Insanely Great Artists and Innovators

My Epic Quest to answer the question, “What do great artists and innovators share in common?”

More than 40 years ago, on a bright and crisp summer afternoon in Santa Cruz California, I walked into a record shop on the Pacific Mall and asked a shaggy and slightly stoned clerk to recommend a cool and interesting new jazz record—and what would become my first ever jazz record that I would purchase.

After a bit of short-hand conversation about what kind of music I already liked, he moved me to the album, Forest Flower, by the Charles Lloyd Quintet. He broke the cellophane wrapper, took out the album, and played the title track on large multi-speaker stereo hi-fi sound system in the store. Something deep within me stirred. Little did I know that when I took the album home, that  this would foreshadow a forty-year journey of investigation, learning, and intentional practice.

Later that Fall, in my junior year of high school, I saw that the Charles Lloyd Quintet would soon play at the San Jose State University. Instantly I bought a ticket and later went to my first live jazz performance, as it turned out, in university’s basketball court. Yes, I can still smell the stale and musty sweat.

During a spectacular performance, this short reed-thin piano player with a huge afro would occasionally break out into these soaring, foot-thumping riffs—freeform slightly boogie-woogie inflected cascade of bebop, blues, and pure improvisation—that pierced my very being. The hair on the back of my head stood up. Something deep within me burst from my chest. I remember remarking to myself, “Okay you guys, just stop playing. I only want to hear more of that piano!”

When the lights went on and I read the program, I learned the name of the piano player, Keith Jarrett.

A few years later, I read that Keith Jarrett had released an album, the Köln Concert, comprised of what critics called the most stunning live set of piano improvisations ever performed in the history of jazz. Yeah! I had to have it.

As I listened to it in my bedroom, something in me just broke. I wept, sobbing in deep waves of the most exquisite joy. Later, I would muse, “What was that?”

Then, darkly and, now more clearly, I experienced Freedom of a Joy Unbounded.

I had discovered, shockingly in that moment, that I had been locked in a prison cell of sorts and, subsequently, ejected into a larger, more vivid, and unfamiliar realm of an unspeakable, horrific, and crushing beauty unlike I had ever experienced.

As I listened to Keith Jarrett’s improvisations, I not only experienced a joyful freedom. I heard what would become incessant lifelong drumbeat of curiosity, drawing me ever deeper into its realm.

Now 40 years later, as I hunkered down to a small set of concerns—what may become the stuff of my final life’s marathon of creativity and work, I asked myself one question, “What the hell really happened, back then and there?”

I didn’t want to know about what happened to me as an individual. Rather, I wanted, no needed, to know: how does it—that experience of expanded imagination and freedom—happen for me and others as something to learn and perhaps pass on to others to learn? How do great artists evoke that wondrous beauty as an intentional creative act?

40 years later, I had my second rendezvous with destiny: I just had to know. I had to know how Keith Jarrett, other great artists, and visionary, insanely great innovators can reach out through the ethers and touch others in ways that it still reverberates many decades later.

At that moment, when I found myself committed to the finding out how great artists connect with their fans, my professional and personal lives converged. As I had both prayed and feared, a grand unifying purpose land in my lap and, now, refuses to leave.

I have had a rich and varied professional life. I started in 1975 working in Silicon Valley with various sales and marketing roles. I helped my father start car wash. I demonstrated cookware at Macy’s at the Stanford Mall. I sold video surveillance equipment to local retail merchants. I went door-to-door throughout San Jose, selling of cable TV subscriptions. I sold home-improvement materials and furnishings. I sold graphic services and binding supplies to more than 100 high-tech firms in the area. In 1977, I got into the microcomputer industry, meeting Bill Gates when he sold Microsofts product on 8 inch floppy disks and audiocassettes. Then, I broke into the advertising business, managing high-tech accounts at two of Silicon Valley’s most prominent advertising agencies at the time (Regis McKenna and Lutat Battey). My accounts included Apple, Intel, HP, Seagate, and Shugart. I met Steve Jobs, Andy Grove, Scott McNealy, Bill Millard, Dan Fystra, and may more. At the ripe age of 27, I started my own high-tech advertising and public relations agency, working with Ampex, HP, Syquest, and several other hitech firms.

In 1985, I took a position into technology market research, where I helped to develop and market reports on just emerging semiconductor and computer system technologies. There technologies emerge from university and military labs, become commercialized by venture-back startups, and create billions of dollars in wealth.

In the late 1980’s I struck on my own again, starting my own research and consulting firms. In 1986 my partners and I created GISTICS, and lead the way in creating brand-new markets for interactive multimedia and digital asset management. By 2000, this had evolved into innovation think tank and worked with the top consumer and industrial brands around the world. Along the way I wrote a highly acclaimed book on brands (Firebrands), published over 40 white papers on digital media, brands, and customer engagement, and delivered more than 400 keynote addresses, workshops, and webcasts. I’ve traveled to more than 30 countries and met many tens of thousands of people.

In the fullest sense, I have lived up to my motto, “May you live a life worth examining.”

So, back to answering the question, “As an intentional and repeatable creative act, what the hell happened to me?”

In many ways, my experience of hearing the Köln Concert paralleled my initial experience of picking up an iPhone for the first time, slipping a pair of my first Testoni shoes at Wilkes-Bashford, or sipping my first glass of Château d’Yquem at the Campton Place Bar on Union Square in San Francisco.

In each case, I experienced a rapid expansion of my imagination, transporting me beyond the hidden boundaries of myself—my ego, personality, and history—and into a larger almost magical and shimmering realm of Endless Possibility.

However, as a trained and practiced observer of my subjective experience, as a Witness, I found myself connecting with the imagination of the artist or innovator.

In my listening to the Köln Concert, I found in myself touching the imagination of Keith Jarrett and his inspired musical performance. More than just hearing it played on my hi-fi, I witnessed myself doing something.

I connected my imagination with his, co-creating something new and extraordinary. I was more than just a new fan listening to a record; I became something more. Something more akin to a collaborator in a second performance, I experienced myself conducting a symphony of light, eidetic images, feelings, and sensations—all within my imagined world. Yes, in my world as it emerges in total, multisensory moments of Now.

Eureka! I found it: The germ of an insight that might grow into a mighty oak of answer to my question: “What the hell happened to me 40 years ago?” Our imaginations had connected.

This one insight led to my reframing my entire professional career as student of brands and marketing practitioner: I now know there is no difference whatsoever between an inspired musical performance and great marketing. They both ignite the imaginations of the listener and customer, respectively.

Knowing how great artists or innovators connect their imaginations with the imaginations of their fans or customers has become my life’s work:

As a practitioner, how do I structure, focus, and harness my imagination, enabling my fans, customers, or stakeholders to connect, expand, and be forever changed?

As I begin to assemble set of practical answers and how-to’s of connected imaginations, I believe that you and I will discover something deeply magical about ourselves:

Every great invention, business, or performance starts with an inspired and sustaining imagination. There’s only one thing that distinguishes our greatest innovators, entrepreneurs, and artists: they have mastered their imaginations.

As a matter of daily routine, our greatest innovators, entrepreneurs, and artists focus, structure, and harness their imaginations in such a way that fans, customers, and partners instinctively seek them out and co-create something wonderful. Something beyond belief. Something insanely great. Something that makes the world better place. Something that bestows upon us a profound sense of grace.

Will you join me in that journey of self-discovery, boundless imagination, and mastery?


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