How did one creative entrepreneur turn a red paperclip into a house?
Well, it started with an idea. Like many Kyle MacDonald wondered how he could do more than deliver appliances and start his own online business.
So, Kyle brainstormed a bunch of ideas before a high school friend reminded him how they would play “Bigger and Better” by trading up items to see what cool stuff they could get.
What if he created an online version of the game, Kyle wondered. And that’s exactly what he did. Before he knew it, Kyle was traveling across the country and meeting with folks with interesting things to trade him.
Never sure what was next, Kyle trusted the process.
When we were younger, we were not only in a growth mindset, but we were more open to possibilities. Research in neuroplasticity now shows that we can access this growth in new brain pathways but we have to turn the switch on. How? It’s a combination of exercising both physical and mental muscles.
Eventually, I learned how to focus on process instead of results. I know - it’s counter-intuitive but the less you focus on outcomes, the better the results. This is a lesson I also learned in the martial art aikido, in shooting on the ROTC pistol team, and now in writing.
Our drill sergeant taught us how shooting was a matter of trusting the process - only by relaxing and controlling your breathing do you hit the mark. Ironically, the more we focus on hitting the bullseye and anticipate the shot going off, the more likely we will jerk the pistol, throwing everything off and often completely missing the target.
Ever have to speak in front of a crowd? When you’re focused on your own nervousness, you get - yup, more nervous. That’s why it’s an old trick to picture your audience in their underwear. I have to agree that I don’t think this is a great idea because I know that I’m liable to be distracted and not in a useful way!
Later today a few of us are going to talk about the power of masterminds for creative entrepreneurs.
Like many indie creatives are busy doing their own thing - making projects happen, getting stuff done. When they run into challenges, these individuals would rather just figure it out themselves.
Why not? They’re self-reliant. It’s gotten them this far.
But here’s the problem. Time and willpower.
Although I’m all for a mindset of abundance and all that the universe has to offer us, the reality is that there are still only 24 hours in a day, and willpower as it turns out is finite.
A friend of mine tells me each time that he’s going to work on his will power. That he is finally going to hack the things that he hasn’t been able to do. While this is great and noble, I’d argue that this is probably NOT the best use of his time.
Getting Down to Your One Thing Needed for Success and Creativity
In the One Thing Gary Keller talks about the how rather than trying to fight our limits, it’s better to understand them and work with them.
For years I’ve made lists - lists of creativity goals, lists of dreams, lists of things to do.. These have their place. Just like writing these words, they help me to be more clear on my thoughts.
But at some point it’s time to buckle down and get to work. And as Keller points out, multi-tasking is not just an illusion but a dangerous myth.
My friend Bill Belew says that if the devil can’t stop you from doing something good, he’ll give you so much to do that you don’t do anything right.
We don’t need another book on creativity or workshop on time management or productivity.. deep down we know what we need to do.
So what’s holding us back from sharing our creativity?
And the thing I’ve learned that it’s not enough to say, “just face your fear” - never mind something dangerous like “be fearless..”
What if each week you met with a tribe that won’t let you fail?
What if they helped you get the clarity that you’ve been looking for?
What if they offered the resources and connections for what you need?
This is one of those other tough things that no one talks about - when to say ‘no’ in creativity.
Years ago I said ‘yes’ to everything. When you get started on creative flow, that’s what you do.
Now I’ve quit more times than I can remember. And the funny thing is - my success rate on projects has gone up.
Unlike a lot of the most successful entrepreneurs - Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs - I actually did well in school. In fact, getting good grades came easy - until it got hard.
Imagine my shock when I got my first ‘F’ as an engineering undergrad after getting straight A’s all through high school.
Shaken I asked my academic advisor what I could do. I thought he’d tell me to study smarter or some other generic advice. Instead he was frank and told me that I was trying to do too much.
“One of the main things you’re going to have to learn is to quit,” my advisor said. “Not everything is going to get done - maybe today it’s your laundry, maybe tomorrow it’s a set of homework problems. Only you can decide what you can afford to not do so that what you need to do gets done.”
It took a while for it to sink in. Stubbornly I tried harder to cram more into that daily planner. But no matter what I did, I always ended up in the same place - needing to cut back.
Eventually, I learned about the teachings of Stephen Covey in The 7 Habit of Highly Effective People. The most profound lesson for me was the idea that unless we choose the Big Rocks of our lives, the Little Rocks will take up all our time buckets.
