What’s the key to driving oversized results? Everyday innovations. Dr. Patty Ann Tublin welcomes Josh Linkner, who has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, selling a combined value of over $200 million. Everyday innovations require small wins. It’s motivating to get closer to your goal even if you didn’t achieve it yet. As long as you work on it daily, with discipline, rigor, and consistency, you’ll achieve big breakthroughs. Join in the conversation and be inspired to drive oversized results with everyday innovations. Don’t miss this episode!
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How To Win Big Through Small Wins: Everyday Innovations With Josh Linkner
This episode of the show is restoring trust and enriching significant relationships, and do we have a show for you? Before I introduce you to this amazing guest, since you are going to love this episode, make sure you like, comment, share and subscribe to the show. Without any further ado, let me tell you a little bit about our guest Josh Linkner because I want him to be able to share with you all of his brilliance. He doesn’t need my help.
He is a creative troublemaker. I love that name, and as entrepreneurs, we are all a little bit of creative troublemakers and disruptors, and we have somebody that has done this for many years that we can learn from. He is the Founder and CEO of five tech companies that have sold for a combined value of $200 million. We have so much to learn from you. He is the Founder and the Chairman of Platypus Labs, which he will tell us about later. He has written four best-selling books, two of which are New York Times Best Sellers. He will also share a little bit more about his newest book, Big Little Breakthroughs, but before we get into that, welcome, Josh. Buckle up, folks, because Josh is going to take us for a ride.
Thank you so much. What a pleasure to be with you.
Tell us a little bit about your journey. Start from the beginning. Wherever you want to go.
Thanks, and again, it’s a pleasure to be with you. I’m from Detroit. I’m a hardcore Detroiter. I was born in the city, not in the suburbs, as were my parents and grandparents. I came from somewhat modest beginnings. I first started my career as a jazz guitarist. I still play regularly many years later. I put myself through college playing music but I also love technology. I love creating things.
Did you go to the University of Michigan? Are you an alum of Michigan?
I did not. I first went to the Berkeley School of Music in Boston, and then I ended up here in Florida. I’m in Florida now, we were chatting about it earlier, even though I live in Detroit. I went to the University of Florida. I ended up graduating from Florida with a degree in Advertising, minor in Music and Finance. At age twenty, I had this idea like, “What if I started a tech company?” I had never taken a Business class but we, jazz musicians like improvising, so I was like, “I will try to figure this out,” and I did. I started a company and made a ton of mistakes, by the way. I’ve got a little momentum, took a year off of school, built it up, sold it, and then I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.
You are in school, a college student, a young kid, and had this idea to create a tech company. What was the environment at the time, and what type of tech company did you start?
You are probably familiar with Dell. It was like what Dell was doing but on a much smaller scale. I was a computer nerd along with being a musician, so I would mail-order individual components to my college apartment, assemble them, and then sell them as a finished computer at the time. It sounds silly but this was 1990. You couldn’t go and buy a discount computer online. It wasn’t easy to find a discount computer, so I bought mail-ordered components, assembled them, and sold them for a profit.
Eventually, we built a little retail store and started selling computers and networking services to companies. This was a small-time. It wasn’t a big organization but I learned a lot. I started figuring out, “What does it mean to serve a customer, and what does it mean to figure out a way to earn a margin.” It was more of a learning ground than anything else, even though I made a little bit of money.
Don’t just make money. Make a difference.
As you were starting to say, you were bit by the entrepreneurial bug.
I was, so over the next couple of years, I started, built, and sold five tech companies. It’s very much like playing jazz, honestly. Jazz is this messy art form. You don’t exactly know where it’s going to end even when you start. You are course-correcting and making a lot of mistakes, and that’s what entrepreneurship is about but just using different instruments and notes. I built five companies and then went on to start a venture capital fund, as mentioned about Detroit. I bring it up again, but my partners and I cared about our city. It was a long history of making things.
I was teasing you before. It is awesome when somebody has pride as to where they are from and where they live.
We wanted to not just make money but make a difference, so we started a fund in Downtown Detroit, Michigan, investing in tech entrepreneurs.
What year was that? What timeframe?
It was 2010.
Detroit was still in hard times.
We were going through the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country’s history. When we started that fund, in the entire 140 square miles of Detroit, there was not a single tech startup. We’ve got this fund off the ground called Detroit Venture Partners, where we started investing and providing coaching and mentorship. Within a couple of years, there were 70 tech companies not just within 140 square miles but within 1 block of our building.
What happened was we started making investments, and it created momentum. Other people started making investments too. Now, it’s no Silicon Valley, of course, but there’s a burgeoning tech scene in Downtown Detroit, and even though I played a very small role in it, I’m very proud of that work.
You planted the seed, which is awesome. Help us understand, especially because you and I are so into relationships. How were you able to identify whom you wanted to invest in? I’m sure many people were knocking on your door, maybe not initially, but then once you’ve got some momentum. What were the differentiators for you between who you would invest in your capital, time, and passion and who you wouldn’t?
