Sir Ken Robinson said that we’ve been educated to become good workers, not creative thinkers. I get the first part of that statement. I don’t want to be a cog in some corporate machine and I know you don’t either.
But since I have an audience of businesspeople — not painters — the big question I started this interview with is “Why should we care about creativity?” And if creativity is so important, how can we ensure we get more of it, even if we don’t feel we were born creative?
He answered both questions, and even gave me a nice compliment on my haircut.
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Here’s the program.
Andrew Warner: Hi, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart, and today’s guest is Sir Ken Robinson, who says that we can’t get the best out of ourselves because we’ve been trained to become good workers instead of creative thinkers. He was knighted in 2003 for achievements in the arts and education, and he’s a best-selling author, whose latest book is called “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.” Thank you, and welcome to Mixergy.
Sir Ken Robinson: It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Andrew: I’ve got to start off with a selfish question. What’s in it for us, for me and for my audience of entrepreneurs and businesspeople if we become more creative?
Ken: Creativity is the engine of entrepreneurship and therefore of business and of economic growth. Creativity is often misunderstood, and I think people believe that it’s a rather random process and that a lot of it is due to luck and serendipity. A lot of my work has been around helping people to understand what creativity is, how it works, and why it’s essential. A couple quick points I’d make about it is that creativity is the process of having original ideas. Actually, I’d define it a bit more than that. I’d say it’s the process of having original ideas that have value. There are three terms there that we might come back to. It’s a process, it’s not an event. It is about originality, and it’s about things that are worthwhile.
The fact is that everybody occasionally has a good idea, but for business, even though one good idea might take you a long way, the rate of change now really requires that people can be creative systematically, that they can depend upon their creative processes and powers. A lot of the work I do is about helping people understand how that can happen. Creativity is about fresh thinking that in the current circumstances we need that more and more, but we need to make it systematic.
Andrew: Is this really a problem that there isn’t enough creativity or enough opportunities for people to be creative? I look at my computer and I’ve got an iMovie to edit, this movie on, I’ve got Photoshop and video editing and photo programs, iPhone, and all kinds of tools that give me the ability to express myself creatively. Kids have ballet classes, art classes, piano lessons, and music that they can sing for themselves while they’re listening to it on TV. It doesn’t seem like this is a crisis. It feels like, if anything, there’s too much creativity, too many opportunities.
Ken: The thing is those tools that you described are extraordinary. There’s no question about it. There are opportunities for creative development and expression which are brand new in many respects. All of the tools you list on the computer have only been available very, very recently, and they are the result of tremendous creative ingenuity on the parts of the people who make the programs and designs for them. Yes, the evidence of human creativity is everywhere, but I think that you need to qualify. Firstly, using these tools to create an effect is what matters. Tools themselves are not creative. A camera is not a creative thing. Cameras themselves don’t produce works of art any more than a paintbrush produces a work of art. They have to be in the hands of people who know what they’re doing with them. Therefore all the tools that are available are wonderful, but you still need to have the confidence to use them and to know how to use them, what the processes are that are involved. That’s where I think there is often a crisis. There are too few opportunities I believe now for people to develop the necessary skills to make these tools really helpful and useful. There are plenty of ways of using them which are more or less trivial, which pass the time and it would have passed anyway.
To produce something worthwhile does involve understanding the process and having confidence in your own creative powers. I believe there is a problem here. Although you say lots of children have opportunities for art and for ballet and so on, truthfully those opportunities are rather limited for most kids. The vast majority of kids who are going through public school education, for example, don’t have access to those things. If your parents can’t afford all these ballet classes, it’s unlikely you’ll be having them at all.
The work I’ve done in the past, particularly around education, is based on the observation and the evidence that opportunities for creative work are actually declining in education. I don’t think it’s turned up just in schools, I think it’s too often at higher levels of education, older levels of education in universities as well. I work a lot with companies and organizations who complain all the time that the people they work with feel that they’re not very creative and they worry about how to be creative and how to develop the skills that are necessary to really be creative systematically.
