Wednesday, November 30, 2005

White Elephant Blog -- This is what the Internet is for

John Moore, who writes for and edits the excellent Brand Autopsy site/blog, has started a seasonal spot called The White Elephant Blog.

This is what the Internet is for.

No, this is not one of my stupid metaphors. I'm being perfectly literal.

OK, yes, it's also one of my stupid metaphors. But I'm also being literal. I love that John took the scant couple of hours it now requires to set up a decent looking blog in order to pay homage to a wonderful little cubicle-land festivity.

The White Elephant Party should be honored. It should be satirized. It should be blogged. It should be commented on. All at the same time. Somebody needed to do it. The Internet is where we should be doing it. I don't have a campfire. And if I did, the nice gal in the next cube (Hi, Heather!) would make me put it out.

What I got is the Web. And blogs.

So pass the s'mores, and tell John and co. about your White Elephant experiences.

Thanks, John, for moving the ball forward again.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Coke, Campbells and Content DNA

In 1979, Coke aired a commercial where a tiny, young, Caucasian boy approached an enormous, African American football player to congratulate him on a great game. After initially rebuffing the kid somewhat gruffly, the player -- Mean Joe Green -- swigs a Coke that the boy hands him in a long series of gulps, and then, made friendly (one assumes by the tingly, sweet concoction), calls the kid back and throws him his jersey. The kid shouts, "Thanks, Mean Joe!" and they share a nice moment. All courtesy of Coke.

Somewhat standard American advertising fare, sure. But it struck a nerve in the American public's mind at the time, for whatever reason. Maybe it was the contrast in size between the two -- the kid couldn't have weighed 60 lbs. soaking wet. Maybe it was that the sugar water "melted" Mean Joe's heart (I'd been told by Mr. Frost, my 7th grade Social Studies teacher that Coke could dissolve rust off a bicycle chain, so I suppose that melting an NFL player's heart is no big deal). Maybe it was a nice moment in race relations. Maybe it was a combination of all of these, or just a really well written and well shot ad.

Whatever the reason, the commercial proved so popular, that it was turned into a made-for-tv-movie, "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid."

I am not kidding. They made a movie based on a TV commercial. That's why I included the IMDB link in the preceeding paragraph. To prove it to you. When I have this conversation live, I often get the, "No freakin' way," response. Here in cyberspace, I can put my hyperlink where my mouth is.

I use this event to date the beginning of the wonderful weirdness of modern genetic content mutation.

Yes, I know. Books were made into movies and plays and musicals long before 1981. Same for songs. In fact, I'm tempted to go back and revise my date to 1976, and to the making of the movie, "Ode to Billy Joe," based on the 1967 Bobbie Gentry song of the same title. I'm tempted... but I'm not going to. "Ode to Billy Joe," is weird, yes. But songs have had stories in them, well... forever. The leap of creative evolution to take one and turn it into a movie doesn't quite do it for me in terms of calling it "mutation."

Turning a commercial into a movie though... yeah, baby... that's a mutant love child.

Was the TV movie "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid" a good film? Hellll no. That's not the point. The point is that, as Forest Gump's mama might say, "Content is as content does."

If you create something that causes an effect... it can live in other media. It can mutate and change and have a effect elsewhere, if you know how to take out the pieces of the DNA that can live in another environment. Or, as I like to ask my students, "How can you put that on a T-shirt?"

I don't mean that statement literally, of course. Usually.

Andy Warhol saw pop and commercial culture as art. Ba-da-bing. Before that, pop and commercial culture had borrowed from the world of fine art, but had rarely been seen as art per se. Why not? Because the worlds of "art" and "business" were kept apart by people who stood to gain from doing so in most cases, either monetarily, psychologically or culturally. I don't mean this as harsh criticism, though it comes out as such. It's an anthropological fact, and not a judgement -- people look at the segments of the society they are given and are hard-pressed to de-segment them. Church = religion. School = education. Home = family. Art = culture. Business = economics. You play on the playground, you drive on the freeway. The white zone is for the loading and unloading of passengers only.

The problem for artists, writers, marketers and other creators, is... this kind of thinking is linear and predictable. It leads to the same place it started, often with the same results. And the same results are... well... boring. And boring is the enemy of creativity.

