The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
…Spine, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea. You were scratching to come up with an idea, you found one, and through the next stages of creative thinking you nurtured it into the spine of your creation. The idea is the toehold that gets you started. The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work… If you stick to your spine, the piece will work. (emphasis added).
Twyla Tharp — The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life (A Practical Guide)
I was listening to NPR the other day. It was the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens. Any author that receives a segment on his 200th birthday (plus a birthday party at Westminster Abbey) qualifies as a significant author. But we didn’t need NPR to tell us that.
In the midst of the story by Linda Wertheimer (Dickens At 200: A Birthday You Can’t ‘Bah Humbug’), this paragraph jumped out.
Novelist Jennifer Egan is a fan who came back to the books and unexpectedly found that Dickens felt modern.
“The way that Dickens structured his books has a form that we most readily recognize now from, say, the great TV series, like The Wire or The Sopranos,” says Egan. “There’s one central plot line, but then from that spin off all kinds of subplots. And so he would go off in all sorts of directions and create these amazing secondary characters who would go in and out of focus. But then there was also this sort of central spinal column of a plot that he would return to.”
“This sort of central spinal column of a plot…” When I heard this, I remembered the section about “spine” from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. To Tharp, you need an idea! And then, that idea has to be attached to the “spine,” and the “spine” is what centers the piece, centers the project, centers the “idea.”
This idea of “spine” reminds me of the Steve Jobs decision, upon his return to Apple. Apple had too many products in the pipeline. They were too unfocused. They had lost their spine. Jobs got rid of practically every project except the core two or three. Jobs helped them re-find and remember their spine.
Call it backbone, but don’t think just of courage; think of connection to the core, connection to the central idea. Consider the dictionary definition of spinal column: “constituting a central axis or chief support.” Everything is connected to, and supported by, the spinal column. You can’t have a body, a structure, a company without that central axis or chief support.
The word spine is also the word used to hold the pages of a book together. No spine, no book – just a loose connection of pages.
Business books use many words to describe this concept: focus; core product… but here is the clear principle: have a solid, sound, unshakeable core.
In the devotional classic, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character, Christian, is trying to cross the river. The water is moving rapidly; the water is rising, and he is about to go under. But Hopeful calls out from the midst of the same dangerous river:
Then they addressed themselves to the water, and entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.
And Hopeful calls out: “Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bottom, and it is sound.”
“Feel the bottom.” Get the spine right. Get the core product, the core principle, the core service right. Don’t go off chasing anything that is not utterly connected to your core – your spine.
Dickens, and Tharp, and Jobs, and Bunyan had it right.
What is your spine?
“We are a citizen-centered organization.”
Lynda Humble — City Manager, Rowlett, Texas
Focus… What are you “centered on?” This may be the first lesson in business success. You have a better chance of accomplishing what you focus on, and little chance of accomplishing what you don’t focus on.
Lynda Humble of Rowlett is clear about her focus, and she is constantly pointing her people to that focus. “We are a citizen-centered organization.” Clear. To the point. And if this is truly lived out, this is the corrective needed when people go off track. (And people will go off track!)
Cities, and companies, and organizations, can focus on many things. And whatever gets the focus gets the attention, the resources, the innovations, the upgrades – and the loyalty and possible gratitude of the “customers.”
If you are a city government, then focusing on the citizens seems like the right call. But many cities lose this focus. The pull of the universe is a pull to get us all off focus. We have to resist that pull – all the time!
So what are you centered on — what is your focus? When you are pulled away, how do you get back (to) your focus? These are not unimportant issues…
Clarity; Focus; Definition; “What kind of company do you want to be?” – observation/insight from Farhad Manjoo
The incoherence, I think, is a sign of something deeper: Research in Motion doesn’t know what kind of company it wants to be.
Farhad Manjoo, What on Earth Happened to BlackBerry?: Research in Motion’s new tablet is a misguided mess.
I know practically nothing about technology. I use a Mac, an iPhone, and I’m on a waiting list for the iPad 2. These are made for a non-techie like me.