You’re quite right in that it’s not that this is an even picture. I don’t think we live in a creative desert. On the contrary, there are wonderful things happening just now. But there are reasons to be concerned too and good reasons to try and sharpen up the way that people think about these things.
Andrew: What about discipline? It feels to me that with all of these tools that are available and all the opportunities that are out there, what’s lacking is discipline, the ability to say, “Anyone can blog for free, but it take a lot of discipline to do it every day.” Anyone can take photos without having to pay to have them developed, but there’s a lot of discipline that goes into every day improving them, looking at them and just coming up with new ideas. Is that maybe the shortage?
Ken: Well, it’s one of them. You’re right. I often say this. There are lots of misconceptions about creativity, and there are three I point to most often. The first one is only special people are creative. You notice in large companies that often companies divide the workforce into two groups. There are the creators and the suits. It all suggests that creativity is something rather rare and unique to special people. All the work that I have done over my life is profoundly creative, but not everybody develops the disciplines or the attitudes that are necessary to really make creative headway.
The second big misconception is that creativity is about special things. Often people think it’s about coming up with ideas for products in companies or it’s about design or marketing or things like that. My argument with companies is that you can be creative with anything. The whole company, every aspect of the company has creative possibilities.
The third is there’s not really much you can do. You’re creative or you’re not. This is where we come back to your point about discipline. Being creative isn’t just kicking your shoes off and cutting loose. More often than not, it’s a very focused process. The key to this, to me, is to be creative you have to be doing something. People aren’t just creative in the abstract. You have to do something. It could be anything. You could be doing a piece of design. You could be working on an architectural plan. You could be working on a mathematical problem. You could be designing new recipes. You could be working on a scientific problem. You could be making a musical composition. You could be playing a piece of music, but you have to do something.
Creativity is a practical process, and in every field, in order to be genuinely developmentally creative, you have to get incrementally better at the skills of the media, for example. If you’re trying to compose music, you have to know how to handle the instruments that you’re working with. You have to understand the forms and the conventions that you’re trying to operate. You can’t be creative in mathematics if you are a humorist. At the heart of evolving creative confidence is control of disciplines, but the only think I’d add to it is there’s a balance to be struck because I know all kinds of people who are wonderfully disciplined, highly controlled, and very skilled but struggle to come up with an original idea. People who may be less skilled in the field may be fantastically productive. It’s about striking a balance between imagination and control of the discipline. Helping people understand that in any creative process, part of it is speculating and hypothesizing, playing a part of it is refining. Understanding how the DNA of that process works is a fundamental piece of becoming more creative.
Andrew: When you were listing the misunderstandings that people have about creativity, I wrote them down. I put a check mark next to all of them. I have all of those misconceptions, which is why, if you look at my video, there’s nothing in the background because I feel like creativity is for someone else. It’s not for me to figure out how to design the background.
Ken: What’s going on with the background, Andrew?
Andrew: Nothing! It’s the same thing with my hair. I don’t have a special haircut because creative haircuts are for creative people. I don’t even wear anything that would signal one idea or another on this program except that I don’t really care about the way I dress. I do feel that it is for other people. Do you know why?
Ken: Do you feel that?
Andrew: I do. There are two reasons for that. First, I do think it’s for other people and I can’t master it. The second reason is I don’t have enough examples of people who weren’t creative early on who somehow picked it up and were able to incorporate creativity in the rest of their business. So I use as my model Microsoft. They waited for others to innovate and then they copied that innovation and their innovation if at all was in the process, distribution, and aggression. So do you have an example of a company that was able to do this, of an organization or someone in the business world who was able to just add creativity and grow.
Ken: Every company has done that. Your company is doing that. You’ve created this platform, this program and the audience who is watching it. That’s my point about this. Creativity is not confined to painting or product design. Apple, we know is famously good at developing new products and has come up with some extraordinary products.
Andrew: But it’s in their DNA. From Day 1 it feels like they were creative.
