April 6, 2012
Yesterday was the first day of our spring quarter course on creativity at Stanford dschool and we jumped right in! I told the class that I really hate my suitcase... I travel a lot and find my carry-on bag to be quite a pain. After I spend the time packing it, I have to unpack it again in the security line at the airport; there often isn't room for it in the luggage rack; and since I pack it so densely it is really hard for me to lift into the rack... Please help! I ask them to design a new suitcase for me.
Within 10 minutes they have created a long list of really cool new ideas, including a suitcase that unrolls, a suitcase built into your coat, and a suitcase with expandable inserts.
After we discuss their really cool ideas, and they are very proud of the results, I challenge them to push even further. Why do we use suitcases in the first place? We all agree that we use suitcases to make sure that we have what we need at our destination. How might you do that without a suitcase? With this new perspective, the students go back to the drawing board and start again. In ten minutes, they have a wealth of new ideas!
What about a service that allows you can rent high fashion clothes at your destination? What about having one packed suitcase that knows where you will be and arrives before you do? Or, what about creating a high resolution virtual reality setting that allows you to meet in a virtual world without packing a bag?
This exercise is designed to demonstrate that the questions you ask are the frames into which the answers fall. When trying to come up with truly innovative ideas, you need to spend as much time crafting the question you ask as you do generating creative solutions.
April 3, 2012
Creative problem solving requires acute observation. Without it, you miss incredible opportunities and important clues on the pathway to a solution. As children, we are naturally curious and intensely observant as we try to figure out how the world works. As we get older, many of us shut down our natural curiosity and observation skills. We think we understand the world and look for the patterns that we already recognize. We become skilled at predicting what we will experience, and then we experience the things we predict.
It takes considerable effort to focus our attention beyond what we anticipate, especially when we are dealing with familiar experiences. For example, we literally tune out when we’re performing repetitive activities, such as driving or walking on routine paths. We also focus predominantly on things that are at our eye level rather than looking around more broadly. In addition, we pay attention to objects that we expect to find and ignore those things that don’t fit.
Magicians know that we believe we are fully aware of our environment and are paying careful attention to everything that is going on. They understand that almost anything can distract us, including a good story, a joke, or pointing to someone across the room, which draws our gaze away from what is really happening in front of us. Most magic tricks rely upon magicians’ ability to distract us while they perform their sleight of hand.
For example, a magician puts six cards face-up on a table and asks you to select one from the lineup, but not to pick it up. she asks you to memorize that card, keeping this information to yourself. She then tells you that she will read your mind to determine the one card that you selected. She picks up all six cards, looks at them carefully, and puts five cards back down on the table, telling you that the card you selected will be missing from the lineup. she’s right. your card is gone! How did she know?
If you were really paying careful attention, you would see that all five of the cards she placed on the table had changed. The magician didn’t need to know which card was yours. She just had to count on the fact that while you were focusing on one card, you wouldn’t notice the difference between cards that look similar, such as a king of hearts and a king of diamonds; or between a queen of spades and a queen of clubs. Magicians take full advantage of our lack of focus and our ability to be distracted as they make objects appear to disappear, as they cut people in half, and when they pull rabbits out of hats.
On the flip side, humorists draw our attention to the things in our environment that we usually ignore. By focusing our attention on seemingly mundane acts, such as parking a car, brushing our teeth, or waiting in line, we become aware of actions and objects that we don’t normally notice, and they become funny under such focused scrutiny. Jerry Seinfeld is known for his standup comedy about "nothing". The subjects of his humor are funny, because he focuses on experiences that don’t normally grab our attention. They are the little things that we don’t usually notice in our daily life. Here is a short example of a Seinfeld routine on visiting the doctor:
"I hate the waiting room because it’s called the waiting room, so there’s no chance of not waiting. it’s built, designed, and intended for waiting. Why would they take you right away when they’ve got this room all set up? And you sit there with your little magazine. you pretend you’re reading it but you’re really looking at the other people. “i wonder what he’s got.” Then they finally call you, and you think you’re going to see the doctor, but you’re not. you’re going into the next smaller waiting room. now you don’t even have your magazine, and you’ve got no pants on."
This is an excerpt from inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity
March 18, 2012
Provocative. Just one word... Provocative.
