It is too easy to play it straight. It’s boring to play and boring to hear.
Recently I saw a band that I hadn’t seen since 1984. That’s right 37 years ago. I was excited to see them again but wondered if they would still have the same wildly creative spirit. To me NRBQ is one of those bands that plays it wrong on purpose: i.e. it is too easy and boring to play it straight, so they push it and stretch it into something more interesting and much more memorable. Well the good news is that after 50 years in existence and the addition of several younger musicians, the band still plays a different set every night. They make up songs on the spot. They switch instruments throughout the show and continually ask the band and the audience what they should play next. Most importantly they still have a lot of fun being creative.
I thought about this show over the next few days and realized that all of our heroes at OTTO are people who “play it wrong on purpose”. Tom Waits who has explored music so deeply that he started to make his own instruments to achieve the unique sound he was looking for. Thelonious Monk the Modernist Jazz composer who would reduce 10 notes down to one. Todd Rundgren who writes, plays, produces and directs everything from rock & roll, to a broadway musical with Joseph Papp. The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, Picasso. Robert Rauschenberg and the great Paul Rand, a designer who would conceive, write, direct and orchestrate huge global brand projects—ABC, IBM, UPS, Next etc—the list goes on.
The idea of being different is not the point here, although it certainly has its benefits. The point is to develop the skills to see these other solutions. Even more important is to create a team of like-minded individuals who have the ability to see beyond the obvious. Those who can not only understand business and strategy but those who can envision truly unique possibilities and have the chops to pull it off.
Because it turns out that life is pretty interesting. Training your mind and focusing your talents on looking at what is and imagining what could be… and then out of those infinite possibilities calling into being the one that best achieves your goals… that’s a life worth living.
This all reminds me of a scene from the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Prisig (required reading in the CMU Design program). It is a moment when our protagonist is explaining to his son that everyone takes the same path to the top of the mountain but, in reality, there are thousands of routes to the top of any mountain, and thousands of mountains.
When you are continuously exploring new paths you naturally develop unique, one-of-a-kind solutions, leaving behind the well-trodden path for the more enriching and memorable experience of creating a path for yourself.