A Night with Scott Berkun

imageEarlier this week, I attended an event hosted by the DC chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association. I’ll admit that user experience has always been something someone else was in charge of on my projects. Even at AIIM, I manage to have someone on staff who knows it well enough to keep tabs on it.

When my web designer told me that Scott Berkun was speaking at the next meeting, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve been a fan, since I started following him during his Confessions of a Public Speaker days. I never read the book due to time (still in my future plans), but I enjoyed his insights on his blog.

One of the things that I’ve always liked about Scott is that I agree with almost everything he says. Here was a person spouting the things I have strived to follow in my career and people were listening. The difference?

Scott can explain it MUCH better than I can.

Really, that is the biggest difference. I can talk to someone, give them advice, and they’ll understand it, but that is interactive. Scott can get it into a short post where anyone can grasp the concept.

Where I take 600 words, Scott can explain things in 200. Where people may come away from my post without fully understanding the point I was trying to make, Scott’s point are clear and concise.

That skill is invaluable and that skill was also on display that evening.

The Talk

imageScott was talking about the concepts in his latest book, Mindfire, Big Ideas for Curious Minds. It is about creativity and tries to help people realize that creativity is work, and like any work, it can be learned.

I think his best story about breaking down the myth of creativity comes from Hollywood. You’ve seen the movie. The underdog is facing a challenge. At some point when the odds appear almost hopeless, an idea occurs. It usually occurs when something that the hero(s) is doing inspires an idea or when the gang is chilling out in defeat. What then follows is a montage.

This montage is the critical thing that nobody seems to absorb. The effort to implement the creative idea is work. Those montages don’t show lounging. They show people working to make the idea a reality.

Scott also stresses that creativity also isn’t genetic. It is learned. It is driven by hard work and building upon the ideas of those that have come before you. It is exposing yourself to new things and reapplying those concepts to different areas. It is about not banging your head into a wall but taking a break, moving around, and bouncing ideas off of other people.

It isn’t always done in isolation either. Scott had a lot of good examples of pairs like Gilbert & Sullivan, Gates & Paul Allen, and Jobs & Wozniak. I thought of another which I shared with him that illustrates the concept, McCartney & Lennon. When they were with The Beatles, they were amazing. The volume and quality of output was incredible. Solo, both were good but neither were as great. McCartney has NEVER had a solo number one song in the US.

Two creative people, better together.

You may have that creative spark. You may have those good ideas. Working with people or asking for help doesn’t make you less of a creative person. It makes you someone who is trying to optimize your innovation.

My Advice

This is simple. If you ever get a chance to see Scott speak, do it. Go visit his blog and maybe read a couple of his books if a topic catches your fancy.

And more importantly, next time you are stuck on something, take a minute, relax, and maybe grab a quick shower.

You’ll have to read the book.

8 thoughts on “A Night with Scott Berkun

  1. Scott Berkun says:

    One thought about Lennon & McCartney. While I agree it’s entirely plausible their abilities were never stronger than when they working together, there are other explanations, or contributing factors.

    First, number one hits are a measure of popularity, not necessarily quality. It’s very subjective to determine what makes a great song or a great album. They both continued to be productive and have popular creative success, which is uncommon.

    Second, it’s hard to separate the effect of being in a band, where Harrison and Ringo Star also made some contributions, from the effect of the pairing of the two of them working together. Working in the Beattles, or in any successful band, is often the peak of popularity for most people who start solo careers later. A band generates more attention and intensity than a solo career does, and that can be part of the explanation for why an artist never creates the same kind of work, or the same quality of work, that they did when they were in a band.

    Third. We don’t know what would have happened had they stayed together. It’s not uncommon for creative output to decline as people age. It’s also not uncommon for the peak of output to occur in people’s 20s. The decline you are observing could be something more natural than about the end of their partnership.


    • Scott, solid points. You bring up the very basic problem with proving the basis of joining creativity, the lack of a control group.

      Take Gilbert and Sullivan. Love their stuff, especially their rapid-fire songs (though I often think of the executioners little list on long days). It is easy to say that they only prospered together because Gilbert wrote the words to Sullivan’s music. However, with your other examples, it isn’t as clear cut. With either Gates/Allen or Jobs/Wozniak, whose to say that there wouldn’t have been success if they hadn’t each teamed-up together.

      In music, yes, there is a unique collaboration that transpires, but that is evidence of how creativity in a group can be stronger than the whole. When the Beatles broke up and went on to successfully, but not mind-blowing, solo careers, we don’t know the why. Was it age? Was it not having anyone question the artistic vision of a former Beatle? It is hard to measure dynamic of two (or four) creative people on somewhat equal grounds what made them so great without seeing what would have happened if they had stayed together. For every Imagine that we would lose, we we gain 3-4 songs of greater or equal value?

      Without an alternate universe, we’ll never know how any creative pair/group would fair if they had not paired-up together or if they had stayed together after going their separate ways. I know I did some of my most creative development when I had someone I respected to challenge me and I see that carrying over to every field.

      Finally, in regards to point one, you are correct on the issue of number 1s versus actual quality. It is a quick and dirty measure further tainted by the fact that McCartney had some number ones with Wings to go with his collaborations with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. That said, I’ve listed to most of the discography of the Beatles, John, and Paul and I’ll say without any fear that the quality of the Beatles output far exceeds that of any single Beatle. That is almost achievable with just Revolver, Abbey Road, and the White Album alone.


      • Thanks. I have my mother who was a big fan to thank for that. Not enough kids get exposed to Sweeny Todd, the Mikado, and opera while growing up. As for the Beatles knowledge, that’s why I chose them. A similar antedote sprang to mind while I was walking the dog tonight. The Police re-recorded Don’t Stand So Close to Me in ’86. It was a much slower version. In some liner notes I read somewhere, think it was their Message in a Box “box” set, Sting said he had always thought that the song needed to be slower (which I disagree). One of the other members, Andy Summers I believe, said something to the effect that Sting thought every song was too fast. It goes to show that sometimes co-creators can protect you from yourself.

        Went and read your post. There is definitely a difference. I find when I write a post because I think it will be popular, it isn’t. When I just write the post, those are the posts that really take off. Mediocre can creep in if you focus on popular. Maybe that is what makes the music by bands and collaborations better than when they go solo. They perform music that the group thinks is good, or at least not crap. That makes it resonate more broadly. That assumes, of course, that there is talent in there as well.

        There is a book in there somewhere. Your post and the artist examples reminds me of dialog from

          Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

        . Fun little movie. During it, there is a conversation between Matt Damon and Benn Affleck where they are fighting over being in the movie. At some point, Ben says, What’ve I been telling you? You gotta do the safe picture. Then you can do the art picture. Classic juxtaposition between Good and Popular.


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