Ideas that are "One in a Million"

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Ideas that are "One in a Million"

How to use your creativity like Missy Elliott

Tech is obsessed with innovation. Everyone wants to be the next person developing a genius project in their parents’ garage... that makes them sort of ridiculously rich by accident.

HINT: You a) have to have a lot of privilege and b) be pretty creative for that to happen.

I think tech could learn a lot from their friends in the arts. I’m not saying you are going to create the next Apple or Google because of this wee blog, but everyone could benefit from a little cross pollination.

Ok, so let’s talk about Missy Elliott. You can know nothing about 90’s Hip Hop and RnB and you would still have been touched by her work in some way. Although Missy came up in an area in Virginia relatively unknown for music, her influence has changed the industry.

Have you listened to Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, or Beyonce? Then chances are good you’ve knowingly or unknowingly listened to the legendary work of Missy and her production partner Timbaland. Missy Elliott herself has more platinum albums than ANY OTHER female rapper. You know she’s doing something right.

I’m a fan of Missy and her music, but I didn’t really think about her writing style or how it might come in contact with my work as a software engineer until I was listening to an interview with her on the Broken Record podcast a few weeks ago.

As I was listening to the podcast, it really struck me how Missy Elliott and Timbaland’s production style is a paragon of the creative process. The conversation between her and Rick Rubin is worth teasing apart and will provide us with some key pointers to unbounded creativity. (I would recommend listening to the whole thing, if you have the time, especially if you like Missy and/or music.)

Are you ready to put that thing down, flip it and reverse it?

The podcast covers Missy Elliott and Timbaland’s whole musical career, but we’re here for the creativity. I pulled out the following lessons which I think summarize how well those two work together and have created a sound like none other. They also are powerful tools innovators in tech can take directly back to their keyboards.

The 4 Lessons of Creativity from Missy Elliot

  1. Isolate yourself from outside influences
  2. Be willing to be curious and play
  3. Be willing to take big risks
  4. Trust your gut

1. Isolating yourself from outside influences

The podcast makes a big deal about how seriously Missy and Tim took their pact to only listen to their own music when they were creating albums, especially their first album with Aaliyah. Missy said this is still her practice. She just doesn’t listen to other people’s music when she is making music.

She basically says she doesn’t want to hear what other people think is "hot" right now while she’s trying to make something that she knows is “hot”. Ultimately she needs to hear herself think, hear her own voice.

We could all use a little bit more of this. No matter what we’re doing, if you spend too much time reading other people’s thoughts, you start to repeat them. And then everything starts to sound the same, like one big echo chamber.

You’ve seen it… all the new apps start to look the same, there’s only 3-4 different website layouts that people really use, there’s an adjustment towards a mean. Which is fine, but it’s not novel or creative. It’s not going to set the world aflame.

So how do we hear ourselves think, even for a little while? Not everyone has the opportunity to shut out the whole world, but turning off the TV and taking social media off your phone can be a good start. Give yourself an hour a day free from other people’s thoughts. You’ll be surprised what comes up.

2. Be willing to be curious and play

Missy talks about how different songs and musical styles influenced her way of thinking about music. As she talks, you can just hear her natural curiosity for why some songs work and some don’t coming through. She breaks down Donna Summer's "Last Dance", a song that starts slow and then turns into a dance song with no warning. She’s so curious (still) about “how” that works and “why” that works. Curiosity drives her creativity.

Not only does curiosity help you figure out how to create the things you want to create, it also gives you more ideas. When you start asking “why?” and “how?” a lot, you start to bring in a lot of information. If you think about it as a root system coming out from a seed, and the seed is the first question, those roots just start growing in every direction. Pretty soon you have enough roots to support a whole system of ideas.

Play goes hand-in-hand with curiosity. Missy’s stories about Timbaland show that what he didn’t have in technical musical ability he made up for in play and feel. She talks about how a lot of the more interesting sounds from their early work together came from the random animal sounds available on the Casio piano he had. Tim played until it felt right, and he made amazing things.

Much like the open-ended creativity from Part One, there was no musical objective to reach, and no boundaries either. So Missy and Timbaland were able to create music no one could have predicted.

(Except maybe Aaliyah...)

3. Be willing to take big risks

In the podcast, Rick Rubin asks Missy if she ever uses she writes for herself for the artists she produces for, or vice versa. She kind of scoffs at his question, pointing out how risky her sound has been, i.e.: “There’s no one else I could imagine saying, ‘badonka-donk-donk.’” Realistically, Missy Elliott has been taking amazing creative risks her whole career. Chalk it up to the creative isolation from point one. There was no one to tell her and Timabland “No, it won’t work. Stop, before you ruin everything!”

She points to other instances in the music industry where taking risks has paid off. Specifically in the creation of the Michael Jackson “Thriller” music video (For a refresher on Thriller, click here.). She says everyone had to be aligned and committed to the risk in that room to make it work because the concept was so different and weird. If anyone wavered, one of the most memorable music videos of all time might have hit the cutting room floor.

Creativity will push you into taking risks, because you’ll be in uncharted territory. You’ll have to try things that haven’t been tried. Sometimes your team, your partner, (your dog!) might look at you askance. You’ll have to stand up for your wacky idea. Sometimes you might fail. Which leads us to our last point.

4. Trust your gut

Intuition is such a valuable skill and it is hard to teach. Whether you are debugging some code and you just have a feeling about where the issue is, or you have a really good feeling about how users are going to respond to your before it's launched, trusting your gut goes way beyond creativity.

Missy Elliott shares a time she refused to finalize a song because there was something missing. She knew in her gut that the song wouldn’t be complete without that last little piece. She forced Tim to go up and down the keyboard until they found the missing riff. This was the difference between a mediocre record and a multi-platinum record.

Maybe you aren’t planning on being a multi-platinum recording artist, but maybe you ignore your gut sense and instead listen to your teammates, outside influences, deadlines. It’s not worth it. Don’t get fired or anything, but standing up for what your creative intuition is telling you almost always returns a better result.

So, did you learn how to accept more creativity into your life from our dear friend Melissa E.? I hope you did. She certainly knows her stuff. Her example is just one version of these lessons. You could listen to authors, musicians, painters, inventors, etc, from across time and the globe and you would get similar suggestions.

But what about the actual ideas, where do those come from? Why are they so persistent sometimes? Why do some people have the same idea at the same time?

There’s one final installment of this creativity series next week, and it’s going to throw your mind WIDE OPEN.