The question is not whether or not we are creative; it is whether or not we have found the right medium to express our creativity in a way that matters to the world.
Yesterday, my wife and I took our two girls (ages 4 and 6) to their first ever college football game. We got there because the older one (pictured) had won some tickets for doing extra reading at school. So, it was kind of a celebration - a 95-degree-on-metal-seats-and-concrete-steps celebration that lasted a little over a quarter. She was proud, if also soon ready to leave!
Anyway, at some point during the game, her little sister turns to me and asks: What was that sound, Daddy?
Now, just remember we are at a college football game in a stadium full of people (well, it was a Vanderbilt game, so “full” is a stretch, but you get the point). We are literally on the last row of the section looking out over the field. So, myriad sounds swirled from all directions.
Me: Well, baby. I don’t know. What did it sound like?
Z: What was that sound? (ignoring my request for additional detail)
Me: Well, was it the marching band (which was actively playing)?
Me: OK. Was it the cheerleaders chanting?
Z: No. What was it, Daddy? (starting to get frustrated)
Me: Um…was it the man’s voice coming through the scoreboard?
Me: Was it the sound of the players when they hit each other?
Z: No, Daddy. What was that sound? (more frustrated)
Me: Baby, I don’t know. Can you describe it for me?
Z: Can I have some more pretzel?
And, so it ended. I am not sure if this resolution represents a parenting victory, a failure, or constitutes a complete non-event in some way.
Thinking about it after the fact, I feel like this exchange really captures so much about life as a parent. There are infinite questions. There really aren’t many good answers. And, it’s extremely hard to evaluate how you’re doing when you don’t really know what the hell you’re talking about, what their talking about, or even generally dealing with! It’s a unique sort of cacophony.
It reminded me of the earliest, and often most intense, experiences as a parent: dealing with a sick kid.
You take your infant to the doctor because she projectile vomits her food back onto her plate, then onto the floor, then onto you. She’s very obviously very sick, so we must call the doctor.
Doctor: “It’s probably just a virus.”
Your kid starts going to daycare and all kinds of weird shit starts happening. She’s not sleeping as well, not pooping right, is congested constantly, green stuff oozing from the nose, ears hurt, and she’s generally pissed at the world. She’s miserable. What the hell is going on? We’ve gotta call the doctor.
Doctor: “This happens when they start school. It’s probably just a virus.”
Later, your toddler is suddenly covered with angry, red bumps. They clearly itch and hurt. They seem to be spreading. She must be having some sort of vicious allergic reaction. Or, god forbid, it’s chicken pox or something like that. What is it? We’ve gotta call the doctor.
Doctor: “It’s probably just a virus.”
You get the point. With children, even the doctors don’t usually have very good answers. There’s limited information and often a significant lack of detail. The parents are the ones with infinite questions. We’re the ones who want to know: “what was that sound, Doc?”
Now, let me return to yesterday. And, as I often do when I write about my kids, I’ll pretend I have the opportunity for a do-over, or at least a chance to try again with written words:
Z: What was that sound, Daddy?
Me: It’s probably just a virus.
Every year, I am fortunate enough to go on a family vacation with my wife’s family, including parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, “uncles” and “aunts” and more “cousins” - depending on the year. We could have 25 or we could have 45 family members of all ages.
Every year, for the last 17 years this has happened. And, every year, it’s had a bit of a different meaning and purpose for me. The first time I joined, my wife and I were just dating. Five years later, married, I went just a few months after my Dad’s suicide. I went days before starting business school - my accounting primer workbook in hand. I went weeks after a big deal had fallen through and I wasn’t sure how my first startup was ever going to survive. It’s where my wife and I told the family we were pregnant with our first child. I went with one baby and then with two.
As part of it, I typically also vacation from the news, and now that social media exists, I also go to vacation from that.
This year, I was just two weeks into joining a new startup and certain I couldn’t tolerate another minute of news or politics. The former has had me on a hope high and full of energy and the latter damn-near hopeless.
