Listen to Episode #49 here:
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Spontaneous Comedy with Chris Denson
Our guest is Chris Denson. Chris is the host of the Innovation Crush Podcast. He’s an innovator, marketer and recovering comedian. He’s the author of the Amazon number one bestselling book, Crushing the Box: 10 Essential Rules for Breaking Essential Rules. Welcome, Chris.
Thank you for having me.
Chris, if you weren’t working in marketing, media, product innovation or comedy, what would you be doing?
I’d be a forensic detective like in NCIS or one of their SVU. I’d be Ice-T. I sometimes have a subtle pride about myself in the way I can figure certain things out. I’m like, “He must have taken the shoes off before he came in the apartment.” It’s part of being an observer. As an observer of culture, you’re keen on picking up the clues that most people don’t see. I do get a little obsessed over that.
That’s a first. I have not had that response. I want to ask you a little bit about that. There was a time when I was in my twenties that I thought I was going to be an FBI agent because of the Silence of the Lambs. I get planted a seed that probably wouldn’t have been planted. You’re coming at this like you want to become a forensics expert, not because you’re romanticizing the job because of media but because you like paying attention.
I think so. I like figuring it out. I guess we’re all creative as problem solvers.
No, we’re not all creative problem solver.
Of course, we are. Every day, if you’re just trying to figure out, “We got to get the kids to school and go to the grocery store and get ready for vacation,” you have a very creative problem to solve. There’s always some level of ingenuity required to achieve a goal at the moment or to evolve past the circumstances. I even based my innovation work in that thesis that we’re all looking to evolve in some way, shape or form. Some of it is like whether you’re the CEO of GE or you’re a single parent just trying to figure out a different way of communicating with your kids. It takes some level of retooling.
I half agree with you. I agree that we’re all problem solvers. For people to be a creative problem solver, they should be seeking a noble solution. According to my definition of creativity, we may have different definitions. My definition is creativity is arriving at an appropriate and original solution to a problem. That is the solution solves the problem. You get your kids to school and then the original is that other people aren’t doing it the same way. That’s where the advantage lies.
Sometimes it’s relative. Sometimes it’s the creativity within my circle of whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish. It might not be the same as Murakami but for me, proportionally, it could be the same level of re-imagining whatever the circumstance is.
You do know because you were the Amazon number one bestselling book author, Crushing the Box: 10 Essential Rules for Breaking the Essential Rules. That’s about creativity because you’re about finding noble things. Before we get into that, I was sure you were going to answer that you are going to be a packaging engineer.
[bctt tweet=”In business, you don’t just show up and expect great things happen; you have to work for it.” via=”no”]
I wasn’t even sure I was going to be a packaging engineer.
You have an engineering degree in packaging. I don’t think most people understand what a big deal packaging is. Certainly, they don’t know that you can go to college to learn to be in that type of engineer. Can you talk a little bit about that?
There are some commonalities, but as far as the degree itself. I went to Michigan State University and it is one of a handful of schools in the country, if not the world, that offer a degree such as this. Packaging engineering. Everything you see comes in some sort of package whether it’s the shoes you buy or the transmission that goes into your vehicle. It is packed and shipped to someplace. I worked at Chrysler, that’s why I’ve mentioned the transmission example. I’ve worked for the transmission plant and an engine plant. We had 170 parts coming in from all over the country and a couple of places internationally. It’s the same thing with another one. It was 300 parts. My favorite example of this is in most transmissions, there’s a plate called the transfer plate where the transmission fluid goes through. There are probably two dozen different size holes in your transfer plate. Some of them are just pin-sized. If a speck of dust gets inside that pin-sized a hole, it can shut down your entire transmission.
Why don’t they make the holes bigger?
I’m not an automotive engineer. I’m only the guy that puts it in the box and crushing the box.
The Crushing the Box, is that just coincidence? You were a packaging engineer, you cared a lot about boxes. Now you care about those metaphorical thinking outside the box. When you name this Crushing the Box, did it have two meanings?
No, it had nothing to do with the corrugated board. A lot of people did think it was a euphemism for relations and I was like, “No one says that.” No one says crushing the box. The first time it came up it was already after the book was coming out. I was like, “People say that?”
I don’t think people say that. They say crushing ass.
LL Cool J had a song. That’s the only thing I can think of in the ‘90s and it was really bad. It was Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings. I was like, “That’s a little far.” That’s the closest I can get to crushing any kind of box. It still related because the corrugated boxes do have to be placed elsewhere? For me, you’re a seventeen-year-old kid about to go into college and they’re like, “What do you want to do for the rest of your life?” I wasn’t one of those kids that knew exactly, “I’m going to do this.” I picked something that didn’t involve too much science. It has a lot of physics, tensile strength, plastics, corrugated board, stacking strength, things like that but it wasn’t like electrical engineering where I need to know circuits and formulas and so on and so forth. A lot of it was just similar to what we were talking about. It’s logistical and creative problem-solving.
