I’m speaking today at An Event Apart San Diego about Feedback Without Frustration. Here’s a summary of my best related blog posts:
- How To Get Better Feedback
- How To Run A Design Critique
- How To Give and Receive Criticism
- How To Run A Brainstorming Meeting
- How To Be Good At Anything
- Top Mistakes UX Designers Make
- Why Requirements Stink
- How To Learn From Your Mistakes
I spoke at TEDXDepaul last month and it was a fantastic event. The organizers Daniel Gurevich and Matt Helbig did a fine job from a speaker’s perspective. They chose a great venue, sold every ticket, paid for good A/V, the stage was well lit, and they had a great roster of other speakers (you can read my notes on all of the talks from the day here).
But there’s only so much organizers can do: speakers have to do the heavy lifting of good material and delivery.
Tactical mistakes are annoyances. If the material and delivery are good, people will overlook these problems. But a good speaker wants as few distractions from their ideas as possible. There were two tactical mistakes speaker’s made at TedXDepaul worth reporting.
If you hold a device, it creates glare that moves.
Marcy Capron of Polymathic chose to use an iPad for her notes. There’s nothing wrong with notes themselves, or iPads, but in this case the stage lights reflected off her iPad onto the screen and walls behind her. And every time she adjusted the iPad, those glare spots moved around. It’s hard not to be distracted by bright things that move on a large screen.
If you plan to have a device on stage, ask for a run through with the stage lights on to check for anything unusual. If there are glare issues, most venues can provide a lectern to place your device on, eliminating this problem.
Don’t wear a hat.
Doug Zell of Intelligensia Coffee arrived late, and joked about it, which bothered me all on its own. The primary commitment every attendee and speaker have made is their time, and it’s a sign of great disrespect to be late, much less to joke about it (Apparently he was in a bike race earlier in the day, and would have entirely missed his speaking slot if the event wasn’t running late). He had a cavalier attitude about the whole thing which rubbed me the wrong way. His talk on branding was good (notes here), but he crossed the line for me on professionalism. You must show your hosts, fellow speakers and audience respect. He was the closing speaker and hadn’t seen a single talk for the entire event.
The specific tactical mistake he made was keeping his biking hat on. As you can see here, wearing a hat on stage puts a speaker’s eyes into shadow. Eyes are the most important part of the face to connect with, and a hat hides them. Good lighting amplifies the problem, as it casts the rest of a person’s body into good primary light.
If you’re looking for a pre-speaking rundown of things to do and avoid, here’s my handy checklist for speakers.
I don’t root for sports teams for the same reason I’m not religious. The divisions between one group and another are too arbitrary to hold my attention.
If you ask a fan why they root for their particular team, it takes them some time to answer. Being a fan is not a logical choice, it’s emotional and tribal. It’s often an inherited decision, a choice not made but absorbed. Most people are fans of the nearest team, the team of their home. It’s likely their parents, grandparents and childhood friends all rooted for the same team, and the bond they feel for that team is combined with the bonds they feel for their community. It’s the same cultural premise of rallying together as a tribe, and rooting for the warriors to go fight and defend the community, keeping everyone safe. This is a good premise if lives are at stake, as rallying together is what has helped us survive this long. This drive is deep in our biology, explaining why it feels good to stand in a stadium with thousands of people all cheering for the same thing. We are driven to feel connected, explaining the popularity of music concerts, rallies and events of all kinds.
But when you realize how many teams there are it’s harder to find a good answer for the question: why this team and not that team?
I used to be a fan. I grew up in NYC and had Yankees, Giants and Knicks posters on my wall, and wore the jersey’s of my favorite players to school. I was a passionate sports kid, good at basketball and football, and I felt connected to the local teams for that reason: I imagined myself playing professional sports one day. But as a teenager I stopped wearing player jerseys. It struck me as strange to want to be someone else, even someone I admired. I wanted to be me, and since I played basketball for my high school, I had my own jersey with my own number. I still loved my teams and loved cheering them on, but something had already changed.
Then I moved to Pittsburgh for college and was shocked to discover a new tribe rooting for a new set of teams. What was wrong with these people? I wondered. It seemed absurd to root for the Pirates and the Steelers, since they just happened to be nearby. It didn’t dawn on me until I returned to NYC, and saw the my own hometown fans, that I realized I’d done the same thing my entire life. Had I been born in Chicago, I’d have been a Bulls and Bears fan (teams my Knicks and Giants despised). Being a fan wasn’t a choice I’d made, so much as inherited. And I’d inherited hate too. I hated Chicago simply because they rivaled my Knicks and Giants. To root for a team means to root against the other ones.
Moving to Pittsburgh also reminded me of a childhood friend who moved to NYC from Toronto but still rooted for his hometown Blue-Jays. I remember the daily abuse he got from his “friends” about his choice. His Blue-Jays cap was seen as a betrayal of our tribe, but I realize now he was a much tougher fan than we were. He paid a price for that choice every day. It’s not brave in any way to show up to home games and root for the home team, even if you’re wearing face-paint and a wedge of cheese your head. Everyone loves you because, like the team mascot, you embody the tribe they are already rooting for.
The lyrics to “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”, a song sung at nearly every major league baseball game, are telling: Root, root root for the home team, if they don’t win it’s a shame. But why? What if they’re a bunch of jerks? Or if they’re a lousy team? It’s only a shame if they lost unfairly. The fact that they were home or away should be irrelevant, shouldn’t it? At basketball games it’s now standard for the people sitting behind the hoop to wave objects and scream, hoping to distract players on the opposing team. At football games fans scream as loud as they can when they other team has the ball, hoping to prevent them from talk to each other about what play to run. Somewhere along the way rooting for ones own team has warped into to impacting the play of the game itself. The Seattle Seahawks even calls their fans the 12th man, an extra player helping the team. It’s great to see a team honor their supporters, but it’s also weird for fans to become part of the game.
Today I root only for close games. I don’t care much for any team. Mostly I want to see everyone play well. I want to watch the height of the sport. I want to see a game that will live on in all of the player’s memories for being the greatest game they played, something a blowout win never provides. I like certain players, and occasionally, find connections to certain teams, but it rarely runs deep or lasts long. To fans of teams this makes me a traitor, but I prefer to see my love of competition transcending my interest in any particular team.
Like fans of sports teams, most people adopt the religion of their village and their parents. It’s not a choice, in the same way it wasn’t a choice for me to root for the Knicks. Religions, like sports fans, are blind to how many equivalently well justified alternative views there are in the world. They often rally as much around crushing their rivals as they do honoring their own beliefs, despite there being no championship trophy to compete for. Being a fan of anything makes it easy to lose perspective on what you care about and why, which explains why I will never be a fan in the same way again.