Mean Joe Green and Andy Warhol. Keep them in mind when you try to think of new ways to put your stuff on a T-shirt.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Peter F. Drucker: Creativity at its best

Peter Ferdinand Drucker
November 19, 1909 - November 11, 2005

You owe it to yourself to bookmark Nova Spivak's "Minding the Planet" blog on its own merits -- he's always interesting and often highly creative. But you also should check out this post in particular, because in it Nova speaks very candidly and with great feeling about the life, and recent death of his grandfather, the legendary Peter Drucker.

My blog, now, is about creativity. But many of you who have read my former stuff -- chiefly in the field of legal marketing -- know that I go on at great lengths about goal oriented marketing. Focusing on measurements. Process improvements. The quest for truly rigorous management principles. We owe much of our learnings in these areas to the great work of Peter Drucker.

The name of my consulting company -- Sanestorm -- is meant to symbolize the balance between reason and energy. The idea that you can achieve the most when you work on strengthening both the artistic and business sides of your creative nature. I think Peter Drucker epitomized that balance.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Machinima: The 5th Wall?

Check out an interesting article over at Wired News about the new digital film-making technique known as "Machinima." This is an artform where the creators utilize the animation engines of 3D games in order to create films. The article focuses on the upcoming Mackies Awards -- the equivalent of the Oscars for the genre.

There are interesting questions of artisitc quality vs. story quality, fanfic, cost-of-production, copyright law, etc. in the piece. Here's what really grooves my squirrel, though; we now have an art form that was originally designed as interactive -- computer games -- being turned on its ear by the players (the audience) to go back and create content.

We have gone from passive entertainment (videos, books, etc.), to active entertainment where the player is a character in a world created by the programmers (video games), to entertainment where the player becomes a creator him/herself, using content delivery tools to turn around and create content. The "4th Wall" of the theatre has truly been broken when the audience can get up, coopt the stage, props and cameras, and begin crafting an entirely new piece of art.

Reminds me a big of blogs; using what was once generally a content delivery mechanism (the Web) as a content creation mechanism. Much more interactive. Much more participatory. Much more 360-degrees-of-involvement.

In the words of Artie Johnson's "pop-up-German" character on Laugh-In... "Verrrry interesting."

You heard it here first, folks -- I'm changing The Rule from, "He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins," to "He Who Dies With the Best Content Wins." And it's getting less and less important where your office sits in relation to Hollywood or Madison Avenue or Paris or Nashville or wherever... as long as you've got the Flux.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Growing from Un-Knowing

When my son, Dan, was about three years old, we were sitting in my big recliner, watching "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," for about the 209th time, and he asked me, as James, the Red Engine, was being pused towards almost certain doom by the evil Diesel engine (whose Christian name escapes me):

"Will James be OK?"

"Yes, Dan," I replied. "James will be fine."

We kept watching, and Dan kept asking questions about upcoming plot issues. Will this-and-such happen? Will they find the gold-dust? Will the giant rats feast on the living brains of the graduate students (that may be from a different Thomas the Tank Engine movie... they all run together in my head)?

The point being... he kept asking questions about a movie we'd watched together many, many times.

Finally, I asked him, "Dan. We've seen this movie before. Do you understand that it will be the same every time?"

"Oh," he replied. "No. I didn't know that. OK."

"He's never asked me questions like that again about movies he's seen before."

It was an absolutely explosive moment for me as a father, and as someone who thinks about thinking and learning and creating.

Why should a child -- new to the world, and new to our very fast-paced, media rich world -- have any idea that a movie will be the same every time? We, of course, as adults understand this implicitly. But a child's world is different everyday. And not in the same way that our days are different -- they discover the world every day; we just experience it.

So until we learn that a movie -- or a book or any recorded media -- proceeds along the same line each time, we have no way of establishing that this is, in fact, the case. It makes no more sense to assume a thing is one way as opposed to another.

The Buddha called this state of being, "The Beginners Mind."

The Beginners Mind is incredibly important to the creative experience. Why? Because it is, essentially, the blank canvas. Assumptions are deadly to creativity, both in one's private, personal art, and in the art of business, marketing, commerce, etc.

My son, Dan, is now in Kindergarten. And he's having a grand time of it. We were afraid, at first, that he wouldn't. He goes hot-and-cold on structured learning activities. He loves picking stuff up on his own, and, if he becomes comfortable with a teacher or group of other kids... goes gangbusters. But if something makes him uncomfortable, he can really zwang off into a corner (both emotionally and physically) and avoid participation. But his teacher and  class -- a public-school in Columbus, OH -- are doing a great job at providing what I might call "non-threatening structure." Which is, frankly, what the Kindergarten model has been about for quite some time.

