How Top Artists & Entrepreneurs Remain Sustainably Successful
Dive into the Practices That Unite The Most Prolific Creative Entrepreneurs Of Our Times
Founders and artists alike are creatives—using the tool of their imagination, they create something from nothing. In tech, we call this “zero to one,” where artists romanticize “creating from a blank canvas.” Having worked closely with artists as a recording and touring musician for 25 years and entrepreneurs for the last decade, I've recognized patterns and practices that hallmark the journey of successful artists and entrepreneurs. In the coming months, I'll delve into these practices—Clarity Practices, Identity Practices, and starting today, Idea Practices. These practices trace the path of an idea, from a fleeting thought to a transformative force, universally applicable to musicians, entrepreneurs, and creatives of all kinds.
Practices of Opening
Ideas are not our own. Most artists and creatives I have worked with, either as a facilitator or a co-creative, identify as a vessel through which ideas are borne into the world. This sounds like magic but it can be accessible for anyone - for example the entrepreneurs I coach: a lot of the magic of serendipity and synchronicity comes from the vastness of our subconscious mind, picking up on subtle events, trends, facts and later resulting in conscious thoughts that encase weeks or months of subconscious mental processing. Novel ideas culminate at the confluence of technological progress and shifting cultural paradigms. They erupt from the subconscious when we’ve processed enough of the tiny signals.
Creatives are uniquely aware and sensitive to the evolving cultural, societal, and technological trends that shape our times. In times of cultural and technological change, similar ideas often arise independently. Think of Newton and Leibniz both developing calculus, or Darwin and Wallace's shared insights on evolution, or Spotify and SoundCloud being founded within 18 months of each other. The ability to synthesize millions of unconscious data points from our environment crystallizes into an idea at just the right moment is achieved by those who are open. As Rick Rubin, the legendary record producer and author of “The Creative Act: A Way of Being,” mused in a conversation with Krista Tippet on the On Being podcast, “Whichever of us have the best antenna can pick up on what it’s time for.”
Open yourself to the richness of the world around you. As a Creative, your diet is as essential to your work as any other nutrition to your body. Opening the aperture of your experience invites an eclectic mix of inspirations into your subconscious. In this sense, diversity becomes the key to a fertile creative ground.
Limiting oneself to a narrow sliver of inspiration can narrow your output. For example, if a financial analyst reads nothing but the Financial Times, their thought processes and perspectives are likely to be heavily tinged with business and economic theories. Similarly, a musician who exposes themselves only to one style of music may struggle to evolve their sound beyond the boundaries of that genre.
In the late 90s, David Bowie opened his mind to the possibility of the internet transforming the music industry. Unlike many of his contemporaries who were reading the same cultural and technological signals, Bowie chose to widen his creative aperture. He didn't limit himself to conventional wisdom or traditional methods of music distribution, but instead paid attention to the emerging trends, recognizing the profound potential of the internet. He envisioned artists bypassing traditional record labels, democratising the industry and reaching global audiences directly.
To ensure a well-rounded creative growth, consciously seek out a wide array of sources. Dive into different styles of music, immerse yourself in various genres of literature, and spend time with art forms that span cultures and centuries. Connect with diverse groups of people, whose unique perspectives can offer invaluable fodder for your creative process. Engage with media that challenge your existing notions, for it is through disruption that novel ideas are often born.
Imagine how a musician’s production process would turn upside down after involving himself in Brazilian culture and rhythm over a couple of months. I am not making this up: this is how Paul Simon's eight studio album Rhythm Of The Saints came together. While his previous album Graceland was written while jamming for weeks with some of the top local musicians inside a South African studio, The Rhythm of the Saints was created from a number of Brazilian drum tracks that Simon brought back to his studio from multiple trips to Brazil.
Nourish your subconscious. It is in this enriched soil that the seeds of original ideas will find their most fruitful expression. This practice of opening, of consciously expanding your experiential repertoire, is a crucial tool in cultivating the art of serendipity, of being in the right place at the right time for the right idea to bloom.
Practices of Noticing
It is not the magic of the universe that lays revolutionary ideas at our doorstep. A novel idea “whose time has come” is usually the culmination of technological progress, shifting cultural paradigms, and personal influences that ultimately seem to plant an idea in our minds. But just because this idea landed in our minds does not mean we have the sensitivity to feel it.
We develop this capability of awareness through practices of noticing: In developing our consciousness through mindfulness, we can grow more aware of just what is going on “under the hood” of attention. An idea, even a revolutionary one, can be as elusive as a fish in a fast-flowing river.
