Archives For Creativity

The Future Credit: James Vaughn via flickr

The Future
Credit: James Vaughn via flickr

Not so long ago I spent an afternoon listening to a half-dozen entrepreneurs hawk their ideas for new companies. The event was called a pitch day, and it had an American Idol feel. The presenters stood before massive power point displays in the cavernous auditorium of a converted warehouse, spinning their best stories of why their concepts would attract the most eyeballs, customer subscriptions, or advertising attention. Each wanted to launch a fast-growing business – the next tech rocket ship – and made their case to the judges, a collection of investors spread in front of the makeshift stage in neat rows of plastic chairs. Winning meant the entrepreneurs got a little extra cash, fuel for their rockets, and a chance to turn their concepts into real startups.

The presenters had been honing their pitches for weeks, seeking that right combination of words, images, and dramatic delivery that might persuade the investors to pick them. The event was glitzy. The pitches slick. But the substance?

Of the six proposals, each could be boiled down to “the next” (fill in the blank with Facebook, Twitter or Google) for (fill in the blank with a sliced-up market segment). Each was a derivative concept meant to piggyback in some way off the platforms created by more ambitious entrepreneurs who came before them. These ideas were less about originality than they were about exploiting market niches that were not yet the focus of the platform companies. There was not much stretching for greatness.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Commerce has long thrived on tweaking others’ ideas, but at some point it seems someone has to push forward the vision thing. I believe it was frustration with a lack of startup imagination that prodded Bruce Gibney of the Founders Fund to pen this missive in April 2011. He called it What Happened to the Future? and attached this brilliant subtitle: We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters. From that letter:

The future envisioned from the perspective of the 1960s was hard to get to, but not impossible, and people were willing to entertain the idea. We now laugh at the Nucleon [a nuclear-powered car] and Pan Am to the moon while applauding underpowered hybrid cars and Easyjet, and that’s sad. The future that people in the 1960s hoped to see is still the future we’re waiting for today, half a century later. Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo.

It’s not a huge surprise why the pitch day ideas were so ho-hum. The entrepreneurs are running towards the money. Venture capital as an industry is more interested in backing the thing that seems most likely to get acquired (and thereby provide quick returns on their capital) than in backing bold bets. That makes sense. We need it. But we also need capital that backs the bold ideas. We need capital for the bets that might take years and years before paying out. I applaud Bruce Gibney and his colleagues at the Founders Fund for attempting to play that role. I applaud Google’s X labs for working on their own initiatives to change the world. My hope is that they prod more investors to take a long-term perspective.

When capital makes itself available for bold ideas, I expect we’ll see entrepreneurs tap into their more creative impulses. I expect we’ll see pitches that will bring promise of this future we’ve been waiting for.

Abe Maslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

Abe Maslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

50 years ago Abraham Maslow embedded himself in a Southern California tech factory to study its managers and culture. He kept copious notes and published his thoughts in 1962 in a sparsely-read tome called Eupsychian Management. The book was republished 37 years later, long after Maslow had passed, under the more accessible title, Maslow on Management. In it the great psychologist makes a distinction between the “doers” of the world and all those people who just talk, talk, talk.

After talking with various students and professors who “wanted to work with me” on self-actualization, I discovered that I was very suspicious of most of them and rather discouraging, tending to expect little from them. This is a consequence of long experience with multitudes of starry-eyed dilettantes – big talkers, great planners, tremendously enthusiastic – who came to nothing as soon as a little hard work is required.

We all know these types. I for one have to work hard to make sure there’s not one staring back at me each morning when I shave in front of the mirror. Someone recently told me I’m a great idea person. I think it was meant as a compliment, but my attention is piqued. I sure hope it’s not a euphemistic way of lopping me into that same category Maslow describes above.

Here’s Maslow’s technique from separating the talkers from the doers:

…I have tested people with these fancy aspirations simply by giving them a rather dull but important and worthwhile job to do. Nineteen out of twenty fail the test. I have learned not only to give this test but to brush them aside completely if they don’t pass it. I have preached to them about joining the “League of Responsible Citizens” and down with the free-loaders, hangers-on, mere talkers, the permanent passive students who study forever with no results. The test for any person is – that if you want to find out whether he’s an apple tree or not – Does He Bear Apples? Does He Bear Fruit? That’s the way you tell the difference between fruitfulness and sterility, between talkers and doers, between the people who change the world and the people who are helpless in it.

