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How to Nurture Your Creative Mindset Like a Rock Star

Three rock-and-roll stories of creativity, vulnerability, and innovation.

Key points

  • The willingness to be vulnerable, a key trait of artists, can help us champion more innovative and creative mindsets.
  • Research shows that when we rely on the power of relatedness and acceptance without threats, we are more likely to achieve our goals.
  • Putting purpose first, embracing discomfort, and committing to open-ended experiments are critical characteristics of creative success stories.
David Cassolato/Pexels
Source: David Cassolato/Pexels

After nearly two decades as a business school professor, the pull to step out of my comfort zone was growing stronger. If I was going to continue meaningfully helping students and clients become more creative in their thinking, some fresh inspiration was required. Having reached a dead-end gleaning insights from corporate types and "biz speak" specialists, I turned to my friend, writer and healer Dany Lyne, who advised: “When you lose the plot, you turn to art.”

It did not take long to discover how much business people and other professionals could learn from rock stars and other artists. After spending time with a very diverse group of creative folks, I realized that they all shared one trait: a willingness to be vulnerable. It became apparent that vulnerability may be the not-so-secret path to a more innovative and creative mindset.

Recent research shows that those who reject vulnerability, choosing only to use the power of threats or promise of financial rewards to get what they want, fail in achieving their objectives over the long term. Why? Because showing power instead of vulnerability has an alienating effect, stifling creativity and discouraging cooperation.

Wielding instrumental power demotivates the people who are best positioned to help in a value-creating process. But when we rely on the power of relatedness and acceptance without threats, we are far more likely to achieve our goals. This path allows us to persuade others to offer their much-needed support.

So what can rock artists teach us about the power of embracing vulnerability to drive creative results?

Source: meo/Pexels

Put the vision first

Jeff Coffin, saxophone player for the Dave Matthews Band, shared a counterintuitive insight, at least for contemporary business thinking. He explained to me how musicians innovate in what is ultimately a service industry by putting the customer third—not first.

Jeff elaborated that in a musician's creative mindset, the music always comes first. If attention turns to something other than the music, then the group needs to reset. In the Dave Matthews Band, everybody needs to have the same creative mindset, of serving the music first, then the musicians who are playing the music, and only after that, the audience/customers.

This doesn’t negate the importance of the customer. Jeff acknowledged that the audience is a big part of their success. The music would not be the same if there was nobody to listen to it. But the creative process demands honouring the music and participating musicians before anything else.

I imagine this holds true for any creative endeavour. Our primary commitment must be to the larger purpose in play. We need to focus our attention on what we are trying to create and the people that we are creating with.

By putting purpose and people first, we are more likely to create something worthwhile and valuable. But if we put the customer first in our mindset, allowing their needs to trump the beauty or integrity of our purpose, or the needs of our creative partners, we are unlikely to create something meaningful.

Embrace discomfort

Nels Cline, guitarist for Wilco, opened up to me about the fear even seasoned performers have when exposing their vulnerability to an audience. It's a natural reaction when taking a creative leap full of so many unknowns and uncertainties, where the risk of an embarrassing misstep looms large.

But the creative mindset of musicians like himself empowers them to stick with the discomfort. By embracing the discomfort, accepting a moment of vulnerability instead of rejecting it, the stage is set for radical explorations and the possibility of creating something transformational.

Cline explained that successful improvisers need to be open in their thinking. The spontaneous creation of these novel sounds only emerges when embracing vulnerability and discomfort. He advised that everyone should allow themselves to experience creativity without overthinking. We need to open up to feelings we label as weird or scary. If we’re not feeling a little uncomfortable, a little uncertain, a little vulnerable, then we are probably not in the process of creating something amazing.

Commit to the journey, not the outcome

Lee Ranaldo, founding guitarist of Sonic Youth, taught me how a healthy dose of romanticism, vulnerability, and commitment to the journey is a good way to keep on track. For him, the creative mindset spurs the quest for ideas. This quest, in turn, encourages commitment to a project even when there is uncertainty about the outcome.

Focusing on outcomes can actually be self-defeating. When we worry about “getting off-track,” or devalue the journey of creativity while on it because we cannot see the tangible outcomes, then there is little chance of being successful. For Sonic Youth, innovation came from threatening the stability of things, making creative mistakes along the way, but ultimately pushing the culture forward.

Being vulnerable has allowed these artists to put their visions first, embrace discomfort, and commit to ambiguous creative journeys. In the end, these traits enable them to achieve a level of creative success with meaningful cultural impacts. All of us, whatever our work, can learn from their experiences on how to best nurture a more innovative and creative mindset within ourselves.