Warning! This post is going to be a little different.
I hope by now you don't get the mistaken idea that I have all the answers..
While I'm doing the best to share what I've been learning about creativity and its relation to being an entrepreneur, I'll admit that I still struggle myself with not only learning these lessons but more importantly living them.
Over the years I've helped entrepreneurs and wannabe's with everything from simply getting started to taking their first baby steps - to building teams and social media and even ultimately selling their businesses.
The only rule is that there really are no rules - or let's put it another way. What works in one set of conditions won't necessarily work - even when everything seems the same.
As much as I believe in always doing what we can to learn from "failures," sometimes you just salvage what you can out of a situation and walk away with that box of unused file folders and highlighters that might come in handy.
More recently, I've been experimenting with writing / blogging and posting on social media while testing online chats like Hangouts on Air and even Meerkat, Periscope and now Blab.im -
Why am I doing this? With the limited success of past launches I'm working to build a deeper relation with my audience - my 1000 True Fans.
Meanwhile, on the more "creative" side of the spectrum I'm working on some fiction and interactive media including a Twine game.
It's not easy to do these things while doing freelance work and earning whatever income I can to keep food on the table. Nope, sorry - no rich spinster playing sugar momma to this creative.
"I wrote my first book while I was a diner waitress. I wrote my second book while I was a diner waitress and a bartender. I wrote my third book while I was a bartender who also worked in a bookstore and who also worked as a journalist. When EAT PRAY LOVE (my fourth book) came out, I was still working at a flea market on weekends. If it wasn't for the bananas success of EAT PRAY LOVE, I would still be doing other jobs."
Gilbert implores us not to depend on our art to pay the bills - until it does.
In other words, as she puts it - “To yell at your creativity saying ‘You must earn money for me!’ is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about all you’re doing is scaring it away, because you’re making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that.”
Nothing like graduation.. and in the commencement speech the mayor of your city confuses the name of your engineering college for that tech school. You know the one that airs those cheesy commercials in the middle of the day..
Yeah, to this day I don't remember anything else the mayor said but I still remember the collective groan and wave of cringes that echoed in that auditorium.
I don't know about you but these are the commencement speeches that I wish I had heard before going out into that big wide world after college..
First up, of course, is the one and only Steve Jobs addressing the Stanford graduating class of 2005 who shares his journey as a creative entrepreneur and how "you can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back.."
Last but not least is comedian Jim Carrey who shares the tragedy of his own father's dream that got left behind in choosing the safer route -
So, what I find the most inspiring is the advice that no one really knows anything, and you need to do what you can to practice your art - your craft. Most of all you have to be willing to fight for that right because no one else will do it for you.
Which commencement speeches have you found to be most inspiring for creative entrepreneurs? What do you wish someone had told you as you graduated?
Making our way through the pile of chairs in the narrow hallway hours before lunch service began, the worker finally pointed to the makeshift shack hidden behind the restaurant. I thanked him and knocked on the door. It all felt like some Prohibition era speakeasy.
A bright-eyed man with glasses invited me in. He looked like one of those musicians who you couldn’t tell their age because of the gray hair and youthful features.
“What would you like?” he asked.
“I don’t know - what do you suggest?”
“Well, if this is your first time, I’d recommend the Guatemalan medium roast. You can’t go wrong.” He hands a brown paper bag to his partner.
“Sounds good,” I replied.
This was the early days of Blue Bottle. A coffee roaster filled up the room barely the size of a single car garage. From these modest beginnings grew a caffeinated empire that now spans across the Pacific.
In February of this year they opened their first store in Japan to lines around the block. Only a few months later they began a second store. Meanwhile, in June they raised $70 million in funding.
What struck me about Blue Bottle from that first bag to the last drop I've enjoyed so far is the attention to detail and quality. You known when you drink a cup that this ain't your neighborhood Starbucks.
At the center of this is James Freeman who started what some have called the “Apple of the coffee industry.”
“I think Apple has been really influenced by the very rigorous simplicity of a lot of Japanese design elements and their focus on simplicity and quality. I'm obviously very influenced by those things too. Apple's doing it for the world; we're doing it in twenty stores. Lessons are lessons,” says Freeman.
Freedom to Take Creative Risks
While it’s easy to point to success and oversimplify the process of getting there, Freeman was well aware of the risks and went into this with eyes wide open.