Until recently, prospective students at All Soul’s College, at Oxford University, took a “one-word exam.” The Essay, as it was called, was both anticipated and feared by applicants. They each flipped over a piece of paper at the same time to reveal a single word. The word might have been “innocence” or “miracles” or “water” or “provocative.” Their challenge was to craft an essay in three hours inspired by that single word.
There were no right answers to this exam. However, each applicant’s response provided insights into the student’s wealth of knowledge and ability to generate creative connections. The New York Times quotes one Oxford professor as saying, “The unveiling of the word was once an event of such excitement that even nonapplicants reportedly gathered outside the college each year, waiting for news to waft out.” This challenge reinforces the fact that everything—every single word—provides an opportunity to leverage what you know to stretch your imagination.
For so many of us, this type of creativity hasn’t been fostered. We don’t look at everything in our environment as an opportunity for ingenuity. In fact, creativity should be an imperative. Creativity allows you to thrive in an ever changing world and unlocks a universe of possibilities. With enhanced creativity, instead of problems you see potential, instead of obstacles you see opportunities, and instead of challenges you see a chance to create breakthrough solutions. Look around and it becomes clear that the innovators among us are the ones succeeding in every arena, from science and technology to education and the arts. Nevertheless, creative problem solving is rarely taught in school, or even considered a skill you can learn.
Sadly, there is also a common and often-repeated saying, “Ideas are cheap.” This statement discounts the value of creativity and is utterly wrong. Ideas aren’t cheap at all—they’re free. And they’re amazingly valuable. Ideas lead to innovations that fuel the economies of the world, and they prevent our lives from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They are the cranes that pull us out of well-worn ruts and put us on a path toward progress. Without creativity we are not just condemned to a life of repetition, but to a life that slips backward. In fact, the biggest failures of our lives are not those of execution, but failures of imagination. As the renowned American inventor Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” We are all inventors of our own future. And creativity is at the heart of invention.
As demonstrated so beautifully by the “one-word exam,” every utterance, every object, every decision, and every action is an opportunity for creativity. This challenge, one of many tests given over several days at All Soul’s College, has been called the hardest exam in the world. It required both a breadth of knowledge and a healthy dose of imagination. Matthew Edward Harris, who took the exam in 2007, was assigned the word “harmony.” He wrote in the Daily Telegraph that he felt “like a chef rummaging through the recesses of his refrigerator for unlikely soup ingredients.” This homey simile is a wonderful reminder that these are skills that we have an opportunity to call upon every day as we face challenges as simple as making soup and as monumental as solving the massive problems that face the world.
After a dozen years teaching courses on creativity and innovation at Stanford, I can confidently assert that creativity can be enhanced. My new book inGenius is filled with details about specific tools and techniques that work well, along with stories that bring them to life. We will look at ways to increase your ability to see opportunities around you, to connect and combine ideas, to challenge assumptions, and to reframe problems. We will explore ways you can modify your physical and social environment to enhance your creativity and the creativity of those with whom you live and work. In addition, we will look at the ways your motivation and mind-set influence your creative output, including your willingness to experiment, your ability to push through barriers to find creative solutions to daunting challenges, and your skill at turning off premature judgment of new ideas.
It is important to understand that these factors fit together and profoundly influence one another. Therefore, none can be viewed in isolation. I’ve created a new model—the Innovation Engine—that illustrates how all these factors work together to enhance creativity. I chose the word “engine” because it, like the word “ingenious,” is derived from the Latin word for innate talent and is a reminder that these traits come naturally to all of us. My goal is to provide a model, a shared vocabulary, and a set of tools that you can use right away to evaluate and increase your own creativity and that of your team, organization, and community.
In inGenius, you will learn how to jump-start your Innovation Engine, and you will fully appreciate that every word, every object, every idea, and every moment provides an opportunity for creativity. It costs nothing to generate amazing ideas, and the results are priceless.
Adapted from INGENIUS by Tina Seelig. Copyright © 2012 by Tina L. Seelig. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
March 10, 2012
It became clear that although creativity is generated internally and can be stimulated by mastering skills such as reframing problems, challenging assumptions, and connecting and combining ideas, creativity is also deeply influenced by what we know, the spaces in which we work, the people on our team, the rules, rewards, and constraints in our environment, and by our own attitude and the culture of our community.