I needed some clarity to engage and focus on the new startup opportunity with full energy, new hope, new possibility, curiosity, hustle. I needed not just to get away for a week from the news and my perspective on the state of the world, but a reframing. Somehow, I needed to find that on the beach - but where? In a book? In a conversation? Somewhere in my head?
On the first day at the beach, really in the first few minutes, I was watching two twin cousins whom I had just met for the first time. They are toddlers, and seemed already comfortable with the beach and the 20+ new family members who were simultaneously gazing, loving, and vying for their attention. My mind inevitably wandered off and started reflecting on how this was my two girls just a couple of years back (and how glad I was that they were older now because otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this reflection, much less have been sitting, or watching anything other than them. I would have been scrambling to keep them from eating a shell, from wandering into the ocean, feeding them a hot, sandy box of raisins, a cheese stick that mysteriously hadn’t melted, or re-coating their sunscreen because it had been 10 minutes and it could have worn off by now).
Anyway, one of the toddler twins was at the water’s edge staring at and testing the feel and look of the waves as they came crashing in. I find the ocean intimidating in its mere scale and the vastness of its unknown. Somehow seeing a toddler gazing into it made the ocean smaller and the toddler more expansive. Sweet. Hopeful. Promising. Absorbing it all with a life of growth and possibility ahead. More vast than an ocean.
Wondering about her sister, I scanned the shoreline and quickly found her. She, less interested in the ocean at the moment, had found a seagull. She was chasing it. I laughed to myself because that’s what toddlers do at the beach - they chase seagulls. Her curiosity had taken her down the beach, never getting any nearer to the relatively patient seagull who had yet to fly off - despite a chase of a good fifty yards. It stayed at an intuitive 12-15 feet away from its persistent chaser and potential assailant.
I suspect no toddler has successfully caught a seagull. Ever. It’s hopeless. (I have no data to back this up.) And yet, in addition to the sheer joy of watching the eternal cuteness, I found in that fruitless chase a profound sense of hope. The eternal curiosity. The persistence. The exuberance. The chase in and of itself. The fact that it seems to happen on every beach, everywhere, with seemingly every able toddler. There is something transcendent in chasing but never catching that bird.
I’ve just finished a book on Buddhism and am now reading a book on theories of happiness from cultures and places across millennia. They can’t teach me any more than that toddler chasing that seagull:
We must remain curious. Questioning that bird, what it is, what it might feel like, how it will respond as we approach. How fast is it? What’s it look like when it takes to flight?
We must focus on the process. The chase as valuable in itself. The exploration. The freedom to run and feel wind in our hair and sand in our feet - whatever that wind and sand might actually be for each of us wherever we are and at any given time. We must engage it. Presence.
We must be persistent and resilient (and count our blessings). God forbid any toddler ever catch a seagull. It could be tragic. There’s a reason the seagull always gets away and a reason toddlers continue to chase them. We should always seek the reason, not the bird.
And, now I am back home, a long way from the ocean, already a long way from vacation.
Tomorrow, I will go back to work.
Tomorrow, I will probably turn the news back on.
Tomorrow, I will return to a sense of possibility in my personal and professional life that grates against the hopelessness I feel in the broader world around me.
And, tomorrow the waves will still be crashing into that beach far away.
And, tomorrow, a toddler will still be chasing a seagull.
I have written before in my blogs and books about the idea of creative tension and how it can help us understand and diagnose the challenges and opportunities embedded in our relationships and work.
At the end of this week, I am stepping away from a team with whom I have worked for many years and with whom I have sustained a consistent, productive, and genuine creative tension.
From a startup trying to take a mobile communication product into high schools to a pivot into healthcare, an acquisition by a healthcare company, and finally to an acquisition of that company by an even bigger healthcare company, we have worked and grown and learned and iterated together for the better part of six years.
We all brought different skills and perspectives. Our ages varied. Our backgrounds varied. Our approaches to creativity and problem solving varied. Ultimately, however, we aligned around a set of principles that I now discuss as the elements of creative tension, but identified and learned largely through our work together. We didn’t know them and then practice them. We practiced them and came to know them.
Shared Purpose: There is a common goal that necessitates working together to accomplish.