Ken: They’re very active in terms of product design, there’s no question. What they have interestingly done is that they’ve had to evolve into related fields to keep their business moving forward. For example, when Apple launched the iPod, along side it they also launched iTunes. In order for iTunes to work, they had to then produce a whole infrastructure to enable people do download music and pay for it instantly. That took them to a whole new thing. I was talking awhile ago to the head of IT at Microsoft. He was making the point that at Apple’s Leadership Summit that when people buy an iPod for Christmas, or an iPhone, whatever they’ve got they have to access iTunes. They want to be able to access their tune, to download it and pay for it right now. They don’t want to be told or have some sign come up on the screen, saying, “Thank you for your order for this song. It will be delivered to you in 10 days time.” They want it immediately. The biggest rush of these orders is on holiday, like Christmas day, and all around you have clusters of birthdays. They have to design this whole server farm, which would keep pace with this demand. Apple went on to become one of the world’s biggest providers of Internet credit card transactions. They had to keep evolving innovatively around the core product, but the center of that business was the iPod or the iPhone, or the Mac.
Then, you look at other companies like Walmart, which is a much bigger company, and they haven’t really produced any products at all. They’re not known for products. What they’re really good at are things like supply chain management and pricing and costing and bulk purchasing and all of those things and point of sale design, things like that. What I’m saying is that as soon as you recognize that creativity is firstly about having original ideas, and secondly it’s about practical process of applying your imagination to things, I find that a liberation from the idea that only a few people are creative, because to be creative is a naturally human capacity. The fountain it comes from is imagination.
Imagination to me is the heart of it. Imagination is the power to bring to mind things that aren’t present. It’s the most singular power that human beings possess. You have it, we all have it. You’re born with it. It’s a natural thing, but we take it completely for granted. Creativity is a step on. Creativity is putting your imagination to work. You’re doing that every day. You’re doing it in the way that you run your business, the way that you run this platform and trying to think how you can evolve it, deciding to have me on the program or whoever else you can have on the program. You look at new ways of reaching your audiences and look at new ways of refining your offering. That’s all creativity. It’s just in some cases, you look at examples that seem to fit a cultural stereotype more, of the pained artist or the mad scientist, who seem to be egregiously creative, but I think we’re talking about a scale. We’re not talking about differences categorically.
Andrew: I see. What I’m learning from this conversation is creativity isn’t just about the design of the end product. Sometimes it’s about the process. Sometimes the creativity isn’t about the haircut, but in the creative solution for somebody who doesn’t want to think about how to get a good haircut.
Ken: Yes. I’m loving the haircut, by the way, keep it. That’s why I’m saying it’s a process. You see, these three terms are important. I’m only underlining it because I think for anybody watching this who is saying, “How do you make this work?” it’s important to recognize that you can make creativity operational and not just spasmodic and occasional. All the people, for example, who are famously good at this have a process of some sort.
I had the pleasure a while ago of meeting Jonathan Ive, who works at Apple. He’s their senior designer and they have a team of people working on their product design. They have a pretty well thought out way of going about the work they do. They don’t just sit around hoping somebody is going to think of something interesting. It’s an evolutionary process. You see that in people who work on scientific problems or on musical compositions or writing literature or a business plan. You start from an idea. In music, for example, it might just be a chord. It might be a riff. You just start with something and you start to play with it.
It was interesting, I was reading your review. I haven’t read the book yet. Keith Richards, of “Rolling Stone” just published a book called “Life,” and he’s described as a riff machine. He was able to come up with these fantastic opening riffs for songs. Somewhere in the book he says that he’d come up with the riff, and then he’d give it to Mick Jagger, his writing partner, who’d go off and work out the melody around it and write the lyrics. Keith Richards, according to his account of it, his starting point was to come up with the original sequence. You find that a lot in creative partnerships, that people have different roles, but it always starts with something. You have an initial starting point, but then the process evolves and there are two things that weave through the creative process. One of them is generating ideas, and the second one, which is like a DNA strand wrapping around it, is evaluating, saying, “Is that any good? Does that work?”
