Creating Things That Matter | Book Review

They motivate us to dream up, experimentally develop,
and express new ideas, or what I call the Creator’s Cycle:
ideation, experimentation, and exhibition.” (p. 71)

Just as Douglas Hofstadter explored fundamental concepts linking mathematics, symmetry, and intelligence in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden BraidDavid Edwards defines both a Creator’s Cycle and further how we may create things of lasting significance.

Edwards’ book is for the genuinely curious, and highly recommended for any aspiring leader who has wondered what it takes to create an environment that fosters innovation, camaraderie, and breakthrough performance and culture.

This review considers leadership lessons from the six breakthrough creativity stories in Part II, the heart of the book. Edwards’ personal story and classical approaches to creation (Part I) are included along with environmental considerations for leaders from Part III.

The Current, Constrained Path

Edwards describes how our creativity is halted early in life:

“We learn to advance along one of the two standard paths of
contemporary creation, the commercial and cultural paths,

with their regulations and constraints (p. 6).
This adventurous approach – or ‘third way’ – to creating
often gets sidelined as soon as we enter school.”

Why does this happen? Edwards answers with historical analysis. According to rationalist philosophers, our perceptions fall into two categories: intuitions and deductions (p. 14), and that much of what we consider progress in the past century has been due to deduction, frequently at the expense of intuition. Edwards cites the English novelist and chemist C.P. Snow who argued that scientists would now be lost without help from humanists, and humanists would be lost without help from scientists (p. 17).

Edmonds appears to believe the same, or that we happen to be on the verge of an unusual grassroots renaissance. There are a few reasons to believe this (pp. 19-20):

• First, humanity has over these last years dramatically increased its public expressiveness.
• Second, grassroots creators are increasingly being supported by “activators” of every social, economic, and geographical position.
• Third, specialized environments or “culture labs” are being set up for grassroots creating that share deep commonalities with those that appear in my stories of towering creators today.

These observations coincide with findings that people seek purpose in the workplace, often not found, leading to sustained low employee engagement scores over multiple decades.

Let’s look at the three ways of creating (p. 36):

• commercial benefit (making money)
• cultural benefit (to successfully publish a book)
• passionate curiosity (to explore, like a pioneer)

Edwards personally discovered this, as he [his team] discovered how to make an insulin particle you could inhale easily and inexpensively (p. 40), and sold a company based on this innovation for a lot of money. What do you think happened afterward? Despite the product succeeding in clinical trials, Eli Lily eventually shelved it (p. 41). Edwards discovered that important learning happened when you tried to bring benefit to people, and it involved neither completely deductive nor inductive creative processes but rather something in between (p. 43).

This leads Edwards to focus on creativity. He highlights seven aesthetic dimensions (pp. 51-56):

• Passion
• Empathy
• Intuition
• Innocence
• Humility
• Aesthetic intelligence
• Obsession

II | Creator’s Cycle | Environment

Perhaps the most fundamental takeaway from our Academy Leadership Creating a Motivational Environment workshop is understand the leader’s role in motivation, or that people don’t actually motivate others. Consider how each of the following innovators addressed the seven aesthetic dimensions while modeling the Creator’s Cycle.

Before Ferran Adrià, brilliant artistic minds turned to careers in design, advertising, and the arts (p. 63). Adrià’s approach to cooking aligned with the brain’s motivation to create stemming from a sophisticated reward system that involves the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and somatostatin, the gathering of sensory information from inside and outside the body (p. 69). He became the most famous chef in the world, essentially creating a culture lab that had turned into a place where, improbably, the three ways of creating mixed together (p. 73). Like Bill Walsh (see Superbosses), he developed protégés, and the top restaurant award passed on to chefs who had trained with or been deeply influenced by him (p. 74).

MIT Professor Robert Langer’s colleagues sometimes ridiculed his overly intuitive approach to cancer research (p. 78). Recall we use our Energize2Lead profiles to better understand how to approach others and to learn other’s instinctive needs. Langer expressed his process in aesthetic forms that he, Henry Brem, and Judah Folkman found meaningful (p. 81), such as visual equations for research guidance. He was also a nurturing Superboss. Langer has published more Science and Nature articles than any living engineer. And yet, he says, his students matter most, more than any patent or invention (p. 87).