In the grand orchestra of our minds, the first step to effective noticing lies in adjusting the tempo of our thoughts, slowing down to a gentle adagio. It's within this slower rhythm that mindfulness manifests, letting us discern the individual melodies amidst the mental cacophony. As the noise fades, thoughts and ideas that carry relevance to our creative endeavors start to emerge. They rise from the depths of our subconscious like a faint melody, awaiting our keen attention.
I just returned from a couple of days at a silent zen meditation retreat. Through the hours of sitting in silence, our meditation teacher would suggest, “notice your thoughts and let them go.” However, you may observe that some thoughts exhibit a certain tenacity. It's these stubborn thoughts that sometimes carry the seeds of potent ideas. The next time you engage in your practice of noticing—be it through meditation, a quiet walk, or simply a moment of silence—pay special attention to these persistent thoughts. They're like the melody that sticks in your mind long after a song ends. It's worth pausing to listen to their tune.
So, what's the practical implication of this for you, as a Creative? Start by incorporating deliberate pauses into your daily routine—moments of quiet where you can observe your thoughts without distraction. To put this into perspective, you don't need to be seated cross-legged on a mountain top for hours on end to practice mindfulness. Every quiet moment counts, be it a few minutes in the morning as you sip your coffee, a peaceful walk in the park, or simply pausing between tasks to breathe and reset. The aim is to create pockets of tranquility amidst the daily hustle. Don't chastise yourself if you can't dedicate large chunks of time to this practice every day. Remember, it's about consistency, not duration. Even the briefest of these moments, when spent in mindful awareness, can be immensely productive in nurturing your sensitivity to the ebb and flow of creative ideas. So, start small, and before long, you'll find that the practice of noticing becomes a seamless part of your daily routine.
Practices of Capture
Where noticing is the skill of seeing the stream and the fish in it, grasping an idea is an entirely different skill. It is casting your fishing pole and actually catching the fish. It is crystallizing the idea from a faint thought at the edge of your consciousness to an actual draft, a melody, a first sketch on a napkin for the sake of contemplating it and deciding whether to run with this idea. I love listening to songwriters describing their process in the excellent podcast Sodajerker on Songwriting. Check it out!
This could be as simple as jotting them down in a journal or a note-taking app. Over time, you'll not only have a reservoir of ideas to draw from but also a better understanding of the themes and patterns that resonate with your creative mind. Tiago Forte's "Building a Second Brain" system emphasizes the idea of externalizing one's knowledge to free mental space and enhance creativity. Much like the Zettelkasten system initiated by Luhmann, and the "Evergreen Notes" concept, Forte's approach recognizes the need for structured, yet fluid systems to categorize and recall information. While his methods are innovative, it's clear that Forte is standing on the shoulders of giants, assimilating past wisdom while adding his own contemporary touch (and integrating note-taking into modern technology).
As Creatives, we need to have an efficient and accessible means to capture these ideas. A method that doesn't involve judgement, sorting, or editing, but simply acts as a container for the raw, unfiltered notions that spring to our minds. Think of it as a net with which to catch the idea-fish. It could be a smart watch face with a voice recorder, a trusty journal, or a simple note-taking app—what matters is its ease of use and your comfort with the tools.
One of the reasons I gravitate towards Apple products is the ease of access to OS-level note and recording features. The cross-platform and cross-device synchronization means my backlog of ideas—my song concepts, writing notes, and creative musings—can travel with me seamlessly. Check out any one of the many Taylor Swift documentaries, you will discover her deep, deep in her phone, reviewing ideas and notes from months and years back. Regardless of where inspiration strikes, I can effortlessly capture it.
Yup, that’s Swift looking at her phone. Distracted? No, doing the work.
The key to effective capturing lies in adopting a method that suits your lifestyle and creative process. It's about creating a 'net' that you're comfortable with and which is readily available whenever and wherever you need it. This ensures that no idea, however fleeting, escapes your attention, fortifying your arsenal of creativity for future endeavors. Remember, every idea captured is a potential masterpiece in the making.
Practices of Curation
Bowie, too, had a pile of ideas about how to leverage this change, which needed to be sorted. Eventually, he identified the most promising ideas from the pack, which led to the creation of BowieNet, an innovative platform for music distribution and fan interaction, and Bowie Bonds, a novel financial instrument.
Over time, as ideas accumulate in your 'net', you might find the collection burgeoning to a size that seems unmanageable. This is where the practice of curation comes into play. Here, we sift through our idea reservoir, contemplating each thought, each notion, to determine whether it holds the potential for further development.