Another is acting critically on the work that you’re producing. You see it all the time if somebody is writing a lyric or working on a mathematical theorem, there are often lots of crossings out, false starts, or that doesn’t quite work. I don’t think that’s the right word, or I’m not sure about that. Or like sketching, where you think that isn’t quite it, so you rub it out and try something different. It’s a process of trial and error of successive refinements. Very often, what you end up with is not what you started out with. “It’s a surprise, not a prediction,” as somebody once said.
Knowing that that is like that, that there are false starts and that sometimes the best thing is to walk away from what we’re working on. It’s that experience we all have when you can’t remember somebody’s name or the name of the place you’ve been or the name of a song. If you sit and agonize about it, you probably won’t remember it. You could sit there for an hour. The best thing is to forget about it and go do something else, and then it will pop into your head a little while later when you’ve forgotten all about it. The reason is, the path to this process of being creative is to let your subconscious work. It’s not all frontal lobe thing, and it’s not all sitting and focusing on logical reasoning. It’s allowing the other parts of your brain to get involved in the process too. That process is the same whether it’s individual or it’s a group. A lot of what I say to companies is around the idea that real creativity often happens in groups. Knowing how to understand the group process is a big part of managing creativity and making it more sustained.
Andrew: I’ve now interviewed 300 some odd entrepreneurs. What I’ve noticed in the bootstrapped entrepreneurs is they take the process similar to what you talked about with sketches. They’ll put together a quick website, and they’ll get a little bit of feedback. They’ll adjust that website and they’ll get more feedback. Then they’ll say, “That website isn’t right, or that business isn’t right. I’ll try something completely new.” That one they scratch off a little bit or they delete completely and they start all over again with some changes. And before you know it, they’re here in front of me and they tell me about how they’re earning a million dollars a year in revenue. But it wasn’t a process that I learned about in the self-help books that I read growing up, where you say exactly what you want to do and you don’t stop until you get to that exact picture. Now that I see that, how do I understand the process that they’re taking? They don’t seem to be as aware of it as someone like you who is on the outside studying it would be. How do I get to that process?
Ken: How do you understand how it works for yourself, do you mean?
Andrew: How do I understand how it works for them, for these bootstrapped entrepreneurs who are trying lots of different things, but they’re not flakes? They’re really following through, even though if you looked at it, it seems like they were giving up lots of times.
Ken: I ran the big commission in the U.K. on creativity. We had some fantastic people on the group. One of them was a guy who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. I’m assuming he’s good at chemistry, I think we can accept that. That’s pretty good. His work was in the field of nanotechnology. I asked him how many of his experiments failed, and he said 90% or 95% of them. But he said, “Failure is not really the word, because in order to succeed, you have to try lots of different things. What you’re finding out is what doesn’t work. You have to find out what doesn’t work in order to find out what does work.”
If you look at the work of great innovators like Edison, he had teams and teams of people working with him, multidisciplinary teams often making false starts, going off down the wrong track, coming back and trying something else in a completely different direction. That’s what it is. It’s an exploratory process. There are different ways of thinking about this. For example, the entrepreneurs that you are describing I guess in some cases aren’t necessarily committed to a particular business. What they’re interested in is business. They’re interested in being successful in business, rather than perhaps to any particular line of business. They’re willing to try lots of different sorts of businesses to see what takes and what doesn’t, to see where there’s a market. That seems to me to be a classically creative approach. “I’ll try it and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.” The thing is that all the people who succeed as entrepreneurs or in any creative field are the people who don’t give up, the ones who learn from the things that go wrong and are willing to accept the lessons of what seemed at the time to be failure. That’s true no matter what field you look at. My guess is that in the same way that you might see a poet with a trash can full of scrunched up false starts for poems, there are lots of entrepreneurs out there who have tried a dozen different ideas which have been willing to throw out and start another one.
That process of seeing creativity’s exploratory and experimental and being willing to think of it that way and to learn from mistakes you might make, that’s fundamental to the heart of innovation.
Andrew: Is there a process that we can follow through, or do we need to create our own process? Or are we just kind of winging it?
