Freeing Your Innate Creativity with Peter Himmelman


Exclusive Interview with: Peter Himmelman

With timeless albums like This Father’s Day and From Strength to Strength, Peter Himmelman won a permanent place in the hearts of countless rock fans. Now, the Grammy and Emmy-nominated musician channels his decades of experience in the creative arts to help companies build trust and resilience across their organization, fostering teams that are stronger, more innovative and more engaged.

Himmelman is the founder of Big Muse, a creative consultancy whose clients include the Gap, Adobe, McDonald’s, and other Fortune 500s. His bestselling book, Let Me Out is a practical guide to overcoming self-doubt and turning your ideas into action.

…When seen through a more appropriate lens, a wider lens if you will, creativity is not the arts. It is a natural state and condition that arises in all human beings when their level of fear is diminished.

SPEAKING.COM: What misconceptions do you find business leaders have about creativity?

HIMMELMAN: It’s not only business leaders that hold gross misconceptions about creativity; it’s people in general. Creativity is something most people relegate to the arts – things like dance, poetry, and music, for instance. A problem arises when business leaders share these same misconceptions. Their thinking often goes like this: “I get that the arts are a wonderful thing, but in terms of our business — which is focused on the bottom line — these kinds of ‘creative-considerations’ are tangential, or superfluous to our agenda.”

It’s easy to understand their train of logic. If creativity is “arts-related” only, then what these leaders are saying is largely true; they have no strategic necessity within a business setting. But when seen through a more appropriate lens, a wider lens if you will, creativity is not the arts. It is a natural state and condition that arises in all human beings when their level of fear is diminished. Unfortunately, creativity has become something of a buzzword, a term bandied about without truly understanding its depth.

What we posit in Big Muse – and neuroscience bears this out – is that creativity is what happens when a human being is without fear. That is to say, that when a person is in a fearless condition, he or she will evince whatever skill-sets they’ve acquired throughout their lives, with far less interference from the parts of the brain (specifically, the amygdala or the limbic brain), which exist to keep a person alive in threatening environments. From an evolutionary standpoint, those threats once had to do with things like an enraged mastodon or a hungry saber tooth tiger. These days the threats may come from a hypercritical boss or a peer. In each case however, the brain is not in an imaginative place and remains in a purely defensive posture, one that is myopically focused only on immediate survival.

It is impossible for the human being to react, using the imaginative and the protective faculties simultaneously. Creativity then, especially as it relates to the needs of business leaders, is about having people in their employ that feel free to express their innate genius, to evince their ideas, and to imagine solutions for products and services that don’t yet exist – the latter, being the very things that every business needs to grow and prosper in this era of extreme disruption.

SPEAKING.COM: Some people always seem to be able to put their ideas into motion. What traits do these kind of people have in common?

HIMMELMAN: There was a Harvard study published a decade ago, which showed that the most effective and creative people, from Einstein to Bill Gates, all shared the following three traits:

1.) Each of them set aside a time for daily reflection —whether that involved prayer, meditation, or journaling.

2.) They leveraged their strengths, in part by working with a mindset of accomplishing small pieces of their large goals each day. In this way, they were daunted less often by seeing their goals as insurmountable.

3.) Lastly, they were all excellent storytellers. They had the ability to envision an idea coming to fruition and were skilled in the art of giving that nascent idea life though a process of first, envisioning a positive outcome, telling themselves and others stories about their vision, and ultimately using the power of their story to enlist the resources necessary for making their vision manifest.

SPEAKING.COM: What is MARV and how can it be used to improve corporate cultures and increase productivity?

HIMMELMAN: MARV is Big Muse’s trademarked metaphor for the voice of fear in every one of us, that same amygdalic fear, which I described above. I call that fearful voice MARV and it serves as an acronym for Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability. Its effectiveness lies in the fact that it is purveyed as something humorous and self-effacing, as opposed to some kind of pedantic, scientific jargon. When people first see the cartoon image of MARV, it becomes very apparent just how deleterious “he” has been in thwarting them from pursuing their goals.

I firmly believe that the hardest part of starting on a project is the act of sitting one’s rear end in a chair!

SPEAKING.COM: In your opinion, is getting started on a project the hardest part of launching a new initiative?

