Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘business’

19 DECEMBER, 2014

John Maeda on Creative Leadership, Talking vs. Making, and Why Human Relationships Are a Work of Craftsmanship

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“You make relationships. One at a time. With the same painstaking attention to craft that you knew as a maker.”

“A leader’s real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him,” David Foster Wallace wrote in what remains the wisest meditation on leadership I’ve ever encountered, “and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.” But for many people in creative fields — artists, designers, filmmakers, writers — “leadership” remains an alienating notion that belongs in the business world or, worse, politics. And yet in an age of increasing creative collaboration and a world where any creative person putting a piece of herself out there is a “marketer,” whether willingly or not, the question of how a creative person can also be a great leader without sacrificing her art is an increasingly urgent one.

The delicate marriage of these two domains of mastery, often falsely framed as contradictory, is what design sage John Maeda explores in an interview found in Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact (public library) — the most recent installment in the series of entrepreneurship and self-enhancement field guides by 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei, which previously explored how to hone your creative routine and how to make your own luck.

Maeda — who headed research at the MIT Media Lab for thirteen years, spent the following six as president of the Rhode Island School of Design, and is one of the kindest, most thoughtful, and most generous human beings I know — considers the often uncomfortable shift from maker to leader that paralyzes many creative people:

When you make things with your hands, you force something into being. You sand it, you cut it, you fold it… You do everything to build it from end to end. Whereas leading requires a lot of talking, a lot of communicating — not using your hands. And when you’re a creative who makes things, you immediately build a distinction between the talkers and the makers. And makers tend to look down on talkers. And leaders are talkers. You don’t trust them, but now you’re one of them. [laughs] At first you think you can’t make anything with your hands anymore. But you can. You make relationships. One at a time. With the same painstaking attention to craft that you knew as a maker.

This notion that human relationships are an act of creativity and craftsmanship, a supreme art, is something Van Gogh captured a century and a half earlier, and yet it remains a counterintuitive idea in a culture that continues to subscribe to the lone genius myth, in art and in business, despite towering counterevidence and beautifully argued cases against it. Maeda speaks to this dangerous fallacy:

As a leader, you are alone — and accountable for the needs of the whole. The whole is the product. And you’re making it. You own it. And you succeed and fail by it… True creative leaders recognize that they live and die by their team.

Essentially, Maeda exposes the vital but overlooked parallels between making great artifacts and making great movements or communities — both are acts of creativity and require great craftsmanship. The difference, he points out, is in the delay of the payoff from the fruits of the creator’s labor:

The timeline is longer. A lot longer. You don’t get the immediate gratification that you might as a designer when the timelines are shorter. But artists are used to delayed gratification… and manage ambiguity better than anyone else.

Maeda is the author of Redesigning Leadership, in which he explores the many dimensions of the subject in greater depth and detail.

Complement Make Your Mark — which includes wisdom on entrepreneurship and the creative life from Seth Godin, Tim O’Reilly, Scott Belsky, and more — with the first two installments in the series, then revisit Lisa Congdon’s field guide to the psychology and practicalities of becoming a successful artist and Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull on the key to creative leadership.

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24 NOVEMBER, 2011

Steve Jobs and NeXT: Rare PBS Documentary circa 1986

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A startup sentiment sandwich from the master chef, or why “reality distortion” helps sales but hurts design.

In 1985, shortly after being fired from Apple, Steve Jobs founded NeXT, the somewhat short-lived but revolutionary company focused on higher education and business services. It was there that Jobs honed his visionary approach to computing and design, and crystalized his lens of priorities — the very qualities that made him not only a cultural icon but also a personal hero.

This fascinating PBS documentary, titled The Entrepreneurs and filmed in 1986, offers a rare glimpse of Jobs’ original vision with NeXT, from his aspirations for higher education and simulated learning environments to his decision-making process on price point and product features to his approach to company culture and motivational morale.

Whether NeXT can be a viable business is something only time will tell. But Steve Jobs’ passionate commitment to his vision is clear, and his certainty that it can be achieved — and is worth achieving — is a conviction to be observed in all successful entrepreneurs.”

