices flow, and they seldom flow on deadline.
So – back to the Tony’s. Katie Finneran may not quite be saying “do what you love, and the money will follow.” But she is definitely encouraging a generation of children out there to discover what they love, and the fulfillment will follow.
And I think that we might be learning this in the world of business – “do what you love, and this will lead to more breakthrough innovations.”
A couple of obvious lessons:
1) If you are a business owner/leader, consider creating a 20% time program for your employees. The research indicates that it will pay off – maybe substantially.
2) And, personally, what is it that you do that when you do it, you lose all sense of time, and your energy just keeps you going in a lost state of discovery, creativity, productivity? Discover that about yourself – and then “focus on what you love.”
Update: I just thought of this quote from George Orwell, from his essay Why I Write, about “outraging his true nature” before he returned to it:
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.