Ken: It’s not winging it. I think that there are clear principles that you can follow. They can be applied in most areas. When I said that imagination is the soul of creativity, there are really three terms. There’s imagination, creativity, and innovation. What companies are mainly interested in is innovation. My argument is you can’t get straight to it. You can’t just ask a room full of people to innovate. They need a process and a purpose. Imagination is what they’re drawing from. Creativity is the process, and innovation is what they’re trying to get to. I think of imagination as this ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present. Creativity is the application of imagination, the process of having original ideas. You can think of it as applied imagination. Innovation is really putting good ideas into practice. You can think of that as applied creativity in a way.
When I work with companies, there are different pieces of this process you have to put together. I think if it’s an individual entrepreneur it’s the same thing. The first is that you have to understand how creativity is, how it works, and in particular, that we’re all creative with different things. I connect creativity very directly to intelligence. When I said there are misconceptions around creativity, there are. But there are also big misconceptions about intelligence.
I know all kinds of people who think they’re not smart who clearly are. The reason they often think they’re not is because we have also very narrow views of intelligence. We think of intelligence as this capacity for a certain type of logic, but I know people who are brilliantly smart visually, or brilliantly smart working with people, or brilliantly smart in spatial terms, who are very good physically and who are highly intuitive. These are all to me important manifestations of human intelligence. You see that manifested in every type of creativity — in science, in art, through music and in business.
Part of it is understanding your own creative strengths, the things that you’re good at and the things that inspire you and fire you up. That’s what my new book is about, “The Element.” It’s about finding your natural talents and passions.
Andrew: I think this quote of yours is from that book. “Realizing our creative potential is literally a question of finding our medium.” The book is about how to find that “it” for you. Can you give us in this shorter interview, less time than people will have to spend with the book, an idea of how we can find it? How can we find our medium, where we’re going to reach our full potential?
Ken: The element is an expression we use isn’t it about people who are obviously doing the natural thing for them, the thing that’s right for them. We say they’re in their element. You can see it. They are at their most authentic. They are happy and centered on this task. The book is about that. It’s about why it’s important to be in your element and what does it mean? I think it means two things. The first is that if you’re in your element, you’re doing something you’re naturally good at. You have an aptitude for it. That’s the first thing I always say to people and to the people listening to this or watching this. Spend some time figuring out what you believe are your own natural aptitudes and strengths. Very many people don’t know what they are and they wonder if they have any, but we all do. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that being in your element isn’t just about being good at things, it’s about loving what you do. I know all kinds of people who are good at things they don’t like doing. But if you love something you’re good at, then your whole life goes in a different direction.
Andrew: How do you get to that? You tell a story in the book about Matt Groening, who couldn’t stop drawing in class. I think it was his story where he learned how to draw without looking down at his paper so that his teachers wouldn’t know that he was drawing incessantly in class. You see someone like that, and you say he absolutely knew early on what his medium was, what his passion was. In that same class though, the majority of the students may never know, may go their whole lives not knowing what their creativity is or where their passion is. What advice can we give them? How can we guide them to find their passion so that they can find the thing that will occupy them so much and so long until they get it perfect, until they do it well?
Ken: It’s a two-way journey, generally. In fact, I’m actually currently, today, as it turns out, working on a sequel to this first book. The first book, “The Element” the sub-title is “How Defining Your Passion Changes Everything,” is about the principles and the idea. It wasn’t meant to be a how-to book. It’s meant to be a book about the nature of this experience. As you know, there are lots of interviews of people, including Matt Groening, but people in sports, science and business, all kinds of people, about how they found their thing. Naturally, the question people ask is the one you’re asking, which is, “How do I find my element then? This is all very well, but how do I do this?” You’ll be relieved to know that the sequel is called “Finding Your Element: How to Live a Life of Passion.”
Andrew: Test some of those ideas on us. Run them by us.
Ken: I’ll tell you, there are four bits to this, four elements to “The Element,” so to speak. As I sit, when I haven’t invented the element. I’m not legislating here. I’m just describing what I see around me. The first is aptitude. As you say, Matt Groening is an interesting example because he spent all of his childhood doodling. I don’t know that when he was young he thought that was his life’s passion or work. It’s just what interested him. As he got older and he got influenced by other people, he saw, for example, the work of Robert Crumb, which he loved. He thought, “Oh, my god, you can actually make a living doing this.” Then, he saw the drawings of John Lennon. He did a number of little books. He did one called “A Spaniard in the Works,” and one called “In His Own Right,” which he loved. Then he found some people at school who shared his passion for cartooning. Even then, he didn’t think he was going to make a living from it. He just knew he would love to do it. His journey is interesting.