“If we were going to make a big mistake, I wanted it to be my big mistake, not anybody else's big mistake. I wanted to be more responsible for all the details and I knew there would be more risk because we might have gotten it wrong—and that's expensive,” he said.
Finding the Right Creative Team
For the missing pieces of the business DNA that Freeman felt they needed, Blue Bottle acquired several key players including San Francisco bakery Tartine.
“If you could have the world's best croissants, why not? I've known Chad (Robertson) for a long time. He's been wanting to grow, but he hadn't found the right team. Then he was here when we opened. The first week, he saw how well the team here was working with this launch, as well as the incredible demand, and that's when he said he found the team that he wanted to work with.."
"So much is about the team," Freeman says, "because these are people I’ve got to see every day or every week—so it has to feel like it's a natural fit. It's not just about how much money we're going to make, or real estate or anything like that.. It's all about who we want to work with.”
Be Willing to Play the Long Game
Although Freeman wants to expand more quickly, he realizes that quality takes time. Blue Bottle now has twenty stores with ten more coming. "We're getting better and better at it," he says.
"The store feels a certain way because we really care about things; like how the doorknob feels when you walk in, as well as what you see, and how the light shines in the pastry kitchen. It takes a lot of time to do that."
I love a nice latte for a bit of liquid inspiration, but these are just some other bits of creativity that you might find in your next cup.
Following our passion or chasing the money seems to be the classic dilemma of life - especially for creative entrepreneurs.
Sure, we all know those who are not only passionate about their work but also incredibly successful. So even though this four minute mile has long been broken, we seem to believe that it’s reserved for the few and fortunate to achieve “the dream.”
Yet, when we look at 1000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly, he basically breaks down how success is very attainable to those of us without a Lady Gaga following.
I’m a big fan of both of these ideas. For a long time I resisted meditation - believing this to be too “passive” or just plain waste of time. In reality it is essential to creativity.
There’s been studies that one of the key reasons why we sleep is to “empty the cup.” Our brains literally need to dump their buffers filled with stuff that accumulates throughout day. According to this video and referenced study, it’s one or the other.. operating or flushing wastes..
That was a tough and bitter pill to swallow, but Rowe says, “I remember a very successful septic tank cleaner who told me his secret of success. ‘I looked around to see where everyone else was headed, and then I went the opposite way,’ he said. ‘Then I got good at my work. Then I found a way to love it. Then I got rich.’”
So, how can we “turn pro” as creative entrepreneurs?
While you’re building your bridge to creative life, invest in side projects. These will often be the building blocks to your future success. Felicia Day found that different skills like craft paid off when she needed to everything from graphics for her videos to promotional flyers.
Our school systems still teach the pass / fail mentality of the Industrial Age. Instead, choose to think in terms of only success and lessons. We’ve definitely talked about how fear is the death of creativity.
As Thomas A. Edison said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10000 ways that won't work."
Your creative business is a lot like tango. When I teach a class, I point out how students often get in their own way by being afraid to try a step. Being relaxed and open to possibilities allows your creativity to flow.
So where do you stand on this debate? How you feel about this decision?
Some folks may think of the whole Law of Attraction thing as a bit too "woo woo".. but if we take it on the general dynamics of this, it's the difference between being attractive vs repulsive..
Just ask any boy who grew up here in the states about the story of Tom Sawyer and he'll know how Tom enticed the neighborhood kids into painting the fence for him. Instead of chasing after others to help (being repulsive) he made them curious and ultimately the task irresistible to the others.
But what about our personal lives? How does being grateful invite in MORE - more fun, more joy, more creativity?
I've shared before how Julia Cameron's Artists Way is a chance to explore and to be curious. Hidden within the DNA of her method is gratitude..
Taking walks - appreciation and gratitude for nature
Morning pages - 3 daily meditations on what we're grateful
Artist's dates - enjoying what we have and again being grateful
Today I make it a daily routine to meditate. I've resisted this for a L-O-N-G time.. but finally I realized I needed to "empty the cup" - both mentally and spiritually. Only then do we have room to invite more of what we want - not only be affirming and visualizing, but with a sense of GRATITUDE.
Without gratitude we focus on the negative. We invite into our lives more of what we DON'T want that way.
Henry Ford said
whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right" Thoughts are energy.
