BEYOND ROSES AND BUTTERFLIES: HOW EXECUTION IS CRITICAL TO THE IDEA PROCESS

Preface: This guest post is half of a duo (part one by AJ Motia; part two by Kit Kieser). You can read the first part here. Additionally, neither post is an attack on TED, TEDx, or any other idea symposium. Rather, they are personal reflections on the idea industry society has constructed in response to these forums. Kit Kieser’s assertions here do not necessarily represent my beliefs and vice versa.

photo credit: stewartbaird via photopin cc

photo credit: stewartbaird via photopin cc

If you ask a group of young, college art students to make work about death, love, time, or change–broad, familiar, and potentially weighty concepts, more than half of the class will, without fail, produce imagery with “blood,” roses, clocks, or butterflies. Most will not have the inclination to make work about the room where Grandma died, the place he stood when he first fell in love, the three generations of her family that live under the same roof, or a handful of coins. (A sense of humor is welcome.)

In the world of fine art, no one really gives a shit about roses or butterflies. There are several reasons why, but primarily we’ve seen that imagery in just about every variation under the sun, over and over again. It has come to have little impact on the viewer. A third generation Ansel Adams-style photograph may be beautifully executed, for example, but it will never and can never have the same cultural impact that Adams’ work did. The man was remarkably influential as a pioneer in landscape photography and environmental activism, after all.

One doesn’t expect every student to come up with brilliantly innovative concepts or new and interesting ways to look at the world. Some students won’t get past roses and butterflies for a few assignments; for some, it may be a couple years. Perhaps the more sophisticated work just hasn’t happened for him or her yet. Perhaps that work is still in the works, because it takes a great deal of rummaging through the small–often terribly bad–ideas to find the big, prodigious ideas floating around in your brain. Sure, there may be a perfectly-formed masterpiece in there, but mostly there are lots of small ideas that need to be strategically piled on top of one another to construct what sort of looks like a big idea. Even then, there’s more grunt work to be done to push the big ideas out into the world. That part takes help.

I show Idea Conference, Inc. style talks–mostly TED or high profile TEDx talks–in my classroom all the time. It’s one of my go-to teaching tools. Specifically, I show talks centering around creativity and the creative process. I can’t say for certain if sharing the talks with my students gets them to make better work. What I do know is that they enjoy the videos a great deal, they gain some new perspectives, and it gets them thinking. Students often leave class feeling uplifted, inspired, and occasionally empowered. It can be very difficult to make art when you’re feeling depressed or even subdued. So, uplifting or inspiring words from me and others is frequently part of what the students need.

Sir Ken Robinson’s talks have changed my life, or at least changed the way I think about creativity, teaching, and my identity. Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown have helped me to evolve the way I think about creativity and how I talk to my students about the creative process and what makes compelling art. I go back to these talks time and time again, and I show the videos in my classes. I’m not alone in my reverence for these speakers, their ideas, and the way they deliver their messages, but talks like these have become the gold standard that many seem to want to recreate–so much so that we’ve watched Idea Conference, Inc. balloon into an idea industry as TED has become a giant corporate brand and more localized groups have hastily formed a line to ride its coattails.

Everyone seems to want to have and share their big idea, even if only for the sake of a line on their resumé. But what constitutes an “idea worth spreading?” Furthermore, what happens when we never actually implement our ideas or fail to move outside of our own community of like-minds and mutual admiration that we begin repeating ourselves, run out of ideas, or all begin to deliver the same ideas in slightly different packages? Has the proliferated idea industry reached its post-modern era?

Bear with me here. In visual art, one major idea of Postmodernism can be grossly simplified by the notion that there are no new ideas–that we have exhausted our creative possibilities. The use of collage and appropriated materials–and ideas–is often a hallmark of postmodern art. That is, an artist may borrow existing ideas or materials and piece them with other existing ideas or materials to create new ideas by recontextualizing the old ones. I assure you the full complexity of this topic is far beyond what would be useful here, but the general concept is illustrative.

We’re starting to see similar postmodern-like activity in the idea industry, especially in the smaller, localized conferences. There seem to be few new ideas being presented there. Instead, the same ideas and concepts are being embedded in topics that are seemingly different but ultimately contain the same appropriated messages. That’s not to say that this can’t be useful, but is the appropriation and/or retelling of the same ideas and the way these ideas are presented actually productive? I’m afraid the law of diminishing returns applies.

photo credit: T a k via photopin cc

photo credit: T a k via photopin cc

If a single person stands on stage to give a somewhat sage-like sermon to the group of like-minds, the ideas start to look like the same old roses and butterflies that we’ve seen countless times over. Would it not make more sense to have a panel discussion where a problem is solved or a game plan is made to implement these ideas?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as guilty as any other “slacktivist” that likes to contemplate and deliberate over lofty ideas without ever taking consequential action. But how many times do we have to repeat the same idea, concept, or philosophy to give it legitimacy before implementation becomes the main priority? Perhaps we get a little too wrapped up with congratulating ourselves for having smart ideas with which our equally intelligent peers agree?