Ian Rose wrote an excellent rebuttal: Why I am a Sports Fan
There are two different uses of the word myth:
- A falsehood, as in “the weight loss myth”
- A story with metaphorical truth even if not factually accurate
I spend time on this blog debunking factual myths, even for things as boring as mythical numbers in schedule estimates, because I have expertise and believe people who read my blog want to know the truth. While complete ignorance is neutral, faith in a lie is dangerous. I don’t want the suspension bridge I drive across to be built on a pet theory. People with knowledge should be compelled to use what they know to question, poke and prod the darkness, especially the darkness snakes sell as light to fools.
But I do love the metaphorical truths found in mythological stories. The winged story of Icarus and Daedalus isn’t true in aerodynamic fact but contains powerful truths about ambition and trust. Few great works of literature are true in factual sense, but their freedom from facts allows the expression of emotional or philosophical truths in ways factually based stories can’t. Picasso said “Art is the lie that tells the truth” and that’s what he meant. It’s not a justification for lying on your business plan.
Factual myths are very hard to kill. Simple lies are more popular than complex truths.And the most common factual myths have nuggets of truth in them, just enough to get past most people’s BS detection systems. Newton was never hit on the head by an apple. It’s one of the most popular stories in this history of science, yet it’s a fabrication. And science is a community of practice obsessed with factual certainty. How could this survive for so long?
The answer is the people most inspired by a story are the least interested in challenging it, and the most interested in spreading it. Apple Inc. chose its name after Newton’s apple, but never bothered to check the veracity of the tale. Why? Probably because they liked it and the popularity of the tale was part of the attraction. Popular lies grow into legends, and everyone wins in the spreading of a legend, everyone except the people who care about facts. I do like legends for their metaphorical truths, but it’s dangerous to confuse those with factual truths. Marketing and advertising live in the grey between what’s true and what’s a willful lie.
Does the true story of Newton, or anyone, matter? It depends. If you’re a fan and it you simply want to feel good about your fandom, then perhaps truth doesn’t matter. But if you are serious about achieving yourself, truth is essential. To achieve greatness the precise factual truth about what a hero did or didn’t do matters. I’m convinced these truths, if told well, always have more inspirational power than false legends. But not everyone agrees with me. I wrote The Myths of Innovation to sort out the history of ideas for people who want to stand on the true shoulders of giants, not the made up fantasy stories we’ve popularized. But as popular as the book has been, it will never be as popular as books that promise to teach you the magic secrets of geniuses in five minutes.
Falsehoods never go away completely. The ones that last are too fun, and too convenient, to kill. While Snopes.com will always be popular, it will never popular enough to eliminate the need for its existence. It’s too easy to bend legends to the needs of the teller and the listener. Few people are motivated to seek sources to verify what they see, hear or read. This is why legends grow in size with age: there are fewer and fewer people who witnessed the events around to question the tale. But I believe it’s progress to examine these stories anyway. It’s the duty of people with knowledge to use it to shine light on darkness. I know I will never eliminate the lies, but I must use what I know to help as many others find their way as I can.
History reveals itself to be a sloppy garden of truths, myths and lies, and it requires endless tending. Serious writers are the gardeners of ideas and must garden not just for the present, but for the future.
I used to feel guilty about books I own but haven’t read. They’d sit in piles making me feel unworthy as a writer, and reader. And no matter how many books I’d read in a year, I’d always find myself buying more. I couldn’t win. It was a destructive cycle and it drove me mad.
One day I realized there was another way to frame my behavior. The goal should not be efficiency because efficiency makes you conservative. As a writer I need an ambitious curiosity, not a safe one. It’s good to take bets on books at the limits of my comfort zone. That willingness to buy books signals to myself there are new worlds other creators make, and for the price of a meal I can purchase the opportunity to discover them. I can’t penalize myself for trying. If I never read any of the books that might be a problem, but merely not reading some of them is entirely sensible.
Buying books also has these larger effects:
- Purchases signal the creator that I’m interested in what they made.
- It’s a bestseller list – not a best read list – buying a book signals agents, editors and publishers.
- It provisions future curiosity, since in 3 months or years I can easily read that book.
- Seeing a good writer’s name and knowing I helped their career feels good.
I feel no guilt now in abandoning books either. They’re not children, they’re invented things. If I don’t like it after 50 pages I owe the author nothing. In fact since I bought the book, I paid for the right to read as much or little as I please. Never finishing books is a different problem, and the solution for that is buying better books.
Not sold yet? How about this: on the day I was born there were already more books published that I could ever read. There was never the potential to read everything. I have to abandon the expectation of perfection in my book purchases, for the same reasons I need to abandon the expectation of perfection in everything. Books are cheap, my literary inefficiencies doesn’t cost much in the long run, especially if those bets and gambles help me find a book or two a year that changes my life.
A decade ago I took a class in improvisation on a dare with some friends. I was surprised how much the class helped me experience daily life. It made me a better speaker and teacher too.
Recently I decided to take improv class again, and again I was surprised. I’d forgotten how much forgotten. My classmates had so much fun together that most of of us have continued on to the 200 level course.
Here’s what I’ve learned and why I recommend people should take it.
Assumptions that are wrong:
- It’s not about being funny. When I mention improv class most people are terrified. They assume you’re thrown on a big dark stage where someone yells at you every few seconds to do something funny. The reality is tame: it’s mostly playing games. Games like saying sentences where you alternate words with someone else. The games get harder as the classes go on, but you’re often told to avoid trying to be funny. Instead the goal is to pay attention and to commit fully to whatever you’re doing. If everyone does a few simple things well the result is comedy, but it’s not a straight line.
- You don’t have to be a natural performer. In the class you quickly learn improv (and most drama) depends on the commitment of actors to the scene they’re in. Being ‘good at improv’ is not talent in a conventional sense, but more of a capacity for being fully attentive. Enthusiasm and willingness matter most.
- It’s not hard to learn. Both times I’ve taken the course I’ve been amazed at what happens when you get a bunch of ordinary strangers to faithfully follow the rules of the games. The rules are brilliant: they let magic emerge from a story people build together.
What I’ve learned:
- I’d forgotten how to play. The games played in improv might bore a typical 8 year old. But for adults they’re wonderful. Someone says “Be an angry fish” and everyone says “I’m an angry fish!” and you have a room full of professional men and women instantly run around acting like a bunch of crazed, happy children. The rules for the game demand you jump in deep. And I’ve rediscovered what children know: when I jump in all the way I’m surprised by what I can do. So much of adult life is doing things by half, or pretending to care when we know we don’t. By rule, there is no half-assing in improv class. Whatever you are supposed to be right now, be it all the way.
- Life is less stressful. Now when I’m in challenging situations in life I recall something ridiculous I was forced to do in improv, like miming my way through the world championship of dishwashing, and by comparison the life situation I’m in is easy. I’m more relaxed in general from taking improv class. Fewer things give me stress, as I’ve been in far crazier situations in class last week.