These are strong words from the father of Self-Actualization Theory. Here we assume Maslow must be this touchy-feely dude since his ideas are so often associated with kindness and making contributions to society. His views appear ironic even given that Maslow was first and foremost a thinker. I’ve never been quick to put theoretical psychologists into the “doer” category.

But he was also revolutionary. His bridge from talking to doing was constructed with rigorous testing, teaching, and writing. The hierarchy of needs thesis would have gone nowhere if he simply chatted with people about his novel concept. No, he had to go out and battle for respect in peer-reviewed journals. He had to promote it like crazy to earn acceptance and create his legacy. And his respect was not earned easily, nor did it come without wounds. It took years of grinding work that dilettantes are just not capable of.

What can we learn from Maslow’s view on doers versus talkers? My lesson is this: being an “idea person” brings little value to the world if you aren’t prepared to support the idea with all the grinding, thankless work it takes to fight through criticism and gain acceptance. This requires much more than brainstorming a few thoughts and patting yourself on the back because they feel so clever. The real value comes from transforming those thoughts from ideas to some kind of action. Even the tiniest action signals to the world that you’re serious, willing to work for your ideas, able to endure uncertainty, and not just another dilettante.

I. An Image Problem: Hercules & The Hydra

Hercules was a real jerk. That’s my conclusion after thumbing through the tales of his conquests last night in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. He’s lionized as the favorite Greek hero, but this dude had a serious case of roid rage, perhaps the first in all of literature.

To illustrate: his most famous adventures come from the “Labors of Hercules” in which he choked-out the fierce lion of Lemea, diverted two great rivers to clear years of accumulated animal filth in the Augean stables, and killed the many-headed Hydra of Lerna, a creature considered immortal until it met Hercules. But why was he checking all these chores off a list? They were part of history’s first 12-step recovery program, penance for a roid-rage fit in which Hercules murdered his wife and three sons. That backstory was conveniently missing from Disney’s cartoon movie. Seriously, we need to reconsider our heroes.

Hercules v. Hydra, Photo Credit:  Eagle Painter Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons License

Hercules v. Hydra, Photo Credit:
Eagle Painter Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons License

Here’s Hamilton’s description of the Hydra conquest:

The second labor was to go to Lerna and kill a creature with nine heads called the Hydra which lived in a swamp there. This was exceedingly hard to do, because one of the heads was immortal and the others almost as bad, inasmuch as when Hercules chopped one off, two grew up instead. However, he was helped by his nephew Iolaus who brought him a burning brand with which he seared the neck as he cut each head off so it could not sprout again. When all had been chopped off he disposed of the one that was immortal by burying it securely under a great rock.

Let’s refocus this tale from Hercules to the Hydra. Despite its evil reputation, I want to reimagine the creature in a more pleasant light. That ability to grow two heads where one is lopped off has been the source of nightmares, but I want to strip it of fear and turn it into a constructive metaphor for something we should want more of in our local economies. I’ll call them Hydra economies. Continue Reading…

Starfish, Creative Commons License

Starfish, Creative Commons License

Several days a week, before dawn, middle-aged men congregate in small groups around Raleigh. They meet at parks, school playgrounds, and open fields and spend the better part of an hour running through fitness drills. When done exercising, they gather in a huddle for chatter and reflection before breaking and heading their separate ways.

I first heard about these groups a year ago. Over the span of a few weeks, I was approached by no less than six men suggesting I might enjoy the experience. None were pushy. Each seemed genuine and friendly. I sensed no alternative motive, but I demurred. I’m slow to accept new commitments.

If asked last year to wager on whether these groups would still exist today, I would have bet against them. I would have said they’d peter out. People are just too busy and have so many easier options for working out. At best, maybe they’d continue with a small core of devotees. Certainly nothing more.

Well, prognostication has never been my strong suit.

It’s breaking out like a virus. From simple beginnings not many years ago, it has somewhere around 200 participants today. It’s grown from Raleigh to neighboring communities, and there are hints of it expanding even further.

