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The Beatles Gift That Keeps on Giving

How to live, work, and breathe creativity.

Key points

  • Creativity often thrives when you're having serious fun.
  • Dissonance and disagreement can fuel creative work.
  • Help from an "outsider" can benefit your in-house creative work.
Source: pixabay

Peter Jackson gives us an early Christmas present this year with Get Back, an eight-hour Beatles master class on living, working, and breathing creativity. Without getting Lennon in trouble again, the documentary really sings when we meet another divine child. With a tilt of her blonde bob cut and a glint in her blue eyes, 7-year-old Heather McCartney jolts Ringo with a rimshot on his snare and he starts as if she just discovered rock and roll itself. Following suit in the high jinks, John incorporates the alphabet song into the latest verse while Paul bounces Heather on his lap like an electric horse in a full-circle moment of improvised creativity. What seems like goofing off is the Beatles' magical ingredient for what they do best: charting new territory while being utterly at home.

Get Back conjures many things: returning to childhood brimming with curiosity, the productive period at the apex of one’s powers, or a magical time, like Christmas itself, when families come together after disconnection and discord. Get Back stands for all that is messy and magnificent about the creative process. Those who have built startups and developed innovative technologies know how many ideas get thrown away after trying to make them work, and then something clicks. The same epiphanies occur in therapy when we’re improvising on our inner chord changes and all of sudden, the noise becomes music.

How can the Beatles help all of us—engineers, musicians, techies, leaders, and everyday folks—live and lead creatively?

I sat down with Shantha Mohan, Ph.D., a Carnegie Mellon software engineering leader, mentor, and author of the forthcoming book Leadership Lessons with The Beatles: Tips and Tools to Becoming Better at Leading, to get essential takeaways from this time-capsule offering from the greatest rock and roll band in history.

Get Playfully Productive

When stuck finding a lyric or the direction and rhythm of a tune, the Beatles mix it up. They sing in silly voices, insert off-the-wall lyrics, switch instruments, and keep trying. They hew to the cardinal rule of improvisation: keep saying yes and hold faith that you’ll find something if you stay flexible, fun, and free. Throw all your expertise at it and shoot for the moon: whether it’s writing a report for work, creating the proof of concept for your new product, or sorting through the unruly cast of characters jostling for attention in your psyche. Try another take, even when you feel utterly lost.

Don’t worry, the Beatles hit dead-ends and blocks just like you. They persist in working out a tune, and when it doesn’t come, they get frustrated, feel the time pressure, and doubt themselves. However, they playfully persevere. They don’t hesitate to throw away unworkable ideas and when utterly adrift, they return to the masters for inspiration. Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan all nurture the Beatles’ hope that something new will be born in the dark and inevitable winter of the creative process. Besides, it’s usually right in front of your face: What is the rooftop concert that you’ve been failing to see in your latest project?

Work the Wobble

For years, we imagined the dramatic fall of the Beatles in their last days together: the obnoxious intrusions of partners, petty fights, and insurmountable creative differences. Get Back settles the score, showing us the key to their creativity: working the wobble. From the Wright Brothers to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, organizational psychologist Adam Grant shows how crucial it is to disagree without getting personal, to use edginess as a creative catalyst. The Beatles had this skill down as well as any guitar riff.

Each makes sure things don’t get out of hand, correcting it just in the nick of time. When George leaves the group, John backs him up, confronting Paul on his over-enthusiastic and methodical style in a playfully teasing way. He knows Paul is a lovable perfectionist, but wants to wake him up to their larger task and deeper connection.

Back from his hiatus, George too transcends his own grievance and harnesses it into new ideas to move the group forward. He helps Ringo with the evolution of Octopus’s Garden and gets Paul to stand up so he can get extra juice for his solos on Get Back. Every member shows an interpersonal intelligence that goes far above and beyond the musical genius they each possessed, sending the message that there’s no way we can do this well, if we don’t do it together.

Get Help From Your Friends

Enter the benevolent presence of Billy Preston, the Beatles' old pal from their early days in Hamburg, and a virtual Carl Rogers of unconditional positive regard. Struggling for weeks to get the right approach to Don’t Let Me Down and with each other, Preston lifts them up with his soulful electric piano groove, providing the love and containment needed to get back to work.

Sometimes we need a compassionate outside band member, like a good friend, colleague, or counselor, to guide us back to ourselves. These are the people that help us find home when we feel out of our element, give us the courage to take risks again, and remind us of the true meaning of fellowship.

All We Need Is Creativity

The Beatles stand for the togetherness and love that is the vanishing point of our creative endeavors, what we keep aspiring towards and know is just out of our reach until the next song. Get Back gives us a rare glimpse of how to bring out the best in ourselves and each other, how creativity itself becomes the divine light we’re all looking to guide us. Fifty years in the making, in the throes of a pandemic and ubiquitous discord, this Christmas gift comes right on time, as perfect as the concert that shouts it from the rooftops.

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