Last week, I was listening to Terry Gross’ rebroadcast of a 1996 interview with Willie Nelson. Terry Gross is the host of Fresh Air and is, I believe, among the best interviewers in the media today. Her combination of empathy, curiosity, and listening skills enable her to extract the most remarkable stories from her guests, night after night.
During the interview, Nelson revealed that he had written three of his top hits, ‘Crazy’, ‘Night Life’, and ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’…during one eventful week in 1960. At the time, Willie Nelson was still a struggling song-writer. After he wrote these three songs, he figured he might have the requisite song-writing chops, and this was all the impetus he needed to pack up his ’46 Buick and head off to the rhinestone-lined streets of Nashville to see if he could make a go of it.
What a week for Willie! Regardless of whether you are a big fan of Willie Nelson or not, it is extraordinary that the inspiration for these songs struck within the span of seven days. Patsy Cline picked up ‘Crazy’ and the first time she performed it at the Grand Ole Opry, she received three standing ovations. ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ has been covered by a whole array of artists…including The Supremes, Elvis, and Dave Mathews. “Night Life” was one of Willie’s first big hits via Ray Price, and has become the most-covered country music song of all time.
This got me thinking about inspiration. How does it strike? In Willie Nelson’s case, what was going on in his world to enable him to create three classic songs in such a short time period? I guess we’ll never know. In fact, I wish Terry Gross would have asked THIS question…
For the rest of us, however, is there anything that we can do to cultivate inspiration and creativity…or does originality “just happen” out of the blue?
Andy Stefanovich, who is writing a book on innovation, and is the senior partner at Prophet, a strategic brand and marketing consultancy….believes that intentional, focused inspiration is a discipline that requires deliberate practice and becomes easier to achieve when five modes of inspiration are practiced. He writes about this in "The Inspiration Discipline." Review the following five modes in sequence, each of which will lead you to greater degrees of “difficulty”:
- Serendipity. An unexpected moment of inspiration is serendipity. We don’t seek it, but serendipitous inspirations hit us like a bolt-from-the-blue. Although this form of inspiration cannot be engineered, it can help you develop your inspirational capabilities.
- Recreation. Recreational inspiration is common, yet unrecognized. The sole function is to release the conscious mind from its standard routine or direct concerns. This form of inspiration bubbles up when we do activities for fun, e.g. sports, music, hobbies, exercise, etc. Recreational inspiration is essential to thinking differently and maintaining good mental health.
- Intentional distraction. This happens to us all the time. Example: Someone asks you who won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year. You know this because you were at an Oscar party last year. The name is on the tip of your tongue, yet you can’t quite remember. Then, you stop thinking about it and five minutes (or five days) later, it comes to you. Here’s what’s happening…once you move onto something else, your unconscious mind eventually provides the answer.
- Forced connection. Once you feel confident with intentional distraction, you can progress to forced connection. This is the first step in applying inspiration to a specific real-time objective, and is a skill that requires practice and development. Example: You are walking down the street, and stop next to a streetlight. A voice in your head asks the question, “What does this streetlight tell you about leadership?” Slowly, some ideas come to you. The light shines from above. It provides illumination during times of need. The historical nature fits in with the old warehouses around it. Forced connection perspectives can give you a new entry point for considering surprising new perceptions of old problems.
- Targeted discovery. This mode pushes you to seek sources of inspiration that strategically stretch your thinking, challenge your assumptions, and create new connections…all with a specific real-time objective in mind. Example: What business am I really in? Forget about your specific product or business. Ask yourself what is the value that you provide to your clients. What other organizations or persons make the same promise. What can I learn from them? This mode of inspiration is the engine of innovation, since it is the quintessential new input that’s needed to get new outputs, and create a sustainable pipeline for new ideas.
Stay tuned. I’ve rambled on enough for one day. Next week, we’ll be talking more about inspiration and innovation, and specifically what you can do to cultivate more of both…including exercises. Fun!
Talk to you then.