Kindergarten was invented around 200 years ago by a young German academic named Friedrich Fröbel (good article about Fröbel  at Boxes and Arrows). Before that time, it was generally assumed that kids younger than seven were unable to think and learn in a fashion appropriate for schooling. They were, from an educational standpoint, ignored.

Frightening, eh? We know, now, after two centuries of developmental psychology and physiological study, that children's minds are most active and open to learning during their first five to eight years. So, ignoring them until they are seven or so, is not only a bad idea, it is, in fact, totally wrong-headed and counter-productive from a cost-benefit standpoint. It is, frankly, the absolute worst thing you can do.

But it took Fröbel to figure out that it wasn't kids who couldn't learn, but school -- the old-style school for older kids -- that couldn't teach. He needed to apply the Beginner's Mind to the subject of the mind itself.

How meta is that?

What assumptions are you making in your creative life? Who are you continually correcting or challenging, when, really, you may simply be seeing things from very different perspectives? What basic views do you have that need to be examined at a root level so that you can wipe your creative canvas clean and reinvent your process?

If you don't start fresh once in awhile, you may be losing out on major opportunities.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The Art of Leadership: Harvard agrees with me!

There's a very interesting article over at Harvard Business School's "Working Knowledge" site about how "adaptive leaders" share many talents and attributes with artists. The basic idea being that working with the resources and media of your business -- money, logistics, personnel --  may require as much creativity as working with the media of traditional fine arts -- clay, paint, the words of a poem, etc.

I love this article for three reasons.

  1. I love it for the same reason I love most of the stuff that comes out of Harvard's presses, especially HBR. It's well written, highly informative and so much more interesting than 99.5% of the dreck that passes for "business news" out there.

  2. It's true.

  3. It's in agreement with something I've been saying for years.

Hooray! Harvard agrees with me!

I've been giving a speech/talk for about three years now (you know... the kind that they drag you into doing when you're on a committee and they can't find anyone to fill the lunch speaker slot at the last minute) on the "Creative Split" between artistic and scientific creativity. I won't go into the whole she-bang-a-bang in this post, but the basic point is that around about the end of the 17th century, folks started to really differentiate between the types of thought used for creating art vs. creating other stuff. Ever since, we've kept them sort of... well... apart.

Remember Leonardo DaVinci? Great scientist. And a great artist. He was, in many ways, the model for the "conjoined mind." Somebody who didn't think about creativity as having to be either "one thing" or "t'other." It just... was.

We go on a bunch in our culture about left and right brain thinking. That may be part of it. But I don't think so. There's plenty of "right brained" creativity going on in science, engineering, technology and the business world. But do we automatically think of that work as "creative?"

We should. You should.

I had a friend in the Finance department back at Verizon who would joke that he wasn't creative, and shouldn't be, because, "Nobody wants us engaging in 'creative finances.'" He was being cute, of course. But he was also one of the most creative thinkers I've known. He was always helping the business design new ways to approach billing and pricing issues. He was an artist who used Excel as well as my designers use Photoshop.

So... when you think about how you want to improve your own creativity, or that of your company, make sure you remember to include the boardroom in your plans. Not just the artroom.

[Note: as a Cornell alum, the jumping-up-and-down, hands-pressed-to-face, tearful joy of the title of this post is meant to be more than a little ironic. I do like HBR... but wasn't ever going to change my tune if they didn't agree with me.]

Saturday, November 5, 2005

The "Process of Process"

Among School Children, Part VIII
William Butler Yeats

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? 

The last line of that stanza is one of my favorite lines in all poetry, ever:
"How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Let us stick with acting, which I don't know very well, but have done a bit of.


What is acting? When does it begin? If I feel the same things that I am supposedly "creating" for my audience to see, is it "art" or is it real? If I rehearse, alone, my part a dozen or more times, and it is bad, at first, and then better and better... until finally it is great... at what point did it become art? Is the rehersal craft or part of the art? Is the performance itself also, if repeated again and again, craft? What if it gets worse with repetition, because I am less interested in it? What if my craft decays? What if I find, after time, that I dislike the play, my part, my lines, my co-actors, the theatre, the audience, my costume, my props... all those things that contribute to the whole of the production. What if I "phone it in" one night?