Edwards, like Jim Collins (see 20 Mile March), reminds us that fast creation of things that matter to many is rare (p. 95). He describes the second phase of creating as a long trek between first ideation and ultimate realization of a dream, where  intuition, innocence, and humility remind us when we discover that things are not as we had imagined, and if we are to change anything, our ideas need to change first (p. 96). Danny Hillis, inventor of pinch-to-zoom, relies heavily on intuition, or gut instinct, as one of the most critical dimensions to creating to matter (p. 98). He demonstrates humility and curiosity: “There’s nothing more important to me than being surrounded by people who are smarter than me,” Hillis says without a sense of irony (p. 103).

When composing our Personal Leadership Philosophy, commitment to feedback and living our values is paramount for continued growth. Richard Garriott created the first massive online role-playing game, Ultima Onlineafter he connected with his audience. Reading his fans’ feedback changed everything (pp. 117-118) – as he discovered that good actually meant nothing to his fans. Winning was all that mattered to them, and that did not align with his values. Garriott created the avataras an expression for our values. He found the essence of morality reduced in his mind to three values, best captured by Kahlil Gilbran (ref): truth, compassion, and courage (p. 122).

Diane Paulus, while working at an Off-Broadway theatre, learned the importance of authenticity. When her agent asked her to curl her hair to avoid the “Vietnamese bar girl” look (p. 141), almost immediately it felt wrong, and inauthentic, and frustrating. She had to find her own way, just as those in leader roles may find themselves alone, guided only by a personal moral compass. In doing so, Paulus had not only gone to a place she had never been before; she had listened and adopted an authentic voice, and as a consequence, Prospero’s Revenge turned into her coveted cultural conversation (p. 143). It’s a great lesson for leaders today. In a fast-changing world, or in a world of frontier experience, creator value lies in listening and watching, in observing new conditions and knowing how to express original observation (p. 146).

The best leaders are often described as obsessive. Neri Oxman, an Israeli professor of architecture and design at the MIT Media Lab, explores the possibilities of natural functions in the design and architecture of objects like clothes, shelter, and furniture (p. 156). In a way, this is a uniquely human expression. The visual cortex accounts for around one-third of the volume of the adult brain (p. 163). Not surprisingly, aesthetic obsession is an instinct that creators have to support the survival of an idea. Until the idea is utterly perfect, they feel unsatisfied (p. 160).

Future Vision | Leadership Nuggets

In Dan Pink’s Drive,  autonomy, mastery and purpose are highlighted as fundamental motivating factors. Edwards, perhaps intuitively, understood this. “Mostly I worked with my students to help them overcome a hesitation to take the very first step of the Creator’s Cycle – to dream with passionate curiosity.” (p. 178)

Many Baby Boomers bemoan traits of younger generations. Maybe that reflects how much creativity may be lost over time. Edwards reflects: In 2014 and 2015, the first wave of students who had grown up in the era of portable electronic media. My new students no longer cared to follow see ideas, and we started brainstorming their own (p. 178).

Think about that from a leader point of view. Especially if we grew up being trained for compliance (management), all of this expression may look chaotic if not defiant. For the first time ever (p. 181), a significant swath of the general public is expressing itself in ways that endure, not just online, but in all the generated forms of what I [Edwards] will call the Grassroots Creator Movement (GCM). 

We discover in the Coaching to Develop People workshop that the best coaches provide any tools and equipment necessary for growth. Edwards likewise observes that engagement is what parents, friends, and lovers do when they give attention, time, and material resources to their children, friends, and partners to help them realize their personal aspirations (p. 208). His term for coach is a bit different, activator. Activators give creators courage to pursue their dreams (p. 218).


Tom Skalak, science and innovation strategist, sums it up best:

“We live at a time of unprecedented intellectual freedom
and discovery. But you can’t discover the future fearing
the harm exploration may bring.” (p. 224)

Note: David Edwards generously provided a copy of his book for review.

JE | August 2018