“How did you come up with the idea?”
This is probably the most common question asked to entrepreneurs and innovators. It seems as though they have superpowers allowing them to tap into creative solutions and answers to the world’s various problems, wants, and needs. But many will tell you that inspiration doesn’t come from being a genius or subject to a stroke of dumb luck—it comes from being aware of your surroundings, keeping an open mind, and recognizing a good idea when you see one.
I once worked for a guy who built a million dollar multi-tool business because he kept locking himself out of his apartment. Sometimes it’s the little frustrations we experience in our everyday. Other times it can come from something we overhear on the news, subway, or in line at the grocery store. Point being: inspiration can, and most often will, come from an unlikely source.
In fact, the inspiration for this article came from a late night jazz binge on YouTube. I’ll explain later.
Seeking Outside the Box
Since I began working as a strategist and writer for different startups, I’ve noticed that the journalistic and advice landscape for young or new entrepreneurs is very crowded. Most blogs and sources are reiterating the same ideas. A very small handful of forward thinkers put some new ideas or perspectives out into the world, which others repeat over and over on blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, and even published books.
The result is an echo-chamber, where every budding entrepreneur is absorbing the same ideas.
It is increasingly difficult to find a fresh business perspective that is not only unique but helps us think in ways that are innovative, or at the very least new and different. Now, that’s not to say there’s no value in what other business leaders and innovators have to say—there certainly is. But sometimes what we need is raw, unfiltered inspiration. A purely creative perspective on work and productivity, detached from revenue, and market share, and profit.
A great way to source inspiration outside of your business wheelhouse is to look at the arts.
Learning from Artists
Entrepreneurs and other for-profit ventures are in the business of selling ideas, whereas artists are in the business of selling emotions. This might seem insignificant, but it actually affects the way these two different groups think about their projects. The business-minded advice-giver typically lives in a world spurred by competition and benefits by having an edge. They’ll tend to keep info close to the chest. Artists, for the most part, work without needing to be mindful of supply and demand. They actually have more to gain financially by having a greater number of contemporaries.
Of course, this is not a perfect comparison. There are plenty of entrepreneurs that are generous with their wisdom, and artists who are incredibly cagey about their process. But when taking a big step backward, business and art have two very different objectives. And those differing objectives have a big influence on what people in each category are willing to share.
Artists speak in universal languages. They are looking for an audience to connect or respond emotionally to their work, so it benefits them to share much of themselves and their process. Yes, they might speak in specifics to their media, like painting or dancing, but I’ve found that their advice is usually applicable to any scenario—especially businesses.
A Lesson from Miles Davis
Back to my YouTube binge. I was recently watching an interview with Herbie Hancock during which he recites a piece of advice given by Miles Davis. Really, it’s not so much advice as it is vague, sensai-esq instructions.
Miles told Herbie, “Don’t play the butter notes.“
Miles Davis is arguably the most influential jazz musician of all time, let alone one of the most influential musicians period. Across any genre. Herbie Hancock, once the piano/keys player in Miles’ quintet, is a colossal presence in jazz on his own merit. Two innovators working and creating in a time where jazz was constantly evolving.
Herbie initially had no idea what Miles was talking about with the butter notes. Eventually, he figured out they were the 3rds and 7ths—notes that define the character of the scales and chords. Without going too far down the music theory rabbit hole, the 3rd tells us if the chord will be major (happy) or minor (sad). The 7th tells us if the chord/scale will be dominant (tense) or major (sweet).
Simply put, 3rds and 7ths are obvious choices for notes to play because they’re defining. They tell us if this string of tones is happy or sad—sweet or tense. So, taking Miles advice, Herbie avoided the obvious choices in his playing and ended up recording A Tribute to Jack Johnson—one of the most influential and innovative jazz records of all time.
Since watching this interview, I’ve always kept that advice in mind when helping a client with a branding or marketing strategy.
I ask myself, “What are the obvious choices? The butter notes. And how can I avoid them?” My resulting ideas are not always entirely original or innovative, but this simple advice keeps my mind from wandering to the obvious or easy answers. It’s produced a habit of thinking bold before ordinary.
Where to Source Inspiration
I keep a running list of my favorite artists to help me out of my creative and business ruts. This list spans from visual artists, filmmakers, authors, and musicians. I find that each of these categories has a sort of specialty in different approaches.
Visual Artists – Visual artists are prone to break the rules. In doing so, many have styles that are all their own, and often imitated. It’s easy to get trapped in a “this is how it’s done” mindset when introducing a new product or service, so if you need help in doing it your way, look to painters and sculptors.
“There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so, he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.” Henri Matisse, on originality
Filmmakers and authors – Storytelling is one of the most compelling and engaging skills any company or business can utilize. Whether you’re branding or marketing, knowing how to speak to your audience is essential to attracting and retaining customers. Filmmakers and authors are experts in telling a story to a wide-ranging audience.
“Audience members are only concerned about the story, the concept, the bells and whistles and the noise that a popular film starts to make even before it’s popular. So audiences will not be drawn to the technology; they’ll be drawn to the story.” Steven Spielberg on selling the experience, not the features.
Musicians – Music is the universal language, and musicians have a unique take on speaking to many ideas and emotions all at the same time. One of my favorite parts about seeing live music is the wide range of demographics represented in the audience.
“If a song’s about something I’ve experienced or that could’ve happened to me, it’s good. But if it’s alien to me, I couldn’t lend anything to it. Because that’s what soul is all about.” Aretha Franklin on being authentic.
Podcasts, Youtube, and TEDTalks are all wonderful places to find in-depth, informative interviews with artists. With my list of favorites, I can do a quick search to focus my inspirational source. The three categories above are the ones on which I tend to rely. There are many other artistic practices, such as chefs, architects, ballerinas, and fashion designers that are ripe with wisdom.
There are hundreds of great resources for new entrepreneurs to cultivate practical knowledge. And while it’s necessary to have the right set of business tools, staying inspired and creative is equally important. If you’re ever in need of a fresh perspective, you’d be well-served by keeping your ears and minds open. And if all else fails, listen to those in the arts.