Tahnee Perry

Strategically minded, results-focused marketing specialist

Confused in China

China is a difficult country to decipher. It’s such a vast place – geographically and culturally - and I’ve seen only the tiniest slice. A slice made up mostly of Starwood hotels and polite general managers. Primly dressed staff usher me into modern banquet halls and a translator is always ready to assist. It’s an easy way to travel through a foreign country – from Western hotel to Western restaurant and back again - but it doesn’t give me any sense of the country, it’s people.

Tahnee Perry in China

After four days of this routine, I decide it’s time to leave the comfort and security behind. A few of my braver colleagues and I venture into the city unaccompanied, on a mission to discover authentic Chinese food. Best dim sum right here, the hotel concierge says, easy to find, just across the road. We leave confidently, with the name of a place listed on my iPhone (in English and Mandarin to cover our bases). We are confident as we step out of the air-conditioning and into the teeming streets of Shanghai.

It’s anything but easy.

Turns out across the road is actually not a road at all. This restaurant is on the other side of a courtyard, tucked into a corner and hidden from view in a local food market. We feel triumphant and sweaty when we finally arrive – having traveled no more than 20 feet from the hotel, despite the 25-minute journey.

Inside the market is a froth of locals, yelling and haggling over exotic spices, tobacco products and neon-colored candy. We stumble across a stall selling vacuum packed pig faces and dehydrated duck carcasses. A tiny woman in a white cap grabs my arm and gestures at them eagerly. I know she wants me to buy one but I back away and hope I haven’t offended her.

Pigs heads

Despite the grisly merchandise within, we forge ahead and up the stairs. The restaurant is crowded and thick with steaming spices. We mull around the entryway in confusion, until a server takes pity and dumps us at a Formica table with a bundle of menus – all in Mandarin. We pick food from pictures and mime our drink orders. The waitress finally brings us four giant Singhas and steaming bowls of noodles. I can’t say it’s delicious, but it’s certainly authentic. And we earned it.

Tahnee Perry Shanghai

The surprises of this city aren’t confined to its packaged farm animals and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Each time we step away from our hosts, something inexplicable happens. A woman walks the street with a pantless baby (apparently this is common practice in rural China – it saves on diapers; you just hold said baby over a gutter at the right moment). Random strangers take our photo without asking. Lone men expose themselves on street corners.

Without a modicum of Mandarin, I remain confused by all of this and a little worried about my safety. Hailing a cab is fraught with complexity. We stand on a busy intersection for 20 minutes showing a string of drivers our hotel identity card only for them to throw their hands in the air and screech away as if mortally offended. When language is no longer an option, exhaustion sets in quickly. We pile into the first car willing to take us back no matter the price.

Despite the frustration of these situations, there’s a certain satisfaction I feel each time I navigate my way through Shanghai’s winding streets. I guess it’s one of the reasons I travel to distant countries and throw myself into unfamiliar situations. It’s all part of admitting I know so little. I won’t understand a country as vast as China by eating a single meal or by walking along the Bund with a throng of tourists. I do know this though; I’ll pass on restaurants selling pig heads every time. 

 

Happiness and a Pint Glass

Dublin is like that song you’re not sure you like. It’s not a top 40 hit or a karaoke staple. It’s the song they bury on an album and play in the middle of a set. But if you listen enough, the lyrics catch your attention and the melody sticks. Suddenly you realize you love this song. It catches you and doesn’t let go.

Dublin is like that.

On my first visit, I saw a string of tourist attractions - the Guinness and Jameson breweries, City Hall, the Leprechaun Museum. I couldn’t shake the feeling these sights were a poor reflection of their surroundings. They seemed halfhearted and fake.

But then I visited again and had no time for tours or sight seeing. On a misty afternoon, I wandered the streets and absorbed the collection of modern and historic architecture. I drank tea in Dublin’s most historic hotel, the Shelbourne; walked through St. Stephen’s Green. I realized it’s not until you walk along the cobblestones and delve into lesser-known neighborhoods, that the city comes to life. Then you meet the characters, the jovial bank tellers and sunny cafe staff. All of these people talk to you. They want to know who you are and where you’ve come from. If you’re lost, they immediately stop what they’re doing to help you. I had one bus driver pull over and give me elaborate walking directions to my hotel. In New York City, where I live, people don’t even see you and bus drivers are just as likely to yell at you for making them late.