I’m glad you asked that. In Silicon Valley and venture circles, there’s this debate. They say, “Is it the horse or the jockey.” Meaning, is it the person on the team or is it the business? I did a social experiment. It wasn’t as intentional as it sounds but almost at the exact same time, I invested in two simultaneous companies. Ironically, it was $600,000 in each company. One of them had an A-team and a C idea. The other one had an A-idea and a C team.
Like clockwork, here’s what happened. The C team managed to screw up the A idea. I lost every penny. Meanwhile, the A team managed to take their C idea and make it an A idea, and it became a wild breakaway success. It really is to your point about the people but it’s not what you would think. When we think of entrepreneurs, we think of the who’s the prototypical entrepreneur like Steve Jobs. Someone larger than life, charismatic, mercurial, and domineering. These are not the most common skills, perhaps, but certainly not kind and such.
What we learned is the opposite. The opposite is true. Steve Jobs was successful despite those things, and not because of them. What we learned is that the best entrepreneurs are humble, open-minded, coachable, and generous. They care about sharing the success and spotlight rather than taking every ounce for themselves. They are not selfish. They are results-oriented and certainly visionary but they don’t have to be the center of attention.
When we started finding entrepreneurs like that, that was the formula that worked much better. I will bounce around a little bit. I sold that venture fund to my partner in 2014. I started a new fund with a similar structure but I want to show the name because it’s cool. It’s called Mudita Venture Fund. Mudita is a Sanskrit term, which means taking joy in the success of others.
There’s a German word called Schadenfreude, which means taking joy in other people’s misery. This is the opposite. The idea behind it is this warm spirit of generosity and compassion. We are not wimps. We are still going to drive great economic returns but I don’t think you have to cut people down to do so. The idea behind this fund is it’s still doing high-quality intense work but being more positive and uplifting rather than putting your foot on someone’s throat and squeezing out every drop of energy.
I love this, and you are preaching to the choir, at least with me because first of all, you are talking about coming from a place of abundance as opposed to a place of scarcity. In my work consulting and coaching small businesses and business owners, there are two things that when I go into a company. It’s because they are not growing or whatever it is, I always focus on the relationships and the people first. Inevitably, there’s something toxic going on. It usually starts from the top. There’s gossiping going on. It’s like when you are a kid. She got a bigger piece of the pie while he got this thing. That impacts the ability to effectively run a company because everybody cares about themselves and not the greater good.
When you change that culture, you create a winning team, and sometimes, you have to get people, as Jim Collins would say, “Off the bus and get the right people on the bus.” The other thing that I had noticed is that I’m wondering if you can speak to this. I do a lot of work with relationships and relationships with business partners because my experience has been if you have a business model, and a product and service that there’s a market for, and you have two people running a business, starting a business, and the business model works.
The reason why the company fails is that the two business partners kill each other or they don’t get along, and it’s also like my work with intimate couples. Like business partners, they are going to do it better than anybody else. There’s a honeymoon. They are setting the world on fire until they are not. Do you have experience with the business partner aspect of helping a company grow and being able to identify business partnerships that will work and ones that don’t?
You are speaking my language on that, and I couldn’t agree more. I have always been more centered around positivity. I could count my business enemies on the one hand and have fingers to spare after several years. I get along with people, and part of that is being candid but at the same time, being respectful, and if there’s an issue, wrestle the issue to the ground as opposed to wrestling the person to the ground but I had a partner that was very toxic. He was wildly successful. I learned from him tremendously. He was one of my best mentors but I couldn’t work with him after a while because it was fear-based, angry outbursts, and toxicity. That may be worked when you were running a factory. I still don’t think it did, but now in the knowledge economy, absolutely not.
I studied Human Creativity. That’s my vocation these days. I speak all over the world, write books and such. The one thing I know for sure is that fear and creativity cannot coexist. If you have a fear-based culture, you are instantly dampening with creative output. You speak a lot about trust. I couldn’t agree more, and trust has to exist or you can’t have candor. You were talking about your husband earlier, if he had spinach in his teeth, you would probably tell him because you love him and care about him. He would be mad at you if you didn’t tell him but if there was no trust and he didn’t know you were coming from a good place, that’s a problem, so candor and good feedback exist when there’s a basis of trust.
Take joy in the success of others.
To tell this funny story about what you said about spinach in your husband’s teeth, I was consulting for a small company back when we worked in an office. One of the women came out of the bathroom with toilet paper sticking out of the back of her pants. Nobody told her all day long. She went home, and her spouse said to her, “You are walking around with toilet paper sticking out of your butt,” but he didn’t say it that way. That signified the issue with that business and those people there because there was not any trust. There was no culture that encouraged trust. It was almost gossipy behind her back, and now, she was the person that everybody would make fun of. It’s a funny story but there’s nothing funny about how it symbolizes the culture of that business.
What you said earlier is 1,000% percent true. Fear and creativity cannot coexist because if you think about innovation, the only way a company can innovate is if they create a culture where you are allowed to fail. You fail fast, you fail forward, all that good stuff, and you learn but you cannot fail if you are afraid to fail. I would love to talk about Kodak. Anybody under 35 reading this probably doesn’t even know what Kodak is. Kodak created digital photography but the exec said, “Let’s not do that.”