- Questions and No’s are deadly. The improv rule of Yes and… is the most well known. The games make clear questioning slows things down and kills energy. It’s a bad habit many of us have in life, asking dozens of questions before we’ll try anything. The rule doesn’t mean you have to do what others tell you, but that you have to find creative ways to build on the energy of whatever they’ve offered, and offer it back to them to build on. It’s a simple principle, but we have many bad habits in how we handle things people offer us.
- Improvisation is everywhere. Every conversation in life is an act of improvisation: no one gives you a script for the day when you wake up. Improv helps me pay attention, proper attention, to all the situations I didn’t realize I could influence, or that were available to me if only I noticed them. Or more precisely, going to improv class makes me comfortable in dealing with whatever happens in many situations with other people.
- Metaphors for Life. The core rules work well as life philosophy: No half-assing. Make the other guy look good. Say Yes, And…, make big offers, it’s better to fail big then fail moderate. In tough decisions and situations I think about improv rules often and they help.
- Doing trumps reading. I’ve been recommending improv class to people for years, but even I’d forgotten how much I’d gained from the experience. Life is experience and reading about other people’s experiences, as powerful as it can be if the writer’s good, is a shell of having the experience yourself. Merely reading about improvisation, creativity or anything else of importance robs you of what you’re seeking. Put yourself in the middle of things.
If you know of an improv comedy group near you, most teach introductory classes. Go take one. Grab a friend if you need to, but go sign up. In Seattle my class is with Unexpected Productions, but a decade ago I took it with Jet City Improv.
I’m 41 years old today and I never expected to live this long. Although I’ve spent more time in hospitals than I’d have liked, my lifespan expectations were not born from a specific reason. I simply recall as a teenager imagining the totality of my life and somehow those imaginations never got far past 30. There just didn’t seem anything beyond that point as far as I could tell. My horizon ended there and now to reach beyond it is a pleasant surprise.
I don’t know why but as I’ve entered middle age I’m filled with giddiness. This all seems like a bonus round. I have my health and some of my sanity left. I say some, as I find most of adult life comically absurd. Voltaire wrote that “God is a comedian playing to an audience afraid to laugh” and I don’t seem to have much fear in that regard. Here in the first world we are so lost in distraction and pretense that taking most of what goes on at face value is something I’ve long shed from my experience of life.
7 months ago I tore my achilles tendon, but yesterday, after months of physical therapy, I was able to play basketball again for the first time. It’s a miracle of modern medicine I can walk without a cane, but to play is magical. And it’s magic purely for me. No one on the court knew my story. Kids half my age just saw me smiling and had no idea why. And I find myself seeking others who have similar smiles, a smile they don’t need to explain, a smile unhinged from the weather, or a job, or other trivia, a smile from somewhere deep inside that reflects their appreciation for the amazingness of ordinary things. Being alive, compared to the alternative, makes everything extraordinary.
And having lived beneath my means, provided I don’t do anything impressively stupid, I should be able to spend the better part of my remaining years doing what I’ve been doing for the last ten: living the life of a writer. I’ve made many sacrifices to get here, but it has held the deepest meaning for me to try and fill that shelf. I’m doing everything I can to make this dream last as long as I do. And I hope you’ll continue to help that dream simply by reading and following along.
Many people my age or older half-joke about wishing to be younger. Wishing to be young is a coward’s wish. People who wish to be younger would squander that miracle. They’re wasting the time they have now pretending they’d make better use of a different now. My soul fades in these conversations, as the souls of these people are already dead. They’ve buried their dreams under so many copouts they can’t tell the difference. I used to make the arguments, but I’ve learned they don’t want to hear them. They prefer the certainty of a fantasy, to the uncertainty of living fully in the present. The same cowardice that failed them the first time around would only fail them again if they had a second chance. And as I age I wonder: how am I still a coward? What would I do if I had the courage? Getting older makes me more courageous as I have far less to lose. Courage is far scarcer and more important than youth, and the upside is you can always grow more courageous, at any time, at any age.
America has a youth obsessed culture, but I’m slowly taking arms against it. The longer I’m alive the further I’ll be on creakier end of the bell curve of age, and I better get used to it. I’ve learned to be comfortable as the oldest person at the table now. I can learn as much from younger people as they can from someone older. I’m fascinated by young adults, old enough to be on their own but young enough to passionately chase their sky high ambitions.
I don’t envy their age, as they have so much to learn about what they want from life, but I’m drawn to their openness to the present. They make big bets on life, bets people my age are terrified of making, and maybe always were. But I have many big bets I still want to make. We are social creatures and behave like those we choose to be around, and I’m thinking I don’t want to act my age. I don’t want to hang out with my ‘peer’ group. The peers of my soul are not the peers of my generation. I find my mentality, despite my age, is far younger than my body and I hope it stays that way forever.
I wrote recently about whether a college degree is worth the expense, and when I heard about Kio Stark’s new book called Don’t Go Back To School: A Handbook For Learning Anything, I was intrigued. I asked her for a copy in exchange for consideration for writing a review, and here we are. It’s a good book, I read it quickly, and if you don’t know where to start in seeking your own education start here.
From the title I expected either a manifesto or pragmatic guide to self learning, but that’s not the case. The book centers on interviews with successful individuals who achieved success without following traditional paths. Although I easily read the entire book and recommend it, it’s an oddly shaped reading experience, where the introduction read more to me like a closing summational chapter. Although the book closes with a chapter of tactics and resources, and some interviews provide tips, the book itself is more inspirational than pragmatic.
There are some excellent interviews (Norton, Doctorow, Taylor) but some wander too deeply into personal histories and career specific advice, away from the book’s ambition (Cory Doctorow‘s interview felt as if it were repurposed as he talks more about writing than anything else). Unlike Founders at Work, where the interviews stand alone, or even What Should I Do With My Life?, where the author weaved the stories together, Don’t Go Back to School sits in the middle in structure. It took until I reached the 4th or 5th interview that I settled in to the frame and tone of the book. I’d almost recommend reading the interviews first, and the introduction and closing references last.
And yet one of my favorite lines in the book comes from Stark’s introduction:
A gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing, opening up more doors than it closes
She also clarifies common strategies her interviewees shared:
- Portfolios to show their past projects and demonstrate competence
- They show enthusiasm and chutzpah
- They are adept at learning on the job
- They are meticulous about doing good work
And Stark takes to task the often sited data about the value of a college degree:
…as a historical trend, people with college or graduate degrees have higher lifetime earnings… the problem is that this statistic is based on long-term data, gathere from a period of mderate loan debt. easy employability and annual increases in the value of a college degree.