I’ve created a new model—the Innovation Engine— that illustrates how all these factors work in concert to enhance creativity. I chose the word “engine” because it, like the word “ingenious,” is derived from the Latin word for innate talent and is a reminder that these traits come naturally to all of us.
The 3 parts on the inside of the Innovation Engine are knowledge, imagination, and attitude:
- Your knowledge provides the fuel for your imagination.
- Your imagination is the catalyst for transforming knowledge into ideas.
- Your attitude is the spark that sets the Innovation Engine in motion.
The 3 parts on the outside of your Innovation Engine are resources, habitat, and culture.
- Resources are all the assets available to you.
- Habitat includes the space, rules, constraints, and people around you.
- Culture is the collective beliefs, values, & behaviors of your community.
Like creativity, at first glance the Innovation Engine might look complex. Over the course of the book, I take apart the Innovation Engine and examine its six components. I then put it back together and show how all the parts work in concert and influence one another to enhance creativity. Below is a prezi that introduces inGenius and the concept of the Innovation Engine. You can also click on the link below it to see the full size version.
March 4, 2012
Here is a short video clip from a talk I gave for Stanford Parent's Weekend last year about the impact of framing problems on the types of solutions we find.
July 13, 2010
Sara leaned over to admire the bouquet of peach-colored roses she had just bought. Her mind wandered fancifully from the flowers to the wonderful smell of fresh bread coming from the bakery next door. Standing to the side of the entrance was an amateur juggler. With his wildly colored costume, he attracted an audience of children who giggled each time he made a mistake. She watched a few minutes, and found herself giggling too. He finished his performance with a foppish bow towards Sara. She took a deep bow in return, and handed him a rose.
Joe walked with his head down, protecting himself from the icy fog, as wind-whipped newspapers sailed through the air, slapping against the buildings before taking off again. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Step on a line, break your mother’s spine.” These words kept running through Joe’s mind as he passed each crack that disrupted the rhythmic pattern of the sidewalk. The childhood taunt became a low drone in the back of his brain as he focused on the uneven path that stretched in front of him.
This was a valuable assignment not just for practicing my writing skills, but also for life in general - a poignant reminder that we choose how we view the world around us. The environment is filled with flaws and flowers, and we each decide which to embrace.
This blog post is an edited excerpt from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, published by HarperCollins in April 2009.
Trying new things requires a willingness to take risks. However, risk taking not binary. You probably feel comfortable taking some types of risks and find other types quite uncomfortable. In fact, you might not even see the risks that are comfortable for you to take, discounting their riskiness, but are likely to amplify the risk of things that make you more anxious. For example, you might love flying down a ski slope at lightning speed or jumping out of airplanes, and don’t view these activities as risky. If so, you’re blind to the fact that you’re taking on significant physical risk. Others, like me, who are not physical risk takers, would rather sip hot chocolate in the ski lodge or buckle themselves tightly into their airplane seats than strap on a pair of ski boots or a parachute. Alternatively, you might feel perfectly comfortable with social risks, such as giving a speech to a large crowd. This doesn’t seem risky at all to me. But others, who might be perfectly happy jumping out of a plane, would never think to give a toast at a party.
I often ask people to map their own risk profile. With only a little bit of reflection, each person knows which types of risks he or she is willing to take. They realize pretty quickly that risk taking isn’t uniform. It’s interesting to note that most entrepreneurs don’t see themselves as big risk takers. After analyzing the landscape, building a great team, and putting together a detailed plan, they feel as though they have squeezed as much risk out of the venture as they can. In fact, they spend most of their efforts working to reduce the risks for their business.
September 20, 2009
Most people look at their bank accounts with great attention and assess how much money they have to spend, to invest, and to give away… But, they don’t look at their time the same way, and end up wasting this incredibly valuable resource. In fact, time is much more valuable than money because you can use your time to make money, but you can’t use money to purchase more time.
Time is the great equalizer… Each day has only 24 hours - nobody has any more than anyone else. Everyone, from poets to presidents, fills those hours, one after the other, until they are all filled up. Every single minute is unique, and once gone, can never be regained.
When you look at someone who has accomplished a lot, you can be pretty sure that he or she has spent considerable amounts of time mastering the required skills, filling hours upon hours with hard work. There are those who look at others’ accomplishments and say, “I had that idea, “ or “I could have done that.” But ideas are cheap and intentions are just that. If you don’t invest the time needed to achieve those goals then all you have are empty ambitions.