By the reason I interviewed a number of celebrities for the book because people would ask that. They would say, “That’s all very well for them, because that’s Matt Groening.” But Matt would be the first person to say that he wasn’t always Matt Groening. For most of his life he was this kid at school who was doodling, but he pursued his passion and went on to do the extraordinary work. We know he found “The Simpsons,” but there’s a whole process before he got to “The Simpsons.” The reason I’ve interviewed people who have had these very interesting journeys is to help understand how the journey worked for them.
It’s why I’m saying there are four bits. There’s aptitude, so part of this is trying to pin yourself more clearly about the things that you’re naturally good at. The second is passion, and I’ll come back to this finding your element bit in a minute. The third bit is attitude, because I know a lot of people who will say to you, “It’s great for these other people, but they’ve just been lucky. I never had the breaks.” In fact, a lot of the people I’ve spoken to who you would consider to be very successful, often themselves say they’re very lucky. But luck is, I think, a bit of a cop out because it sounds like it’s all about serendipity. But you know from the work you do that you make your own luck; that luck is partly a matter of opportunity. It’s what you do with the opportunity. It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you make of what happens to you.
There’s a lot of very interesting research, and I have a chapter in the book called, “Do I Feel Lucky?” which looks at the psychology of luck. Luck is about seeing opportunities. Very many people will miss an opportunity because they’re not open to it. It’s seeing it and it’s taking it. That comes back to questions of personal attitude like, “Do you value yourself? Do you think you’re entitled to this and are you willing to overcome the obstacles?” There are a lot of obstacles to being in your element — other people’s disapproval of you and other people’s opinions of you. There’s a whole section on attitude.
The fourth bit is about opportunity. It’s about creating opportunities for yourself like you’re doing and like the people who watch this program. It’s creating something that wasn’t there, or going toward something that isn’t in your current environment.
What this means for you, if you take those four — aptitude, passion, attitude and opportunity — what I’m working on in the new book is to give people a kind of roadmap. I don’t think that there is a 12-step plan to get you to your element. There are in fact only 12 chapters in the new book, but I’m not saying to people that I can guarantee by the end of chapter 12 you’ll be in your element.
Andrew: Do you know how many more books you would sell if you said that? Consider putting that on the book. No one ever holds the author accountable for that kind of statement. They always blame themselves.
Ken: I think it would be misleading, because the reason is people have to take a personal journey. This is your life, it’s not my life and you have to figure out what you want from it. What we can do, I think, is give people some navigational tools for that trip and some clear principles and examples and some techniques that they can use.
It’s a two-way journey. The first is, in terms of being in your element and finding your greatest strength, is you have to go inward. You’re a unique person. Everybody is unique, a unique moment in history, and you have to be prepared to be honest with yourself and to spend time with yourself evaluating either the interest you know you’ve got or the ones you thought you would like to explore but never did. The things that you were drawn to, the things that you haven’t yet tried, the things that you would liked to have explored but you never did, the things that maybe you did but you were stopped from taking any further. But you have to do your own map of yourself. The book will have some help for that.
The second journey is outward. You have to go and try new things. You have to be prepared to put your neck out and maybe get out of your comfort zone. You have to go explore new experiences and try things out, because if you don’t try things, you will simply never know. I’ve got lots of examples in the book of people who came across this opportunity, and if it hadn’t been for that, they would never have known what their real talent was.