At first, I was confused by all this happiness. Ireland is a wet and dreary place with a hard-spun history. When you visit Berlin, you can feel the guilt and oppression in the air – why not here? I asked a local why everyone in Ireland is so nice, why they seem eager to hear your story. He said, it’s the only country with no class system. It struck me as true. You could be visiting royalty, a rock star or a country’s prime minister and the barman will strike up a conversation with you just the same as he would his next-door neighbor.

So it might be raining in Dublin, but you can be sure you’ll have a friendly pint or two in just about any place you walk into.



Rockin the Rockaways

When you think of a beach destination, you picture white picket fences and ice cream parlors. You see condominiums soldiering along the waterfront. You imagine clean white sand and patio seating. That's not the Rockaways.

An hour from Manhattan and a single subway ride means easy access for the millions living in the five boroughs. The Rockaways on a weekend is over whelming to the senses, to say the least. Gangs of college students guzzle hard lemonade and gyrate to blaring boom boxes. Shrieking kids, jocks with footballs, surfers, boogie boarders, chain-smoking models all camp together until planning your escape from the beach without touching another person's towel is like playing a game of Landmine.

Then you meet the locals and you realize how white and gentrified your own neighborhood has become. The local bar, Connolly's, sports a bizarre collection of semi naked sorority girls, tattooed bikers and grizzled long-timers. It's not uncommon to be missing a few teeth, to be sitting at the bar shirtless and barefoot. The occasional beer funnel is brought out.

And then you frequent places like Umas, a Williamsburg-esq restaurant with low lighting and farm to table ingredients. If you want to hang with the cool kids, you drop in for tacos and a watermelon margarita at Beach Surf Club. You might have to avoid the crack dealer, loitering in the side alley on your way there, but once inside you'll feel like you're back in Brooklyn.

To truly experience the Rockaway you must stay overnight. That means one of two choices - The Piper Inn or Playland. Playland is famous for its music scene (don't expect a solid nights sleep, the website warns) and shared bathrooms. If you're visting the beach to drop acid and groove away the night, this is your place.  

If you want to hang with a long time local and feel the real vibe of the Rockaways, try The Piper. Pete the owner of 14 years, runs a ship-shape establishment. He'll drink a beer (or five) with you on the front patio, regale you with Rockaway history and little known facts about the neighborhood. He'll tell you he doesn't care what color your skin is, if you're good people, you're good people. The rooms are simple but tidy and even though the room rate will put you back a cool $200 you’ll feel protected from the general Rockaway craziness once you’re inside. As an extra plus, you can walk to the beach in two minutes and he'll let you keep your beer in the bar's industrial sized cooler for late night imbibing.

So, don't visit the Rockaways expecting a typical beach experience. You're just as likely to see a septuagenarian give a police officer the finger, as you are to see a long time surfer help a family get their oversized baby carriage through the door to a restaurant. It's not a place for the faint of heart, but if you want an authentic experience, then the Rockaways has it.

The Importance of Why

“How do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions?”

Simon Sinek starts his Ted talk with this question. He’s explaining the importance of starting with Why. How companies who clearly communicate their purpose and vision to employees and customers are inevitably successful. He calls his theory the Golden Circle – a set of concentric rings starting with Why and moving out to How and What.

You can watch the 18-minute talk or skip to the quick version here.

Sinek’s Golden Circle encompasses three sections:

What – is the product or service an organization sells
How – is the unique selling propositions of a product or service
Why – is the purpose, cause or belief, the very reason an organization exists

goldencircle.png

Take Apple for example. It reported record revenue of U.S.$74.6 billion and a 48% increase in earnings per share in December of 2014. Apple is the most profitable technology company in the U.S. – Its revenue is almost double its closest competitor, Microsoft.

How? Apple starts with Why. Look at their famous 1984 commercial, their Think Different campaign. Apple believes in challenging the status quo.  The how (beautiful design) and what (personal devices) are secondary.