I may know how many of those transfer plates I can get on one tray, how big that tray is when it goes on the assembly line, how many I need to ship in order to fulfill the number of cars that are being produced every day. It’s a really important role because whether you go into the pharmaceutical side of it or fashion, everything comes in a package. It has to maintain its integrity from wherever the materials are sourced to the time it gets to the consumer but I hated it. I did that for a couple of years and then I made a move to LA. I left good old Auburn Hills, Michigan but at the time, I’d been doing standup comedy from the time I was a freshman at the school. I did that for a good seven years. I won a ton of competitions and hosted a bunch of things on campus. I did it for a little while I was out here in LA.
Is that what brought you to LA, the comedy?
Yeah, pretty much. What brought me here was this idea that I wanted to write. I had a friend of mine in school and we created a sketch comedy show that did well locally. Not only was it on the college campus channel, but it was also in East Lansing. I’m like, “This is great.” It’s easy when you love it. I had no idea what I was doing. If I go back and look at something as simple as the formatting of the script, it was like I wrote it when you read Shakespeare in high school. It’s the love and the passion and I felt like I was pretty decent at it so I took the risk. I have one friend who lived here. I came to visit him for a week and then got the lay of the land and three months later, I packed up my Isuzu Rodeo, which is ironic because I was leaving Chrysler in an Isuzu Rodeo.
It’s funny, Isuzu Rodeo on one hand is the most Japanese name you can have and then coupled with the most American name that you can have for a car.
Until they became Daimler Chrysler, then it was like three continents covered at that point though.
You call yourself a recovering comedian. Is that because it’s catchy or do you feel like you’re recovering comedian in the way that someone might be recovering alcoholic or something where there’s some struggle or there’s some pain or there’s some legacy?
More in the sense that there are remnants left over. I still like being silly and I don’t get up in front of an audience and do a set. I do infuse humor into a lot of things I do, or at least the mechanics of humor, like drawing parallels between things that don’t normally get drawn together. Even the craft of coming up with an idea and pitching it to an audience, whether it’s five people sitting in a board room or you’re in front giving a talk. You’re giving somebody your concept to your perspective and it’s yours and yours alone at that point in time. Even with Innovation Crush, I’d like to say it’s a cross between the daily show and fast company.
This is something I like about you. It’s not a test, trust me but there’s an elevator experience when I do this podcast. When I’m on the road, oftentimes I’m in the elevator with my guest and it’s interesting if the guest makes jokes or not in the elevator. You made jokes. I saw you made two, three jokes even. You made at least three jokes. There was a clothing joke, a joke about the food, and there was at least one other one. It’s funny because sometimes I’m with very established comedians and there are no jokes. I had Wil Anderson on the program and we talked and he said the funnier he gets on stage, the less funny he is in his own life.
I feel like I’m almost the opposite. Spontaneity, I’m pretty good. I’ve been writing material. There’s something about the spontaneity of the humor I like that I resonate well with. Most of the standup I write, not that I performed it, but most of the stuff that I write is because I said it in a moment and I try to capture that moment. I don’t sit down and go like, “What happens at the grocery store?” I may say something while I’m in a grocery store like, “That’s funny.” I’m sure a lot of comedians have that process, but my entry point isn’t trying to figure out what’s going to be funny but capturing something that actually is.
When you’re working on this book, how funny are you trying to make the book? Do you feel pressure?
I felt like my duty was to sound like I sound. I have a cadence of humor, humor, serious, serious. I hope, at least from my experience even with Innovation Crush, is that it warms the reader. It’s not hard statistics. There are no pie charts. You don’t have to read it in succession. I’m a lazy reader.
[bctt tweet=”If you do a joke a thousand times, it becomes funny again.” via=”no”]
It’s doesn’t feel like a lecture.
I don’t want to feel that way. That’s why I was going back and forth with my publisher for a while on just that piece of it. I tried to set the reader up for it. The introduction chapter is about my experience in comedy and comparing it to Innovation Crush. That way, no matter what I say coming up, I made cocaine references in the book. There are all sorts of random Chris Denson humor, but that’s the way I am, whether I’m on a brainstorm with the client or wherever I am. There’s this mix of haha but with the serious. In a lot of ways the humor, especially in brainstorming, being able to make a pun or parallel or rhyme or suddenly drawing these two concepts together, you’re like, “Actually that could work.” There’s a drill that I love in the brainstorming process, which is you have a two-minute sprint to write down all the worst ideas possible and then you pass the paper down to whoever your neighbor is and then you have to make one of those ideas great.
It does us so many different things. It democratizes the room. A lot of times when we enter a brainstorm, especially if you’re at a job like I ran Innovation for Omnicom Media Group for a while and we get into these rooms and you could tell people were nervous because they felt like they had to come in with an answer. They’re coming in to show up as a hero and that deliberately is just a subconscious thing we do as opposed to brainstorming, which just throws some shit on the wall and let’s start to see what works. You do an exercise like that, it like shakes the sillies out and then you’re off to the races.