People often say, “I don’t have the time to…” Fill in the blank with whatever you like: exercise, make dinner, write a book, start a company, run for political office. What makes these people think that they have less time than anyone else? Of course they don’t. We all have the same 24 hours in each day and make real decisions about how we spend them. If you really want to get in shape, then carve out time to exercise. If you want to write a book, then pick up a pen and do it. And, if you want to run for president, then get started. It isn’t going to happen if you plan your day around your favorite TV shows or spend hours updating your Facebook page. These are entertaining distractions that eat up your irreplaceable time.
I teach a course on creativity and innovation at Stanford University. During a workshop on how to brainstorm I often give the following prompt: There aren’t enough hours in a day. Come up with creative solutions to this dilemma. The brainstorming results in a an endless list of solutions – from the practical to the preposterous – demonstrating that there are lots of ways to extract more from each hour, each day, and each year. Some of the most interesting solutions involve figuring out how to do two things at once. I know many people who have successfully incorporated this approach into their own lives.
For instance, I met a woman named Audrey Carlson several years ago who was struggling to figure out how to spend time with her friends and take care of her growing family. She started a group called “Chop and Chat.” Every Sunday six friends got together to cook at a member’s home. Each member brought the ingredients to make a different recipe that was then split into six portions. Members took home six different main courses for the week. Chop and Chat was an inventive way for the women to cook together, socialize, and prepare meals for their families.
Another example is venture capitalist Fern Mandelbaum. You would assume that meetings with Fern take place in her office… and you’d be wrong. Fern is an avid athlete and her meetings take place on hiking paths. Everyone who knows Fern knows to wear walking shoes and carry a bottle of water to their meetings in anticipation of a strenuous hike. Fern finds that this strategy is a great way to get to know each entrepreneur while also getting exercise.
There is an oft-quoted saying that "time is money." You can interpret this to mean that time is a valuable currency. In fact, each day another 24 hours is deposited into each of our “bank accounts.” We get a choice about how to spend these hours. We decide how much we spend right away, how much gets invested for the future, and how much we give away. The worst choice is to waste these hours by letting them slip away.
It is almost noon, and I have 12 more hours to invest today!
August 21, 2009
In most schools, students are evaluated as individuals and graded on a curve relative to their classmates. In short, when they win someone else loses. Not only is this stressful, but it isn’t how most organizations work in the real world. Outside of school, people usually work on a team with a shared goal, and when they win so does everyone else. In fact, in the business world there are usually small teams embedded inside larger teams, and at every level the goal is to make everyone successful.
The typical classroom also has a teacher who views his or her job as pouring information into the students’ brains. The door to the room is closed and the chairs are bolted to the floor, facing the teacher. Students take careful notes, knowing they will be tested on the material later. For homework they are asked to read assigned material from a textbook and quietly absorb it on their own. This couldn’t be any more different from life after college, where you are your own teacher, charged with figuring out what you need to know, where to find the information, and how to absorb it. In fact, real life is the ultimate open book exam. The doors are thrown wide open, allowing you to draw on endless resources around you as you tackle open-ended problems related to work, family, friends, and the world at large. Carlos Vignolo, a masterful professor at the University of Chile, told me that he provocatively suggests that students take classes from the worst teachers in their school because this will prepare them for life, where they won’t have talented educators leading the way.
Additionally, in large classes, students are typically given multiple-choice tests with one right answer for every question, and the bubbles must be carefully filled in with number two pencils to make for easy grading. In sharp contrast, in most situations outside of school there are a multitude of answers to every question, many of which are correct in some way. And, even more important, it is acceptable to fail. In fact, failure is an important part of life’s learning process. Just as evolution is a series of trial-and-error experiments, life is full of false starts and inevitable stumbling. The key to success is the ability to extract the lessons out of each of these experiences and to move on with that new knowledge.
For most people, the world is quite different than a typical classroom. There isn’t one right answer that leads to a clear reward, and facing the wall of choices in front of each of us can be quite overwhelming. Although family, friends, and neighbors will happily give us pointed advice about what to do, it is essentially our responsibility to pick our own direction. But it is helpful to know that we don’t have to be right the first time. Life beyond school presents each of us with many opportunities to experiment and recombine our skills and passions in new and surprising ways.