Andrew: I can understand that. If you want to find what you’re good at and want to find what you’re passionate about, you have to go and try a lot of different things. All of those ideas, all of those activities that you pushed off for the future, if you want to find your passion and aptitude, you have to go do them now or at least try them. I’m also reminded of, I forget the author’s name, but Malcolm Gladwall told the story of two authors. One was an instant writer. He sat down and was able to produce a novel quickly. The other one I think took 10 years to become a success. When you’re going out and trying lots of different things to see what sticks, you can’t spend 10 years on each one of them. If you try something that you’re meant to be great at, but you’re meant to be great at it in 10 years or it will take you 10 years to be really good at it, you might give it up and move on. How do you know when to stop and say, “This is the place where I’m willing to spend 10 years getting good, even though I’m not good today.”
Ken: That’s a personal judgment and there’s no avoiding that. The writers who spend 10 years, something is driving them to do that, to keep with it. You’re quite right about this. I think that deferred gratification isn’t a very good principle here. There has to be some reward here and now. You have to get some spiritual benefit from what you’re doing. One of the ways you know you’re in your element is that your energy is different. A good indicator of that is that time feels different. If you’re in your element, you’re doing something that resonates with you, that you’re drawn to, that fulfills you somehow. When you’re doing that, an hour could feel like five minutes. My wife, for example, is a writer. She’s been working on a novel for the past two years. She still spends, if she’s left alone to do it, 12 hours a day writing. She’ll come blinking out from the room and wonder what time it is because she’s so lost in it. I know other people who, if you sent them off to spend 12 hours a day writing, would damn me. They would say, “I couldn’t bear to do that.” They need to be doing whatever it is they have to be doing, but she doesn’t notice the time going. There are things where that is true for me too.
If you’re doing things that don’t resonate with you, five minutes could feel like an hour. All the people I know, if you say to them, “It will take you10 years,” if they love this thing they’ll say, “Well, so be it then because I want to be that good.” There’s a journey and part of it is because there’s such a pleasure in the journey. If you look at this journey and say, “I can’t spend 10 years doing this,” then you probably shouldn’t. It’s not your thing.
Andrew: I get that. I want to be careful with the time here, but I also want to go through a few of the notes that I wrote and the conversation. The first is Jonathan Ive. You saw his process at Apple. What is his process? What is Apple’s process?
Ken: I spoke to him about it. I didn’t get to see him. They have a team of different specialists who bring different . . . it’s actually quite a stable thing. You’d have to speak to him about the details of his process. What great teams have in common, in my experience, is that they’re interdisciplinary, and they have a way of making their different strengths a common strength. I say that because great teams to me have three characteristics. My wife says I always think in threes, and she’s right by the way.
These are three characteristics. There are more, but let me quote these three. Great teams, and I got this sense talking to Jonathan that it’s true of his team, are diverse. They have people with very different talents in them. There’s a very successful, and I think rather brilliant design consultancy based up in Palo Alto called IDEO. Their work, like most of the great team builders, is based on bringing people with very different talents into the same space. The reason that’s important is because creativity thrives on different perspectives. It’s about having original ideas, and so therefore having people come to the same problem with very different backgrounds is important, and literally very different perspectives. Great teams are diverse.
The second thing is that great teams have a dynamic relationship. This is important because if you get people with different views in the same room, it can be completely counterproductive. A diverse team can explode and not achieve anything. It just blocks itself. What great teams are able to do is to have an internal process where people will give and accept ideas free of the wrong type of critical judgment so that they can start to build a whole body of new possibilities.
For example, I did go to visit Pixar, and they have a number of interesting processes there. They have something called plusing. Plusing is a technique which is very simple. When you’re working in teams, you’re not allowed to say “but” or “no.” So if you’re having a conversation about a new idea for a movie or are working on the detail of a movie, the words no and but are outlawed at Pixar. You have to say, “Yes and.” It’s a bit like in improv.
Andrew: Yes, I was thinking that.
Ken: If you two actors come into a space and the first one says, “It’s beautiful here on the beach isn’t it?” And the second one says, “Well, we’re not on the beach, are we? We’re at the bus stop.” Well that’s the end of the show at that point. That’s living in two different worlds. Okay, we’re not on the beach. The whole thing with improv is you accept everything and you build on it. You say, “Yes and.” So if the first guy says, “It’s great here on the beach today isn’t it?” and the second one says “Yes, but what an odd place to put a bus stop,” then, you’ve got something. You’ve got a scene then. You can start to work on it. Plusing is adding, not blocking.