Whatever we put our energy into we get more of.. That's just a basic law of the universe - energy is neither created nor destroyed. So, when we talk about what we put our energy into, this is what we mean.
What the Greatest Businessman You've Never Heard Of Taught Me about Gratitude and Success
A wise friend reminded me how "you know, John, the problem is that it's too simple. People naturally want to complicate it." He passed away a few years ago, but this friend died a rich man in my book surrounded by a thriving family and those who will always remember his generous spirit of service.
The one thing that struck me about this creative entrepreneur was how grateful he was. From the first time that I bought him a cup of coffee at Starbucks (our default meeting place) to the birthday wishes, this friend always expressed a sincere gratitude for even the smallest gesture.
When Dave started out as an entrepreneur, he would camp along the beach with his son out of the delivery van used to deliver books to stores. Although his business was just starting out, Dave was always grateful for time spent with his family, and he said that was why he went into business.
Years later, even having grown from boot strapping into operating from a warehouse and serving clients around the world, Dave said that he still appreciated those humble beginnings.
So, I suppose that's my takeaway. We may aspire to be like the rockstars of the world or indie moguls of our industry, but to live the simple life of a humble man that valued a truly rich life with freedom and passion - that's my goal as a creative entrepreneur.
Here's to you, Dave. I'm grateful for the moments we were able to share together.
Opening up my oversized Chicagoland map, Andy and I looked worse than a couple of tourists. Picture two Asian dudes in a pretty white bread part of town - with not a scrap of rye in sight!
My travel buddy took a look. “Guess we're hoofing it from here.” We had taken the “L” train as far as it went. This was before I had the luxury of having a car on campus, so we relied on public transportation to get anywhere.
Even though Andy and I planned on different engineering tracks - aerospace for me, civil for him, we took a lot of the same core courses starting out. But while I expected a lot of what came with these demanding majors, I didn’t anticipate how much creativity was needed. Engineering is supposed to be a left-brained logical field, or so I thought.
Question: “If a thousand angels can dance on a pinhead, what is the average angle of inflection if their energy was released from a train going 70 mph?” Err.. let me get back to you on that.
Human Hearts, Paper Cranes and Space Telescopes
If you haven’t heard of Robert Lang, you’re probably benefiting from his work without realizing it. This NASA engineer grew up obsessed with origami, shared Jeremy Gutsche in Better and Faster, and this fascination didn’t slow down with age.
In fact, Lang took the work of “dead people” as he puts it and applied it to this ancient art. He found ways to use math to find ways to fold creatures and objects never before imagined. While this earned him recognition in the underworld of competitive origami (yeah, I didn’t know there was such a thing either..) Lang didn’t stop there.
When NASA needed a way to fold telescopes, they sought him out. Then doctors asked him to solve ways to create stents that could pass through the narrowest arteries and blockages before deploying. Even car manufacturers consulted with him to figure out ways to design better airbags.
Lang observed, “almost all innovation happens by making connections between fields that other people don’t realize.” Indeed what started out as his hobby became much more than fun and games - it turned out to be just the formula for creative innovation.
“Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on..” Jobs said. Indeed would Apple have been a leader in personal computing without his insights into the use of fonts?
Jobs said in his interview for Wired magazine in 1995, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”
This is why I tell entrepreneurs that Paulo’s Cuelho’s The Alchemist is required reading for any business library.
Thinking Like Leonardo
Maybe the best example of how curious minds have benefited the world is a 16th century Renaissance man. Inventor, architect, artist are just a few simple labels for this complex man who achieved more in one lifetime than others have in multiple lives.
“I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand... Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it, and why immediately on its creation the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel... These questions and other strange phenomena engage my thought throughout my life.”
Unfortunately, most of his ideas and inventions were never realized. Today we are only able to have a glimpse of this creative genius because of the many notebooks that surfaced after his death.
So, how can we be more like these creative minds?
First, be curious - willingness to ask questions involve a mix of childlike wonder and a bit of courage. Shedding the fixed mindsets of “adults” isn’t easy, but it’s also not fatal. We’ve talked about how fear gets in the way of creativity.
Be observant - of course, with this curiosity there is little chance of noticing the clues to new connections. But even simply paying attention isn’t enough. Taking notes, reflecting and processing our observations allows our creative juices to ferment.
..and that leads to having the real fun - allowing yourself to roam opens up all the possibilities around us. When you give yourself permission to explore, you’re seeing the world with fresh eyes. It may just be the reset button you needed.