July 28, 2009
A failure resume is a quick way to demonstrate that failure is an important part of our learning process, especially when you’re stretching your abilities, doing things the first time, or taking risks. We hire people who have experience not just because of their successes but also because of their failures. Failures increase the chance that you won’t make the same mistake again. Failures are also a sign that you have taken on challenges that expand your skills. In fact, many successful people believe that if you aren’t failing sometimes then you aren’t taking enough risks. Additionally, it is pretty clear that the ratio of our successes and failure is pretty constant. So, if you want more successes, you are going to have to tolerate more failure along the way.
This is a great video clip of Randy Komisar talking about the role of failure in success... It is a favorite on the ECorner web site.
July 26, 2009
The worst case example happens all the time. In fact, I was at a meeting last week with people with whom I don't normally work, and we were "brainstorming" about a new program. One person made a suggestion, and someone else literally responded with, "Go shoot yourself." For anyone who has spent any time polishing their brainstorming skills, they know that the FIRST rule is to defer judgment. This was a great, real life example of how NOT to do it.
Here is a video summary of what NOT to do:
Here is a video summary of what TO DO:
- Defer judgment
- Capture all the ideas
- Encourage wild ideas
- One conversation at a time
- Build on other people's ideas
- Be visual - use words and pictures
- Use headlines to summarize ideas
- Go for volume - the more ideas the better!
July 24, 2009
The is an interview from the new BNET blog, Entry-Level Rebel. Enjoy...
Tina, what’s one widely held belief about career progress that you think young people would do well to disregard?
Most young people believe that their career path should progress at a predictable rate, with ever increasing responsibilities and compensation. That usually isn’t — and shouldn’t be — the case. I like the analogy that Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, used when she spoke at Stanford a few years ago. She said that you should look at the progress of your career as moving around and up a three dimensional pyramid as opposed to up a two dimensional ladder. Lateral moves along the side of the pyramid allow you to build a base of experience. It may not look as though you are moving up quickly, but you are gaining a foundation of skills, experience, and contacts that will prove extremely valuable later. Additionally, there are often times when you slide backward. Don’t despair: Your recovery after a failure often propels you forward more quickly than if you stayed on a linear, predictable path.
What advice would you give to a young person who has discovered that what they studied, or what they thought they wanted to do, isn’t really for them? How should they approach shifting direction?
It is both exciting and scary to make right angle turns in your career. The good news is that you continue to build your base of experience as you shift between different disciplines. I started out as a neuroscientist and assumed that I would build a career doing research. I soon learned that I was not cut out for a career behind a lab bench. During my job search I ended up getting an informational interview with a management consulting firm. My hope was that they would introduce me to some of their life-science clients. When I walked in the room I was asked how a background in neuroscience prepared me for a job in consulting. I could have told them the truth — that I hadn’t considered a job as a consultant — but decided to wing it. I outlined all the similarities between management consulting and brain research … and was offered a job later that day! I have learned again and again that the core skills needed to be successful are consistent between fields and that the more you polish those basic skills — such as communication, leadership, analysis, and creative problem-solving — the more successful you will be.
Any suggestions for young people who don’t know what they want to do or what their true passion is?
I have heard this from many young people. I believe that it is really hard to find your passions when you have always followed “the rules.” That is, when you have been programmed to do exactly what others want you to so. It makes sense that after years of responding to what others expect, that you have no idea what really drives you. This happened to me, too. In fact, I was so frustrated by always doing what others wanted me to do that soon after I started graduate school, I chose to take some time off…. I moved across the country to Santa Cruz, California, and decided to be a leaf in the wind for a while. My family was shocked and disappointed. But, in retrospect, it was one of the best things I have ever done. I was finally able to see what I wanted to do when I got up in the morning. I was able to uncover my own skills and interests. And, I was able to experiment with new things that weren’t on the prescribed path. By giving myself the space to figure out what I was passionate about, I became internally motivated — as opposed to externally motivated — and have never looked back.
What’s one practical thing the low man (or woman) on the office totem pole can do at work tomorrow to make their lives easier or better?