What if the fat lady, the one wearing too much perfume that smells of peaches and white wine, keeps catching my eye one night and distracting me. Because she looks, for all the world, like my fifth-grade teacher... the one who was always (inadvertently?) flashing us glimpses of her tits and crotch through her inappropriately flimsy, hippy outfits. And, because of her, my performance suffers greatly. Is my overall "art" diminished? One show, one matinee out of eighty-seven performances...


I don't know.


Sometimes, for me as a writer, the words seem to come from nowhere. I look at the screen (almost never a page anymore) and I think about... nothing... and the words come. And they bring other words with them, and I follow them (her) down a chaotic path and then, at some point (usually) I start leaning on the tools, the craft, the history, the order... and they are what bring me through to the end of the piece.


Other times, I begin with the craft/order/tools. I start by saying, "I will write a piece about death. It will use metaphors of water and the color grey. It will rhyme and have clear meter." And then, while working in an orderly fashion, chaotic paths will cross my level, straight road and I will wander off to pick up words, phrases, ideas... and come back to the main street again.


Tick and tock. Yin and yang. Black and white. Order and chaos.


I distrust art that relies too heavily on one or t'other. When I work with writers (on and off-line) who seem to do more of one... I like to push them the other way. For example, one young writer I worked with recently was all about chaos and randomness when I first started reading her stuff... and yet, burried within, were the seeds of craft. She showed real promise, and so I started leaving her lots of comments, bullying her into trying some more ordered routes across the same terrain. In some cases she resisted. But she's very young, and I'm a very good, very gentle bully. She improved very quickly, too. Dreadfully smart kid. Once she started looking at her own stuff with an eye towards the  "art" of it, she got a handle on how to eliminate some of the randomness that didn't fit. Which is a big part of great art; removing the chaff and leaving the wheat. Ezra taught us that.


So... the process of process. When I feel myself at a loss, I try to go "the other way." If I'm feeling random, and am hoping/praying for help "from the muse," searching desperately for a new idea or metaphor or theme... I intentionally "go ordered" and make myself write something more "formulaic." I force myself to pick a theme, a pattern, a rhyme, etc. If, however, I find myself becoming too ordered... I jump away into the sea of chaos. I write with much less fear (or try to). I get jiggy wid it.


Does it always work? No. But it doesn't always not work, either.

Creativity Requires Tension

I got a bunch of emails about my "Heisenberg" post asking me, "What the heck are you talking about with this creativity and uncertainty stuff."


Here's what I meant by the
uncertainty = something to do with creativity thing. When you observe something (in quantum terms), you can either nail down its position, or its momentum; its present state or its potential. The closer you get on one, the further you get from the other.


I think that in a weird way, creativity is based on both rigid processes (some might call this "craft") -- very defined ways of observing the precise methods of creating art/writing/design/etc -- and also on indefinable, whimsical, chaotic "muse" driven elements. Some types of "art" have always relied totally on one, some on the other. For example, architecture relies heavily (pun intended) on craft. If you don't obey the rules, house fall down. Painting has fewer rules; or it can, anyways. Writing has more rules, generally. You need, for example, words and letters.


Losing the balance between craft and muse is where, I think, artists get confused. We sit and "wait for the muse to strike us," or we get bound up in aspects of craft, leaning too heavily on systems and methods that aren't our own.


My take on being "creative" is that you need this balance. If you trot too far towards craft, you lose something in your art that comes from the random, winding, soul-ful, wondrous, child-like place. If, however, you only ever rely on that place for your art, you become unable to create "on demand." You can't link your art to the demands of, let's say, a job in the arts or to the specifics of any requirements.


Place vs. Momentum. Present vs. Future. Status Quo vs. Potential. Conservative vs. Liberal. Chaos vs. Order. It is not the one or the other that produces great art, but the tension between the two. Moving back and forth, trying some of one, caroming back too far in the other direction, correcting, overcorrecting, swerving back, observing how the journey has impacted the result. The whole "process of process" (metaprocess?) is part of being an artist. Part of understanding one's own creative pulse.


Let's be clear on one thing -- I don't really think that observing the creative process is in any real way like observing sub-atomic particles. I just thought it was a kinda cool metaphor. And I, in my own art, always struggle with the tension between craft (order) and muse(chaos). At one point in my life, I found the struggle frustrating. I'm not sure how it happened, or exactly when... but I now find the struggle exhilarating. Fun, even, most days.


The struggle is, I believe, necessary to the creative process. It is not always -- and for most people not ever -- conscious. I think that when you are aware of it, however, you can control it more fully. And that gives you even more creative potential.