We subject these ideas to a litmus test of sorts, asking ourselves: Is this something I genuinely want to pursue? Does this idea resonate with my vision and ethos? Does it hold enough substance, or 'juice', to sustain a song, a book, or even form the foundations of a business? Does this align with my creative priorities at the moment? I will cover more about creative priorities and general trajectory in a follow-up piece about Clarity Practices.
In my personal experience, time constraints make it unrealistic to conduct a formal, regimented review of all my ideas. Instead, I occasionally delve into my reservoir, listening back through my song ideas or revisiting my notes. These revisiting sessions often spark inspiration, helping me unearth a gem of an idea that might complete a verse I was struggling with or provide the premise for a new project.
Interestingly, a more spontaneous approach often proves beneficial. I've noticed that certain ideas have a 'sticky' quality. They keep coming back, tugging at the edges of my consciousness, vying for attention. I've found that these tenacious ideas often hold the most promise and tend to evolve into substantial, fulfilling projects. This, you might notice, ties back into the practice of noticing—it's just a few steps deeper into the process.
The practice of curation is all about discernment. It's about cultivating an intuitive understanding of which ideas deserve your time and creative energy. This isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. Every Creative needs to find their rhythm and technique. Just remember: In this practice, you're not just a composer—you're also the conductor, deciding which melodies to weave into your symphony. Trust your instincts and fine-tune your composition.
Practices of Amplification
On March 20th, 1967, guitar prodigy Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar live on stage when he was performing at The Astoria in London.
A picture of Hendrix doing it again at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
Hendrix commented later: “I decided to destroy my guitar at the end of a song as a sacrifice. You sacrifice things you love. I love my guitar.” He also amplified his show, increased the intensity of the live experience (pun intended — his band was called The Hendrix Experience). As he walked off stage, he had started to perform at a new level. We still know him today for the musical genius who set his guitar on fire.
Similarly, in the digital age, thought leaders like therapist Esther Perel or professor Brene Brown have found multiple modalities to amplify their ideas–books, podcasts, lectures, video, articles. Like Hendrix, they understand that the true power of an idea lay not just in its inception, but in its strategic amplification, its presentation.
Amplification isn't about making something louder—it's an art of refining, connecting, and expanding an idea's influence. This intricate process unfolds through three foundational steps:
Systematize Your Idea: Creative expansion isn't restricted to a single medium. With an array of podcasts, books, and TED speeches, Perel and Brown proliferated their ideas to an international audience. By structuring an idea to fit multiple channels, its resonance is amplified. It ensures that the message reverberates far and wide, echoing in varied spaces and touching diverse lives.
Reflect on Idea/Society Fit: Brown’s idea of vulnerability would have raised eyebrows in her Texas home state just a decade earlier. She recognized when the time had come to bring her research to a public stage. Creatives today must gauge their ideas similarly: Do they align with contemporary consciousness? Do they challenge and inspire? An idea's resilience is tested when it's confronted with societal critique. Like a software in beta testing, it must be ready for iterations, malleable enough for evolution, and firm enough to hold its ground.
Connect, Empathize & Partner: Brown’s ideas certainly hit a nerve when she stood on the TEDx stage, speaking to students at the University of Houston about becoming more vulnerable. The art of amplification isn't just strategic—it’s deeply human. Successful amplification rests on understanding both the audience and the gatekeepers of platforms. Recognizing the motivations of both, from the curiosity of a viewer, the booker of a music festival, to the algorithmic preferences of a platform, is key.
The journey from idea inception to its profound societal impact involves more than just creative genius. It requires strategy, empathy, and a deep understanding of the milieu it aims to influence. Whether it's the strumming of an electric guitar that challenges musical norms or a video that reshapes educational paradigms, the art of amplification ensures that the idea doesn't just exist—it reverberates, resonates, and revolutionizes.
I came up with the concept of Idea Practices in the context of two more Practices: those promoting understanding around what you are creating (Clarity Practices) and those helping Creatives navigate their shift into a holistic creative entrepreneur (Identity Practices). I am going to explore both of those in the coming weeks.
If you feel inspired by these concepts, let’s have a conversation! I am excited to hear from you.
Sources & Inspirations
On Being with Krista Tippett & Rick Rubin: Magic, Everyday Mystery, and Getting Creative: An episode from one of the most inspiring podcasts out there. Check it out!
Sodajerker Podcast: A great podcast interviewing songwriters, including their episode with Paul Simon.