Ownership: The collective owns the goal and understands various roles, responsibilities, skills, perspectives, and relationships needed to achieve the goal.
Commitment: All parties commit not only to the process of working together but to their individual roles and responsibilities in the work.
Teaching/Learning: Everyone is a teacher. Everyone is a learner.
Collective Action: The act of working together creates tension that informs the evolving purpose and nature of the work as a whole.
Reflection: The collective remains vigilant and reflective, as individuals and as a group, so that the tension remains creative and not destructive.
Creative tension is a constantly changing dynamic of a relationship – a relationship between people and the work they are trying to accomplish together.
For a visual, take a look at the images above and imagine yourself holding one end of the rubber band(s) with your colleague(s) holding the other. Sometimes, we are pulling the band(s) too tight. We introduce too much tension, reduce the flexibility of the rubber band, and introduce a fear that someone may drop their end and pop us with it, or even pull harder until it breaks. This is destructive tension caused by too much tension. Other times, we aren’t pulling much at all. The band is limp, without energy or possibility. This is destructive tension caused by an absence of tension.
Creative tension is all about finding that right degree of tautness in the band where there is energy, and sound, and possibility, and the people holding it are relating positively and actively to each other and the band itself. The right amount creative tension is always changing, just as we and our work and our lives outside of work are always changing.
As people change and as work changes, maintaining this creative tension requires constant vigilance – and as I have learned recently, simply may not always be maintainable. As I move on to a new startup, I feel the sincere loss of the creative tension of my team – although I look forward to helping build it with a new one. But, as our work and the organizations in which it has happened have evolved over the years, I found myself no longer able to generate the sense of purpose, ownership, and teaching/learning I needed to hold up my end of the rubber band, maintain my part of the creative tension.
For me then, I feel a responsibility to move on. I genuinely believe that this is the creative act even as it comes with a significant sense of loss.
Over my 6 years of being a parent, particularly the last few, I have stumbled several times upon otherwise mundane words and phrases that when I say them to my kids suddenly feel newly important. They are never planned, but as they come out of my mouth they do so with a fullness that I immediately recognize and attach to.
The first phrase I remember finding re-remarkable as a parent was: thank you. I certainly had said thank you to my kids when they were babies and offered me a handful of their smashed bananas or their slobbery stuffed animal or something like that. This wasn’t the thank you that gave me pause. It was when they were old enough to start to take on tasks, either by request or their own motivation. It was that first time I dropped something and they picked it up for me. Or, the first time her sister needed help and she scurried over to provide it. Or maybe, that first time I asked them to go get something for me in another room and they happily did so – proud to be able to help.
Regardless of the specifics, when I said this kind of thank you to my girls for the first time, it felt like a sincere validation of their contribution – their proactive and meaningful presence making purposeful contact with me, with the world. It overtly acknowledged their power to help other people – hopefully reinforced by some sense of what that means, or at least how it feels to do so. Because of this, I have found myself more mindful of sharing my gratitude with my kids not merely as a tool to reinforce the behaviors I want or expect but as a way of telling them they have the power to create meaning with others. I don’t know: maybe I’m just a tired, somewhat defeated, overly emotional parent looking for “a win”, but that feels like something profound to me.
Sometime, maybe a year or more, after thank you took on new meaning, another mundane phrase also resurfaced with a sense of newness: I’m sorry. I am certain I had said I’m sorry to my daughters previously for accidentally bumping them in the head with an errant elbow, tripping over them as they crept up behind me in the kitchen, or doing something in the wrong way. But, the I’m sorry that was so meaningful was related to my being wrong about or mishandling something. I’m sorry I raised my voice. I should have handled that better. I’m sorry I got after you without really understanding what happened. I should have listened to understand the situation better. I’m sorry I forgot about or minimized that thing that was so important to you.
In these cases, I wasn’t sorry because of an accident; I was sorry because I was wrong. And, those are profoundly different in nature.
I want my children to know I am human and I am flawed and I am willing to admit it, because I want them to grow up and be the same way. I don’t want my children to look up to me and respect me because they think I have all the answers. I want them to do so because they know I don’t and they know I know I don’t. In other words, I want our relationship to be based on truth and for that to be a prism through which they seek to know and impact the world around them.