There was a whole complacency that came in, so they didn’t want to innovate. Where are they now? Who knows? You are 1,000% true, and even though you said toxic cultures and toxic leaders can be successful, and I can’t quantify this, so I could be right or wrong but I believe very strongly that even if a toxic leader or a toxic culture is successful, we have no idea how much more successful they would be if that toxicity didn’t permeate the company.
Not only that, if you are pushing people down instead of helping them rise up, then the downstream activity of all those people’s success could be exponential. I often thought about this. You were saying, how do you measure work trust in a company? You studied trust. I love your opinion on this. The truth has to come out at some point, and the closer to the event that truth happens is an indicator of trust. Here’s what I mean by that. Think about an earthquake. There’s the center or ground zero, and then it radiates outward. Let’s say there’s an issue, and we are colleagues in a business. You say something, and I tell you directly, not in a confrontational way and say, “Here’s the issue I’m having with. Let’s deal with this together.”
That’s a high-trust organization because the truth is coming out at the spot of impact. Let’s say that there wasn’t trust between us, so then I went down the hall and talked to my colleague about you. Now, it’s one that they will remove or maybe I talk to you at the water cooler. If not, then one that they will remove me from that. Maybe I come home to my spouse and say, “The people at my company don’t get it. They are idiots.” I can’t share it nearer. It’s getting further away, and then after a while, maybe I don’t trust my spouse, then I have to share with my therapist. If I don’t trust my therapist, I’ve got to share with my rabbi. It keeps going out and out. The point is the closer to where the issue is, where you can discuss it openly and honestly is a better indication of trust than if it’s further away.
We could talk about this all day long. I love this. That’s 1,000% correct. It really dovetails on the topic of emotional intelligence and being aware of how you feel about something. Here’s what happens. Think about this, and this is true in our personal, intimate relationships and our business relationships. You are at a party, and you see somebody do a faux pas. Let’s say it’s the homeowner’s favorite chair, and you see somebody sitting in their favorite chair. It’s like, “Who’s going to tell them?” We are like, “Not my problem,” because you feel like it’s not your place to tell them but what that also means is that you don’t have enough of a close relationship with that person to let them know that they made the booboo.
This is just a silly little example but you can scale this up to major events. Years ago, and we are both mature enough to remember this. Remember when Coke had the rollout of the new Coke? It was an abysmal disaster, Why? It’s because the customers didn’t want it. Coke was at the top of the world at the time. Who was running their focus groups? I don’t know what happened there but clearly, somebody high up in the company had an emotionally vested interest in this new product, and then most people, and I don’t have the inside track on this but I’m on the outside looking in, would not speak truth to power. In a company, you need to be able to speak truth to power, and the only way you can do this is if you develop trust.
I love to tell the CEOs and the owners of companies that I work with like, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” There is a way to give news somebody doesn’t want to hear, and you also build it up. Here’s a little strategy. You can say, “You are not going to like this.” You set it up as if you are going to tell them that their best person in the world left them or something so that whatever you then do tell them in truth that is hard to hear can be heard. Here’s the issue. It’s not just the person that needs to share the truth that is an embodiment of the trust but the receiver has to be willing to hear it.
If you are constantly telling somebody a truth that’s a difficult truth to hear and they don’t do anything with it, eventually, you will stop sharing that with them because you are talking to the proverbial wall. I feel like I went a little bit off on a tangent with that but you are right. You need to tell the truth. However, there is a way to deliver the message. I’m a New Yorker. I do things fast. I wanted it done yesterday. My reputation is no BS. I’m direct but I don’t have to break your heart to tell you something that’s difficult to hear.
Social media has amplified negativity, and that doesn’t work at all but if there isn’t trust within a relationship and if there isn’t trust between business partners or between a CEO and a COO, that gets filtered down to the organization. Here’s the other piece of what you said. Emotions that are repressed get amplified.
You see somebody make a mistake at work, and you don’t say anything. Over time, that mistrust gets amplified or if something happens and you don’t deal with the feeling. You have a bad day at work. You don’t say anything. This person sent you an email. It was scathing and inappropriate. Whatever it is. You don’t say anything. Then, you go home, and you kick the dog. It’s that classic straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s usually rooted in emotions not being addressed, and I can’t think of an emotion that’s more central to any healthy relationship than trust.
There are different ways to bring things out like that and make people feel comfortable. One is exactly what you said. It’s a productive and thoughtful conversation. The other thing I always study in companies is rituals and rewards, so are there ways that you can institutionalize things such that it drives the behavior you want?
As somebody who studies Creativity and Innovation, and by the way, someone who believes deeply in their soul that all humans are creative and that we can express it in different ways. It doesn’t mean we have to be a musician, a dancer or a physical painter but we can all be creative in our own ways, and that leaders need to bring that creativity to the surface such that everybody is an innovator if they want to be successful over time.
Do you see creativity as the prerequisite for innovation?
I do. To me, there are lots of different definitions. I define creativity as any new or novel idea that doesn’t exist in the world. If I went outside and painted your car purple, presumably, it’s not purple. That’s creative. It’s not useful. You would probably be mad at me. Innovation is creativity that has utility value. If I came up with an invention where you can push a button on your car every morning and choose the color you want your car to be, that would be innovation because there’s some usefulness to it. Someone would want that as opposed to random creativity.