It’s okay that we started out with roses and butterflies. They’re integral to the process. Making bad art is a necessary step on the path to making good art, but the good art never comes if it remains an idea without execution. Our ideas can’t evolve without putting them into practice. Visual art has, in part, moved past Postmodernism, but it got there by executing the ideas such to facilitate its progression to new ideas.

On the other hand, if your ideas only ever look like roses and butterflies, that’s okay. Most students that go to art school don’t live out their lives as artists. In fact, very few of them practice art after they graduate, but there was still a great deal of value in their experience. Just because a student doesn’t have the most artistically innovative mind in the room doesn’t mean they’re not creative or don’t have something incredibly valuable to offer. And just because we don’t all have an idea we feel worthy of presenting at Idea Conference, Inc. doesn’t mean that we never will, and it doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally–if not more–valuable now for what really needs to happen: the grunt work. In order for there to be new ideas, we need to implement the ones we have, find out what works and what doesn’t, and watch new ideas grow from that process.

I DON’T HAVE A BIG IDEA, AND THAT’S OK

Preface: This post is part one of two. Kit Kieser wrote a guest post on this blog for the second piece of the discussion. She talks about reforming the way we think about, present, and implement ideas. You can read that post here. Additionally, this specific post is not an attack on TED, TEDx, or any other idea symposium. Rather, it is a personal reflection on the idea industry society has constructed in response to these forums. My assertions here do not necessarily represent Kit Kieser’s beliefs and vice versa.

I paced back and forth in my head, wearing circular paths in the mush. The pressure was mounting. Our local TEDx had just wrapped up, and a big-deal marketing summit was soliciting submissions for talks. I picked up my brain and shook it fiercely like a child trying to wrestle a shiny piece of change free from a piggy bank. As I throttled it in the hopes that some grand idea might jiggle loose, I wondered to myself, “What if there’s just nothing in there? What does that mean?”

Everywhere we look today, people are presenting on this and talking about that. TED/TEDx talks, conferences, symposiums, ad nauseum (henceforth known as Idea Conference, Inc. in this blog post). We’re lured in by the premise that these ideas will be shiny and new, offering some value we did not have previously. And, often, there’s the rub: the product does not live up to the hype.

I struggle to take away anything more than a confirmation of my own values or beliefs (tinged with a slight air of self congratulation for being “right” in the first place, because, after all, this really smart person on a stage just agreed with me) or a message that gets me high on feelgood vibes for a few hours but fails to make a lasting impact. For me, it’s the equivalent of Pinterest syndrome: people pin things to make themselves feel good, and the very act of pinning produces the same effect as doing/making/buying whatever the pin is (without the effort or investment).

For Idea Conference, Inc., spectating is as good as doing.

Research has shown that it’s even better because idea forums like TED give us a false sense of confidence in ourselves–our understanding of the ideas presented and our ability to execute those ideas. But are the folks sitting in the audience really there to change the world (on a bigger or personal scale) anyway? If you’ve been to an Idea Conference, Inc. event, count on your hands the number of concepts that changed your life for longer than a week. Be honest with yourself: not concepts you enjoyed learning about or agreed with–the ones that truly impacted you and how you interact with the world. I’m betting you have few, if any, fingers extended right now.

What is an idea worth without execution?

What is an idea worth without execution?

Further down the rabbit hole, there’s this expectation that we all have (or should at least want to have) a great idea within us–one that we can neatly package for consumption by the masses. Ideas have become social currency for inclusion/exclusion in a room full of people all saying the same thing and then applauding each other for it. With so much pressure to be labeled an inspiring speaker at Idea Conference Inc., people scramble to present just for the sake of it rather than waiting for that really great idea. Ability supersedes quality. Instead of letting that great idea ferment into something uniquely theirs, they imitate past ideas in a rush to “just get it done.” And so the cycle of lackluster ideas begins anew.

Or, as Nathan Jurgenson said in his essay against TED:

What began as something spontaneous and unique has today become a parody of itself. What was exceptional and emergent in the realm of ideas has been bottled, packaged, and sold back to us over and over again.

Idea Conference, Inc. has given birth to the “Idea Industry.” The word “industry” implies that we’re manufacturing ideas, churning them out like widgets. This mindset dictates an immediate usefulness of these idea-widgets, which Umair Haque speaks against: “The idea of our age is that Great Ideas can be simplified, reduced, made into convenient, disposable nuggets of infotainment — be they 18-minute talks, 800-word blog posts, or 140 character bursts. But can they — really?” Ideas are to be nurtured over time, to be experienced–not consumed in 10-20 minute talks resulting in a “climactic epiphany,” as Haque calls it.

photo credit: tubagooba via photopin cc

photo credit: tubagooba via photopin cc

If we are, indeed, manufacturing ideas, perhaps this provides insight into why they are so formulaic–so cookie-cutter. This is ironic in that Idea Conference, Inc. typically promotes “outside-the-box” thinking. These forums have become the box. And what is a box but a containment unit–walls that include and exclude, neatly compartmentalizing what’s inside?