It’s so interesting that you bring this up because I’ve been writing about this. I’ve been writing about reversals and that brainstorm, the worst idea is a form of reversal, which also is a comedic tactic in a sense. You’re right, it’s fun. It takes the pressure off and you certainly get ideas you wouldn’t have got through the normal process. Tell me a little bit about this transition. You came out here. You’re sleeping on your friend’s couch. You’re doing comedy. You’re living the LA lifestyle. You’re a young man but now you’re a recovered comedian. At some point, you decided. Tell me, how did this happen?
It was a mix of pursuing what I’m passionate about and also wanting to eat. What happened for me is I got my first writing job eight months after I moved here. I worked on a show, a VT and then I continued to get other writing jobs after that. I remember after a year, we’re going to the office to pick up our checks and there was a letter stapled to the outside of the envelope and it was like, “Come Monday, the writing staff will no longer be needed in this show.” For a kid from the Midwest, I’m like, “You can just fire people like that?” Literally like you have the weekend with the letter. Nobody came in and said, “We need to custom budgets. Here’s what might happen.” There was none of that. That was a bit of culture shock for me because coming from Chrysler, where you’re going to get a notice and there are unions and stuff and I wasn’t quite in the Writer’s Guild yet. It was a lesson learned for me. It was like in between my entertainment gigs, I would pick up other things.
I worked for the Magic Conference in Las Vegas, which is one of the largest fashion conferences in the world. We’ll go there twice a year. I would work on music videos, pick up marketing or whatever I could get my hands on hustling. It wasn’t until years later in hindsight where I started to see what the thread was. In the sense of truly recovering comedian, it was this gradual graduation from it because of wanting to eat and going back and forth between those roots and paying my rent. Even when I speak at schools now, when people go like, “What’s the best piece of advice you have for somebody just starting out?” I was like, “Be smart with your money. You don’t want to do something just because you have to.” Even though, it was a long frustrating journey for me like, “I wish I could.” You want to be able to buy yourself a cushion in case you get that letter stapled to your check.
I’ve known comedians here who went from having a nice fancy car to riding the bus back to the fancy car. Fortunes rise and fall based upon one show, two shows and a five-year gap in between.
I play a lot in the business world. The same thing happened. If you look at the startup ecosystems now, as Stephen Colbert, when he interviewed the guys who started Airbnb. I forget which one it was, but he said, “Is that the thing to do now in college? You just start a company. It used to be you start a band, now you start a company.” It’s the same thing. These serial entrepreneurs get a ton of money, whether it’s from investment or they sell their services and products and then that company goes away. You’re like, “What happened?” There was a good article in Mashable. It’s like, “Here are all the companies we lost this year.” You’re like, “That is true.” You totally forget what those people are doing.
I have a saying from my MBA class, “Business is hard.” I know it annoys my students when I say it. When you get an MBA, it’s all optimism. You read these cases. It’s all success stories. It’s very rare to read a case about a failed company and yet the norm is not if they’ll fail but when they’ll fail.
To what degree? Is it a PR failure or is it a PR nightmare? There are varying levels of failure.
Even the wildly successful companies, it’s still crazy hard.
Wells Fargo was a client of mine when I was at OMD and this is at the time when all the shit hit the fan for them. If your audience remembers, they’ve signed up millions of people with false accounts that they didn’t sign up for. Then just as we’re recovering from that, the second wind comes. Taking advantage of people who don’t speak English. The bank’s still around. It’s a huge failure and this bank’s money sure, we can’t argue that. It’s just this idea that you’re going to have this accordion effect throughout whatever journey you’re on. I’m a big fan of anti-case studies. I gave a talk in London and it was a VR conference. Everybody’s like, “Here’s the greatest VR thing we accomplished.” I showed one project that I had done in VR and the rest was I had ten additional slides of ideas that have been pitched and why they never happened. It was whether the tech couldn’t do what we wanted it to do, the client didn’t understand, whatever nuances pop up because again, like you’re a student, you’re bright eyed and bushy tailed. Not that you shouldn’t be, but there’s a reality that comes along which is not going to be betting a thousand.
I don’t say business is hard three times to try to convince them not to go into business. I say it to convince them how much harder and more creative they need to be. That you don’t just show up and great things happen. The example I have is Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. People consider it one of the best business books ever. What’s funny is if you read the case studies in that book, they’re all failed companies now. These were the great companies that he was shining a light on saying, “Look what best practices these folks have.” They’re all now mediocre at best. Clearly, this is hard if these are the best-run companies. I should write that follow up because I’m not a big fan of that book. You find yourself chasing a paycheck for good reasons. Then the jobs that you’re taking and the jobs that you’re excelling at are these innovations, marketing and media style-related jobs.