HIMMELMAN: I’m aware that what I’m about to say may sound odd or even glib to many people, but I firmly believe that the hardest part of starting on a project is the act of sitting one’s rear end in a chair!

When my book Let Me Out was published last year and I received my advance copy, my first thought was, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing, I’ve written a book and it’s coming out on Penguin!’ My second thought was less pleasant: ‘Holy crap, what if this is just a worthless bunch of words?’ Clearly that was MARV speaking to me. What I did next was something I will never forget. I set out to “test” one of the main points in the book, a point specifically related to the question of getting started on an idea.

I had long wanted to fly a plane. It was something I thought about over the decades, but because of my many fears I never took action on the idea. I never took the goal from the ephemeral to the actual. My “test” amounted to something so simple that I almost hesitate to share it with you. It started with a question: ‘Could I actually fly a plane by using a technique from my own book?’

What I did that day was this; I took seven steps across my office and sat my butt in my chair. That was the pivotal step, the one that literally changed everything for me. It was a powerful combination of the very two things that underpin every creative idea that gets manifested: the ‘physical action’ (the walking and the sitting) and the ‘intellectual concentration’ (the urgency, and intention).

Once in my chair, I Google-searched flight times in Santa Monica where I live, got a person on the phone, and scheduled a test flight. Less than two months later, I was flying a Cessna 176 Skyhawk, over the 118 Freeway in California’s San Fernando Valley. As I brought the plane to 4500 feet and leveled off, I realized how I had gotten to this place I once only dreamed about; I simply walked across my office and sat in a chair!

SPEAKING.COM: In order to spend more time with your family, you traded in a rock star life for a more “corporate-style” job composing scores for television and film. How did that environmental change affect your creativity?

HIMMELMAN: Great question. Creativity is always a paradox. For the fruits of creativity to make itself apparent, it must consist of two seemingly contradictory aspects; the first being an open “MARV-free” mindset, and the second being, a rigid structure. Think of the open mind-set as rain and the rigid structure as the bucket. One without the other leaves a would-be creator with nothing but a useless puddle.

Being immersed in the high-paced world of scoring for film and television on hit shows like Fox’s Bones, or the CBS hit, Judging Amy, provided me with a kind of structure I never had before. The demands and the workloads were intense and the requirement for more and more speed was constant. What I learned was that if I could keep MARV at bay, that is, keep my mind free of the fear of failure, I could, not only get quality work done in a timely manner, but I could actually harness the power of that tension to do more and better work.

When people feel as though they can exercise their volition and seize ownership over their work, their ability to handle challenges like deadlines — and even to evince strikingly new innovations — increases several times over.

SPEAKING.COM: What advice do you have for people who need to constantly be creative in a corporate environment?

HIMMELMAN: It’s another great question, although I’d change it a bit. I think the first thing that needs to be considered is whether a company’s leadership is (or is not) providing an environment that’s the least fear-inducing possible. Second, I’d want to know how much leeway the leadership gives to the people they hired to be creative, to take risks and to take initiative. The thing that puts the brakes on creativity — perhaps more than all others — is when we disempower people from having an emotional investment in their work.

On the contrary, when people feel as though they can exercise their volition and seize ownership over their work, their ability to handle challenges like deadlines — and even to evince strikingly new innovations — increases several times over. That said, if you find yourself working for a company where just the opposite is taking place, one in which you feel you have no stake in outcomes, good or bad, my first suggestion is to find another job.

If that’s not possible, start on a process of daily reflection, of taking things little by little, and of envisioning and articulating a better future for yourself. Perhaps within that process you will find that you can have a positive influence on the culture of your workplace.

SPEAKING.COM: What are a few ways leaders can foster a work culture that’s conducive to creativity?

HIMMELMAN: Leaders generally hire the right people. The people they employ have gone through a thorough vetting process, and they have been judged to possess the right intelligence, and specific acumen. The problems happen when inflexible rules become outmoded, when processes that no longer work are still in effect. Perhaps those outmoded processes were expensive to create, or perhaps there are ego issues surrounding the need to preserve them long after their utility has passed; the reasons for hanging on to things that no longer work are many, and often complicated.