Along the lines of truth-seeking, I have most recently found myself thrilled by the random, inane, brilliant, innocent, and humbling conversations I am beginning to have with my kids. In these, I have heard myself repeatedly saying: that’s a great question. Again, this isn’t much of a mind-blower under normal circumstances (it’s often just a way to buy time to concoct an answer), but as I heard myself start saying it to my daughters, it felt like the most important thing I could ever say to them. You have questions. Questions are important. You should ask them. You should seek answers. Please, always ask questions!
Beyond the gratitude and power and humility of the thank yous and I’m sorrys, I don’t know what I could wish to instill more in my children than an insatiable curiosity and confident exploration of their lives, relationships, and anything and everything else that makes them wonder. I’ve written previously about two of these questions: 1. What is freedom? and 2. What is peace?
I obviously don’t have all the answers, but I think validating the question is more important anyway.
I am sure there will be more words and phrases that take on new meaning as my children and my parenting continue to grow up.
What word or phrase will be next? Well, we will obviously have to wait and see.
But, I think it’s a good question.
I was at a meeting recently where attendees were discussing innovation and how and where - and even whether - it should happen in large organizations. To innovate or not to innovate…
As sides made their cases for and against, I offered a comment to the group that while we appeared to be presenting contradictory positions we actually agreed on the problems large organizations face in innovating. And, there wasn’t really any disagreement about whether they needed to. The difference in perspective was that one group saw the problems preventing innovation in large organizations as too big and too entrenched to solve and the other group thought they presented the perfect opportunity.
In response to my assessment, someone commented: “Yeah, this group is the realists and that group is the idealists.”
Everyone seemed to agree.
And, I guess I didn’t immediately disagree, but it seemed way too simple, and it bothered me for some reason. For starters, I don’t like being put into an idealist box - which of course is where I was - simply because I believe human-created problems are solvable by humans.
But, I let it go, and just started furiously taking notes on my phone about all the ways I felt that this seemingly simple comment presented a patently unhelpful view of innovation, organizations, and the world.
Why do we attribute realism to the point-of-view that things cannot, will not, and perhaps even should not change? Why is that realistic in today’s world?
Why do we attribute idealism - as the counter to realism - to people who believe things can and should change? In today’s world, isn’t that a lot more realistic?
Isn’t it realism to know that change is inevitable? That innovation is necessary to keep learning, stay competitive, and to keep up with customers and markets?
Is it really idealism to try and predict, invest in, and prepare for not just reacting to but leading that inevitable change?
An idealist should be more than a dreamer, and idealism should never just be an excuse to pretend difficult problems are any less complex than they really are - or to deny that their solutions should be grounded in reality.
Alternately, a realist shouldn’t passively accept that the current state is inevitable, and realism should never just be an excuse to lie prostrate in the face of difficult problems because, well, that’s just the way it is.
Innovation is messy work and organizations are messy places. The most innovative organizations need idealistic realists mixing it up every day with realistic idealists.
Anything that makes the people or the process sound any simpler may make innovation easier to talk about but can also make it a lot more difficult to achieve.
Yesterday, my six-year-old daughter asked me why I put up two fingers as I waved to the homeless man selling newspapers on the corner. I initially explained that I was greeting him as a way of saying “thank you” for always waving and always sharing some positive energy as we sit in traffic at the stoplight. The guy does a great job.
She pushed: “But, why do you put up two fingers?”
Me: “It’s a way of saying peace to the person, but just using your hands.”
Me (reflecting further): “And, it’s something Bugsy (her grandfather, my Dad) used to always do when he was alive. So, I guess I got it from him.”
As she pondered my response for what was certainly only a couple of seconds, I was triggered, as I often am, into the flooding memory of my Father and to the realities of the things he instilled in me that I only sometimes recognize as his. Behaviors. Posture. Perhaps a penchant for cursing. My sister says my hands look just like his (I also happen to wear his ring every day).