Yet it has no leadership structure. No money changes hands. And there are few hard and fast rules about when and where they meet or how they conduct the workouts. It’s all happening in an organic, self-organizing way.

How? Why?

These are the sort of questions I’m pointing at Will (known in the groups as “Maize”) at the neighborhood pool over Memorial Day weekend. Since there are no leaders, I can best describe him as a champion of these groups. While we both keep an eye on our children splashing at the edge of the deep end, I ask him why this is taking off. What’s the secret?

“It’s the starfish principle, man,” he answers. “You want to understand, you gotta read The Starfish and the Spider.”

So I ordered the book and devoured it early this week.

But let’s step back for a moment. Why do I care?

Continue Reading…

Last night Larry Page, Google’s CEO, posted this entry on his Google+ account, “Google Self-Driving Car Project,” with the video below.


“Just imagine,” begins the company’s description a future with self-driving cars,

You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.

This is bold. It’s exciting. And it’s just one of several projects Google is juggling that could actually change the world. The company calls these “moonshots” and runs them out of its Google X division, an R&D skunkworks charged with making such bold – though calculated – bets on the future.

But the story here is one part fanboy awe over Google’s investments in ground-breaking innovation and one part befuddlement over how  little other corporations are putting into long-term R&D bets. Continue Reading…

Alex is an old linebacker, and a competitor still. Like me, he races the specter of his wife’s better runs. Unlike me, he tends to come out the victor. On Saturday she claimed a 7:45 pace on a four-mile morning run. On Sunday, he roused himself before dawn to push himself and run the same route just a bit faster.

He tells me yesterday that he likes to know when his workouts will end. It lets him know when to release his energy. If the workout ends sooner than he anticipated, he carries the baggage of unspent energy throughout his day. As in his football days, he wants to leave it all on the field. If it’s longer than expected, he may overshoot and lack the fuel to finish.

I’m different. When I don’t know where the finish line is, I turn to energy-conservation mode. I grind in a low-gear, going slow to make sure I don’t run out of gas and get stranded on the trail.

Dorando_Pietri

Credit: Dorando Pietri at the Marathon finish Olympic Games 1908 London, Public Domain

Too often, however, I’ve found myself carrying this approach to my work and long-term projects. These rarely present obvious beginnings and ends. They’re just very fluid by nature, and the pace is defined by an external authority. How do you meter out energy when you don’t know how long the project will last?

I’m finding value in defining those starts and finishes myself; in creating short-spurt campaigns within projects that have fuzzy parameters or jobs that just go on and on and on.

A campaign mindset creates the illusion of control and lets me know when to drop into low gear for long-lasting marathon mode, and when to toss in an all-out sprint to push myself, stretch my limits, and keep things exciting.

The latest exercise physiology teaches us that intense sprints create asymmetrical improvement in speed and increases in strength, provided they are followed by enough recovery. Grinding workouts at the same speed, distance or weight produce less desirable outcomes. Though they aren’t all bad, they can wear you down with the repetition of unrelenting routine.

But to sprint, you have to know where the finish is. You must have that promise that if you burn all your fuel, you’ll get the reward of time to rest and recover.

It’s easier to know the starts and finishes in sports than it is in work and our own creative projects. Even if he doesn’t know when the final horn with blow, Alex can feel confident that the work-out won’t go much longer than 45 minutes. He can release his energy accordingly. In work, the starts and finishes change. In projects, they get blurred. In both, the timeline is often defined by someone besides you.

My goal is to be the one to control my own campaign mindset, even if outside forces control the long-term beginnings and ends. In creative projects that might take months to develop, I can create shorter-term campaign “chunks” that allow me sprint to a milestone, cross the finish line, and then take some time to reflect, refresh and recharge. In work, I can create my own short-term goals; my own campaigns within the framework of a larger project that someone else may control.

I can sprint hard and grow through the intensity of stretching to reach my own goals, and then fall back into a more sustainable pace to recover. I can avoid too much grinding. And like Alex, I can find satisfaction from leaving it all on the field.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My September books brought so many amazing learning experiences, not to mention the discussions they generated with family, friends, colleagues and even one of the authors.