But I like to read Farhad Manjoo on Slate.com. He teaches me, enlightens me, and though he must be some kind of techie genius, he writes in language I can understand.
In an article on the current state of Research in Motion (Blackberry), this quote jumped out at me:
The incoherence, I think, is a sign of something deeper: Research in Motion doesn’t know what kind of company it wants to be.
Of course, it reminds us of Peter Drucker’s famous first question:
“What is your business?”
(Drucker’s other two questions: “Who is your customer? What does your customer consider value?”)
Clarity; focus; definition. These are not “modern,” innovative” concerns. These are always absolutely required for business success.
What kind of company do you want to be? Start there, and start building. And if you ever forget this — if you can’t answer this in a crisp, short, coherent, sentence — then it’s time to start over.
I have written before about this simple concept: you get what you pay attention to. (read this earlier blog post). I am convinced that this is as true a maxim as you can find. What gets attention determines the areas in which progress is made. What is ignored goes downhill… pretty quickly.
My friend, Larry James, is a genuine expert on poverty issues. The CEO of CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries), Larry has a terrific blog. (Larry James Urban Daily: read it here). In a recent post, he excerpted an article about the fight against poverty in Brazil. Here’s a key portion:
Today, however, Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country. Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.
Contrast this with the United States, where from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent of earners.
Why is Brazil making such progress in its struggle against poverty? Because… this is what they are paying attention to. The people at the top pay attention to this problem – with serious focus.
Consider this portion of the inaugural address from the new President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, delivered Saturday, January 1, 2011. (find the full text here: )
My Dear Brazilians,
My government’s most determined fight will be to eradicate extreme poverty and create opportunities for all.
We have seen significant social mobility during President Lula’s two terms. But poverty still exists to shame our country and prevent us from affirming ourselves fully as a developed people.
I will not rest while there are Brazilians who have no food on their tables, while there are desperate families on the streets, while there are poor children abandoned to their own devices. Family unity lies in food, peace and happiness. This is the dream I will pursue!
This is not the isolated task of one government, but a commitment to be embraced by all society. For this, I humbly ask for the support of public and private institutions, of all the parties, business entities and workers, the universities, our young people, the press and all those who wish others well.
What do you pay attention to? Whatever it is, it is likely that that is the area where you will make the most progress.
According to Paul Sullivan, “Clutch, simply put, is the ability to do what you do normally under immense pressure. It is also something that goes far beyond the world of sport. And while it has a mental component, it is not a mystical ability, nor somehow willing yourself to greatness…Being under great pressure is hard work. This is part of the reason why we are so impressed by people who seem immune to choking. These people come through in the clutch when others don’t…Just because someone is clutch in one area of his life does not mean he will be clutch in others…Transferring what you can do in a relaxed atmosphere to a tenser one is not easy – or else everyone would be clutch.”
That said, we now understand why Sullivan wrote this book: To share what he learned while seeking the answers two questions: First, “Why are some people so much better under pressure than other, seemingly equally talented people?” In response to the first question, Sullivan organizations his material according to six themes (Focus, Discipline, Adapting, Being present, Fear and Desire, and Double Clutch) and devotes a separate chapter to each. Then in Part II, he shifts his attention to explaining why some people choke and others don’t…why people choker in some situations…and nit in others. He also examines the implications and possible consequences of “overthinking.” Then, “Can people be clutch if they are not regularly in high-pressure situations?” Sullivan devotes Part III, “How to Be Clutch,” to answering the second question.
I especially appreciate how Sullivan anchors his observations and insights in a human context. For example, there is much of great value to learn from his discussion of the renowned attorney, David Boies, in the first chapter. “Early in his career, he started to focus on the same two questions for every trial. ‘First, what are the facts,’ he told me. ‘And then, second, what are the basic principles of the law here – not what were the detailed holdings of fifty cases, but just what are the basic principles of law that apply to this area’…Boies’s focus on having a clear understanding of the issues and laws creates a solid foundation. He builds the morality play around that. However, it is not the play that helps him excel under pressure but his focus on telling the story in court. This ability allows him to withstand the immense pressure of any high-profile trial.”