Back to rituals and rewards, I have a couple of examples from some of my research. There’s a company that I have loved. This guy is in London, and I interviewed him for my book called Big Little Breakthroughs. He does something fun every Friday. He has a full company ritual called F Up Fridays. He says the whole word. I’m just going to be polite. In F Up Fridays, they have a full company brown bag lunch, and one by one, each person has to stand up and proudly share what they screwed up that week and what they learned from it.
They can do this virtually in nowadays world, right?
That’s right. You stand up, say, what did you screw up and what did you learn from it. Inevitably, they get to someone that didn’t have something up that week, and the response from everyone is like, “Why not? What are you going to try next week?” Think for a minute what the message that the simple zero cost ritual sends is that we, as a leadership team, support you in failure as much as success. That innovation is everybody’s job. That we count on you to take responsible risks and understand that every bet is not going to pay off. That we know, you are an innovator, and that’s one of the things that we like about you. Instead of repressing people’s creativity, in this case, that simple ritual celebrates. It gives people the comfort to take a responsible risk and try something that’s unknown.
What you do is you have created a ritual that allows people to fail.
There’s another company that I work with. Every year, they issue two corporate get-out-of-jail free cards to every employee, and here’s what they say, “Go out on a limb. Be creative. You are an innovator. It’s part of your job, and when you screw something up, hand us a card. You are off the hook. No questions asked.”
Give generously and don’t keep score.
On the annual reviews, a leader will be disappointed with a team member if they didn’t use both of them, and I know many readers might be thinking like, “That’s crazy. That’s so risky,” but I would challenge that respectfully. What’s the risk of not doing something like that? Is it irrelevance, mediocrity, getting passed by or becoming the next Kodak? I feel like so many people operate trying to play it safe only to discover that that is the riskiest move of all.
If you are not doing anything different in the world nowadays, you are falling behind. If you are staying in place, you are falling behind. Share with us two rituals that you use that you have created for promoting positive rewards. You gave us the failure, the F Up Fridays. What are the ones where it’s positive, and people want to earn the $5 Starbucks? As someone that knows human behavior, human psychology, and human motivation, it is amazing what we will put ourselves out on a limb for to earn something we don’t need. Go ahead.
My insight on that is that the thing that people are craving isn’t the $5 gift card. It’s the recognition, the sense of winning, and contribution. You can do that even without the trinkets. I am involved in many businesses. I invest in stuff. I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff going on but I share the same operating principles that I believe are the right ones. At least for me, not for everybody. I don’t mean to espouse my rituals in others.
We want what works for you because you have a blueprint for success, and I know everybody reading can get something out of everything you are saying.
I will share some of them. What we do is, first of all, I hire them. I have engineered interview questions for these. I will ask people, “Can you tell me about an example of you doing this?” Think about it. Most interviews are two people lying at each other for an hour. If you ask, “What’s your biggest flaw?” They will say, “I work too hard.”
Do you have these interview questions in any of the books that you have written? You can give yourself a shout-out, so people can check it out.
I have a lot of this covered in my book, Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results. Not only do we list these. They are not just platitudes that we stick on the wall. We live them. Every day in an email, someone puts a hashtag and calls out an example. When we start a team meeting, we say, “We have examples of one of these rituals or principles in action.”
When I interview someone or sit down with somebody, I ask them to give themselves a score on each of these principles, and then I would give them a score on their principles, and then we talk about it and say, “Where could you learn to grow?” I will read a couple to you really quickly but the point is we set a standard set of operating principles by which we make decisions and behave, and if they are highly visible so that we are constantly reinforcing them, and that’s where a lot of the recognition comes in.
I will tell you a couple of them. One of them is Don’t Wait, which is this notion of don’t wait for a directive, permission or the perfect game plan. Take an initiative, leap in, and we will figure it out as we go along. Another one is Compressed Time. That’s where we look if there are ways we can reduce cycle time or if we can do something in 2 days instead of 4 days. We are always looking for areas to compress time. One of them is called Abandon No A-hole rule, which is what we were talking about earlier. We like humility, love, peace and compassion. That’s how we operate. We can be intense. We can drive outcomes. We are not going to be wimps about it but we can do so in a respective tone.
We are crazy intense results focus. We are not hugging trees and wearing tie-dyes but we do so with care and respect for each other. Another one is Give Generously. Don’t Keep Score. It’s a personal principle of mine. Back to the point of being abundance versus scarcity, let’s give as much as we can to others, and it will come back to us in some way. One other quick one is Using Every Drop of Toothpaste, which is the notion of being scrappy and resourceful instead of throwing money on resource center problems.
The way these show up is, we would have a meeting and say, “I want to call out Connor because Connor did an amazing thing last week. Here’s what he did. He could press time. He used every drop of toothpaste, and he did so by giving generously, so let’s celebrate Connor for living our principles.” We keep them front and center, and that drives performance. It also drives agency and autonomy because people aren’t told what to do. They are saying, “You make the decisions. We hired you because we trust you. Here are the guiding principles. Make your decisions against these guiding principles. I don’t need to micromanage you.”
That is great. I have a difficult question for you. They are all leaders that tell their team, “Be innovative. Take the initiative,” and then they are over their shoulder every step of the way. What do you do with that?