When you get to the office tomorrow, take a few minutes to figure out what you can do to make other people successful. Ask someone what you can do for them? It is easy to do and pays off a hundred times over. By making other people successful, you inspire them to want to make you succeed. You never know when you will need a small — or big — favor, and by paving the way by helping others, it is much more likely that others will help you when you need it most.
Your latest book is entitled What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World. So the inevitable question: if you could go back and give your 20-year-old self just one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would tell myself that the uncertainty of life never goes away. There are always choices in front of you, challenges to overcome, and failures from which you need to recover. If you embrace the challenges and view them through the lens of possibilities, then you will not only be happier, but will be much more likely to turn the inevitable obstacles into opportunities. The world is always changing, and it is up to you to be flexible and optimistic. With a positive attitude and creative thinking, most problems can be viewed as opportunities in disguise.
July 21, 2009
My original list included things such as turn problems into opportunities, make your own luck, try lots of things and keep what works, and don't burn bridges. I invite you to add your own lessons to the list... What do YOU wish you knew when you were 20?
July 16, 2009
July 15, 2009
Also, next week (July 21) I will be speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The doors open at 5:30 and the talk starts at 6:00 PM. Details can be found here.
If you want a preview, I will be on TV on Thursday, July 16. Check out View From The Bay (ABC-7) from 3 - 4 PM. To see the entire program for that day, check out this site.
June 27, 2009
Here is the press release....
Join nationally recognized, multi-media radio talk show host and award-winning producer Patricia Raskin, host of the Positive Living radio show on voiceamerica.com on Monday June 29 at 2PMET/11AMPT, when she interviews Tina Seelig, author, winner of the 2009 Gordon Prize from the National Academy of Engineering, and executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP). STVP is the entrepreneurship center at Stanford’s School of Engineering dedicated to accelerating high-technology entrepreneurship education and creating scholarly research on technology-based firms. She will discuss her newest book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World, which focuses on challenging assumptions, breaking the "rules", leveraging limited resources, and creatively tapping into one's entrepreneurial spirit to make things happen.
Don't miss this live interview with Tina Seelig, on Monday, June 29 at 2PMET/11AMPT on voiceamerica.com or on-demand any time and anywhere at http://www.modavox.com/voiceamerica/vshow.aspx?sid=1045
Visit Patricia Raskin - the national powerhouse of Positive Living talk radio at www.patriciaraskin.com
June 17, 2009
June 10, 2009
Also, here is a five minute video clip from the talk in which Jeff describes some of the failures that accompanied his grand successes...
May 30, 2009
- Question: How does making stuff out of rubber bands and paper clips over the span of a few days transfer to the reality of the long-lasting grind of innovating, marketing, and supporting products?
Answer: In the exercise you’re referring to students are given a handful of paperclips or rubber bands and are challenged to create as much value as possible in only a few days. Value can be measured in any way they like. The lessons they learn are priceless: They realize that there are opportunities everywhere, that they can easily leverage limited resources, and that they can create real value in only a few days.Also, they experience the power of rapid prototyping, effective teamwork, and how to execute on a plan. It is amazing to see the range of solutions from teams from around the world. This exercise reinforces the idea that life is the ultimate open-book exam—the doors are thrown wide open, which allows you to draw on endless resources to tackle open-ended problems in creative ways.
- Question: But what makes you think that the companies have wide-open doors, endless resources, and open-ended problems?
Answer: It is up to each individual to see it that way. Most jobs involve projects that don’t have one right answer. It is up to each individual to discover the best solutions using whatever resources they can find. These solutions don’t have to cost a lot of money. They often involve identifying other people who can help, leveraging work that has been done before, or combining ideas in new and interesting ways.This is just as true for a CEO as it is for engineers, sales people, lawyers, teachers, chefs, and even babysitters. We often limit ourselves by not seeing all the resources in our midst. However, those who do see that the doors really are wide open, who can reframe problems, and who can creatively draw upon the endless resources in their midst are much more successful in both the short run and the long run.
- Question: How should a college student decide what to study?
Answer: When I started college I was a pre-med student. Right after I got to college I asked a girl in my dorm if she would help me with a calculus problem. She refused, saying that if she helped me, I would get into med school, and she wouldn’t. She was so focused on her long-term goals that she wasn’t able to engage in everyday relationships. That was a huge wake-up call. I was forced to rethink my plans and realized that I should do what interests me and figure out the things that I do best instead of staying on a pre-planned path that might lead me somewhere I didn’t want to go. Now I encourage students to do the same thing—that is, spend time trying lots of different things so that they can see where their passions take them and where they can really shine.