Reject the box. Blow up the walls. Don’t fall into the trap that only “ideas worth spreading” are shared via these types of forums. Don’t let these things constrain you, your way of thinking, or the impact you make.

After combing every lobe in my brain for an idea that fits the mold, I realized the system itself is the issue. Am I less intelligent for not having a concept worthy of a TEDx submission? Is my idea less valid if not presented at Idea Conference, Inc.? Is my self-worth compromised if I don’t feel I have any novel topics or lenses through which to view them for the next big idea symposium? Absolutely not. But in a world of “everyone else is doing it,” it’s easy to get sucked into that trap of misplaced self-efficacy.

And this isn’t to say that just because I don’t have that great idea today I’ll never have it. I could be experiencing that idea right now, only to see it for what it really is after the experience is finished. But for today, I don’t have a big idea, and that’s ok.

I’VE GOT TWO DRAGON WINGS AND A MICROPHONE

Does this anyone else feel anxious looking at this? photo credit: bionicteaching via photopin cc

Does this anyone else feel anxious looking at this? (photo credit: bionicteaching via photopin cc)

There’s one dragon that has plagued me for decades. The very thought of it incited fear, nausea, and knee-knocking so loud, I’m sure everyone in the tri-state area could hear it. The dragon in question is any kind of public speaking: panels, radio, TV, speeches, presentations, ad nauseum (no, really). Shoot, just calling up the local pizza place to order a pie made my tongue feel thick and inarticulate.

I’ve heard that the vast majority of people detest public speaking, but our own fears seem much realer than a generalized blanket statement about the faceless “everyone else.” Convinced my trepidation was uniquely mine, I made up countless excuses to avoid the dragon–sometimes at great cost.

The terror boiled down to a bunch of eyes on me with the possibility to stick my foot in my mouth. Because I didn’t have my presentation skills perfected, this fear of the unknown–fear of all the things that could go wrong–loomed over me. This, of course, positioned me in a catch-22 situation: how else can one perfect her public speaking skills other than by practicing them?

“Too many people spend too much time trying to perfect something before they actually do it. Instead of waiting for perfection, run with what you’ve got, and fix it as you go…” Paul Arden

At some point, I decided I’d had enough. Perhaps it was my pep squad whispering in my ear. Maybe I got tired of missing out on opportunities. Whatever the new-found source of courage, I started saying “yes” to speaking engagements, even if they scared the shit out of me at the time.

The crusade to slay the dragon started with Anthony Juliano who asked me to guest speak in his IPFW social media certificate class in spring of 2012. I’m sure I made a fool of myself several times before then in front of a crowd or microphone, but that was when this movement really began.

I soon discovered what I suspected all along: I rely on “uh”s and “uhm”s as verbal pauses and talk entirely way too fast when I am nervous. But hey, no one’s perfect, right? I made a mental note to slow down my speech when speaking to others during nerve-wracking situations (I deliberately chose not to focus on both pace and verbal pauses because I didn’t want to overwhelm myself). Fine. Good.

Then something magical happened when I was invited to speak at Social Media Breakfast Fort Wayne: I discovered the ease of being on a discussion panel. This remains my preferred method of public speaking–especially if I’m on a panel with smart people I trust, which was the case at SMBFW. As we recapped 2012 Blog Indiana (now Mixwest), the conversation among panelists flowed effortlessly. And the panel format afforded me time to formulate my answers, leading to fewer verbal pauses. Progress!

In February of 2013, I faced my most daunting foe yet: public radio. You’d think radio would be easier. It’s just you, some headphones, and a microphone. Visions of “Schweddy balls… It’s good times… good times…” filled my head in the days leading up to the gig. But once in the studio, I could feel that microphone taunting me. I could hear my own voice in my headphones on a slight delay, like that of a stranger ready to betray me at any moment. Fortunately, the NIPR Midday Matters crew were patient with me, and my show cohort Kevin Mullett was kind. I could hear the fear quivering in my voice, but others said it was stellar. I must have done something right since they asked me back in April.

And in about a week, I’m keynoting the Chamber’s Media and Marketing Summit. Key. Noting. If you would have told me two years ago, “Hey, you’re going to keynote this big deal marketing summit one of these days!” I would have thought you were nuts. Yet here we are. And writing about it, I’m wondering if I’m nuts.

The truth is very few people really enjoy public speaking. It’s something you just sort of grow into, if you allow yourself to. And you can roll your eyes all you want (like I did) when people say that the only way to get better is to actually do it, but it’s true. Eventually, you get to a point where you’re kind of ok with it, which turns into complacent comfort, which leads to being rather good (see my aforementioned friends Anthony and Kevin for examples of really good public speakers). You learn to roll with the punches, concede that you won’t have all the answers on the spot, and get comfortable in your own skin. And, as Arden so eloquently put it above, you go with what you’ve got and fix it along the way.

Then you can stare that dragon in the eye, stick your tongue out with a little “neener neener,” and flash your sword as you take the podium.

For the record, I still hate calling in an order for pizza.