Back to your point on trust, what that’s showing is that the leader doesn’t trust the person, so if I were coaching that leader, I would say, “Make sure you have people on your team that you respect and trust.” Maybe you are not the right person on the team but the way you earn trust is by extending trust. What I would do if I were that leader is instead of micromanaging the person, I will say, “Here’s the objective. Do you understand the objective? Here’s the deadline. Do you understand the deadline? Are there any resources you need? Is there anything that would inhibit you from getting there? Do you want my help? No? Cool.”
“I trust you, I believe in you, and I know you are going to deliver the results that we need together. Please do me a favor. If at any step of the way you have an issue and see yourself veering off the path, let me know. Let’s check together halfway through the project and make sure everything is comfortable,” but other than that, I know you’ve got this. I’m going to let you roll.”
What you did very succinctly, which is beautiful, is you gave a mini-lesson on how to effectively delegate, which most people do not know how to do. The part that most people leave out is you give somebody a project for three months or a year. You give them the project, and then you don’t hear from them until the end but you said along the way, “Let’s have check-ins. What information, resources, education, tools, and skills do you need to be successful in this?” A lot of leaders do not know how to effectively delegate. They do what I call a dump delegation. They are like, “Here’s a project. Figure it out. See you in X amount of time.” As we know, the most important relationship a leader or a person has with anybody is with whom? I will let you off the hook with themselves.
The leader, maybe the issue isn’t so much they don’t trust the person that they are giving the task to as much as that’s a byproduct of they don’t trust themselves and/or we call them control freaks. That’s where my experience has been. You have to have the difficult and yet compassionate conversation with them. What do you do with that?
I want to rewind for one second. One of the critical things that I did in my little mini example is I didn’t delegate tasks. I delegated an outcome. I think too often, people are like, “Go to this room. Fill out this form. Do this particular task,” and then you are like, “I’m just a taskmaster.” Part of the reason you probably are not trusting that they are going to succeed is they don’t have the big picture. All you are doing is giving them tasks, and they would execute mindlessly as opposed to saying like, “I believe in you to drive the outcome.” You can use it any way you want to. Use your creativity. I’m here to help you. I’ve got your back. I’m going to support you. You are not on your own but I want you to use your judgment and creativity to figure it out as opposed to doing task A followed by task B and so on. I just wanted to point that out.
That’s a great differentiator.
The control freak, again, gets back to them not having confidence that they are good at delivering instructions or that the person is good at getting the job done. I’m not a sports guy. I’m an art and music guy but we all know who LeBron James is. You wouldn’t say, “I want you to dribble the ball four times. Take three steps to the left,” but you would be like, “Go score some points,” and you trust that he will do that because he’s an awesome expert at his craft. If you feel the need to tell someone where to put every foot and dribble, that means that you don’t believe you don’t have confidence in their ability to execute, and that gets into a different issue altogether.
We are in a culture where workaholism is being reigned supreme as opposed to doing more with less, and you are right. That’s a great example. I have to say because I didn’t touch on yet being a professional level musician, I coach a couple of other professional musicians, and I am amazed. I know that a little bit about the neuroscience between the brain and the neural pathways that are created with music, math and innovation. I find it so interesting that music seems to apply the ability to be a competent musician, and not even at your level. Competent applies to so many successful business practices, particularly entrepreneurial business practices. Can you talk a little bit about that?
There are a number of elements to it. Even in addition to the brain chemistry, it’s delayed gratification. You are working to develop mastery at something that you have to put discipline and rigor in overtime. It requires consistency, so a lot of those are the attributes that make someone a good musician and also make them successful in the business world. Furthermore, you have to use judgment and intuition.
At times, you are going to take musical risks. You have to learn how to course-correct because nobody plays the first G chord on a guitar perfectly. It sounds like a train wreck but you experience what it’s like to do something not well and then work to refine it to the point where you get better at it. You are able to separate yourself from the errors. It’s not that you are bad. It’s that you made a bad musical choice or your fingering was off. There are a lot of attributes that are powerful, and probably, you could learn from any discipline. We have seen people that are great Olympic athletes that make good business people for some of the same reasons that are rigor, discipline, sacrifice, longer-term focus, results and orientation.
Mastery requires discipline, rigor, and consistency.
You are right. Neurochemistry is fascinating. We know about neuroplasticity, which is that the brain isn’t fixed as we once thought that you can. Your brain chemistry physically changes as you learn different things, and there are all kinds of research to support it. I coined a little phrase in my new book, which I call inno-plasticity, which is that too often, we think that people are creative. They are not like 1 out of 1,000 of us are born special, and the rest of us have to suffer. The truth is like neuroplasticity, our creativity is malleable. We can learn to be more innovative and creative.
Creativity, I always like to say, is more like your weight than your height. I’m 5’5” on a good day, and I try as I may but I’m not going to be 6’3”, but I can control my weight based on my behavior and activity. Creativity is the same. We can build our creativity muscles. We can get lean and fit creatively if we do a little bit of practice against it, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s not some like Members Only club that’s no longer accepting applications or Only for Billionaires wearing hoodies. We can all be creative in our own ways, and in turn, that will drive the results that we seek.