Some highlights from the interviews include:
Quinn Norton (Journalist):
To this day, lectures are one of the best ways I can learn things, now on my iPod. To really get it, I listen to the same lecture back to back, twice…
I was a very odd teacher… I hated grading. I remember standing up in front of them and telling them grades don’t matter… One of them raised their hand and asked, “Well then Ms. Norton, what matters?” I told them what you learn matters. The skills that you get are useful. Not the grade you get. They were aghast.
Dorian Taylor (Programmer):
At my present age of 33, I suspect I could get into any institution that would take my money. But I couldn’t tell you why I’d go.
Molly Crabapple (Artist):
If you go to a rich people school, in any major, you will get a network of rich people. If you go to a poor people school, you won’t get a network of anyone. I totally understand why people go to Ivy League schools, so that they’ll meet the future power brokers of the world. I just never had the grades or the money for that, so it wasn’t an option for me. I made my own way. I network with people who are outside my field – journalists, writers, performers – and I look for every opportunity in the entire world where there is a blank wall and I can put my work on it.
Christopher Bathgate (Sculptor):
Getting stuck for me has been one of my best teachers. It has taught me the huge difference between just knowing the answer, and knowing how to find the answer
Pablos Holman (Hacker):
A lot of the people I think of as being most capable and accomplished are those that dropped out of college and learned what they do on the job. Learning that way gives you a sense of responsibility and a sense of ownership of your skills and knowledge in a way that a degree doesn’t. You get a degree and it’s an external authority saying you know what you’re doing. The degree abstracts responsibility for learning and the knowledge you have.
Zach Booth Simpson (Researcher):
Don’t bother getting an education: just hang with smart people and ask good questions.
The book is excellent for people who want to break free, and need to connect with stories of those who have done it. Most of the interviews are with independent, freelancer, entrepreneurial professionals and their stories will have the most appeal for those dreaming about similar paths (as opposed to those who dream about middle management and want to get there without going to college).
You can get the book here Don’t Go Back to School.
A recent post called The Surest way to build a billion dollar company by James Slavet tries to look at data from the past to explain a plan for how to be a billion dollar company (And thankfully he never uses the i-word once). If you like his premise it’s a well written article with insights into how companies have achieved this in history:
The first observation in looking at billion-dollar consumer Internet companies is that there aren’t a lot of them. We’re approaching the twenty-year mark of the commercial Internet. Amazon and Yahoo were both founded in 1994. Yet from a recent scan of the public markets, there are currently only twenty-four publicly held U.S. based Internet companies that are worth $1 billion or more. That’s about one company per year for the past twenty years…
A full two-thirds of the 24 publicly traded U.S. Internet companies worth more than $1 billion are digital transaction firms. The billion-dollar club includes a heavy dose of travel, local and real estate businesses. The list includes Priceline, Expedia, TripAdvisor, HomeAway, Groupon, OpenTable, Yelp and Zillow. Other transaction-focused businesses that clear the threshold include Amazon, Ebay, Netflix, Vistaprint, Shutterfly, Ancestry, Bankrate and IAC/Match.com.
But there are fallacies lurking in the premise.
- The surest way is not very sure. It’s very unlikely any company grows this large, even successful ones that are well run. Most new companies fail and even successful ones likely see normal levels of growth year to year. Even if Slavet’s advice is sound and followed, it doesn’t improve the likelihood much. It’s not as if we’re talking about the surest way to get a job, or the surest way to tie your shoes. Of course even a 1% improvement in odds is worthy if the stakes are high.
- History is an unreliable predictor of the future. He accurately points out that most of the billion dollar companies of the last decade are transaction companies, suggesting that’s the domain with the best odds of becoming a billion dollar company. That may have been true in 1996, but it’s possible the abundance of these types of companies makes it a mature playing field, moving the domain of opportunity elsewhere, somewhere harder to predict. The next few billion dollar companies may look little like the last ones.
- Most factors are beyond your control. The reasons why each of the companies mentioned (Google, Yahoo, Amazon) succeeded had much to do with forces those entrepreneurs didn’t control such as: how many competitors were there, how proficient were those competitors, how did their market change, which key people were available to join the company (or not), which technologies they depended on improved, etc. Entrepreneurs by nature discount forces they can’t control which helps them take on big risks, but those pivotal forces are also typically discounted in analysis of the past and the present.
- Many billion dollar companies don’t start with the specific goal to be worth a billion dollars. I could use someone to check my history here, but I don’t think any of the companies he mentioned set out with an explicit goal to be a particular size or net value. They were all small companies started by people inexperienced with entrepreneurship who mostly wanted to create a viable business based on their ideas. They had projections of possible growth which their investors likely demanded, but when exactly were those projections made? Before they began or after they had a fledgling, but functioning service? Of course, given #2 and #3, the fact that they did or didn’t do something may have had little bearing on the outcome they experienced.
- Bigger risk ventures have higher payoffs but lower success rates (maybe?). I don’t have data to support this claim, but a hypothesis is the factors you need to put in place to go after a billion dollar business, by design, increase the general risk of the venture. For example, buying a popular sandwich shop has very predictable returns, low risk, but modest growth potential. Starting a new web service in a new market has hard to predict returns, high risk, and high growth potential (if the market lasts). You can chart risk vs. reward for different ideas and look for sweet spots.
- Potential for scale is the goal. A better framework for evaluating Amazon, Google, Expedia and others is they are businesses that had high potential for scale. They could create one product in one place and serve the entire planet, assuming the entire planet was interested. It’s very hard to predict exactly how big a market will grow, but you can build a business with plans for scale, and how to grow scale quickly to match a fast growing market. An interesting analysis of billion dollar companies is which ones simply out-scaled or outpaced their competitors, competitors who may have had other advantages over them.
You can read Slavet’s article here: The Surest Way To Build A Billion-Dollar Internet Company | LinkedIn.
Stacey Hanke asked on twitter:
Why when I ask for feedback, it’s never constructive, it’s always vague “good job, nice work,” what does it take to get thorough feedback?
Feedback feels like confrontation to most people and they don’t want to risk starting a fight with you. They’ve learned many people are just fishing for praise when they ask for feedback, so that’s what they provide. They don’t want to hurt your feelings and they want out of a dangerous conversation.
Some people are more honest with feedback than others. Seek them out. And it’s up to you to cultivate trust with someone to get to the point where they feel safe enough to give you honest criticism. Consider the cliche “do I look fat in this bathing suit?” – who answers this with complete honesty? You’ll rarely get great feedback from a stranger, much less someone you know who doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.
There are five ways to improve the quality of feedback you get:
- Who you ask. What coworker do you have a strong enough relationship with that they’ll take the risk? Seek them out on something small, push them to be honest, and then genuinely reward them. Repeat, and over time you’ll can take on bigger feedback requests. And of course, ask someone with expertise on the subject at hand, not just your friend.
- How you ask. Ask a vague question and you get a vague answer. Instead ask focused questions like “How can I make this better?”, “What did I miss?” or “does this design solve these three objectives?” This gives the other person something to aim for. You, as the feedback asker, have to frame what kind of feedback you desire, simplifying the work for the other person.
