Over the last year I have been thinking about the similarities between artists and entrepreneurs, between artistic creativity and entrepreneurial creativity. My friend Joni Cobb showcased this linkage beautifully in the 2011 annual PIPELINE dinner in January. For those in attendance, it was a rare and beautiful departure from the usual event format, and a joy.
Jonah Lehrer, a neuroscience writer for the New Yorker, also explored these ideas in a recent talk at Behance’s 99 Percent Conference. The video is here, and well worth the time, if you have it.
There are three big themes from his talk that interested me.
The first theme is that insight often comes from moments of relaxation and reflection, such as when a person is taking a walk, a shower, or a vacation. When possible, I like to spend a week or two a year in August at a big sprawling farm in the Adirondack Mountains named Rivermede. The farm was built in 1830 and purchased in 1906 by Livingston Ludlow Taylor, a patriarch of my wife’s family who served as a minister for a large congregation in New York City. Rivermede is a beautiful property at the edge of Keene Valley, New York with a large farmhouse that sits on a small rise at the base of a mountain facing west into the setting sun. The Ausable River runs cool and clear below. In the evenings a breeze comes up, gently swaying the tall stands of birch trees and cooling a big comfortable porch that faces the river. Livingston resided at Rivermede in the summer months, using the time to reflect and prepare sermons for the coming year. Jonah reminds us that, from time to time, we should get out of the office and away from our routines; and that during these times we can sometimes gain valuable insight by unfocusing. This is something I think artists do very well.
The second theme of Jonah’s talk is that insight alone is only a small part of what it takes to be a successful creative. He focuses on the need for grit, the centrality of it, and its indispensible nature for artistic and entrepreneurial success. He discusses the "Underwear Test” to help a person see if they are truly committed to a goal. I faced this situation when I had an insight that a class of enzymes called type I elastases could be used to rapidly and permanently dilate blood vessel segments and improve blood flow during vascular surgery procedures. As Jonah describes, I knew the idea was good the moment it came to me. By 2002 I had worked with a co-founder to form Proteon Therapeutics to commercialize a type I elastase product. Once the enormity of this task became fully apparent to me, I paused, uncertain if I could really make it happen. I made a final decision to go forward on a trip to Kennewick, Washington. While there, I watched the movie Forest Gump. In the movie, the main character decides to walk across the United States from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. On the plane flight home I thought to myself, would I be willing to walk home from Kennewick to Kansas City if that is what it would take to have a real opportunity for success with Proteon? My mind came back with a clear yes. I had passed the “Forest Gump Test” and knew I was committed enough to move forward. Summoning grit is something I think entrepreneurs do very well.
The third theme of the talk is that cities are more productive as they grow, and companies less productive. I agree with Jonah that the most productive environments for new product innovation occur in small, creative firms located in cities. That is not to say that larger firms cannot maintain productivity and creativity as they grow, as Apple has done; or that firms in small towns and rural areas cannot be creative and productive, as Ben & Jerry’s has been in Waterbury, Vermont. This is only to say that the odds are better.
What an amazing talk.