There’s an old story I want to share. Like most old tales, I’ve heard it told in various forms. True or not, the point is a good one.
There was once a university professor who visited a Japanese Zen master (I’ve also heard this was a Buddhist monk, but you get the point). The professor wanted to learn more about Zen.
After welcoming his visitor, the Zen master asked if he would enjoy some tea.
Knowing he should accept, the professor smiled and thanked the Zen master for his generosity.
The Zen master disappeared and then quickly reappeared with two cups and some steaming tea. The master smiled back as he poured tea into the cup. The professor watched the cup fill, and continued to watch as it overflowed. He put his hand up and exclaimed, “Stop! It’s overflowing. You’re wasting the tea and no more can fit in the cup!”
The Zen master nodded and calmly explained. “You are here to ask questions. Yet you come full. You have your own ideas and have no space. Until you have room for more, you will not accept new information.”
How Full is Your Cup?
It’s a powerful reminder about preconceptions. We all too often have such strongly held opinions that we are not really able to take in all of the new information. That part is obvious.
But today I thought about the story in a different way. What if, instead of ideas, we thought about our relationships? How many of us think, “I have enough friends. I have no room for any more.” We hit a certain age and we are comfortable with the people around us. What do we lose by not making room for new people in our lives?
When the advance copy of Tina Seelig’s inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity came across my desk, I couldn’t wait to read it. Read her book and you will find yourself on the front row of her always-filled class on innovation. It’s a practical guide helping anyone improve his or her creativity. Tina Seelig is the director of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation and the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. In addition, she has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University Medical School.
Dr. Seelig recently answered a few questions for me about her work.
Are we born with a creative gene or are we able to learn it as a skill?
Our brains are built for creative problem solving, and it is easy to both uncover and enhance our natural inventiveness. The human brain evolved over millions of years from a small collection of nerve cells with limited functionality to a fabulously complex organ that is optimized for innovation. Our highly evolved brains are always assessing our ever-changing environment, mixing and matching our responses to fit each situation. Every sentence we craft is unique, each interaction we have is distinctive, and every decision we make is done with our own free will. That we have the ability to come up with an endless set of novel responses to the world around us is a constant reminder that we are naturally inventive.
One Saturday in March we had the oddest weather in Nashville. You’ll know exactly the type of day I am describing because we’ve all seen it. One minute it’s a magnificent sunny day, then an approaching ominous cloud unleashes a downpour of rain. Then, as fast as it comes, it disappears and the sun returns only to repeat the process over and over again.
I usually wish for that perfect, sunny day. Most of us do. We don’t like the bad weather, the dark clouds, lightning and thunder.
“Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.” -Epictetus
It’s like that in life, too. I am always hoping for that perfect weather. We don’t want to be sick. We don’t want to have difficulties at work. We pray for everything to be just perfect.
As I think about my career, my life and my experiences, I can honestly say that I’ve grown more in the difficult times. When a storm is raging in my life, I am forced to a new place. I have to change tactics, learn a new skill, and do something differently.
I’ve always been a believer that leadership principles and examples can be found everywhere. You can see great leadership at work when you watch a parent interacting with a child. (I think many of us honed our negotiation skills that way, too.) I’ve learned great truths from watching a movie. You can learn great principles from unexpected places if you’re looking for them.
In a previous post, I wrote about Zingerman’s, the Ann Arbor based collection of businesses mostly centered around great food. One of the founding partners, Ari Weinzweig has written several books about customer service, business practices, and leadership. You will find leadership principles on display at Zingerman’s. You will also find that Ari discovered some of these principles in the least likely of places.
An Anarchist Turns Capitalist
As a student at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, Ari was influenced by the writings of 20th century anarchists. He quotes now obscure names like Mikhail Bakunin, Rudolf Rocker and Nestor Makhno. (Yes, it is odd that an early anarchist turned into an entrepreneurial capitalist. If you think that’s strange, it’s just part of many ironies involving Ari. He grew up in a kosher household and is now the author of The Guide to Better Bacon. He even runs a Bacon Camp.) Though he obviously abandoned his anarchist roots, he adopted some of the thinking in running a business. He is also careful to explain the difference between anarchy and anarchism. Anarchy is a “state of leaderless bedlam” where anarchism is a philosophy based on individual respect and freedom from unnecessary authority. In any case, it seems that his philosophy led him to a high respect for people, allowing them to pursue their own passions, and giving employees more freedom and choice because they generally will do the right thing.
Don’t use a functional (non-chronological) résumé format. You’re not fooling me with that. Don’t make me work to figure out what you’re hiding. Even if you get far into the hiring process in a non-traditional way, most companies will still want a traditional résumé at some point.
Don’t ignore metrics and quantifiable data. Businesses exist to move the needle. Explain in numbers what you personally did to help your organization improve. Did you save the company a million dollars? Did you improve sales beyond your targets by 23%? Did you renegotiate a major contract increase by 29%? Did you improve customer retention by 5%? The language of business is numbers.
Don’t send résumés to the CEO if you’re applying for positions deep in the organization. Try Human Resources. Try the hiring manager. Maybe try the department leader. Sending it to me doesn’t help. Do you think I read a résumé from someone I don’t know and immediately drop everything to make a phone call on your behalf?