- When you ask. If you want thoughtful feedback give people the time to do it. Set up a meeting where you forward your work, or questions, ahead of time. This shows you’re serious and that you’re willing to give them the chance to both look at your work and think over their feedback. If you catch a random person in the hallway and shove something in their face, you’re betting feedback for yourself will be more important to them than everything they’d planned to do that day.
- Where you ask. We are social creatures and behave differently depending on where we are. You get different feedback in a meeting with 10 people than you would over coffee or a beer after work. Different people have different comfort zones, but generally the more informal the situation the more open people are about their opinions.
- How you respond. Everyone thinks they’re great at hearing feedback, but most people handle it poorly. They debate, they argue, and give off body language of offense. If you really want feedback you have to be prepared to shut up and listen. Ask qualifying questions “do you mean X, or Y?” and seek to understand their opinion more precisely, rather than to change their minds. And make sure to thank them sincerely (something that might only be possible after you’ve cooled down).
Also see How To Give And Receive Criticism.
I’ll be updating this post with notes from each speaker - Rules: I will revise and update all day long, cleaning up links and sloppy grammar.
In 5 weeks someone who joined rose form being an unknown local volunteer rose to play a key role in the Ohio campaign. [I think her point was the online tool created local engagement that would have been unlikely without it].
Always have to meet people where they are. Not on obama.com, but on reddit. Many people don’t self select to join a community. But Reddit was a risky place to be (as a president). 30k people registered in one day, their highest spike in the campaign until near the end.
Modern Americans are hard to reach by phone. They move, they don’t answer cell calls to numbers they don’t know. But 85% of unreachable people can be reached online, through facebook, through their friends. Friends as messengers is the most powerful way.
If you are an organizer, you are not the best representative to get the people you don’t have already. Your friends or subordinates might be, but you definitely are not.
The internet is not a holy grail: it’s just a tool. Use it to build relationships.
Doug Zell, Intelligentsiacoffee.com
[He arrived late and apologized for being dressed casually: he was in a bike race. He was slated for 5:30 and luckily didn't need to go on until 6:00, which he joked about a bit. He carried all this well and got laughs but it was disrespectful on principle]
His company started as a small coffee roaster, now has coffee bars across the U.S. and 1000 wholesaler accounts, and buy from 20 counties, paying above fair trade values.
What’s required to build a great brand?
- Conviction: you do what you say you’re going to do. Patagonia is a great example. That’s how you make brands that last.
- Unimpeachable quality: if you build brand well it will last forever. Four Seasons started as a motor inn in Toronto. When it moved into London it had to change to compete. They decided on unimpeachable quality as their goal. Every detail smacks of quality (Also mention Krug champagne).
- People see through lack of authenticity There are many inventa-companies (“we thought of this while out on a hike”). Levi’s embodies this. Gold rush history, 200 [it's more like 130] years later the jeans have the same quality. Dockers however have lost their way. In coffee they see many other brands jump in and them jump out. They don’t commit completely, or aim to deceive customers about what they are.
- Innovation and evolution. JCrew launched as preppie brand when he was in college, but now have reinvented themselves. Went from preppie and sleepy to leading edge. The tiring part is, just when you’re getting sick of your brand, the public is just starting to get it, they’re chasing you and are behind you. You need to be patient, but always working on what’s next. There are brands that just fell asleep for 3 or 4 years [and don't survive].
- Integrity. It took 18 years to have the success he has now, and deflects praise he gets from others (“Google started after we did”). If you are going to build a great company and brand you have to have the utmost integrity. It’s easy to do things that are cheap and low quality but it won’t last.
- Be deliberate. Where do you want the brand to go? Even successful companies lose their confidence and way. Apple is a good example for their patience and dedication to quality.
He talked about how bike races don’t need to talk or make excuses. Great brands also stand on their own, with little artifice [which didn't jive to me with him being cavalier about being late].
For years I’ve studied the use of the use and abuse of the word innovation. Mostly it’s used as jargon, without any meaningful intent at all. I’ve complained about this for years, which naturally leads to people asking me to stop whining and offer a definition.
I generally recommend people don’t use the word. It’s mostly meaningless. At best it’s something people should say about you, not something you say about yourself. Its best to dedicate yourself to solving problems since that’s what most people who earn the title innovator were trying to do.
But if you must use it, here is the best definition:
Innovation is significant positive change
This is a high bar, and it should be.
What does significant mean? I’d start with the invention of the light bulb, constitutional governments, wireless radio and maybe web browsers. Perhaps you could say significant is a 30% or more improvement in something, like the speed of an engine or the power of a battery. If you know the history of your profession you know the big positive changes people made over the last 50 years, giving you perspective on the scale of brilliance you need to have to be worthy of that word.
But if you use word lightly, or frequently, you show hubris in the present and ignorance of the past.
Sayings like “we innovate every day”, “chief innovator” or “innovation pipeline” are inflations. They’re popular, but misguided. Calling a thing an innovation doesn’t make it so. It’s just a word and words are free to be abused.
The best thing to ask anyone who uses the word innovation is: what do you mean when you say that?
Most of the time people have no idea what they mean. And once they admit this, that’s when you offer the definition above.
Clay Herbert recently posted on the The Best Conference Hack, which is simply sitting in the front.
As a frequent speaker I like Clay’s advice. For speakers the empty front row is mysterious and frustrating. Speakers make a huge commitment, yet audiences who have little at stake show their lack of faith by staying back. Unlike a rock concert, somehow the 5th row is more desirable than the 1st.
I think better advice than Clay’s is to participate and speak about something. Many conferences offer Ignite or lightning talks, allowing many attendees to share their voice. This is by far the best conference hack: participate. It puts you in the middle of things. Volunteering has similar benefits without the stress.
But the surprise is, when I’m an attendee I don’t listen to all the speakers.
Sometimes I barely go in the session rooms.
Everyone has different learning preferences, and I know mine: I find it hard to listen to lectures, but I’m a tremendous reader. Unless the speaker is very good, which is rare, I’m better off reading their book or their blog which I can do at my own pace. As I wrote about in Confessions of a Public Speaker, lectures were never a good way to learn skills. They’re passive, non-interactive and rarely performed by people good at lecturing. I know it’s ironic that I have a low tolerance for lectures as I make a living giving them.
Conferences are a compromise: you get access to popular experts, but it’s broadcast access. This is a good deal if it’s your only option or your learning style matches what you get at the conference. But for me it’s conversations, which are two way, that I learn the most from. Conferences use speakers as MacGuffins, drawing attendees to come, but often the “side stuff” has the highest payoff.
Typically at events I do the following:
- For talks I’m excited about, I’ll sit in the front as Clay suggests. But this is rare. It’s not a judgement of them, it’s a judgement of how I learn.