This is in hindsight, but the need to compete or find ways to cut through the clutter. If you’re a performer, you and I both might have jokes about dating. I’m going to try to figure out a way to tell that dating joke or story or talk about dating in a way that nobody else has. Every writing book tells you, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Every romantic comedy follows that formula. There have been hundreds if not thousands of romantic comedies made, all of the same cadence. Ingenuity means you go, “How can I do this differently than anyone else has ever done it?” Then you start to look at like, “What else is out there that I should be thinking about incorporating into this?” You start to connect dots in ways that hopefully if you’re truly being innovative, that no one else has done before. That might be in storytelling. I might be like, “No one has set up a joke this way.” I might be Amazon Alexa, like voice could be a thing. What if we combined shopping with voice? It’s asking what if and finding a different way to cut through the clutter. Then you start to solve those business problems like sustainability and how do we maintain this and now what’s our next iteration. How do we not alienate this audience and gain a new one?
There are so many other iterative things that come after you find out what that core is. A perfect example, for a period of time I’ve worked at Playboy. I didn’t make any porn just to let everybody know. They were launching a hip-hop network. It was meant to be competitive, like a free-thinking hip-hop network. The worst show we did was a show called Queen of Clubs, which was like an American Idol of exotic dancers. We built this network from scratch. We had a logo and a name. We had to go like, “What’s the other programming that’s out there? What can we introduce? Then how do we introduce it? It’s these layers of communications. We build this set of stories, figure out what’s missing in the marketplace, extended an invitation of some sort through marketing and media and then continue to build from there. It’s the same thing, plus if you’re some new company you wanted to stay on top, which we didn’t. It’s just that exercise of constantly trying to leapfrog yourself.
These ten essential rules are the rules that you’ve learned over the years doing this work.
It’s funny because habitually or by habit, I’ve always been looking for a different answer, if that makes sense, to that creative problem.
To me, a different answer is a creative solution.
I remember I was on a panel at Disney and the question from the audience was, “How do you know your project is successful?” Everybody else on the panel is like metrics and data, which were absolutely correct answers. I said, “We can’t forget that we are human beings.” Me, talking to my client, I know when my clients are happy or sleeping well at night. There are things that I thought blew the roof off the industry and they were like. There are other things that performed okay but they really loved it and so they want to build on that from there. I take that same approach with the book. The first chapter is about empathy, which most people don’t readily expect when they read a book that is rooted in some form of business.
They certainly don’t expect you to lead with that.
[bctt tweet=”The better you get and the more well-known you are, the more opportunities you get to do other things.” via=”no”]
We talk about this concept of micro failures. We’ve been talking about micro failures, but that chapter is called Death by a Thousand Slaps. One slap, “You got me,” a thousand in succession could really make your day really bad. It’s this idea that as we’re trying to accomplish and achieve these things, there are all these little annoyances that pop up that just keep adding and wearing and diminishing your creative spirit. Whether it’s that tenth promising investor meeting that you had then nobody followed up with or your kids messing up at school. There are a number of different things that aren’t like didn’t you lose $100 million and had to move back into your parents’ house. It was these annoyances that we all experienced on a day-to-day basis. How do you get through that? Those are things we can’t ignore. I’ve seen people have bad days and it is a bad domino effect that comes from that. That’s the direction. Then there are the things you might expect like how do you build a team designed around innovation? What are some of those other tools and principles that should be incorporated into the process?
This is a two-part question. The answer might be the same. If I only allowed you to write that book, one essential rule, what would it be? Which one do you find most personally useful? In your personal life, not in your professional life.
Empathy comes up
I’m guessing this started out as fourteen and you cut it down to ten.
That was the one that resonated with me the most. It was rooted in an interview I’d done with this guy named Dan Goods, who is NASA’s visual strategists or their artist in residence. He’s been there for sixteen, seventeen years helping craft missions. Turn in science concepts into public art experiences. During our conversation, I’m like, “You realized you’re NASA’s marketing.” If I’m some space engineer, I don’t know what they call themselves.
I think they call them rocket scientist.
When I was walking around, we got a tour of the JPL, Jet Propulsion Lab. I was being deliberately annoying and everything I pointed out, I kept calling it a space version of what it was. I’m like, “Look, a space stairs. Look, a space garbage can.” They were like, “Are you done, sir?”
The first three times, that’s a pretty solid comedy.
The ten times was just being me. That’s when it got good.
There is a rule in comedy about if you do it a thousand times, it becomes funny again. If you do it a hundred times, it becomes funny again.
I introduced my daughter to Andy Kaufman singing Mighty Mouse.
That’s a perfect example of that.
It’s funny the first time. You’re like, “Is he going to keep doing this? He’s going to keep doing this. That’s hilarious that he kept doing this.” Dan had an assignment when he was in an art school and his professor was like, “Draw me a picture of an otter,” which he did. He turned it and the professor goes, “Meet me at the pool tomorrow.” Dan shows up at the pool the next day and his professor showed him a video of an otter swimming. He says, “Now get in the water and swim like one.” He learned this deepened sense of empathy. Most of us as creators, we can look at things from afar and observe, but it’s another thing when you go there and you do it and you get as deep as possible in whatever that area of culture is that you’re trying to affect and change. Some of us we do it like, “I worked in NASCAR all my life. I spotted a solution.” Some of us were like, “It’d be cool if NASCAR did this.” What if I went down to the NASCAR track and all of a sudden I’m like, “There are debris flying around here. I can’t even breathe. It takes me an hour and a half to get a beer.” Now you’re solving empathetically for pain points and your best ingenuity and innovation is going to come from that core approach.
