Sometimes we learn the most about business by looking outside of our own business bubble. When we’re open to learning from other domains we see lessons invisible to us otherwise.
We are nearing the end of our transformation into a creative economy. The ABC-123 jobs that require you to only follow directions have been shipped overseas. Somebody is getting paid $4.50 an hour to do them (if they’re lucky). Now we need creativity. We need boldness and ballsiness. That doesn’t happen under the rules of factory management. That only happens when creativity is nurtured. The arts are shoving their way into the business world – we need to learn something from them.
I had the opportunity recently to work Tony Award Winner and Oscar Nominee Mark Medoff on his newest play. As the assistant director I was witness to all sorts of genius during the “workshops” for the play. Workshopping is essentially a set of rehearsals done for the playwright so he or she can make changes to the play.
It’s amazing to spend time with someone with such a high level of mastery and love for their craft. Mark is in his early 70’s but has the focus and excitement of someone in their 20’s. We would go for 7 hours without a break. The actors reading and re-reading through the script, Mark making notes and re-writing bits of the script, and the director giving feedback on performances. It was a grueling process and nobody was having more fun than Mark.
This is a real-world example of the necessity of doing work that you love. Mark maintained a lazer-like focus on his story for the entire process. I found out later that he was experiencing a terrible pain during the whole ordeal but you would never have guessed it. His eyes only showed the joy of hard work coming to fruition.
At his age, 72, most people are watching T.V. and waiting to get put in a nursing home. Mark is creating work with just as much passion as he was when he wrote Children of a Lesser God (that’s what it seems like, anyway).
I should mention that these lessons were also gathered by witnessing Bob Devin Jones of Bobs Cookies and Studio@620.
As I sat there observing, I noticed a spooky amount of parallels between creating a great play and a great business. I’ve gathered some of my favorites here.
1. Empower others. Actors can’t give a decent performance if they don’t feel at liberty to co-create their own character. Bob is fond of telling actors, “Let’s explore this aspect of your character.” The emphasis on co-creation gives actors a real stake in what’s happening. Their creativity isn’t stifled by someone telling them they’re doing it wrong.
As our business world moves more and more into creative territory there aren’t rewards for following directions or helping others follow directions better. There is only reward in creative and effective solutions. Every employee needs to know that their part in the organization is worthwhile. If someone is working for you and isn’t invited to express their own ideas they won’t last long. They’ll hate the job.
Invite everyone to participate and make them feel respected for their input. How is this accomplished? By respecting the ideas of others.
2. Attention to detail. While working the script, Mark would switch words around that seemed irrelevant. The changes were sometimes so minor that I questioned whether they were worth the attention. While seeing the play unfold I noticed these details and was amazed at how powerful they were. One word out of place and the whole scene lost it’s umph. One lapse in the believability of a character and the entire play loses it’s hold on your mind.
Steve Jobs is famous for this kind of obsessiveness. He oversaw every aspect of the production and design process in Apple products. He even insisted that the unseen interior maintain the same rigorous standards of design. It’s the details that make your business pop. If you’re website has a standard 404 page, you’re losing the opportunity to make someone smile. Notice when companies do little things that surprise you. That’s where you really get sold. A little design detail that others overlook. An extra thank-you in the process. A quick response time.
Look at the little things. When I explore your site, your product, or you (hmm…) is there something exciting to find?
3. Focus on a problem, then leave it alone. When there was a questionable spot in the script, we would focus on it relentlessly. We would explore ways to solve it until everyone was exhausted – then we gave it up. The solution would often come as soon as we forgot to worry about it.
Albert Einstein used to play his violin after focusing on solving a problem, the answer would often come to him when he lost himself in music. In fact, he only was able to really understand his Theory of Relativity after he gave up on it. After 10 years of trying to figure the thing out he decided he’d had enough. Only after he surrendered did the answer come.
In business and life we find solutions much the same way. Nassim Taleb does his best thinking while taking slow walks – and so he walks 20-30 hours per week. I’m sure you’ve had an idea while driving or in the shower that you would never have thought of while trying to confront it head on.
So try, try really hard. Then leave it alone. The answer might be there “on the tip of your tongue”.
4. Make it personal. Any art created impersonally is worthless. Every script Mark has written carries a message that he believes needs to be heard. This post is only possible because I feel a deep need to help bash business and art together. A play will fall flat unless every single person involved brings their whole being to the game. If an actor is only being “paid to pretend” then the performance will be lackluster – it won’t feel real. Any script written without the writer’s personal experiences infused in it won’t mean much to anyone.
You are the cumulation of your life. Right now, whatever you are, is the most valuable thing you have.
If you try to write a blog post and refuse to bring any of your personality to it then nobody will give two shits (barely one) about what you have to say. Your vulnerability will let you connect to others in ways that others can’t. This is what is making things so hard on corporations now – we trust people. Corporations can brand themselves as an ideal but only humans with flaws have the ability to create lasting relationships.
Put yourself into your work. Without your pains and failures and blood you’re unrelatable. Without your successes you’re unrelatable. Everybody has wins, even if they’re small. Everybody has failures – and if they haven’t they’re not worth listening to (and probably delusional).
5. Make it about something bigger. When there is one person dictating what must be done then the mission is brought down to human-size. A script may be the creation of a single man, but after it’s written it requires a slew of people to breathe life into it. Mark respected what everyone brought to add to the story. It wasn’t about him or his work – it was about creating a story together. The Story got a capital “S”. Everything that was done was in service of the story.
When Google provides it’s employees with the mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” they provide them with a sense of purpose (mission!) beyond serving a single person or even entity. The employees aren’t doing something to help out their boss – they feel like they’re saving the damn world.
When you infuse your actions with something bigger than profit or personal success they become bigger. This is where we find such fervent followers of religions or causes – they have been provided a mission in life. They’re dedicated to furthering this Grand Thing.
It’s hard to do something hard and really care about it if it isn’t tied to something greater. Once you meet a person then you are aware of their flaws. They’re chopped down to size. However, a mission can be infinite. It can grow beyond any human measure and become religious in itself.
TL/DR: Lose your ego, put your naked self into all your work, pay attention to details, take a break, and give yourself the mission you deserve. Godspeed – the Force is with you.