Recently, I revived the weekly ritual that Julia Cameron calls the Artist's Date. Another friend has officially declared it Creative Friday. Whether you take a few hours or all day, the point is to allow yourself the space and freedom to explore. You creativity is waiting.
I was always a curious kid and asked all kinds of questions.. Things like.. Why can’t I get up on stage and start singing, too? Who’s that lady holding my hand? Where did my mom go now? When will I finally get to drive a real car? How come that farmer got mad at me for doing a dance on his hat?
Well, in time we learned that some questions are more “acceptable” than others. Slowly but surely society teaches us to color between the lines. Unfortunately, this not only shapes our curiosity but also limits our creativity and imagination.
We often talk about thinking outside the box, and I’ve discussed creativity inside the box. But what happens when we keep shrinking the box?
How Curiosity Inspires Creative Works
Producer Brian Grazer is known for a diverse body of work. His films have covered almost every genre, and Grazer credits his creative success to curiosity. In fact, Grazer turned his curiosity into a series conversations with anyone that he was interested in learning more about. Not only did these inspire ideas and give insights, it allowed Grazer to grow his own curiosity muscle and gain insight into how creativity and curiosity are really twin siblings.
"Curiosity is the tool that sparks creativity.. questions create a mind-set of innovation & creativity,” says Grazer. “..curiosity allows possibility that the way we're doing it now isn’t the only way, or even the best way."
Indeed we get in our own way of seeing possibilities if we’re not willing to be curious and simply ask questions. It’s when we assume that we have all the answers or that there’s nothing to learn that we’re really hearing the death knell of creativity.
How Curiosity Turned Barren Land into the Happiest Place on Earth
Walt Disney was known for both his creativity and his insatiable curiosity. He often went incognito and toured the grounds. No matter what aspect of the business Disney wanted to learn more about it. This was “management by wondering around” long before this became popular with the business guru’s.
Imagineer Bob Gurr who designed many of the attractions said, "Walt had a unique way of drawing out your creativity and poking holes in your assumptions. He wouldn’t push you - he would pull you.. lead you through new ideas. He would get you to ask, "What if?"
When Disney was designing the EPCOT center, he surrounded himself with books on urban planning - even experts in many fields. So many of his innovations came from his willingness to explore & experiment. Disney was one of the first to embrace sound in his films, then color - even combining live action w/ animation. His commitment to quality was amplified by his constant curiosity. Disney had no problem asking even a janitor or 19 yr old jungle cruise ride operator about how to "plus the Disney experience" - how to deliver always more than expected.
How Curiosity Finds New Opportunities
You must shed the habits of farmers - complacent, repetitive, protective - and adopt the instincts of hunters - insatiable, curious, willing to destroy, says Jeremy Gutsche in Better and Faster. Ironically, one hunter that Gutsche highlights is actually a farmer.
Ron Finley grew up in south central LA and became a player in urban fashion through his curiosity. In high school he argued his way into home economics by pointing out how most chefs were male. Eventually, he turned this willingness to question the status quo when he noticed that he lived in a “food desert.”
Finley decided to do something about it. He asked what if these 26 square miles of vacant lots were turned into urban gardens. Soon others joined him, but it wasn’t long before complaints came in. This didn’t deter Finley and his group, LA Green Grounds. Getting signatures for their petition, they eventually got the support of the city.
“Why wouldn’t they be happy,” joked Finley. “Growing your own food is like printing money.”
He goes on to say, “..just like graffiti artists, where they beautify walls - me, I beautify lawns, parkways.”
First, be open to exploring. Instead of worrying whether something is going to be a waste of time, consider that there are only discoveries and lessons - rather than “successes” or “failures.” There is nothing more destructive to creativity or curiosity than fear. But like our muscles tackling big stretches can pull something if we push too much before we’re ready.
Create the space. Your environment to be curious requires time and opportunity. Set aside the time to wander. We feel deprived - bombarded by demands. Unless we see ourselves as worth it, no one else will.
Connect with like minds. Another key part of environment is finding your tribe - those people who not only inspire and support you but lift you up. Throughout history “movements” have started with groups of artists and entrepreneurs being “curious” together - the Impressionists, the Classic period of music, the writers of the 1920s.
So how has your curiosity nurtured your creativity? or for that matter how are you nurturing your curiosity?