Financing Our Foodshed by Carol Peppe Hewitt

Let’s start with the winner of the prestigious Most Dog-Eared Book of the Month Award. Thank you Carol Peppe Hewitt for writing Financing Our Foodshed: Growing Local Food with Slow Money, a collection of 22 stories on North Carolina food entrepreneurs (farmers, bakers, restaurateurs and the like) to whom Slow Money NC has introduced local financiers eager to fund sustainable local eating ventures.

IMG_20130929_124805Mainstream investing has become overwhelmed by the opportunity cost heuristic, guided by the simplistic question, where can I make the most money as quickly as possible with the least risk? 

This is not entirely bad, and I’m not quick to cast moralistic aspersions on using capitalism in pursuit of profits. There’s a place for that, and there always will be. But it brings to mind the notion of hypertrophy, this glitch in evolution’s system by which nature allows (for example) a male ibix to grow horns so large, its neck cannot support the weight. Yet those large horns have become a proxy for virility, and the females are programmed to mate with him whose horns spread widest. And so this glitch propagates through the generations with the genes of big-horned ibix begetting even bigger-horned ibix until an entire species is handicapped with antlers with all appeal but no function. I can imagine the big cat mountain predator eager for this easy prey. Given enough generations of reproducing those big horns, the hypertrophy glitch will bring doom to that gene pool.

It’s not that big horns are bad, but there is such a thing as too big.

So it is with capitalism and opportunity cost. It’s not that it’s bad, but there can be too much.

In chasing the biggest-dollar, fastest-bang, lowest-risk return, we put all our resources into high-scale enterprise that promises crazy riches while we starve our local entrepreneurs of the capital they need to get off the ground or grow. Herein lies a hypertrophy risk in our investing system. We chase the promise of the next Facebook (that big-horned ibix) while ignoring the small-scale businesses that create happier, healthier, more sustainable local economies.

The weight of that imbalance threatens to topple us. Continue Reading…

 

IMG_20130831_101919

With August at a close, here’s a look back at the ideas I permitted a brief interlude with that squishy matter between my ears.

A few years ago I was routinely knocking out ten books a month. And while I was getting good at parroting back the thoughts of so many authors, I wasn’t creating many of my own. So I’ve cut back, raising the bar on what material gets access to this impressionable brain of mine. The quantity has dropped dramatically, but those books that make the cut tend to be there to help me learn something from someone that understands it much better than I. Yeah, it’s kind of an attempt at a learning hack…I stack several books on similar topics over a matter of weeks, then step back and try to digest them.

This month it was:

Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie the founder and CEO of TOMS shoes. These stories are absolute brain candy, and I can’t get enough of them. I love the feel-good narratives of dude getting a brilliant insight, leaning hard into his idea, and sitting on the top of the corporate world as a result. I suspend disbelief about all the hairy details they leave out, happy to get lost in the flow of a well-spun tale! Continue Reading…

My Nagging Pile

My Nagging Pile

We gave up our subscription to the NY Times Sunday paper a couple years ago when our second daughter came around. To be honest, we should have canceled after having our first child. But we clung tight to the nostalgia of lounging decadent in bed deep into the weekend morning, sipping coffee to the crinkly rhythms of bending, folding, and straightening the newsprint. Even with one child our mornings began much earlier and never offered the leisure of settling into idle pleasures.

And so, as we chased little Clara around the house on Sunday mornings, those fat volumes of newspaper accumulated in an unread tower of information gathering dust in the corner of our bedroom. We wanted to read them. We yearned to read them! But the delight of lazy reading was turning into a nagging sense of obligation, seeming ever-taller each time we shuffled across our bedroom carpet. We might pound through a section late at night after putting our daughter to bed, but by then it felt like more of a clean-up chore than an act of relaxation. And the pile inevitably grew faster than we could shrink it.

So we canceled our subscription and tossed out all the back issues.

When my friend Josh offered me a complimentary copy of the NY Times Magazine this week, I shared it with my wife and we both confessed an immediate swell of envy. He has two kids like us, we thought, how does he keep up with the Sunday Times?! The universe seemed unjust. Continue Reading…