- Frequently I sit in a back aisle, especially at a multitrack event. I’ll take aisle near the front if I can. In 7 minutes I can tell if the speaker has prepared well enough to warrant me staying. If I’m not convinced, I’ll move to another session – this is hard to do if you’re in front (unless you’re fortunate to have the aisle and brave enough to leave it).
- Often I’ll listen for 5 or 10 minutes to evaluate their credibility: then I’ll buy their book, or subscribe to their blog, and move on. Or stay if I think I’m getting something special I can’t get any other way.
- I regularly wander the halls and talk to others who are bored by lectures. They’re like me: better at doing than sitting and listening. I’ve learned great lessons from the conversations during sessions. The halls are not packed during sessions and it’s easier in some ways to start conversations.
- If I commit to blogging the event, my attention improves. At Failcon 2012 I reported on the talks and I found this helped me focus. But it changes how you listen: it’s a shallower experience in some ways as you’re rushing to get things down. And to do it properly required far less interacting with other attendees. LukeW is the master of this: see his notes from 200+ talks.
But this is merely what I do. Unless your learning preferences match mine, don’t do these things.
If you don’t know how you learn best, experiment. Go to different kinds of events that offer different experiences. Better events invest in different kinds of learning, with things in the hall for people like me, and well prepared speakers worthy of all the attention the front row can give them.
In making the mega list of 177 innovation myths, I hoped the hours it took to research would pay off in others building on it. Designer Stefan Klocek was first by inverting all the myths as an experiment, creating a list of 177 innovation truths.
Of course semantic inversions don’t always work, but some are interesting especially when compared together:
- Innovators had unhappy lives
- Innovators need others to succeed
- You don’t need to stay positive
- You can’t remember everything
- Companies of any size and any age innovate
- Many great ideas are needed
- It’s better to take risks
- Innovation is a full time activity
- You don’t need more new ideas
- Innovation is the whole company
- You don’t need to let loose
- Innovation isn’t radical departure
- Mistakes are cheap
See the entire list here.
Recently I saw a preview for the upcoming film version of The Great Gatsby (directed by Baz Luhrmann who did Moulin Rouge!). Baz’s style fits his name, and is grand, dramatic, over the top and nearly absurd, but also beautiful, shocking and intense. The preview made the movie seem brutal for a book I’d thought of as lyrical, more smoldering than explosive. The preview made me wonder how much I’d forgotten about the book, since it had been years since last I’d read it, so I picked it up and read it in two sittings.
As a sketch of a story there is nothing amazing about The Great Gatsby. It’s a writer’s book in a way, since it’s so simple and in many way obvious, yet works so wonderfully well, making it irresistible to try and take it apart. It’s a deceptive little book. It’s constructed as a series of slow burning time bombs that make you simultaneously want them to both go off to relieve the pressure, but not go off, so you can enjoy the way things are slowly unraveling for as long as possible.
What makes the book sing is the first person narration, and how easy Fitzgerald makes it seem to wind brilliant internal thoughts and commentary between plotting, dialog and observation. He jumps though time and perspective but always makes you, as the reader, feel well cared for by the soft cushion of his narrative powers. But there are some moments that don’t age as well: moments of anti-semitsm and racism, which, on afterthought, were probably appropriate for 1920s America. Some of the manners of speech feel staged, but not having been born until 50 years after it was written it’s hard to argue whether he got it right or wrong. But none of those complaints stand in the way of what has always been a deeply worthwhile, and easy read.
Some choice non-spoiler quotes from the book:
Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.
No — Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.
Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.
The little dog was sitting on the table looking with blind eyes through the smoke, and from time to time groaning faintly. People disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other, searched for each other, found each other a few feet away. Some time toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face, discussing in impassioned voices…
He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished.
The term Myths of Innovation has become popular on the web, but few of these articles link to each other, which is sad. Much like the abuse of the term innovation itself, the meaning stretches further all the time.
And somehow in all this innovation abuse we’ve forgotten inventions like web searches, links and footnotes to credit what others have done.
As a response I’ve compiled a chronological list of articles using the term. I’d like to make a definitive list of Innovation Myths and I’m happy to update this if you find more to add. Surprisingly these lists are all broadly written – none are comprised of specific invention stories that are fabrications.
I came up with the term independently in April of 2002 for a lecture at Microsoft that eventually became the book. I hadn’t heard the term before but it’s entirely likely someone else had used it for an article, paper or post somewhere. The earliest use I found online in creating this post is Veitch, below.
Also see the companion list: the 177 truths of innovation.
The Complete list of Innovation Myths
1/31/2001 Innovation Myths, Open Future, John Veitch
- Innovators had happy lives
- Innovators can succeed alone
- You must stay positive
- You can remember everything
6/30/2002, Innovation Survey, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Frank Milton (pub date unverified)
- Only small/new companies innovate
- One great idea is all we need
- It’s better to play safe
- Innovation is a part-time activity
9/24/2004, The Seven Myths of Innovation, Financial Times, Sawhney/Wolcott
- You need more new ideas
- Innovation is a department
- Let people loose
- Innovation is a radical departure
- Mistakes are costly
- Avoid the detours
- Innovation is about creating new things
12/1/2004, 6 Myths of Creativity, Fast Company, Bill Breen
- Creativity comes from creative types
- Money is a motivator
- Time pressure fuels creativity
- Fear forces breakthroughs
- Competition beats collaboration
- Streamline organization is a creative organization
12/2005, Innovation myths, Innovate on Purpose, Jeffrey Phillips
- You can’t manage innovation
- People won’t use processes
- There’s no defined process
- Too much management stifles creativity
2/2006, Excerpt From Innovation Handbook: A Roadmap to Disruptive Growth, Clayton Christensen/Scott Anthony
- Innovation is all about technology
- More resources equal more innovation
- Only a big bang counts as a success
- Innovation is random and unpredictable
- You can’t teach people to be more innovative
2/3/2006, Top Ten Innovation Myths, Geoffrey Moore
- We don’t innovate here no more
- Product cycles are getting shorter
- We need a chief innovation officer
- We need to be more like Google
- R&D investment indicates innovation commitment
- Great innovators are usually egotistical mavericks
- Innovation is inherently disruptive
- It is good to innovate
- Innovation is hard
- When innovation dies, it’s because antibodies kill it
6/13/2006, The Myths About Innovation, The Straits Times, Atul Mathur
- Innovation is for other industries
- Innovation is inventing new product
- Innovation is R&D
- Innovation is for giants
- Innovation is optional
6/06/2006, Five Innovation Myths, McKinney / Jim McNerney
- It’s the solitary genius who is responsible
- It’s all about technology
- If it isn’t ‘new to the world’ it’s not innovation
- Innovation can’t be managed
- Creativity and discipline are mortal enemies
5/2007, The Myths of Innovation (the book) - revised 2010, O’Reilly Media, Scott Berkun
- The myth of epiphany
- We understand the history of innovation
- There is a method
- People love new ideas
- The lone inventor
- Good ideas are hard to find
- Your boss knows more than you
- The best idea wins
- Problems are less interesting than solutions
- Innovation is always good
- A detailed free summary of the book is here
- A list of ranked references from the book
12/10/2008, Myths of Innovation, Industry Week, Jill Jusko
- Innovation applies to technology and products
- Innovation is a long term project
- Innovation happens by chance
7/16/08, Seven Myths of Innovation, CyberJournalist
- Always keep your eye on the ball
- Failure is not an option
- Everyone loves an innovator
- Innovators are problem solvers
- Knowledge is Power
- Innovation can be predicted
- First place always wins
4/09, Four Dangerous Myths, American Management Association, Paddy Miller, Spring 2009
- Creativity should be fun
- All ideas are good
- Innovation is Entrepreneurship
- The Creative Imperative
- Technology drives innovation
- If you pursue innovation, it will come
- Innovation results from an outside-in perspective
- Bad things will happen if you open up your business processes
- Vendors understand your business and IT better than you do
- A tight budget stifles innovation.