This is important because employees and customers relate to a brand, not because of it’s what, but because of it’s why. Anybody can buy a computer, but owning a Mac makes a statement about a person’s values and beliefs.

Whole Foods Market, America’s healthiest grocery store is a phenomenon in grocery shopping. The health food chain started with a single store in 1980s Austin Texas. Today the company generates U.S.$4.7 billion at more than 400 stores in North America. But performance started sliding in 2013. Whole Foods became associated with the tag line “whole paycheck” and competitors like Walmart and Kroger introduced cheaper organic options. Shares plunged 18% in May 2014, when Whole Foods admitted sales were slipping.

Then Whole Foods launched their “Value Matters” campaign. The title is self explanatory – a series of 22 videos showcase the fair trade, organic farming and distribution practices of the Whole Foods network. The grocer is shouting their why loud and clear. And performance is on the rise – revenue is 10% up year over year and share prices are nearing an all time high before the drop.

Let’s take a look at the car sharing industry. Uber stormed the scene in 2009 and is now valued at U.S. $41.2 Billion. Uber’s founders Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp created the company to provide customers with their very own private driver. The duo wanted to ride around in style and thought customers would enjoy the same sense of glamour. Uber has raised U.S. $5.9 billion in funding, owns 46% of the transportation market in the U.S, employs as many as 5,000 drivers and is shaking up transportation regulations. Customers love Uber. But despite their meteoric rise, Uber has problems. They’ve been accused of price gouging, of sabotaging the competition and unethical PR stunts. When you speak to drivers, they’ll tell you: Uber’s in it for the money. They care less about the driver and more about disrupting the private car service industry.

Logan Green, Lyft’s CEO has a different mission. He grew up in LA, grew up sitting in traffic. He’s passionate about solving a greater social and environmental issue – how to decrease the number of cars on the road. He believes if less people drive (and if you listen to pundits they’ll tell you Millenials aren’t interested in owning a car), and share rides, there will be less gridlock, less pollution and a decrease in traffic accident fatalities. Lyft is a far second to Uber’s market dominance (U.S. $862.5 million in funding, $2.5 billion valuation), but their vision is grander. They demonstrate this by taking a smaller cut of the drivers fare and allowing riders to tip extra when they complete their ride. When you talk to drivers – especially the ones who use both– it’s clear that Lyft is their favorite.

There’s no telling who will win this battle. It’s possible that self-driving cars will put them both out of business, but in the meantime, Uber and Lyft are winning customers with two very different messages.

The Grit of Berlin

I like Berlin. I admire its understated confidence, its calm demeanor, the orderliness of day-to-day life. If you ignore the occasional curmudgeon, the people are unfailingly pleasant and polite. For the depths of winter, they are remarkably happy. New Yorkers whine about the cold and the snow and the dark. Berliners are strikingly stoic by comparison.

I don’ t think this happened by accident. So much of the city’s fabric is drenched in atrocity and oppression. Visiting the museums and monuments, seeing the death and dismemberment of so many people is sobering and unreal. I’ve never lived through an age of oppression, never seen 55 million people killed in a war, never hidden myself in an attic or informed on my neighbor. I don’t know what it’s like to be tortured or persecuted. My days have a reliable structure that’s never been broken. And so it’s difficult to relate to a people who’s days were filled with desperation. Of course, that era has passed, but you can still feel it lingering in the air, permeating the concrete and soil of the city.

It’s a sobering reminder - World War Two, a holocaust, twenty-eight years of the Berlin Wall. Of course Berliners are stoic. They’ve developed grit through decades of tribulation. A mettle most other cities will never acquire. And it’s just one of the many things I admire about Berlin, along with its grand architecture and clockwork efficiency.

Prague: Bauhaus Meets Baroque

Prague airport looks like a shiny new department store. Our plane lands at 3pm on a Monday, a day you expect will be filled with the bustle of tourists and commuters, of people in business suits, of rambunctious children and school groups, but we are greeted by quiet hallways and bored customs officers, by efficient luggage carousels and the scent of expensive air freshener. It takes less than eleven minutes for us to deplane, retrieve our luggage and arrange ourselves in the back of a cab. A feat I’ve never achieved in any major city of the world.