I love that analogy of your height and your weight, and what you touched on was the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset. There are so many things that are wrong with nowadays educational system within the States. I could go on and on but we are going to stay positive here, and coming from someone that believes in education, there are many different ways to get educated. I love the differentiator between failing at something and being a failure. That’s the mistake that a lot of parents make when they are raising their children, and a lot of so-called leaders make. A project failed or an initiative failed but you didn’t fail. Sometimes, you win, and sometimes, you learn.
Failure is a great opportunity but our society doesn’t talk about it that way. Maybe the entrepreneurial world does. Without these, it’s the big F or the four-letter word. You fail in a lot of ways, and then you are screwed, as you referenced earlier. It’s a great segue what you were saying about music and persistence. Nobody expects to sit down at the piano and play Beethoven. There’s practice.
Let’s go to your book now if you are up for it. Talk about the Big Little Breakthroughs. Are you familiar with BJ Fogg’s work, Tiny Habits? I find myself giving a shout-out to his work all the time now. I guess it has become ingrained in society. I should let him know this. It’s the tiny little things that we do consistently that make a difference.
I know you are not the sports guy I am because I can’t hold a musical note. I’m sure there’s more in there if I tried but think of the weekend warrior. The gal on the weekend runs 10 miles on Saturday and Sunday, then she doesn’t do anything for five days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s like practicing piano. You practice it. It’s the consistency. Talk about the Big Little Breakthroughs for the audience because I know you have pearls of wisdom here.
This was a real labor of love. This is my fourth book on the topic that I care so much about, which is helping people build and develop creative capacity. With this one, I spent over 1,000 hours in research. In interviews, I did personal interviews with CEOs, billionaires, celebrities, entrepreneurs, Grammy award-winning musicians, and lots of everyday people that you have never heard of. I was trying to demystify creativity, like what are the daily habits, tactics, and mindsets of the most innovative people in the world?
The whole premise of the book is to flip what we think of innovation upside down. We normally think of it as these wild swings for the fences, highly risky moonshots, but to me, most people can’t do that. You can’t bet your family and your mortgage on some crazy idea. This is a more pragmatic approach. It’s what can you do on a specific step-by-step day in and day out basis. It’s creativity for the rest of us. I feel like I’m on a mission to help everyday people become every day innovators. That’s what the book is all about. The quick answer is it’s not those giant innovations. It’s baby ones. I call them micro innovations.
If we can cultivate high velocity or a high volume of little baby innovations on a daily basis, it’s a way smarter way to be innovative. Think about it. They are way more accessible. You don’t have to have a huge bank account to do that. They are less risky by a long shot. You are building critical skills at the same time. The small wins add up to big wins, and they apply to your business and personal life. People email these all the time. I’ve got one last time that said, “Do you know how to cool off a glass of white wine?” I thought, “You can put an ice cube in it. It dilutes the flavor.” He said, “Throw a frozen grape or two in there.” It’s brilliant. That doesn’t make the cover of a magazine but that’s cool and life is better. If you have hundreds of thousands of those happening all the time, you start to enjoy meaningful progress. Again, they don’t require billions of dollars of capital, fancy degrees or any of that stuff.
What’s the incentive for people if somebody says, “I’m not creative at all.” How do you incentivize people to want to embrace their creativity even if they are not aware of it?
First, I would challenge that. It’s sad because maybe in third grade, your art teacher told you, you weren’t creative. What a horrible thing, and we can live with that for decades. I interviewed some of those crazy, amazing, and brilliant entrepreneurs. I said, “When did you identify that you are creative?” They are like, “I’m not creative.” I’m like, “You are building a $5 billion company. What do you mean you are not creative?” The first thing I would say with passion is that we are all creative. If you are breathing, you are creative, and we can be so different. I play jazz guitar well but I can’t draw a stick figure if I tried. Does that mean I’m not creative? Of course not.
I would suggest, and you can correct me, if you were surviving, you have to be creative because even if you are crossing the street and a car is coming at you, and you’ve got to figure out, “If I go here, I’m going to hit that,” there’s an element of creativity in that.
People use creativity every day. Some people don’t know it but you are right. In your daily life, you are creative. Anyway, the incentive is this. We all are trying to do, presumably, some goal or objective. We want to improve our lives, businesses, families or whatever the things that we create. We all desire different outcomes. Maybe you want to lose weight. Maybe you want to make more money. Maybe you want to get a promotion. Maybe you want to land the girl or the guy of your dreams.
As human beings, we crave stuff. We want more outcomes, and simply, what I would say is that this is the most underutilized asset at your disposal. Many of the assets in business have already become commoditized, outsourced, and automated. It’s very difficult to find a competitive advantage. Yet, the advantage we seek isn’t some outside thing. It’s right here. We have that already. By cultivating this dormant creative capacity that we have, we can use that not just for the fun of it or draw over the walls but use it for productivity gains.
Maybe, it’s to help take a bite out of social injustice. Maybe it’s to help our environment, to help a sick kid or it’s to elevate our community. If there are things that we can envision that we want different in the world, the most effective path to achieve those is by tapping into this incredible superpower that we all have but most of us don’t always use.