By training that sense of empathy, it extends into how you relate with your teams, your clients, your partners. You’re always exhibiting this deepened sense of connection. That resonates with the rest of the book or at least the rest of what I learned as far as a harder principle. The idea of experimentation, that’s where a lot of companies, organizations, individuals fall short. Just being able to allot some resource, time, a person, a team just to explore, because it doesn’t have KPIs. It doesn’t have the hard business return but when it works, it really works. I cite some examples of people who’ve been the head of innovation at Adidas, no KPIs, the head of innovation at L’Oréal, their Connected Beauty Incubator. Adidas won the CES Innovation Award a few years ago for Connected Soccer Ball. The other launched the first augmented reality makeup app, the Makeup Genius. They’ve got fourteen million downloads in the first three months. They weren’t held to some hard deliverable. It was like, “Let’s see, what happens. Let’s see what we can do.”
Certainly, you could look to the big packaged good companies as being very regimented in the way they go about doing things. You do get innovation but they’re just incremental kinds of things. It’s very difficult for companies to experiment. They’re becoming better about it because they’re starting to learn the benefits of it. It’s funny because the way I see it is if you experiment then you have to acknowledge that you are wrong. That’s hard to do oftentimes in organizations. It’s very threatening. These are people who often are very risk-averse. The other one is and I don’t think a lot of people understand this, is these companies, so many of them are scrambling to get their normal stuff done in a reasonably decent way without going completely over budget or over a deadline or whatever it is. This idea of experimentation feels luxurious. As an academic, I do experimentation all the time, but I live in a world of mostly soft deadlines if there is a deadline. There’s pressure to get to produce but you produce things when it’s ready, not by end of Q4 in that way.
It’s the whole reason I even started Innovation Crush. I had been going and chatting with companies. I was working at Machinima for a while. I left the Machinima. For almost a year, I was having meetings. I was talking to people. I was talking to them about innovation and most of the times they just didn’t know what to do with it, “You’re the creative director.” They’re like, “Yeah, but not really.” “You’re the technology guy.” “Sometimes, it’s technology.” They don’t want to be able to readily identify it so they can assign a budget and a number and a deliverable to it. The ones that get it and do it well, survive. Also, once you draw the connection between experimentation and why it’s important for your bottom line, then you become a little bit more vested in it. At OMD, for instance, the ignition factory, which is the department I’m in. It was started by the former CEO. It was also a top-down mandated thing. He saw a need and out of 10,000 employees around the world, there were twenty of us who were focused on this side of innovation and spread across three offices. It didn’t take much if you do the math. It’s a small bit of your resources that go into like, “Let’s just see.”
It’s a small bit of resources. It has very little downside and has a lot of potential upsides. You are doing a lot of things. The better you get and the more well-known you are, the more opportunities you get to do other things. I’m curious what you’re saying no to these days and how you’re saying no or are you saying no?
I should be saying more no. I may sit down and have lunch with you and the next thing I’m like, “I want to be a part of whatever it is you’re doing,” because we riff well together. I know some resources that you should have and vice versa. I’m easily excitable when it comes to those kinds of things.
You’re used to hustling.
That’s a hard habit to break. I have a family, I got two kids. I can’t be everywhere I want to be. Even maybe a year or two ago, I crafted my personal mission and sticking to my guns on what that is, which is for me, I’m spending 50% of my time as a storyteller. I keep telling people are like the Anthony Bourdain model. I started saying this when he was alive. Half my time is spent as a storyteller taking you around the world and telling you these stories of innovation and their cultural relevancy, depending on where they are, who they are, what they’ve created.
[bctt tweet=”You’re only as good as your last movie.” via=”no”]
This is in the form of your podcast, talks, interviews and panels.
We’re developing some TV stuff right now. Anyway, I can do that from a creative outlet. The other part is in order for me to maintain our relevance as a storyteller in that arena, similar to Anthony Bourdain, he was still working in kitchens, still opening restaurants and still doing his craft. I enjoy the craft just as much as I enjoy the storytelling and they go hand in hand. It allows me to be exposed to new things with a purpose and build on that purpose. I truly believe that these principles of innovation should be known and celebrated and looked at from many different angles. It should be done in a way that is palatable and fun and not like an NPR. I listen to NPR all the time, but I feel like I have a brand that resonates well, when I feel like something doesn’t align fully with that mission. I have a friend who had a great idea for a recruiting company. He just turns that model on his head. I’m like, “That sounds great.” There’s only so much that I can do.
It sounds like you have three boxes, this personal or your family life, telling stories and making things. It doesn’t fit into the making things bucket well-enough to say yes to something.
Well-enough is key because as I was saying, it’s still innovation. That’s a problem with the word is that it’s ubiquitous.