Prague Castle

My sense of disorientation is heightened as our bald and burly driver speeds along the Evropská highway, immersed in the French techno pop blaring from the speakers. I feel like we’re being chauffeured by the bouncer of a Euro-trash club. We move from sleek new cab to sleek new hotel - all burnished metal and dark walls, the hipster flourish giving it a continental flare. I feel like I’ve stumbled into Williamsburg, it’s so cool. After the overheated tension of Rome, this feels cool and collected. I keep waiting for some one to make eye contact, to ask for a change, but they don’t. The Cezch ignore us studiously. Even when we speak directly to them, they seem surprised we’ve made the effort.

Prague itself is a jarring mix of modern and historic - bauhaus meets baroque. Glass and concrete apartments jostle for space with intricately decorated town houses, churches jut above the roofline and every view includes a spire. It’s surprisingly picturesque when you consider its communist and grey-brick tradition.

Outside the hotel, the city opens up, starts showing its rough edges. Graffiti smeared walls and crumbling cinderblock buildings cluster around gloomy train stations and empty warehouses. I get the hint of a serious underground. Aggressively dressed teenage girls – all neon hair and piercings – hang from street corners. Men with sloping shoulders and dark eyes crush cigarette butts on the street. A beggar kneels at the base of a church with his hat in his hands.

With five days in the city, I set an itinerary full of churches, parks and markets. I drink a lot of coffee in cafes and walk up endless cobble stoned streets. I never feel unsafe. Even when I run along the river, into a weary-looking and industrial area full of rusting machinery, I run unnoticed.

Riding the train system is effortless. After purchasing a handful of tickets that are never checked, I stop buying them. I slip on and off trams like a delinquent. I drink an Aperol spritzer on a Vlatva party barge - a pair of swans drift past, unperturbed by the blaring disco music and raucous tourists. I hike to Vitus Cathedral, ride the funicular (a delightfully old world contraption) to the Petrin Tower and watch the Astronomical Clock puppets. I amble along the Charles Bridge, inspect the tombs at Vysehrad and listen to the countless church bell melodies.

I’m spell bound by Prague. It’s charming and vivid. Modern and ornate. The people are self-contained but surprisingly warm. On a day trip to Castle Karjstein a coffee shop owner with rudimentary English lends us a rain poncho for the day and won’t accept my tip when I return it in a soggy bundle. The hotel clerk hands back my packet of Euros when I leave it behind in the hotel safe, not a single coin or bill missing. The waiters patiently teach me please and thank you – which even now I can’t remember, overcome by the impossibilities of the Czech language.

The week is so effortless it ends too quickly. I feel like I’ve skated across the surface of a complex and nuanced city. A city filled with history, hardship and an understated striving for modernity. 

A Roman Indulgence

We are comfortably seated on a sparkling train to Rome Termini. The lilt of Italian surrounds us like melodic background music. If not for the espresso we savored at a stand up café, I’d be lulled to sleep by the cadence of conversation. A crisp conductor marks our tickets with an efficient click of his stamper, we leave exactly on time and we’re speeding past a surprisingly urban countryside, all glass and concrete and asphalt. I expect to be greeted with boisterous chaos, to shouting and jostling, to a pageant of aromas and throngs of people. I expected ancient architecture, cobblestones and fresh food markets, but all we see between the modern structures is arid earth and struggling umbrella pines.

It turns out we are staying in the Soho of Rome. It’s all sharp angles and expensive fabric. The deep scent of leather permeates the air. Stylishly dressed Italians linger over coffee in the afternoon sun, dressed in kitten heels and high collared dresses, statement jewelry and cat eye sunglasses. Midriffs are on display. Gentlemen of advancing years with bulging bellies sport fuchsia scarves and canvas fedoras. Cigarettes dangle elegantly from forefingers. I feel acutely uncool, surrounded by this eternal hipness.

