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David Usher

March 2, 2015 by Speakers' Spotlight

David Usher: Let the Elephants Run

David Usher is a creative tour de force. As the front man of the internationally acclaimed rock band Moist, and as a solo artist, David has sold more than 1.4 million albums, won countless awards–including five Junos–and performed at sold-out venues around the world. Believing that creativity and creative success is a learnable skill that anyone can master, his unique and dynamic presentations employ music and video to show audiences the steps they can take to stimulate the creative process at home and at work. David has just released his new book, Let the Elephants Run, which draws on the topics he covers in his presentations. For those in Toronto, meet David at Indigo at the Eaton Centre on Wednesday, March 4, at 7:00pm as he signs copies of the book, and before you do, read a few excerpts, here:

During a particularly long layover at Heathrow Airport a woman came running up to me. “David, I just love your song ‘St. Lawrence River.’” She was very excited, and we got into along, in-depth conversation about the meaning of the song. In our conversation, she said those words that I hear all the time: “I would love to write something like that, but I’m just not creative. ”Of course I was flattered, but at the same time, those words drive me absolutely crazy. To me, the statement “I am not creative” implies that creativity is something you’re either born with, or you’re not. As though I sit down at the piano, crack open a bottle of whiskey, wait patiently for divine intervention to hit me on the head like a hammer, and then the songs come pouring out fully formed like popcorn or bubbles. Believe me, I wish that were true, but the reality is that creativity is 95 percent work and discipline, and just 5 percent inspiration. You never get to the 5 percent inspiration that you desperately want and need unless you do the95 percent that’s work. I spent a year writing “St. Lawrence River,” and I probably wrote thirty different choruses for it before I found the right one to record. The simple fact is that we are not taught or encouraged to exercise our creative muscles. In reality, we are encouraged to suppress them. This does not mean that most of us are not creative, only that we have never been trained to work on and value our creativity and imagination. When was the last time you invested time in developing your creativity?

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Creativity isn’t elitist. It’s not just for “special people.” Creativity is a learnable skill, and something that anyone who is willing to invest the time can achieve. You can learn to speak French. You can learn to drive a car. You can learn to write songs, learn to paint, learn to design, learn to be an entrepreneur. You can also learn the steps of the creative process and creative thinking. It really is no different. Some will be more naturally talented at specific creative disciplines than others, but determination and grit mean as much, if not more, than natural talent. It’s easier to believe in divine anointment than in the endless grind.

It’s easier to believe in talent than in work and discipline. Want to be really good at playing the piano? Try practicing every day, for four hours a day, and then do that for four years. I guarantee that you’ll be pretty damn good, and I can assure you that every eight-to-fourteen-year-old child who applies for the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard does at least that much practising. That’s why they are so damn good.

Like everything in life, you still need a bit of luck and timing for it all to come together. But creativity itself — the ability to think of an innovative idea and then follow through with the steps of the process and deliver something new — is something we can all learn to do. For creativity to work we need to harness the power of two seemingly opposing forces simultaneously.

Freedom and Structure

These are the keys we must find and master to make creativity happen. We need freedom of imagination in order to be curious, to explore, and to dream up bold ideas. At the same time, we also need a defined and disciplined structure — a methodology to the madness that, when applied, can make those imagined ideas a reality. Think of freedom as the skin and structure as the bones. You need both to stay alive. Freedom without structure is just chaos, and great ideas float away on the wind. But it all begins with freedom of imagination. To think creatively, you first need to get your imagination firing again…

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Imagining and then building something out of one’s imagination is messy work. It does not follow the straight lines society has painstakingly taught us to worship. Crows don’t actually fly in straight lines, and nor does the creative process. Creativity is inefficient. It meanders around corners and weaves through empty alleys. It is constantly bumping into walls and falling off ledges. While the straight line flies overhead and gets to its destination faster, creativity has to observe, study, and explore all the various points of interest along the way. The people who undertake this work know they must follow the curves where they lead. They follow their imagination and the dream in their heads, however irrational. It is in these curves that creativity happens. It is the ability to doggedly hunt down a dream until it can be satisfied in reality. The goal and the finish line are always important, but they are balanced by the need to realize the vision.

Ten years ago the standard starting point would have been to create an intricate, highly developed plan projecting every detail of your future business. A hard-copy vision of what you would be doing, your customers, and how it would all roll out. The five-year plan.

Today things are a bit different. The rise of the start-up and start-up culture is changing the way business thinks about planning, and about the straight lines of business plans. Steve Blank, Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneur and academic, writes: “Business plans rarely survive first contact with customers. As the boxer Mike Tyson once said about his opponents’ prefight strategies: ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’”

***

These days, powered by the Internet, small teams of entrepreneurs are able to build giant businesses by utilizing the agile thinking of the modern start-up. It looks a bit like this:

1: Idea for a business

2: Build a minimal viable product (MVP), the smallest possible version that can still viably test the idea (minimal features).

3: Go out into the world and test the MVP with customers to see if it works, how they react and collect feedback.

4: Based on the feedback, implement fast iterations and push out new features quickly.

5: If it’s working, and traction and retention are growing, continue.

6: If it’s not working, it’s time to pivot and radically change direction.

This new breed of entrepreneur has learned to think and react quickly, to follow the curves of the creative process where they lead rather than just march to some predetermined, arbitrary place. The destination is visualized but not written in stone. The discoveries made along the way have immense influence on the course of the journey. Some of today’s most famous new companies started out doing something else. They had an idea they thought would work but changed direction midstream to focus on something completely different. They followed the path where it led.

David Usher/Let the Elephants Run/March, 2015