The word is a process. It’s not an industry.
An end product. That’s where most people focus on. It’s an end result as opposed to how you go about achieving an end result.
In the world of comedy, no one really likes to admit this but there’s this element of having a rival or an enemy or a frenemy. There are other comics in your generation. You feel like you’re competing. When you were a comic, did you have that experience? Now that you’re not a comic and now that you’re in this world of innovation, do you have a rival or frenemy or enemy, someone you feel like competing against?
I talked about this idea of friendly competition and how it feeds ingenuity. The fact that you did something that I thought was super cool and I go like, “Wait until you see what I do next.” It happens all the time. I see things that I have like, “I wish I had done that.” We all do. If it’s somebody you know or even somebody or an entity or whatever that in your mind, you’re on the same level as that person. Maybe you’re still in the process of getting there. LaVar Ball was like, “I could beat Michael Jordan one-on-one” and then there’s this video circulating of him throwing up seven bricks in a row. In his head, he’s like, “Give me one chance.” Somebody was like, “You’re such and such.” I was like, “I’m nothing. That guy’s got nothing on me.” I was like, “A little bit.”
By the way, for the audience, this is the most innovative Chris has been. He’s moving around in his seat right now and rubbing his head.
This was on my birthday and not only was it my birthday, but we had my son’s party on my birthday. I was already leg. It’s my birthday. You’re drinking my booze. “How dare you bring this gentleman up in front of me?” It’s very mob boss of me. “You come to my house and insult me.” It happens all the time and it’s important to be that observer.
Your answer to my question is yes and you see it was largely as useful?
Yeah, there’s a required self-awareness to know what’s the difference between I hate that or that’s an indicator of what’s possible. Back to my first writing job when I worked as VT, the guy who was a writer’s assistant went on to create America’s Next Top Model, Black-ish. He wrote Girl’s Trip. Now he’s moving into directing. Black-ish is based on his own life. At a point in time I go, “He was our department assistant,” but at the same time ago, I wasn’t jealous per se. I very easily could have gone either way. There’s a little bit of self-awareness and because the entertainment industry is such a subjective craft, whether you’re a musician or whatever your thing is and even in business, your business creativity is still subjective. You’re putting something out into the world and you go, “I hope they like it.” Sometimes the rejection of that product is not necessarily a rejection of you, but you feel like it’s a rejection of you. That happens all the time. That’s why a lot of entertainers go into this weird space like all the issues with depression.
You’re hot. You’re not. You’re only as good as your last movie or your last album.
Your bus or fancy car. It’s not as simple as that. The emotional part of it. The emotional journey is just up and down. That’s why there are so many yoga studios and meditation. There was a good article in GQ and some writer said, “I spent a month in LA doing every self-help thing I could find and here’s what happened.” It was an interesting read. If you don’t maintain that level of separation from who you are or from what you do, it will drive you crazy.
I have a very good therapist and when I was working on The Humor Code, I didn’t go to see him about professional problems, but they come up. It’s therapy. He helped me work on creating for the right reasons. I wasn’t using a rival, that’s not true. It’s a different form of a rival. I was doing the I will show them model of hard work. It’s the Michael Jordan model of success which is, “You don’t believe in me, I’ll show you,” and it works. If you want to put in long hours, anger is a good way to do that. The problem with it is that no one ever goes, “Pete, I didn’t think you were a very good lacrosse player when I met you, but you showed me through your hard work and your pluck,” and/or “I didn’t think you’d make it in this academic business but you showed me.”
It’s like a Jerry Springer episode when he was like, “You made fun of me in high school, but look at me now,” and the person’s like, “You’re still ugly.” “I did all this work. I have brought you into this television show just to prove to you.”
Most of the time they go, “Who are you? I’m not sure. We’ve met before?” The world is no one really cares about you in that sense. I like your framing of when you see someone else who you feel like you have a little bit of a rivalry, friendship, frenemy-ship with is that you go, “That can be done. That’s inspiring and motivating,” versus “I need to prove to the world.” I remember him going, this is how naïve I was. I remember saying, “If I’m not going to use anger, how do I do it?” I honestly didn’t know the answer. I didn’t know there was another way. I didn’t know the Jordan method works.
It’s a very publicized method. We know all those stories.
It turns you into a bitter man. Jordan should be celebrating and a happy man. He was a bitter and churned up guy, which is unfortunate. He said, “You do it because you want to do a good job.” He was like, “You do it for yourself. You make great things because you believe it’s important to make great things.” Then, as a result, you don’t give over any power to anyone.