Still surrounded by the gloss and glamour of Piazza Spagna we seat ourselves in a chic café boasting locally sourced vegetarian fare. It’s not a traditional choice for our first meal but we’re too delirious to look elsewhere. We discover that service in Rome is lackadaisical, almost accidental. You seat yourself, and when eye contact and waving don’t work, you shout for your waiter. The check arrives an hour after you’ve finished eating, following some unspoken European etiquette.

When we aren’t extricating ourselves from restaurants, we devour tourist attractions: Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Fontana di Trevi, walking along cobblestone streets (they do exist!) until our feet are aching with weariness. The Vatican, the Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo, Trastevere. We drink pitchers of Nastro Azzuro, feast on pizza and pasta and gelato. We consume Rome on a super charged glycemic high.

We discover that Rome is vast and expansive, modern and crumbling, histrionic and complex. The men have weary put upon expressions like they are enduring their circumstances until their next bicciere de vino. The women by contrast are dramatic and high strung. We see gypsies clutching at strangers, imploring “ayudatame!”, well manicured women offended by approaching hawkers, outraged matrons shrieking at their taxi driver. 

In between our frantic sight seeing, we hunt down a lunch recommendation. We arrive at D’Augusto, not realizing we have stumbled onto a local’s best-kept secret. The one place Roman’s indulge on Sunday afternoon. We politely enquire if we can sit next to an older couple and they are almost forceful in their welcome. Sit. Eat. Enjoy. The gentleman to my left is bald and dressed in a blue velvet vest, a red silk tie and matching leather shoes. He rolls and smokes cigarette after cigarette, barely pausing between the brimming plates deposited on the table. When I ask him what’s good, he orders our entire meal – spicy chicken, potatoes, veal, rigatoni and lasagna. When he isn’t rattling off a rapid stream of Italian, he turns to us and grins. “The only good thing in Italy is la cucina. The rest is gone to shit. But the food.” He kisses his fingers and looks skyward. “Delicioso.”

Just like Rome, he's full with passion and vigor. I’ve found the chaos I was looking for.

London Calling

It’s common knowledge the British are plodding and apathetic. Their food is tedious, their weather grey, their culture insipid. Dull-eyed smokers cluster on street corners and commuters trudge from tube to office, their faces stamped with lassitude. In November a bitter wind whips around London and heavy mist curls in from the Thames. It’s an uninviting landscape. I’m here for work, ready to ward off pelting rain and curmudgeons. But I’m surprised when London doesn’t live up to its reputation.

Sure, the city is damp and overcast, the public transport over crowded. But if you take a moment to notice the people, you realize they’re actually nice. Everyone smiles at you, is ready to offer directions or recommendations. Is willing to give up their seat. An eighty-year-old man compliments my woolen hat, a sparkle of life in his wrinkled face. He blows kisses to his perfectly poised wife in the opposite seat. They are like high school sweet hearts.

Every cab driver greets you with “hello luv”, store clerks hand you change with a cheery “have a nice one”. I can still hear the lovely lilt of the English accent in my head. Maybe I see London differently because it almost feels like home. The color and texture of the British pound, the myriad candies and our common love for Will and Harry. The chatter and noise of London seems more relaxed than New York. 

Tahnee Perry In London

The cherry-red cabs and the fanciful facades of buildings lend it a whimsical air. A slight touch of unreality. The same way the Sydney Harbor Bridge juts unfeasibly from the bay.

Then you talk to the locals and they tell you to stay away from the blacks (they’re not joking), cab receipts warn you about rape and kidnapping, about nefarious men in alleyways and unmarked cars. Zebra crossings shout LOOK LEFT in neon yellow paint – as if every pedestrian is in danger of being run down by blind motorists. Maybe all the caution and safety measures allow Londoners the freedom to be nicer, or maybe that’s just politeness, an automatic reaction. Maybe they’re no different from their American counterparts – self absorbed and determined. But I’m a tourist in London and I don’t have time to dig that deep. So, I’ll delight in the polite exterior and the pleasantries and leave them a tip while I’m doing it.