Boies and other exemplars throughout the book commit years of time and effort to becoming able to excel despite indescribably severe pressure in one or two domains of their lives…but not in all. Tiger Woods is clutch during competition in golf but has encountered well-publicized problems in other areas. Few (if any) of those who read this book will be sufficiently talented to achieve success in competition with Boies or with Woods but everyone who reads this book can – over time and with sufficient concentration – manage more effectively stress and the pressures that create it. One final point: What Paul Sullivan learned and then shares in this book will be of substantial benefit to those who wish to alleviate or isolate and block out stress as well as to those who must cope with it.
Folks, a lot of people got killed last night. Let’s try to keep our eyes on the ball, okay?
(Fictional President Andrew Shepherd, The American President, after the press corps wants to know more about his private life than about the international incident that prompted the press conference).
If Aaron Sorkin wrote a business book, I would immediately buy it, consume it, and then most certainly put it at the top of any list I compiled as the best business book ever. Not because he knows much about business (I don’t know if he does or not), but because I am addicted to anything/everything he writes and puts on the screen. Take your pick: The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and of course the greatest program in the history of television that never found enough of its audience, Sports Night. (and this is not all).
I realize this is a business book and business issues blog. And I’m quoting from an article by Sorkin written about quite a controversy regarding a Newsweek contributor’s opinion regarding a gay actor playing straight — definitely not on subject for this blog.
But… the article is Now That You Mention It, Rock Hudson Did Seem Gay, written for the Huffington Post. And, here’s the paragraph:
When I need the audience to know that a piece of information they’re about to hear is important, I can use words, a close-up, a push-in, music… when the authors of the no-longer-private-lives “A” story want the audience to know that something’s important, it shows up on our Yahoo homepage. (The third story on my homepage yesterday was that Britain, our closest ally, has a new Prime Minister. The first story was about Justin Bieber. Unless the new Prime Minister is Justin Bieber, something’s obviously gone wrong.)
And here’s the lesson. It is an old lesson. A society that becomes consumed with trivia is a society that really does need to pay attention to the right issues. And Sorkin rather passionately makes that argument in this article.
And for business people, the lesson is this: focus on the right things, and do not, ever, get bogged down on the wrong things. Your moments are incredibly precious. Do not waste any of them on inconsequential trivia. You’ve got important matters to think about and plan and implement. Stay focused and get to it!
Let’s try to keep our eyes on the ball, okay?
For years, I have listened to interviews with Temple Grandin. (Here is a great program, with excerpts of a series of earlier interviews, conducted by Terry Gross of Fresh Air on NPR – broadcast on February 5, 2010). She has an amazing personal story. Autistic, did not speak until age four, she made it through high school, college, and two graduate degrees. She is renowned for her lectures on autism and the treatment of cattle, and for her breakthrough recommendations on the care of cattle. In fact, over 50% of slaughterhouses in the United States use designs that she created or inspired.
HBO produced a new movie about her life and career, called simply Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes. I sat transfixed as I watched it (great acting job by Claire Danes), and have not been able to get the movie out of my head.
Temple Grandin does not think, or “see,” like the “normal” among us. She thinks and sees in pictures. And this ability helped her develop her breakthrough recommendations regarding the treatment of cattle.
As I thought about the movie, I came up with ten lessons we can learn from Temple Grandin – for business success, and life success. (I know that 10 is a big number for such a list – but I could not leave any of these out). All of these I have covered in an array of business books over the last decade. But here they are, wrapped up in one remarkable human life.
1) Success requires absolute focus. When Temple Grandin takes on a task, she gives it her undivided attention with a focus that is remarkable and unwavering.
2) Success requires prolonged and intense observation. Temple Grandin truly looks at things – every-thing – with an observers eye unlike any other I have ever seen. The movie captured this with great visual images. Try to see it for this reason, if for no other.