2/22/2010, Five Damaging Myths about Innovation, Biznik, Jeanne Yocum
- An innovation can be purchased
- All we need are some good new ideas
- I’ll recognize breakthroughs when I see them
- We just implemented a great idea, we can rest
- (There was no 5th myth)
12/16/10, The 5 Myths of Innovation, Sloan Review MIT (Julian Birkinshaw, Cyril Bouquet and J.-L. Barsoux)
- Eureka Moment
- Build it and They Will Come
- Open Innovation is the Future
- Pay Is Paramount
- Bottom Up Innovation is Best
7/20/2010, 4 Myths that get in the way of Innovation, CBS, Margaret Heffernan
- Innovation involves Quantum Leaps
- Only Geeks May Apply
- Innovation Requires off-sites with Geniuses
- Innovators are a Special Breed
- Innovation is all about ideas
- A great leader never fails at innovation
- Effective Innovation leaders fight the system
- Everyone can be an innovator
- Real innovation happens bottoms-up
- Innovation can be embedded inside an organization
- Initiating Innovation requires wholesale change
- Innovation can only happen in skunk works
- Innovation is unmanageable chaos
- Only startups can innovate
3/2011, The 7 Common Myths of Innovation, CEO Refresher, George Chen Ian Pallister
- Innovation can’t be taught
- Breakthrough innovation occurs through stroke of genius
- Innovation is solely the job of R&D
- Innovation is risky
- Innovation is about commercializing cutting edge technologies
- Innovation is expensive
- Innovation is disruptive and dilutes focus
4/8/2011, Dispelling the Myths about Innovation, Formico, Peter Boggis
- Creativity and Innovation are the same thing
- Innovation is only relevant for consumer companies
- “Innovation just happens”
- Business value if innovation is difficult to measure
- Innovation requires deep pockets, risk-embracing and bleeding edge technology
10/2011, The Innovation Myths, Harvard Business, Scott Anthony
- Innovation is random
- Only geniuses can innovate
- You’re either an innovator or not
- Innovation happens in the R&D lab
- We will win with technology
- Innovation is about improved performace
- Customer will be a critical source
- Game changing innovation is done by entrepreneurs
- We win by targeting big markets
- Innovation requires big bets
10/28/2011, Myths and realities about Innovation, CNBC, Benjamin Hallen
- Innovation comes from isolated geniuses
- Innovation is about a eureka moment
- Great innovations will be easily recognized
5/12/2011, 10 Myths of Innovation, Jon Gatrell
- Innovation is all about ideas
- The great leader never fails
- Leaders are only fighting the system
- Everyone can be an innovator
- Innovation happens organically
- Can be inside an establish organization
- Requires wholesale organizational change
- Innovation can only happen in Skunk Works
- Innovation is unmanageable chaos
- Only start-ups can innovate
8/4/2011, Bust Your Innovation Myths, Art Markman
- We glorify eureka moments
- We assume legendary stories are true
- Myths are slanted towards great people and decisive events
9/8/2011, Debunking the Myths of Innovation, Jim Stikeleather, Dell
- You can’t ask customers what they need
- Faster, better, cheaper
- Bringing disruptive innovations is never easy
10/24/2011, Innovation is About Execution, Despite the Myths, Forbes, Martin Zwilling
- Innovation is all about ideas
- A great leader never fails
- Effective innovation leaders are subversives
- Everyone can be an innovator
- Real innovation is bottom up
- Innovation can be embedded in an organization
- Innovation requires wholesale change
- Innovation happens in skunk works
- Innovation is unmanageable chaos
- Only startups can innovate
11/3/2011, Three Myths about Innovation, Jim Stikeleather
- Successful innovation requires disruptive revolution
- You have to be creative (egotistical) to be innovative
- Innovation is expensive
12/19/2011, Relentless Innovation – Debunking the Myths, U. of Texas, Jeffrey Phillips
- Some industries seem more innovative than others
- Fast following innovators can suceed
- (Mentions The book The Myths of Innovation)
2/24/2011, 5 Myths of Innovation, Haydn Shaugnessy, Forbes
- It’s all about creativity
- Innovation is about motivation
- Innovation is about the user
- Innovation is about products and services
- Innovation is good
1/4/2012, The Myths of Innovation, James Gardner, Computer Weekly
- If you invest in something new you have better chances of windfall returns
2/7/2012, Debunking 4 myths of innovation, FastCoDesign, Jeffrey Phillips
- Individual innovative leadership accounts for success
- Level of industry competition dictates the amount of innovation
- It’s possible to copy market leaders while retaining competitive advantage
2/12/2012, Five Myths of Innovation, Gartner.com
- This list is behind a $495 paywall :(
2/20/2013, 7 Myths of Innovation, Fast Bridge
- It is what we do behind closed doors
- Innovation just happens
- We need to reward innovation
- It is about working harder
- Real innovation is about adjacent possible
- You need the best people
- It’s about selecting the best ideas
4/2/2013 (From the future!), 5 Innovation Myths Busted, Flanders, Vladimir Blagojevic
- Innovation = creativity + ideas
- Innovation = something new
- Innovation = great products
- Validating innovation = fundraise
- Technical Innovations = scalable and automated
How this list was compiled
I used a series of Google, Yahoo and Bing searches, focusing on different date ranges and permutations on “Myths of Innovation”. Search engines are better in some ways than when I wrote the book, as more data is now available on the web. I prioritized articles, posts or presentations that used the words Myth and Innovation somewhere in the title, including some that used the terms Myths and Creativity.
Many posts I found are cross-references of the same links, with interviews with authors of books/posts about myths they’d written about elsewhere and I only listed each list once. If you find other items I should add, please leave a comment.