The Creativity Delta

It’s easy to forget Mark King runs a $1.7 billion dollar company when he tells you his mother said he’d amount to nothing. Born to middle class parents in America’s Midwest, King had a love for sports – baseball, basketball, football and golf - which led to a scholarship at Northern Illinois University. King amounted to something indeed. He is the president of Adidas’ North American group and the former CEO and president of TaylorMade.

mark-king

If you’re a golfer, you recognize the name immediately; you probably own one of their drivers. If you’re not, TaylorMade is a golf equipment company known for beating the established players at their own game using an audacious supply chain strategy and an abundance of creativity.

In 1979, TaylorMade’s founder capitalized on a new technology - a 12-degree driver cast of stainless steel, instead of wood. The small start up rushed to $300 million in sales. And then they quit innovating. They played it safe and stuck with the technology that got them into the game. They stopped listening to new ideas. It didn’t take long for Calloway to crush them, and they languished for a decade before Adidas bought them at a fire sale.

The German sporting goods giant was smart enough to know they needed a shrewd and scrappy leader at the helm, some one willing to take risks and breathe new life into the battered company. They found a guy who knew how to play ball.

King tells the story of the first corporate retreat as an inspirational turning point for the team. They had two strategies on the table – grow revenue by a few percent and cut expenses by a few percent, or be the best performance golf company in the market, cost and competitors be damned. He chose the second option.

But the second option wasn’t easy. TaylorMade was a small company with a fraction of Calloway’s budget. They had big aspirations but resources that only stretched so far. How were they going to pull off a win when the odds were against them? You can’t always beat the competition by throwing more money or people on the job. You have to bridge the gap with a combination of ingenuity and vision – a gap King calls the creativity delta.

In the team’s first effort, they built the best driver on the market and stole half a percentage point from Calloway. That wasn’t enough for King. The team went back to the planning table, dissected the market, interviewed pros and players, listened to their employees and discovered how to cross the delta.

In the 1990s, golfers bought new equipment every three to five years, a traditional life cycle manufactures, retailers and consumers accepted as immutable. King did his research - consulted with pros, listened to employees and customers – and realized upgrading their drivers every 12 months would triple their sales volume. The response was immediate. Golfers wanted the best and latest drivers, every single year, and those with thinner wallets flocked to the slightly older discounted models. TaylorMade captured 50 percent of the market within five years.

So how do you discover these ingenious ideas and innovations? Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovators Dilemma claims good managers choose their teammates wisely, can assess the abilities and disabilities of an organization and create a culture that nurtures passion and initiative – the magic sauce for crossing the creativity delta.

Which sounds easy, right? But those things can only happen when a company’s CEO hires those people, encourages experimentation and allows risk. (As a side note, TaylorMade’s Glassdoor employee satisfaction score is 4.1 out of 5 compared to 3.1 for Callaway and 3.5 for Apple.) A company needs what Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, calls a level five leader - an executive with genuine humility and fierce determination. A CEO who struggles to achieve a vision, not for him or herself, but for a greater cause.

I was fortunate to meet Mark King and learn that he is in fact all of these things. He has completed more than 85 speaking gigs, including the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum and donated almost all of the proceeds to charity, he’s deeply involved in the lives of his two daughters and regularly high fives his employees. He’ll answer any question, from any audience member, no matter how late it makes him for his tee time or executive meeting.

Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger sums it up, “Mark King wants to be an agent of change. He wants to be disruptive. Not for himself. For the sake of the game.”

Breaking Patterns

Imagine this: you’re sitting at your desk, performing the same task, over and over, day after day. You’re entering all the information from a 1980s telephone book into an excel spreadsheet and you just reached the Bs. You’ve got a long way to go. Now imagine this: you step away from your computer to take a break and you’re struck by an idea. You have a friend in the engineering team who knows how to write a small piece of code to scrape the same information online. Your friend writes the script in 15 minutes and you throw the telephone book off the top of your building to see where it will land.

This example might sound outlandish, but a lot of us (at one time or another) are stuck with that telephone book. We’re in the habit of doing what we’ve done before, or what we’ve been told to do. Our thinking is ingrained from past practice or some one else’s rulebook.

If we took a moment to step away from that mindset we’d realize there’s a better way. But that’s easier said than done. Changing your mind is no easy thing. We have natural tendencies towards certain patterns, school and college compound those patterns. Think of something you believe strongly – the virtues of your home team, the best way to tie your shoe, the optimal strategy for pitching a client – and imagine someone is telling you there’s a better team, a better tactic. What’s your immediate response? Resistance? Suspicion? Outright disbelief? You know you’re right.