3) Success requires a bias for action. In the movie, Temple Grandin sees something, decides to tackle it, and goes to work – right then. She acts, with speed and determination.
4) Success requires crystal clear and precise communication. The mini-speeches by Temple in this movie are captivating. Once, she was in a room of skeptical slaughterhouse executives, and she simply and throughly persuaded them that not only was her plan more humane for the cattle, but would save money. Yes, her design was more expensive – but it would actually save money. It was a great example of “to the point” communication.
5) Success requires “suck-up” skills. (phrase borrowed from Carville and Begala). Because of her autism, Temple Grandin did not understand the value of sucking up, and it did not come naturally to her. Apparently (this is assumed more than stated or demonstrated in the movie), her mother and aunt had drilled into her the value of simple, polite manners. (“My name is Temple Grandin. Pleased to meet you.” And then, right away, she would launch into her real question or message). And though she sounded impersonal in her use of such everyday politeness, she made herself do it. What a testament to the need to develop what we now call networking skills.
6) Success requires the courage to go it alone. Temple Grandin would do what she thought, what she knew, to be right – regardless of what others thought. She built her own “hugging machine,” and the movie captured the kind of courage she needed to stick to this project and then to actually use her hugging machine..
7) (But also), Success requires the help of others – you simply can not do it alone. In the movie, a teacher and an aunt, along with the amazing persistence and faith of her mother, made all the difference. And at one key moment in her college career, that high-school teacher saved the day with advice and counsel. If you have ever doubted the value of a good teacher, watch this movie!
8) Success requires genuine empathy. Temple Grandin put herself in the place of the cattle. Literally. She would crawl through cattle chutes, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt. She saw what bothered the cattle. Apparently her first published articles were about the messages contained in the loudness of the different moos of cattle. Her empathy was astonishing.
9) Success requires a decision to (and the discipline to) keep learning. And with Temple Grandin, learning was very tangible. She needed to learn how to create drawings of cattle-care devices, so she watched a draftsman at work, bought the tools, and simply taught herself how to do such work. She is perpetually learning.
10) Success requires the ability to “keep going” in the face of ridicule and opposition. She never had it easy. “Normal” people, ridiculed her, were cruel to her, all the way though – from her school days to her days at the cattle pens. But she simply kept at it. She “self-medicated” with her “hugging machine,” and went right back out there.
I don’t believe I have ever seen a better movie about business and life success than Temple Grandin. I hope you find a way to see it.
A person using a computer experiences “cognitive drift” if more than one second elapses between clicking the mouse and seeing new data on the screen. If ten seconds pass, the person’s mind is somewhere else entirely. That’s how medical errors are made.
Levitt and Dubner, Superfreakonomics
The books say that women are better at multitasking than men. Maybe so. But I’ve got a theory that all of us have trouble multi-tasking. In fact, I would argue that focus is lost by most attempts to do multi-tasking. Some call the problem Adult ADD, but I think I would call our era the era of focus deficiency syndrome.
The quote above from Superfreakonomics jumped off the page at me. The quote comes from a section of the book discussing medical errors. But it’s the first part that grabs me:
A person using a computer experiences “cognitive drift” if more than one second elapses between clicking the mouse and seeing new data on the screen. If ten seconds pass, the person’s mind is somewhere else entirely.
This rings true – to me. I had not heard of “cognitive drift,” but the phrase certainly describes me — a lot; frequently; maybe constantly. My mind is constantly drifting. I will look something up/do a google search, and as I am waiting for it to load (and, yes, I do have a fast-speed connection) my mind has already gone elsewhere, and it may or may not make it back to where it was just a few seconds earlier.
For my own life, I have found that to read a book effectively – you know, with focus — I have to turn my phone off, my e-mail off, and keep my sight lines relatively clear of anything but the pages of the book. Otherwise, I find myself constantly facing the problem of “my mind is somewhere else” entirely.
The ability to focus on one thing at a time — the ability to single-task — may be a new necessary job skill. I know that it’s a skill that I definitely need to master.