Thanks to everyone who spread the word about the free download of my book Mindfire.
As of this moment the free download is up, but I’ll be shutting it down shortly.
In case you are curious here are the resulting numbers:
- It was free for 100 hours instead of the promised 48 (but 70% of downloads were in first 3 days)
- 11500 people downloaded a copy of the book
- About 2000 downloaded the book, but immediately unsubscribed (10% of total) or put in a bogus email address (about 7%)
- Roughly 40% PDF, 30% Mobi, 30% Epub
- 1887 verified tweets, 1181 Facebook shares
It was a great success, especially for a book that has been out for a year.
I’m grateful for your support and I’ll get back to work on the next book.
A few weeks ago you voted on the title for my next book. Thanks to your help that decision has been made:
The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work.
The book follows the behind the scenes story of my year working for Automattic, Inc, the makers of WordPress.com and what I learned from working in a 100% remote based, email-free, open-source fueled working culture. It was a fascinating experience in many ways and the book teaches everything I learned about management, leadership, creativity and organizations.
I’ve been working with the folks at Jossey-Bass on the cover design. Here are 4 concepts – Which direction is best? Place you vote.
If you want to be notified when the book is on-sale and get access to exclusive content, sign up here.
I wrote the popular book The Myths of Innovation to capture everything I wish I’d been told before I started my career. I’ve seen bloggers summarize the book into a simple list (or cheezy video), but here’s a version written by my own hand.
The book was heavily researched with 100s of footnotes and references, but here’s the tightest summation:
- The myth of epiphany. Few mention the millions of “epiphanies” people have had that ended in years of failure. We love stories of flashes of insight and they dominate how creativity is reported. Epiphany stories project illusions of certainty since they’re always about successful ideas. Epiphanies are a consequence of effort, not just the inspiration for it. When you hear a story about a flash of insight, the useful questions to ask are 1) how much time the creator spent working before it happened and 2) how much work they did after to make the idea successful. An epiphany doesn’t find investors, make prototypes, sacrifice free time or persist in the face of rejection: only you can do that and you’ll have to do it without a guarantee of success.
- The myth that we know history. We romanticize the past to fit the present, creating traps for creatives who don’t know the chaotic history of their own field. Innovation is OLD. The tactics for trying to change the present are ancient. Why did America succeed when 90+% of revolutions fail? Was there anything really special about the Rosetta Stone? Dominant ideas aren’t necessarily good ones. Find the biggest idea in your field and dig in: you’ll be surprised at what you find beneath the surface that helps your work in the present (see Myth #8: the best idea wins).
- The myth of a method. The challenge with creative work, especially in a marketplace, is the many factors beyond your control. You can do everything right and still fail. Most books on creativity make big promises based on history: they cherry pick examples from the past and claim it’s predictive. Methods can be useful but they deny that the present is different from the past. There are too many variables in the present to have certainty. This is why terms like innovation system or innovation pipeline are absurd. The idea of an innovation portfolio, where a range of risk is assumed, is more honest. Many books on creativity are surprisingly uncreative (lightbulbs should be banned from creativity book covers) and unreal.
- The myth we love new ideas. We are a conservative species: try something as simple as standing, rather than sitting, in your next group meeting. How accepting were your peers? Conformity is deep in our biology. While talking about creativity is very popular, actually being creative puts your social status at risk. All great ideas were rejected, often for years or decades, yet we bury this in our history (see Myth #1 & #2). The history of breakthroughs is a tale of persistence against rejection. Much of what makes a successful innovator is their ability to persuade and convince conservative people of the merits of their ideas, a very different skill from creativity itself. Your problem is likely not your ideas, but your skills for pitching ideas to others. Ideas are rarely rejected on their merits; they’re rejected because of how they make people feel. The bigger the idea, the harder the persuasion challenge.
- The myth of the lone inventor. It’s easier to worship a hero if they are portrayed as superhuman. But even people worthy of the title genius or prodigy like Mozart, Picasso and Einstein had family and teachers who taught them things. Many of Edison’s patents are shared with co-workers, as despite his huge ego he knew collaboration was critical (His Menlo Park office was one of the first research labs). Stories of mad geniuses who worked completely alone are rare. Pick any master who you think worked alone and read some of their history: you’ll be surprised how many people influenced their work. Learning to collaborate, and give and receive feedback, may matter more than your brilliance.
- The myth that good ideas are rare. If you watch any 6 year old child they will invent dozens of things in an hour. We are built for creativity. The problem is the conventions of adult life demand conformity and we sacrifice our creative instincts in favor of social status. Unlike a child, adults are supremely and instantly judgmental, killing ideas before they’ve had even a moment to prove their worth. It’s easy to rediscover creativity, which is why brainstorming rarely helps much. We’re already creative. The challenge is ideas don’t come with the courage to invest in them. Good ideas are everywhere: what’s uncommon is people with the conviction to put their reputation behind ideas.
- The myth your boss knows more than you. A fallacy of workplaces is that senior staff are better at everything than the people who work for them. This is false in many ways, but creative intuition might be the most false. To rise in power demands good political judgement, yet innovation requires a willingness to defy convention. Convention-defiers are harder to promote in most organizations, yet essential for progress. To assume senior staff are the best at leading change is a mistake.
- The myth the best idea wins. We lionize winners and history blames losers for their fate. Marketing, politics and timing have tremendous influence on why one idea or its competitors wins, yet these details are more complex than we want to hear. It’s satisfying to believe the best idea has won in the past, because it’s something we want to believe about the present too. But to be successful with ideas demands studying why some lousy ideas have triumphed (Why doesn’t the U.S. use the metric system?), and some great ones are still on the sidelines. The world of ideas is not a pure meritocracy and you need to act accordingly.
- The myth than problems are less interesting than solutions. Eintsein said “If I had 20 days to solve a problem I would take 19 to define it.” There are many creative ways to think about a problem, and different ways to look at a situation. The impatient run at full speed into solving things, speeding right past the insights needed to find a great solution. If you listen to how successful creators talk about their daily work, they spend more time thinking about the problem than epiphany obsessed media would have us believe.
- The myth innovation is always good. How would you feel about an invention that ends your profession? What impact will an idea have 1,5,10,100 years from now? All innovation is change and all change helps some people and hurts others. Many horrible inventions were created with the best intentions (and some horrible intentions led to some good consequences). Benz and Ford never imagined automobiles would kill 40k people annually in the U.S. And the Wright brothers never imagined Predator drones. Any successful idea has a multitude of consequences that are impossible to predict and difficult to even measure.
If you liked this, you’ll love the depth, detailed lessons and entertaining stories in the book. It includes 4 chapters, nearly 1/3rd of the book, specifically about how to apply all the lessons in your work and world.
It’s strange to see a book I worked on for many years compressed this way – I hope you found it compelling.