What’s a way that somebody can use their creativity in their personal relationships and then in their business? I find the skillsets that I use are not all that different. It’s just a different platform.
One of the hallmarks of creativity is experimentation, and it’s often overlooked, so most people think the way it works is to have some idea and then deploy that idea globally and hope it works but the truth is there’s a middle step, which is experimentation. Think about the COVID vaccine. It wasn’t like some dude at Pfizer, and the corner office was like, “I’ve got an idea. Go make a billion doses.” They went to a laboratory that experimented, and they brought it to market. The same is true with creativity, and back to relationships, I would say experimentation.
I’m hopelessly in love with my wife, Tia. I was out to dinner with her, and I care about my relationship with her. It’s great but I want to make it even better because I adore her. Instead of doing the same old, what if I said, “I have an idea. What if every Thursday morning we did a little gratitude ritual?” Let’s say that doesn’t work so well, then fine. Get rid of it. Try something else. You can be like, “How about next weekend? I will do everything. I will do the laundry, and we will pretend that you are the queen of Sheba, and I get to wait on your hand and foot. The weekend after, you will do the same for me. Isn’t that fun?” A lot of it isn’t taking these concrete moves.
It’s through lots of little experiments, and that’s the good news. The best way to de-risk creativity and the risk associated with it is to bring them down into little teeny baby experiments. I like to think that as a leader, we should all be running experiments all the time, and we can do that in our personal and professional lives. Let’s run the experiment and try five things in a relationship. Let’s say four doesn’t work out but one does. How awesome is that? You’ve got one that does. That’s what I would recommend, and that applies to both business and personal.
What you are talking about is it avoids the boredom of the day in and the day out of any relationship. It’s the boredom of going to work and doing the same thing. It creates excitement, and it sparks that internal fire because all motivation to be sustainable comes from internal. That’s what you were saying earlier about people. You want it to come from within because otherwise, it’s that classic joke. The beatings will continue until morale improves.
Small wins add up to big wins.
For those that want to apply creativity, the first step is to want something that you want different in your life. Is it more money, less this, and more that? Identify one thing and not 100 things, and then instead of trying to solve that with a silver bullet, one perfect idea to say to yourself is, “Are there ten little ideas that maybe don’t spill it all together but might improve them a little bit?” You start experimenting, and those little things start to add up. One of the most motivating things, honestly, is progress. Let’s say you have some goals and you didn’t achieve the goal yet but you are seeing like, “I’m getting there. I’m getting closer to it.” That is deeply, intrinsically motivating far beyond some external reward.
You are feeling good about yourself because you are achieving something that you know is real. It’s progress and not perfection. The world is on fire. don’t touch politics with a 10-foot pole but how do you feel these concepts if they would be embraced by nowadays leaders throughout the world or leaders in industries across the board. If there’s somebody reading and you could give them a concrete takeaway that they can implement because change comes one person at a time, what would you offer?
That’s a very big, deep question, and I agree that politics are a mess now. If in your refrigerator now you’ve got some milk in there, there’s an expiration date on your milk. Milk expires. That laws should expire. Policies, systems, companies, and such should have an expiration date. There should be an expiration date on almost everything, and here’s why. It forces you to re-examine the situation. Let’s say it’s a law like don’t murder people. There’s an expiration date. You look at the law, and you are like, “We should renew that. That’s a good law. Let’s not murder people.”
There may be some policies, for example, that made a lot of sense in the 1920s that now does not but because it’s the entrenched status quo and it’s hard to dislodge and create change, things sit there dysfunctional, and that happens all the time in business. How many times have you heard someone say, “That’s the way we do things around here. That’s the way we have always done it. This has been working great since 1982.”
You should have things that expire. If it expires, it forces you to confront the system and say, “Even if it’s still working okay, is there a better way? Is that optimized? Have external conditions changed such that we maybe should revisit this?” If it’s perfect and great. Don’t change it for the sake of it but if it requires a retooling or if there’s a way to upgrade it, that would force our policymakers, again, to sit in with businesspeople and even family rituals to examine it once again as opposed to relying on it as if it were written in stone.
The kiss of innovation is the way we have always done it. I keep thinking about Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. From a business perspective, anybody that’s doing business now the way they were doing it years ago, quite frankly, is out of business. There’s no way that could exist. That’s a great idea but there are reasons why people don’t do it like laziness and all that kind of stuff, and also, those people that have a vested interest. It has worked for me. That’s all they are worried about. You have the whole concept of the culture and all of that. I have two questions for you. The first question is what’s a major misconception people have about you that you would prefer not to change?
People probably think I’m smarter than I am. I’m reasonably intelligent. A lot of time, when you see someone performing at a high level, and it looks natural to them, you think that they are naturally talented and gifted but behind anybody doing something at a high level, whether it’s sports, Broadway, music or whatever else, it’s huge amounts of reps, work and discipline. I can get on stage and give a keynote and people are like, “You are this great speaker,” and then they think it’s some natural talent. That’s the result of a lot of practice. I don’t mind that people feel that I’m talented but probably, people overestimate my talent and underestimate the work behind it.
That’s right. Anybody that’s good at something makes it look easy but we are delusional if we think that because they make it look easy, it comes easy to them. There’s a graveyard filled of people with natural talent that didn’t put in the work. What were you going to say?