Some of my favorite parts:

  • 1:20 Iconic designer and notorious curmudgeon Paul Rand reveals the NeXT logo. (See also this fantastic old favorite, in which Jobs reminisces about what it was like to work with a man of such genius and such temper.)
  • Rand doesn’t usually work for infant companies, even if they can afford him. But NeXT isn’t an ordinary startup.”

  • 3:50 Jobs talks about how affordable, accessible technology can make a real difference in the learning environment — a vision also articulated by beloved science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in this 1988 Bill Moyers interview
  • 4:35 On planting the seeds of a new corporate culture:
  • More important than building a product, we are in the process of architecting a company that will hopefully be much more incredible, the total will be much more incredible than the sum of its parts, and the cumulative effort of approximately 20,000 decisions that we’re all gonna make over the next two years are gonna define what our company is. And one of the things that made Apple great was that, in the early days, it was built from the heart.”

  • 10:31 Joanna Hoffman, also known as Apple employee #5, confronts Jobs about the double-edged sword of “reality distortion,” on the one hand a powerful motivator and on the other false prophet for design decisions
  • 13:54 A startup sentiment sandwich of sorts — celebrating the initial idea-high of entrepreneurship, getting grounded into and concerned about the realities of day-to-day operations, then bringing back those big-picture entrepreneurial ideals as a guiding light in overcoming the mundane obstacles.
  • I don’t see that startup hustle… If we zoom out of the big picture, it would be a shame to have lost the war because we won a few battles.”

Merely 48 months later, Jobs stood up in front of a riveted audience at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall and introduced four fully crystalized, groundbreaking NeXT products, including “some of the neatest apps that have ever been created for any desktop platform,” “the best color that’s ever been,” and “the most important new application area in the 1990s…interpersonal computing.”

For more on the genius of Jobs, don’t miss the excellent I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, which curates 200 of his most timeless and powerful quotes, and of course the celebrated Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs.

HT TUAW

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11 NOVEMBER, 2011

The Universal Traveler: A Vintage Guide to Creative Problem-Solving

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Navigating the “tourist traps” of creativity, or how to finally reconcile ideation and evaluation.

In a recent comment on Stefan G. Bucher’s fantastic 344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfillment, which has quickly become the most popular book on Brain Pickings this year, a reader named Terry tipped me off to The Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide to Creativity, Problem-Solving, and the Process of Reaching Goals — a curious metaphorical travel guide to creative problem-solving, originally published in 1971 by researchers Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall, offering what’s essentially a blueprint to design thinking nearly four decades before design thinking was a buzzword.

The tome uses the analogy of travel, “an activity already known to all readers,” and the concept of The Travel Agency to explore various elements of and boosts for creative problem-solving — overcoming the blocks to creativity (something we’ve previously examined), avoiding “tourist traps” in the creative process, taking “side trips” that foster serendipity, mastering the art of idea selection, and learning to take criticism. Also included are a handful of hands-on, actionable tools and diagrams, including a beautifully designed “Traveler’s Map” and a procedure for “self-hypnosis.”

The travel vocabulary reinforces the concept that design is more meaningful when it can be visualized and pursued as a logical and planned journey through a series of stopovers called Design Stages. Although chance and random process are not excluded, their application depends on how appropriate they may be in specific situations.”

From the book’s introduction:

The Universal Traveler is more than a guide to creative problem-solving and clear thinking; it is your passport to success. The process described is universally relevant; based on the premise that any problem, dream, or aspiration, no matter its size or degree of complexity, can benefit from the same logical and orderly ‘systematic’ process employed to solve world-level problems.”

This “systematic process” they refer to is based on Cybernetics, an early study of human control systems, forming the foundation of most social, industrial and economic problem modeling. Koberg and Bagnall take the technical terminology of Cybernetics and translate it into everyday language, applied in simplified techniques. They call the resulting “user-friendly” approach to problem-solving “Soft Systems.”

Once learned and internalized with practice, the Universal Traveler ‘soft systematic’ approach will allow anyone to deal more logically and orderly with all manner of problem situations or goals.”

But my favorite part is easily this typographic inscription from the book’s original back cover:

More than a mere vintage gem, The Universal Traveler both presaged and laid the foundation for much of modern thinking on design and creativity, and is bound to become one of the most important books you ever read — had I come across it earlier, I would have certainly included it in my semi-serious omnibus on (almost) everything you need to know about culture in 10 books.

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