- Question: What should a college student look for in a first job?
Answer: The most important thing to remember is that your first job probably won’t even be on your resume in a few years. With that in mind, it makes sense to take a job that will put you in a position to learn as much as possible. Don’t be worried about the title or the salary and focus on with whom you will be working. Remember—and this is important—that when you get a job, you are not getting THAT job, but the keys to the building. Once you are inside, you will find endless ways to expand your role, to build your credibility, and to excel.
- Question: What should a person do in her first week on the job?
Answer: I wish someone had told this to me when I was getting out of school. You should spend the first weeks on a job figuring out what is really going on. The stated culture of an organization is often quite different from the real culture. And formal titles don’t necessarily reflect real influence in the company. Also, use the first few weeks to set the tone for your working style. People will draw conclusions about you very quickly, and you will want those conclusions to be accurate. Finally, figure out if there is someone who might be willing to be an informal mentor—someone you can go to to ask for help, especially at the beginning when it isn’t clear how the organization really works.
- Question: Is there anything you “knew” at twenty that turned out to be still true?
Answer: I was a kid who never liked to follow the rules. Other people make rules for you to make life easier for them not for you. For example, when you ask someone how to get into graduate school, make a movie, write a book, or run for political office, they will give you a recipe with a set of incremental steps that gets you closer to the goal. However, many people who have successfully reached those goals have followed a completely different path. If you really want to accomplish something, there is usually a creative way to get there even if the traditional path is blocked.
- Question: What’s the biggest thing that you “knew” at twenty that turned out to be wrong?
Answer: When I was twenty I beat myself up whenever I made a mistake. I thought that I had to do things correctly the first time and spent a lot of time agonizing about what I should have done. In fact, if you aren’t making mistakes, then you aren’t taking enough risks. I was comfortable taking risks, but wasn’t comfortable with the inevitable failures along the way. Now I realize that mistakes are part of the learning process. Now when I make a mistake, I add it to my “failure resume” and figure out what I should do differently the next time.
- Question: What’s the best analogy that describes a career?
Answer: I like the analogy that Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, used when she spoke at Stanford a few years ago. She said that you should look at the progress of your career as moving around and up a three dimensional pyramid as opposed to up a two dimensional ladder. Lateral moves along the side of the pyramid allow you to build a base of experience. It may not look as though you are moving up quickly, but you are gaining a foundation of skills, experience, and contacts that will prove extremely valuable later.
- Question: When should a company give up on a product or service?
Answer: This is always a hard question. We all know that in order to be successful you have to put in an enormous effort, and many people work for years before their ventures look like overnight successes. Even when others suggest that it is time to cut your loses, you know that with more time you will be able to make it work. However, this can only happen when you are completely committed. If you have lost your passion, it is time to quit. Without a strong drive to succeed, there is no way you will have the energy to ultimately reach escape velocity.
- Question: What is the key to leading people?
Answer: From my experience, one key to leading others is to “paint the target around the arrow.” That is surround yourself with really sharp people—arrows—and make sure that they are doing what they do best. If you empower really talented people to do what they do best, then astonishing things happen. Everyone feels that they are doing the easy job and truly appreciate what everyone else is contributing. Also, figure out what motivates each individual on your team. With that knowledge you can put incentives in place that encourage each person to deliver their best.
- Question: What’s the best way to fix mistakes?
Answer: It is important to correct mistakes quickly. The longer they linger, the bigger they get. As mentioned above, I tend to take lots of risks, and therefore have had lots of opportunities to correct my errors. I find the best approach is to acknowledge the error and move on. If possible, find a way to quickly demonstrate that you have learned from the experience.
- Question: What is the secret to successful negotiation?
Answer: Make sure that you understand the other person’s point of view. If you make assumptions, you will very likely be wrong. When I bought a car for my son. I assumed that the salesperson wanted us to pay the highest price. That wasn’t the case! After asking a bunch of questions, I learned that his commission wasn’t based on the price of the car—it was based on the scores he got on the customer evaluation form we filled out afterward. Of course, I was happy to give him a great score in return for a great price. This is how win-win negotiations come about.