But what if you’re not?

There’s no way to know for sure unless you venture into untested ground, that murky area filled with potential mine fields and failure, dead ends and sink holes. There’s very real risk to thinking differently, to taking a new approach. That awesome idea you had might result in wasted time and a pile of unfinished work. Just look at Apple before Steve Jobs returned or the dramatic downfall of RIM and its Blackberry device. I bet you can name a few of your own.

But if you stick to the grind, if you stay firmly planted in your office chair with that open telephone book, you’ll never discover that magic solution. You’ll never stand on top of that building or feel the joy of discovering your next great idea.

So how did they do it? They got creative.

There are numerous books and articles on the process of creativity and innovation. Amazon sells almost 64,000 books on innovation and more than 18,000 on creativity. Fast Company magazine is littered with essays and explorations, like Belle Beth Cooper’s The Science of Great Ideas and Andrew Loos’ 4 Ways to Break the Deadlock. Ted.com has an entire series called The Creative Spark and documentaries abound. We have no excuse for clinging to our old patterns.

Alone in a Restaurant

I’m sitting alone in Cognac, a French restaurant in Hells Kitchen. I’m drinking a glass of Beaujolais Blanc and waiting for a very French sounding tart. It’s 6.50 on a Friday night. I don’t often find myself without company in a public place, in a restaurant. I’m usually careful to craft my days so that I’m at work, spending time with friends or staying in at home. Somehow my day conspired against me, a 6 o’clock meeting took me away
from the office, my dinner date canceled and my next engagement starts at 8. I have an hour to fill without the assistance of social connections. I suppose I could have gone to a coffee shop, or the library, or that gallery opening. Or any other number of places less conspicuous. I could have avoided the appraising looks from the gentlemen at the next table, the obnoxious conversation going on beside me. But I have a habit of placing myself in situations that make me feel distinctly uncomfortable. A healthy habit of expanding my comfort zone, or just plain self flagellation? I don’t know. I feel very Jekyll and Hyde about this situation: it’s a little sad to be abandoned by friends, but it’s liberating to eat in a restaurant without worrying about keeping up a conversation or
finagling over a split bill. I can read, write, check my phone, people watch, stare out the window. Etiquette is only appropriate for tables of two. For a brief moment I’m outside
the parameters of social niceties. And even though it feels awkward, it’s really not that bad.

Mastering a Mainsail

When I was eight, dad took me and my sister sailing in a Hobie Cat. The three of us huddled on the center trampoline as dad maneuvered into the wind-chopped lake. After a reassuring wave to the rental guy and a few tangled lines, we made it to the middle of the lake where it was time to turn around. We'd been gone an hour and the weather was coming in, it was late spring and an icy sprinkle of rain gusted from the sky. We were dressed in light shirts and shorts. After a half hour it became apparent my dad had no idea how to get us back to shore against a mounting headwind. We were stuck. The next three hours were an agony of mounting terror as my sister and I were convinced we'd plunge to our deaths in the glacial water. When we finally reached land I swore I'd never sail again. I kept that promise for 25 years.

Then I met a friend, an avid sailor. The men in his family were as comfortable on the water as they were lounging in their living room. They had sunk (and fixed) more sailing devices than I'd ever stepped foot on. He convinced me that sailing could be fun. I didn't really believe him but I wasn't willing to sit behind in the beach house while they jaunted around the bay. I wasn't willing to let them know I was too girly to get in a boat. So I boarded the fifteen-foot sloop with mounting trepidation. I watched the shore recede in the distance. I was the only one clutching the gunwale.

Sailing meant I was stranded far from freedom. You can't just call it quits on a yacht. You need to make deliberate plans. You sail to a point, then you turn back and you are bound to your floating device until you're anchored at the jetty. You can't decide in the middle that you've had enough and quit. You can't walk away. You need to see the journey through to the end. If you're sea sick you have to suffer, if you're bored, you're stuck until the wind drives you back to your destination, if you're afraid, the ocean is a constant reminder that death by drowning is between you and a few inches of plywood.