A good leader will by nature, be skilled at self-reflection, at empathy, and at understanding the need to give their employees enough room to make decisions in the spheres and areas of their expertise. Again, this hearkens back to the widely accepted idea that human beings become disengaged when they feel they have no ability to channel their creativity and to make a positive change in their environment.

As one specific idea, I’d suggest holding sessions in which established hierarchies disappear. This is something that’s done in successful militaries around the world. Leaders meet with the people under their command and when they do, each participant removes their stripes and stars. Then, instead of merely making it safe for subordinates to speak their minds, they go one step further; they make it unsafe not to speak their minds. In other words, there is a reward system in place for those who express their feelings and opinions about the challenges they face, about ways to improve their organization, and even how the leaders themselves have done things that are deleterious to the functioning of the organization. This means of course, that the egos of the best leaders are kept in check, that they are not only willing to listen, but rather they demand this kind of frank information.

Music brings people into direct, visceral contact with their child-like selves. Creativity, collaboration and trust, are all evinced exclusively by the child-self.

SPEAKING.COM: How is writing a song in one of your workshops going to help an organization be more productive when they go back to the office?

HIMMELMAN: Songwriting is used in Big Muse sessions, not because we’re trying to make anyone a hit songwriter, but because it is such a perfect metaphor. We’ve all heard about left and right-brained thinking, and while efficacy of this theory is debated among neuroscientists, the idea of fusing form and structure is very relevant to all sorts of work. Every strategic plan, every product roll-out, every means of communicating and sharing ideas, works within this principle.

When we work with companies, the song-writing piece of our workshops is usually the culminating metaphor. If an organization wanted to improve co-collaboration, we would focus the writing of the songs around that theme —likely they would be written co-collaboratively. If the focus of a particular off-site centered on innovation we might use the song-writing portion to create an open child-like mindset to envision possibilities not yet evident. In each case, music is used as a disruptor, and I – and the rock and roll band I often have in tow – are also disruptive in the sense that we serve as alien eyes, creating a mood that is completely dissimilar from most normal corporate environments.

We do this deliberately, strategically, so that rote habits and behaviors can be left behind, and (for the moment at least) left behind to make space for other ideas that can be experimented with, or played with, as it were. And here’s the most important thing: Music brings people into direct, visceral contact with their child-like selves. Creativity, collaboration and trust, are all evinced exclusively by the child-self.

Paradoxically, mastery — something most of us strive for and admire in others — can also be the greatest inhibitor to our personal and professional growth.

SPEAKING.COM: Why is Kid-Thinking significant and what can people do to improve their Kid-Thinking?

HIMMELMAN: As I’ve just mentioned above, albeit without that specific term (which comes from my book), Kid-thinking is how we come to see the world as a place of possibility and abundance. One of the best means of encountering Kid-Thinking is to place yourself beyond your mastery. Paradoxically, mastery —something most of us strive for and admire in others — can also be the greatest inhibitor to our personal and professional growth. Instead of it being a reflection of our Kid-Thinking, it is too often used as a protective device which shields us from our vulnerability, and without vulnerability we have only inertia.

But as most of us know, it’s painful to feel like a beginner. A year ago while my wife and I were in New Orleans in City Park, I happened to hear an amazing Argentinian guitarist named Martin Moretto. I was leaving the next day and I asked him if he’d be willing to teach me some of what he’d been playing over Skype when I got back home.

Our lessons were sometimes painful for me. There’s no better word to describe how I often felt. As a professional guitarist, it was hard to feel like a beginner again, struggling to learn the new techniques Martin had been showing me. I was however, simultaneously cognizant that the ignominious “beginner-feeling” I was experiencing was more than likely going to propel me into new musical places, which it absolutely did!

SPEAKING.COM: You’ve said that you let two years go by before you acted on your idea to start Big Muse. What was stopping you and how did you finally give yourself the push you needed to get the ball rolling?

HIMMELMAN: MARV was stopping me and I hadn’t even created the metaphor yet! To get the ball rolling I did exactly the same things I did in the Cessna example I shared with you. One morning, I just walked to my desk and started coming up with logo ideas and names. It doesn’t sound like much, but when we take our ideas from the ephemeral to the practical, even the smallest, most incremental movements forward make a universe of difference.

To bring innovation speaker and musician Peter Himmelman to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com

© SPEAKING.com, published on June 17, 2018

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