- Question: How does one balance work and “life”?
Answer: You copied a quote from my book into one of your recent blogs. That quote, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, is very powerful.
“The master of the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.”
This is what we should all aspire to—having work that enriches our lives and lives that enrich our work. On the path to this perfect balance, it is best to pick three things that are most important to you and focus on them. This list will change as your priorities change and is a reminder that you can do it all—just not at the same time.
As we head towards graduation, I have been asked to speak in several classes at Stanford to talk with students about life after school. After sharing some stories about my career path, I decided to do an experiment... I asked the students to write down the biggest problems they are currently facing so that together we could try to solve their problems by turning them into opportunities.
Each student instantly pulled out a sheet of paper and started writing. After a few minutes I asked them to pass them to the front of the room. The problems were all anonymous. As I started reading them, I was shocked and amazed by the problems they wrote down. In retrospect, I'm not sure what I expected, but it was certainly not what I received...
Some problems were written in bold letters (I NEED A JOB) and others were written in tiny letters that were nearly impossible to read (I want a boyfriend). They were scrawled as a quickly crafted list with dozens of existential questions or they were written with an unsteady hand (I am not motivated). It was clear that these big, bold questions are looming in these students minds.
After doing this exercise in a few classes, the patterns started to emerge. Clearly, even after receiving an education at a top tier university, a large number of students are struggling to figure out what they want to do with their lives. And, of course, the gloomy economic environment isn't making life easier. They are finding, as generations before them have, that life after college is filled with zillions of questions without a right answer. While in school, students live a life that is cut up into quarters or semesters with a nice long summer break. They are given specific assignments and receive a grade at the end of each one. They know if they have done well or not. But, life beyond college is quite different. It is the ultimate open-book exam. In fact, after school, we are the students AND the teacher, creating the tests ourselves. Nobody gives us a text book or a course reader, and the comforting rhythm of semesters and summer breaks is gone. In fact, a colleague of mine in Chile provocatively tells his students that they should take courses from the worst professors at their school since this will prepare them better for life where they won't have a talented teacher showing them the way.
In the classes this quarter we organized all the questions into categories and spent as much time as needed addressing all the concerns. Students stayed long past the allotted class time to think about these problems in creative ways. One of the benefits of this public discussion was that the students all realized that each of them was facing similar challenges. They are all going out into the unknown and need to learn a brand new set of skills, including how to motivate themselves, how to make decisions with incomplete information, and how to embrace the uncertainty on the path ahead.
May 28, 2009
May 19, 2009
Today I ran an experiment in my creativity class.... The theme of the class was "creativity versus control." Essentially, my goal was to let the students experience what it feels like to work within an environment with different constraints. The question was, " How is innovation affected by the constraints in the environment." I spend a bunch of time in advance thinking about the "perfect" environment - one with the optimum balance of creativity and control. I came up with the idea of using the game of Scrabble...
Scrabble is a perfect model: The board is very structured and there are clear incentives in place. You are encouraged to build out from the center to the edges so that you can reach the squares that earn you a triple letter score. Along the way, you are rewarded with smaller, but still valuable, rewards. So, I brought in eight Scrabble boards and let the students play... Then, every ten minutes I changed the rules of the game. Some of the new rules loosened the rules, and some tightened them up. For example, I might allow them to pick nine letters instead of seven, to use proper names, or foreign words. Or, I might require them to create only four letter words, to add each new word to the prior word, or limit the time they had to add a word to the board.
The results were completely surprising! Whenever I loosened the rules there was an audible cheer! And, when I tightened the rules they groaned. So, you would think that they were more creative when the rules were looser. That is NOT the case! They were more creative - and earned more points - when they had tighter rules. When they had stricter rules they had to be more creative and the players ended up working together to help each other out. They even earned MORE points when the rules appeared to limit their options.
This was a huge AH HA! for all of us.... But, in the end, they all felt that the original rules were perfect and that is why the game has thrived so long. But, they also realized how changing the rules just a small amount dramatically changed their experience. They walked away with a new appreciation for the sensitive levers they have at their disposal when they manage creative teams. They realized that they should fully appreciate the goals they have in mind and put incentives in place to inspire others to reach them. They also learned that even when others think the constraints are too harsh, sometimes those constraints actually stimulate innovation.