But the more I sailed the more I learned to like it. The thrill of heeling over, of commanding the tiller, of maneuvering the boat. I became fascinated with the direction of the wind and mastering the art of balancing the hull on that perfect line between speed and direction. I learned that sail boats always have the right of way, the difference been the mainsail and the jib and that a portable speaker works beautifully when it's propped against the deck. When you're tipped up on your side and the water froths along the leeward side of the boat it's both terrifying and exhilarating.

And then there are the moments when you're docked in the calm of a sheltered bay and the boat rocks gently, the waves are an inviting green. You enjoy a glass of wine and a picnic lunch. You dive off the bow into a refreshing expanse of lagoon and paddle around until you've had enough. Email and voicemail can't intrude - you have no service - you are completely unmoored from ordinary life and it's tedious demands. You are far away from ordinary obligations and chores. You're free.

Nurturing Good Ideas

It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face an active audience, you have to be convincing. You have to step up your game. It’s a fundamental human motivation to increase status, self-esteem and reputation.  Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think, calls this the audience effect – the shift in performance when we know some one is watching. Add this element to Chris Anderson’s theory of crowd accelerated innovation, and you have a globally connected engine of growth. A network of ideas.

Lil Demon started breakdancing when he was four. He watched YouTube videos of other dancers, copied their moves and added on. He started competing in local breakdancing battles and beating performers three times his age. His skill was so extraordinary he performed on America’s Got Talent, the Ellen DeGeneres Show and in Jonathan Chu’s Step Up 3D.

Scientists understand that sharing ideas publicly encourages breakthrough discoveries – hence the invention of scientific journals in the 17th century. This worldwide network satisfies a researchers motivation to gain recognition and allows others to add onto new public knowledge. This network still flourishes today.

But there are examples when the process of public thinking and networks breaks down. Ernest Duchesne a French medical student discovered penicillin after observing stable boys placing saddles in damp rooms to grow mold. They claimed it cured the horses of saddle sores. He experimented on sick guinea pigs, cured them entirely and submitted the findings for his thesis. His teachers discounted his work and his research was buried. Penicillin wasn’t discovered again for another 31 years, in which time millions of people died from diseases curable with antibiotics. If his research had been shared across a network, those lives might have been saved.

Today there’s unprecedented opportunity to think in public and share those thoughts in a connected network – think of YouTube, Twitter, Ted Conferences – our very own Northstar Lab. It doesn’t matter how specialized your interest, there is an audience for your ideas, discoveries and innovations. People will comment, recommend and add onto your creation, fueling the generation of new ideas. There’s no excuse for the human race to lose the next penicillin discovery. You have the venue for public thinking, so get your idea out there. Go find your audience.

Where Good Ideas Come From

 Infant death is common in developing countries like Liberia and Ethiopia - one hundred out of a thousand. Many of these babies would have survived with access to incubators, but modern incubators are expensive and hard to maintain. Even when medical equipment is donated to these countries it breaks and parts aren't available for the repairs. In 2008 an organization, Design that Matters decided to build an incubator using equipment readily found in the local markets - automobile parts. They created an incubator, the NeoNurture, that ran using headlights, dashboard fans, door chimes and cigarette lighters. Repair technicians worked at the local automobile repair shop.

Steven Johnson, the author of Where Good Ideas Come From, The Natural History of Innovation, says we romanticize breakthrough innovations but in reality, good ideas are like the NeoNurture device. They are constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. They are formulated like a chemistry experiment - by combining the places, people and things we interact with, of mixing different concepts and connecting puzzle pieces. Some environments are naturally suited for the creation, diffusion and adoption of good ideas. Places where people can collaborate (coffee houses, companies, cities), platforms that allow the sharing of content (the Internet, scientific journals), habitats that foster biological innovation (coral reefs, jungles) have a track record for generating good ideas.

It's not about the eureka moment but about the long incubation - Johnson calls it the slow hunch. Good ideas linger in the back of people's minds until an experience, thought or connection completes the picture. The trick to discovering good ideas is giving it enough fuel to ignite.