I was going to say what Lady Gaga did, and I wrote about her a bit in the book. She gets out there and rips it up. It’s so fantastic. She didn’t even remember what she was going to say. She just came up and showed up that way. This was way after she was a megastar. There was a single award show that she was going to perform one song on. She worked with a vocal coach every single day 7 days a week for 6 months leading up to that one performance for that one three-minute song, so when she comes out, she looks natural like she thought of it that moment but it’s the result of all the hard work that you don’t see behind the surface. That’s something that I always like to celebrate. It’s the work that you don’t see that makes it look so simple.
Nothing comes easy. It reminds me of that famous philosopher-poet, Mick Jagger, that said those adlib lines were well-rehearsed. I’m pretty sure that was him. My husband is a big fan of the Rolling Stones.
Let’s go back to rituals. The famous band Aerosmith thinks of themselves as a business. They have a meeting, and it is every other Monday. I’m not kidding. The name of the meeting is Dare to Suck. They have meetings about other stuff but for this meeting, they bring their most crazy ideas to dare to suck. Steven Tyler said that most of the time, they suck. They are terrible ideas but every now and then, that’s where you get Love in an Elevator with the dude that looks like a lady. Some of the most prolific work came because they dared to suck.
Usually, in a group setting, if there are four people, every suggestion or thought might suck but there’s some dynamic that you take a piece of each four, and then there you have the brilliance, and that’s the whole power of the team. Here’s my almost professional-level jazz entrepreneurial successful rock star question. If you could be any musician in history, who would you want to be and why?
I admire people that break the mold. It maybe would be John Coltrane or Charlie Parker who took a pretty regimented set of rules and purposely disregarded them.
Who are those two people to the musically ignorant?
We will start with John Coltrane. John Coltrane was a tenor saxophone player in the golden era of jazz. He played with Miles Davis and all these other people. He wrote a song, which is coincidentally the ringtone on my phone, and the song is called Giant Steps. There are certain rules in chord structure or harmony in the song. If you break a rule too far, it becomes less broken. It’s like a circle, so if you go past 180, that gets a little closer back to where it started.
He took the actual rules of jazz and physically broke every rule as far as you could break it. It became his most famous song. It’s one of the top-most known jazz songs in all of history, and I love it for that very reason because he broke the rules and achieved greatness. Back to being a creative troublemaker, I’m a big fan of that.
I don’t think anybody has achieved greatness by following the rules. Who is the other guy?
Charlie Parker was in that same genre, and he was also a notorious rule-breaker. I loved the fact that he continued to push the boundaries even when people told him it couldn’t be done. The cool thing is we can all have mentors living or dead. They don’t have to be someone we have breakfast with every Tuesday. I look at Charlie Parker as a mentor but it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to emulate everything about Charlie Parker. He became so famous and brilliant. He was a heroin addict, and people said, “I’m going to start doing heroin because Charlie Parker does heroin.”
The reason I bring that up is that I can admire things about Charlie Parker, and I don’t have to take on his fault as much as his strengths. We can also have mentors that are villains. I could find somebody remarkable and somebody that was in prison. It doesn’t mean I have to emulate their misdeeds but I can find something that I can learn from what they did. Charlie Parker is another one who did exactly the same thing. He looked at the rules and said, “I’m going to opt-out of those rules. We are going to find a better way.”
This is a great note, pun intended, to end on because you are the creative troublemaker, and that’s who you are at your core. Thank you so much for your time. Before we leave, let people know how they can find out more about you and where you would like them to go. Bring it on.
Thank you so much. I appreciate this conversation and your generosity in sharing your wisdom with the world. It’s awesome and inspiring. If you want to reach out to me, I would recommend visiting BigLittleBreakthroughs.com. It’s not a sales pitch. If you want to buy the book, that’s great. There are all kinds of free stuff there. There’s a quick start guide. There’s a creativity assessment tool. There are all these downloadable worksheets. It’s all free. Check it out because it could be a good resource for you. If you have been inspired to get a little bit more creative, perhaps in the new year, that would be a good place to start. Also, you can check me out personally. My name is my URL. It’s JoshLinkner.com, and my handle on all social platforms is @JoshLinkner.
Thank you so much. This concludes this episode of the show, restoring trust and enriching significant relationships. Make sure, because I know you did, that you like, share, comment and subscribe to the show. See you next time.
- Platypus Labs
- Big Little Breakthroughs
- Tiny Habits
- What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
- @JoshLinkner– Instagram
About Josh Linkner
Josh Linkner – who started his career as a jazz guitarist – personifies creativity, entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation. He has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, which sold for a combined value of over $200 million.
Josh is the author of four books, two New York Times Bestsellers: Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity, and The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation, as well as his latest book, Hacking Innovation. He is also the Founding Partner of Detroit Venture Partners, investing in and mentoring over 100 startups.
Josh has twice been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and is a President Barack Obama Champion of Change award recipient. He is a regular columnist for Forbes, The Detroit Free Press, and Inc. Magazine. His work on innovation has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, CNN, and The New York Times. And yes, he still plays a mean jazz guitar. For more information, visit JoshLinkner.com.