I am particularly aware of his legacy each April, the month of his suicide - April 27, 2006. I always try to write something around this time as some small effort in helping people know they are not alone in living with suicide. Their loved ones were not alone in their struggles with Depression, with sexual abuse, with religious-guilt-turned-self-loathing. These things killed my Dad, and have killed countless others. There are even more of us still living with them.
My daughter persisted…
C: “But, what is peace, Daddy?”
Me (buying time): “Well, baby. That’s a good question…”
I muddled through words like happiness and presence and contentment and safety – although I emphasized that it’s not necessarily about comfort. I spoke of its opposites of anxiety and worry and concern – even physical violence in terms I believe she is ready to understand. I stumbled. I repeated myself. At some point, she seemed to accept at least some piece of what I offered as an answer and she stopped pressing.
I was less accepting of myself.
My answer wasn’t wrong. It was just a mess. But, maybe there’s something in that reality that’s at the core of the idea of peace.
In the quiet moments that followed as we continued down the street, my head again returned to my Dad. What a mess! His struggle. His contradictions. His love for others and hatred of himself. The pieces of me that are of him. My empty dreams of him holding my children. The stories and reflections I will share with my kids in hopes they might understand what may simply not be understandable. Will they get it? Will they get him? Will they be angry? Will they be confused? Will they care? Can they love him without knowing him? Can they learn from his life? From his death? Does it matter?
And, once again, I returned to peace. My Father is no longer suffering – for me, for us – despite himself. I understand why he committed suicide. It’s all a big fucking mess, but, yes, I am at peace. He is at peace. My family is at peace.
So, maybe at its core, peace is just something that lives deep within us and is not definable, recognizable, or understandable by others. Perhaps peace is as unique in definition as its possessor. Maybe peace is best understood as a personal journey and a process that we must commit to for ourselves, and can only hope for others to embark upon for themselves - and we wish them the best.
Throw up the two fingers: Peace!
So, perhaps this is a better, if still unsatisfying, answer to my daughter’s question:
Me: I don’t know what your peace is, baby. I hope every day that I am doing my part to help you define and find it for yourself, deep within yourself. I hope one day when you are older and have lived through some of the brutality and brilliance that life can put upon you, that I can ask you the same question, and you will know what it means to you, even if you struggle with the words to express it.
1. Talking in superlatives is the worst. Stop it. When we say something is the best, worst, greatest, biggest, and so forth, we minimize the rest of the world, which in turn undermines the very point we are trying to make. There is only one superlative of a category of things. So, unless you genuinely believe that meal was the worst, that person was the smartest, or that product was the best, maybe try a little harder and express what you think about it specifically. Speaking in superlatives is lazy and it is making us dumber – in time, probably the dumbest. Hail to the chief!
2. Finite terms are finished. They’re over. Unless someone has died, something has truly been destroyed, or a quantifiable time has irrevocably passed, we should stop saying things - and particularly people - are “finished”. We should stop dramatically asking “is this the end of…” seemingly anything and everything almost every day, and alternately resist over-selling the comeback when nothing or no one was ever actually gone. Life is a perpetually unfolding process that should be reflected in the language we use to describe it. We’ve killed the idea of time and lost our own control of how we express it. But, I bet the comeback story will be the best!
3. Hyperbole is ruining our lives. Literally. If we want to resist the current language zeitgeist, we can start by speaking in clear, honest, and direct terms and simply say what we mean. (I know: how boring!) We can stop, for instance, using “literally” to dramatize the figurative nature of what we are actually saying. Let’s make actual content the point of what we say. Information. Ideas. Questions. Let’s be literal and figurative, and know the difference. Everything doesn’t need drama to make a point or to prove its value. And, surely we shouldn’t accept drama itself as the point or value. Nothing “broke the internet.” Speak like a human, not like a headline.
Thanks for your indulgence.
Speak well, my friends.