It all starts with you as a writer. Even if you have a writing partner. There’s a point in time where you’re in front of your computer by yourself and your thoughts are coming up. No one else has thought of that at least the way you have. The more steps we take toward that thing come into fruition, the more doubt shows up. The signals sometimes will show you the opposite of the direction you’re headed or the opposite direction you want to head in. This is a journey where you go from idea and talent to showboating to purpose. Even when I think about what innovation means to me as far as a platform for storytelling, when I built Innovation Crush, the book and all these things, I was like, “I have to remind myself of the greater mission,” which is I do want people to not feel like they’re stuck in whatever thing they’re in. Whether it’s trying to solve a business problem or it’s personal. I keep reminding myself of that because I do see that person that was brought up on my birthday. I also see where they’ve done things well and what I can learn from and also goes to see what are the missing pieces and where can I continue to fill the gap. Is the gap that I’m attempting to fill still a relevant gap? Then you just become a little bit more nimble and aware.
[bctt tweet=”If you don’t maintain a level of separation between who you are from what you do, it will drive you crazy.” via=”no”]
I want to ask you, this might be related. It’s a question I’ve been puzzling over for a long time. As a marketing professor, I regularly teach my students. You identify a need in the marketplace and then you seek a solution for that need and then you test whether it solves the problem and recognizing that there’s competition and so on and so forth. In the world of entertainment and the arts, you get this notion of you should make art for yourself. You should make art that makes you happy. The art that you want to make, if you start trying to make art that makes other people happy, you’re going to make bad art. Even though that conflicts with my advice to my students in some way, one thing that I like about the idea is that if you’re going to find something unique that is one of a kind, it’s likely to come from that make it for yourself process. In your experience, have you come across this idea? What do you think of this idea?
It happens all the time. We forget how our tastes matter. Our perspective or tastes like going back to comedy and you taught me this concept.
Did I teach you something?
Yes, one thing. I tell this story a lot. I asked you, “If three of us are in the room and two of us are cracking up and one person’s like, ‘I don’t get it.’” You said, “It’s not that it’s not funny, it’s not funny to me.” That’s the proper phrasing. In fact, I taught my daughter that. She does that to me all the time. I’m like, “That’s not funny to me.”
I’m flattered by that.
I genuinely mean that. As a writer, comedy persons rooted there, I crack myself up a lot annoyingly so to my wife and to the people at JPL, but I’d like to think that there are more of me.
It’s a big world, nine billion people.
I’d like to think of that garbage can stuff and there were more people with us because two people joined in. They started going, “There’s a space tree,” and then you could see people who are visibly annoyed, which then makes it even funnier. The same thing happens in business. You talk to most entrepreneurs, there’s something in their DNA about whatever it is they’ve created. One of my favorite examples is I had a chance to interview Miguel McKelvey, the CEO and Founder of WeWork.
I listened to the How I Built This with that guy.
I haven’t listened to that one.
You don’t need to. You’ve interviewed him.
It’s true. I don’t have to listen to podcasts. I listen to this one though, just so you know. I come to find out he grew up in communal style living. His mom and her two best friends had five kids among them. They shared everything and got rides to school. It’s rooted in what WeWork is where there are other shared workspaces. I’ll give you one last example. Tristan Walker who was the number eleven higher at Twitter and then was the number four higher at Foursquare. I was like, “How did you know to make a leap from Twitter to this brand new thing?” He said, “It was convenient to me. It was something I would’ve used.” That was his only barometer. Then you can start to do the diligence behind it from a business standpoint, but you go like, “Would I use it? Yeah, okay.” In many instances, that’s good enough.
As someone who’s trying to find more time to create, here’s the thing that I don’t think the average person understands is how hard creating is but with practice, the process becomes rewarding, not just the outcome. Now I feel like I’m a good solid ten years into being serious about being a creative person. I like it more than ever and I like the process more than ever. I’m trying to find more and more time and space and energy to do it. I’m starting to kick around even more seriously about, “What am I going to try to make?” I’m just doing completely for myself. I don’t know if there are more people in the world like you or more people in the world like me, but it doesn’t matter how many of them there are.
I would like to think that most of us are that way. Most of us have less time than we have ideas. How do you navigate that difference?
I feel like I have so much I want to get done before I die.
Wayne Dyer says, “Don’t die with your music still in you.”
Who’s Wayne Dyer?
He’s like Deepak Chopra. He gave all these talks like Tony Robbins, Deepak, crew of individuals, Hay House. One of the things we talked about in the book was by just starting the process and at least committing to some percentage of your time or effort or energy into creating that thing. It’s counter-intuitive, but for a while, my prayer or wish or whatever was for more capacity. When you think about when you learn how to drive a car. The car has to be in the right gear. The mirrors adjusted. Ten and two on the steering wheel. A year later you’ve got a cheeseburger in your hand and you’re on the phone, you’re not looking where you go. I saw this on an old lady and she’s fine and driving becomes easier. Now you can do more tasks while you’re driving. It’s the same thing. By just getting in the habit of practicing a little bit on working on one of those ideas or one of those things every third Saturday from 9:00 to 12:00, I’m going to sit in Starbucks doing some legwork. Whatever that first step is, then it becomes easier.