Great creative teams do that too. They have a way of accepting each other’s expertise and perspectives without feeling that they have to contradict it or block it.
The third feature of a great team is that they are unique to the task. They are formed for the task. IDEO, for example, they bring together different teams of specialists for different jobs, and they break them up into different teams for different jobs. It’s a very different attitude to having a committee, where a committee is a set group of people representing different functions. A dynamic team is very different from that. The evidence is that great teams produce great results and they produce them reliably.
Andrew: This might be childish for me to use as a follow-up question, but I can’t help it. I’m looking at the books behind you and they all look exactly the same. I just keep wanting to know what they are and holding myself back because it doesn’t seem like a professional question. But we’re almost at the end of the conversation, so I figured I would ask.
Ken: Have I got any books behind me?
Andrew: Yes. They looked like notebooks to me at first, and I said, “Boy, he takes a lot of notes.” Now they look like published books.
Ken: Actually it’s a collection of music.
Andrew: Ah, CDs.
Andrew: Okay. You know, you can steal that all on the Internet now for free.
Ken: I know! I bought all of these.
Andrew: I don’t do that either. It’s too much of a pain.
Final question. We’ve given people a lot of big ideas here. Why don’t we talk about the first step. If it’s all a personal journey, what’s the first step that my audience can take?
Ken: I think the first step is that you have to believe in your own possibilities. I really think it’s important. I know so many people who doubt that they have any creative powers because of the way that they’ve been educated and the way they’ve been treated by other people. They think it’s not for them. I think that the first step is to believe that what I’m telling you is true. I did a whole talk on TED about creativity.
Andrew: Did your life just change after giving that TED speech?
Ken: Did it change?
Andrew: So many of us were passing around that TED speech, the link to it. I’ve got it on my computer in 12 different formats. That was powerful.
Ken: Thank you. It’s amazing how it’s got around. I gather it’s been downloaded over 5 million times from TED.
Andrew: Can you imagine? Five million times. There was no cat in there, no dogs falling off a chair or skateboarding. Five million times people are listening to a man talk.
Ken: But the thing is it’s being shown at conferences and events a lot. So I think the real figure is probably 20 times that.
Andrew: Right. What happened to your life after that?
Ken: I get a lot of inquiries about it, and I get asked to talk a lot about these things. I do get stopped in airports occasionally. I have to say I’m not sure that was a good idea. The reason I mentioned it to begin with, is because it’s taken off like that I think because it resonates with people. They feel it’s true and I’m not making this stuff up. I feel that I’m simply in a position to give voice to it. I do feel that the first step is having some sense of confidence. I would say to people that if you doubt your own creative abilities, then go and do something you have not done before and try it. If you’ve always wanted to go and do a dance class, but you never did, go and do it. If you you’ve never done a drawing class, do one. If you’ve never taken a physics lesson, go and try it.
Go and do something different and just start the journey. Start somewhere. It’s the old Buddhist thing — the longest journey starts with the first step. Having the courage to make that first step. It is like if you’re writing something, putting some marks on the page or if you’re starting to sketch, just start. Because once you’ve got something, you’ve got something to work with.
Andrew: Our assignment within the next week is to do something different. Sign up for that dance class. Sign up for music. Sign up for I don’t know what. Do it and e-mail me. I love to get e-mails about people who follow up on these interviews.
Ken: Try it. And if it’s not right, try something else. It’s your life.
Andrew: Thank you for doing the interview. Thank you for complimenting me on my hair.
Ken: I can’t be the only one, honestly.
Andrew: No, you can’t. I don’t know why they’re holding back. Hopefully, this has gotten them to open up and the next interviewee and the others will tell me something nice about my hair. Seriously, thank you for doing interview. It’s a real honor. I’ve been a fan of your TED talk and of your books. It’s great to meet you.
Ken: Thanks so much. Thank you for the questions. They were really interesting.
Andrew: Thank you and thank you all for watching. Bye.
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