1. Fall in love with your idea.
Creative people generate lots of ideas. We love ideas. They excite and invigorate us. The ones we love the most can easily start to feel like a part of who we are, and they can even express the ways we want to relate to the world and the world to us. But, when it comes to actually relating to the world, our ideas are almost certainly wrong. They aren’t all wrong – they are just some wrong. And, if we are going to turn them into products that people want to use, we can’t afford to start thinking our ideas are right – no matter how much we love them (I feel like there’s a parenting metaphor here). When they leave our brains and enter the world, all of our ideas must evolve and adjust rapidly. This transformation is core to the process of moving creativity into the realm of innovation.
2. Stay in the lab too long.
One of the hardest experiences of my professional life was putting an early stage mobile app into the crucifyingly critical hands of teenagers (and I used to do community organizing!). To make matters worse, it was an app trying to connect them to their schools! It was a beat-down – for months. But, it was also the only way we were going to get feedback quickly and broadly enough to iterate on the product and better understand the problem we were trying to solve – the real problem of communication in schools. Our idea was wrong – but there was enough right to build on. It would have been a whole lot easier to say “no, it’s not ready” and keep developing out of fear of what we might hear if we let people actually use it. However, if you accept that you are even somewhat wrong, this continued protection and isolation of the laboratory is actually a sure-fire way to dig yourself and your product deeper and deeper into holes of wrongness, running at features and investing in ideas that get too big to turn around when the user’s truth finally becomes your reality.
3. Respond to user feature requests rather than user problems.
Users will make requests of your product based on their experience using it and/or their knowledge and experience of any similar or complementary products. When we pivoted our mobile communication product from education to healthcare, we took the opportunity to reassess the communication problems our software was trying to solve in the new industry. At the heart of communication complaints from both physicians and administrators was email. It was too spammy. Not built for physician workflows. There was no data tracking. It was overrun by people you really wished didn’t have access to your email address. As we started to redesign and retool our product, we also started to get early user feedback. And, whether in focus groups or one-on-one meetings with early users, as we tried to understand their problems, people constantly asked for features that they believed would solve their problems. If we had built our software based on their ideas and feature requests, we would have built email almost exactly - and exactly as they complained about it. We had to dig much deeper to try and solve a problem and not just fulfill feature requests that would add up to a product they already said wasn’t working for them.
4. Sacrifice craftsmanship for expediency - or sacrifice expediency for craftsmanship
You need to have both, and there is no easy answer for which one is right at any particular moment in your product development. It is a constant tradeoff, but one that in the long run needs to trend toward craftsmanship. Building something well so that it delivers speed, performance, reliability, and can scale will rarely come back and bite you. Delivering something that appears to do that but then crumbles just when those attributes are most critical for your users will at best breach your user’s trust in your product and at worst send them running toward a competitor who promises the same. A good team constantly battles out these tradeoffs, and it is in these battles that the various voices of sales, product, engineering, design, and whoever else should have the opportunity to communicate their perspectives and priorities. The more one voice or one perspective drives product design the more likely you are to sacrifice expediency and craftsmanship, one for the other.
In my last blog "Stop doing your part", I focused on building a do-what-it takes team. But, consider this the appended warning to that blog: you can’t just ask people to do what it takes as an excuse for not investing sufficiently in your strategy or improving your own leadership.
So, as much as we want the do-what-it-takes attitude and we understand and celebrate the successes that such an attitude can generate, we need to check ourselves to make sure we aren’t burning people out. Just because one of our people can step up and do extraordinary work in a difficult situation doesn’t mean we should allow that situation to persist - or chronically resurface. Their extraordinary work should not become the ordinary expectation.
Extraordinary individual effort is no more sustainable for driving successful teams over time than the do-my-part mentality that I discussed in the last blog. It leads to burnout and pushes our do-what-it-takes people to feel they are just being taken advantage of. It doesn’t take long for people to realize when they get recognized for doing great work simply by getting more work.
So, we must think critically about why we find ourselves in situations that require extraordinary effort from our people. Is it strategy? Resourcing? Skills/team/work mismatches? Unreasonable expectations? Or, is our leadership perhaps fomenting unnecessarily harried working conditions? It is probably some of all of these as they tend to be interrelated.
So, let’s celebrate our people for doing what it takes but build teams and organizations that aren’t always pushing them to the limit.