I tried to do something where even with Innovation Crush, I painted myself into a corner with it because I knew there’s a potential of starting something and then leaving it alone. My first day I did five interviews back-to-back. I booked the studio for five to six hours. Then I was doing a weekly show. That gave me five weeks’ worth of wiggle room. Now, I feel like there’s an expectation for me to do more. It also gave me time to adjust because I would publish one every week, which was the easy part. I did enough that I felt like I was obligated to continue to do it. I very easily could have been like, “This is a good name for a podcast. I’m going to do it one day.”
I committed to doing 100. I said I’m going to do 100 and then I’m going to re-assess. I had 25 in the can before I started to launch. Only because someone told me you should have twenty in the can before you launch.
[bctt tweet=”Creating is hard, but with practice, the process becomes rewarding, not just the outcome.” via=”no”]
Even your mechanic is different but complementary to mine. You started off with a number and said, “This is what I’m going to do.” I don’t work that way. If I say I’m going to do twenty or something, I’m like, “I don’t know,” but I will do as much as I can to paint myself into that corner because your promise is to yourself. Mine was very public. I needed to have something. I call it my ego or whatever. It’s like now I have to finish it. Especially once I got the feedback and I saw that it was actually working.
You’re providing value to people. This podcast is my closest thing to an audience of one. It’s the podcast I wanted to do. I picked the guest that I want and stuff like that. You made it easy, which I appreciate. I made my LA list and you were on it and here we are. Last question. What are you reading, watching or listening to that’s really good, that stands out even great?
This is very fresh and I’m late and this was my birthday gift to myself was I finished Breaking Bad. I started it in November. I know I’m super late to the game. Now I’m having that lonely experience.
That’s many years ago now.
It was 2011 and then it ended in 2015.
You watched the whole thing.
I watched it from November to January 5th.
The good news about that is no one answered Breaking Bad to that question. That’s excellent.
What was the peculiar answer that you had gotten?
The most common answer is Rick and Morty. Sapiens is starting to come up a lot as a book. After that, it runs the gamut. It’s all over the place.
Breaking Bad, it was great to watch this evolution. He’d been saying this whole time like, “I’m doing this for my family.” You’ve seen the show.
I did two seasons. I didn’t see the end.
You don’t need drugs and whatever it comes with the drug. He killed eleven people in prison in two minutes. It was all sorts of crazy. Then he goes into hiding and he comes out. He goes to visit his wife and he’s like, “I did this for you.” She was like, “Don’t give me that cockamamie stuff.” He’s like, “I did it for me. I was good at it. I felt alive.” It’s an interesting character shift that we all go through. You’re doing something vocally. The reason you’re saying you’re doing it might not be as accurate as to why you’re actually doing it. It could be like, “We can make a lot of money,” or whatever the surface goal is, there’s some depth when he starts saying he felt alive and it was something that he was good at. He was a high school chemistry teacher who founded a billion-dollar company but exited on his own. He had some life regrets and things that he was working through. It’s interesting also to see it all in succession as opposed to over five years. I saw it all in six weeks. Everything was very fresh in terms of the peaks and valleys of his experience. In any good piece of entertainment, there’s a reflection of you in it. Whether the reluctant hero is another meme in writing.
[bctt tweet=”Most of us have less time than we have ideas.” via=”no”]
Any good hero is a reluctant hero.
On the more serious side, I read a lot of philosophical books. I read Paulo Coelho’s book called Manuscripts Found in Accra. It’s this town near Babylon is about to be destroyed and invaded by some soldiers. They all gather around this stranger who’s been living there for the last twenty years or whatever and took up a humble job, but they know he’s wise and he’s seen the world. They start asking him all these questions you would probably ask if you’re about to die. What about love? What about this? In every chapter, somebody asked a question and he answered it very politically. One of them was like, “Talk to us about death.” He’s like, “Most people say ‘Live everyday like it’s your last.’” He was like, “I prefer to live everyday like it’s my first, where everything is full of wonder. There’s a sense of wonder everywhere I go.” The examples he used are like that short. He’s like, “Think about the water that ran through the rivers and grew the cotton, the person that picked it up. Then through all that process, it’s landed on you and it’s the perfect fit for you and it’s yours.” It’s having this sense of depth and realizing this water bottle is just a water bottle but in some cases, there are some other levels to it. That was my book choice.
Chris, I appreciate you doing this. This was super fun. I knew it would be. I went back and listened to our podcast, The Hardy Har Boys. That’s what you called it.
That’s one of my favorite puns, The Hardy Har Boys, because you are humor detectives.
This is great. Thanks so much.
- Chris Denson
- Innovation Crush Podcast
- Crushing the Box: 10 Essential Rules for Breaking Essential Rules
- Wil Anderson – Previous episode
- Good to Great
- The Humor Code
- How I Built This
- Manuscripts Found in Accra
- The Hardy Har Boys – Peter McGraw episode in Innovation Crush Podcast
About Chris Denson
Chris Denson is the host of the Innovation Crush podcast. He is an innovator, marketer, and recovering comedian. He is the author of the Amazon #1 bestselling book, “Crushing the Box: 10 Essential Rules for Breaking Essential Rules.”