Dostoevsky X Self-Interest: Birthing Cool

“Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky”, Oil on canvas. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thinking through Wednesday’s post, Parker x Process: A Framework for Innovation, it seems like there was a missing component—how to ensure your improvisation strikes the proper note with the audience. Cool is an elusive and mystical equation, and there is not a neat formula to solve for it.

This blog, in general, has been about crafting an approach toward innovation. Before today, we have been chipping at components of successful innovation, but thinking through the subject of cool brings everything previously discussed together in a more holistic way. By exploring this subject with me, you will begin to see the interrelatedness between the pieces of our prior discussions.

Many businesses begin the innovation process with front-end customer feedback. But, is this approach backwards? Listen to your customers? If everybody is listening—who is speaking? A similar approach, design thinking, puts users first by observing and anticipating customer’s latent needs and designing solutions around constraints, and this seems as near to a “silver bullet” approach as I have ever encountered.

But, I have been thinking about the long-term outcome design-thinking would have on our world. What would our lives be like if we could fast-forward to a place where the entire planet has been redesigned using the human-centered approach? People would have exactly the things they need, and technology development would keep pace only with new design requirements.  It seems, then, like this is a fitting way of putting the relationship: human-centered design thinking: innovation as the slow-food movement: agricultural development.

Do you see the relationship clearly? In both cases, customer satisfaction is higher than ever before and people feel good about consciously making smart choices, but can simply “designing” solutions meet the needs of sustaining a society long term? And, more importantly, should we even be concerned with reaching this realm (see Skvorecky + Powell x Manipulation: Manufacturing Need)?

I realize I may have completely thrown you off—this post was about making stuff cool, not saving the planet, right? Well, I’ll tie it together by saying this—I don’t believe technical development is a complete answer either. But when I was imagining this perfectly designed planet, my mind went back to the Huxley x Altruism: Business Good or Evil post, which discussed that the existence of both good and evil is precisely what makes good recognizable and desirable, and evil recognizable and abhorable. So, imagine, what happens when neat, perfect design conquers the world? Well, to me, it sounds pretty user-friendly, but it also sounds pretty boring.  Is this the world we want? Maybe. But, I also believe humans have an innate desire for imperfection. What is imperfect is often charming, and sometimes even genius. The Italians call it sprezzatura, roughly translated as the art of charming nonchalance–making the difficult seem easy and intuitive.  To me, sprezzatura is synomous with cool.

This brings us back to Parker and that modern style he created.  His improvisations were never neat, and his musical descendants forged new paths that were often off the map—sometimes even unbearable to listen to (See John Zorn). But, there was something beautiful about the imperfection, something magical about letting notes fly. In fact, unrestrained playing is the only way to reach  the “blue note,” which is an off-the-scale anomaly improvising musicians must break traditional rules to find.

Parker, and Italian rakes have proved that these “cool” outcomes arise out of more than just technical innovation, or collaborative design thinking—the other part of the human element involved is self-interest. Think about what makes your favorite thing cool. Is it the impeccable design? Maybe, if you are in love with your Macbook. But don’t you also love the crowded corner bistro with the awkward layout where everybody knows your name and the recipes are cobbled together by a 3rd or 4th generation Italian chef? Places like that have character. They are fresh, exciting experiences. And the person who designed them didn’t know a thing about you—they cared only about opening up their dream place and doing it their way. The result? Undeniable, timeless cool.  Fyodor Dostoevsky speaks of the virtue and consequences of self-interest in his novel Notes from the Underground:

One’s own free, untrammeled desires, one’s own whim…all of this is precisely which fits no classification, and which is constantly knocking all systems and theories to hell.

And where did our sages get the idea that man must have normal, virtuous desires? What man needs is only his own independent wishing, whatever that independence may cost him, and wherever it may lead.

Interestingly, the novel was rejected by Soviet literary critics because of its rejection of the idea of Socialist utopianism, which is strangely similar to the idea of democratic design, except more practical since it is enterprise based. Another of Dostoevsky’s claims is that man’s needs cannot be satisfied through technological progress alone. I recommend reading the book if you want to explore the issue more fully, but for our exploration’s sake, we need only make the connection that non-economic self-interest (i.e. interest other than greed) is a necessary component to the “cool” equation. We might talk about our Macbooks, but what truly keeps things fresh is that café, or a visually arresting graffiti display, or anything else that was created in the name of self-interest. We look at these things with awe and wonder—these are the things that a group of design-thinkers never would have created. They are the things that product engineers never would have dreamed. But, they are equally compelling and desirable to their audiences.

Rather than being intuitive, people look on and speak of the imagination it must require to create such a thing, while experiencing only the simple beauty of its charming imperfection. These things stain our souls with desire for more—and, in their absence, we long not for them, but for experiences that generate that same swelling emotion within us of seeing our fellow man’s pure, unadulterated work. What matters is not what customers think, but what they experience. What makes you cool? It isn’t necessarily a better widget—it’s about developing your own style, and finding people that dig it. The question is not who are you creating for; take the artists approach—create for yourself and then find who wants what you have before running out of money. I once believed this approach was ignorant because I am often a perfectionist, but now I see what a vital role the imperfection of self-interest plays in sustaining innovation.

Have you ever considered this question of cool? Is there any sprezzatura about what you create? Are you worried about perfection? Or, do you create without inhibition? Have you ever let a note fly because it felt right? Or are you too worried about what everybody else will think? Do you also see then, how birthing cool, making it real, enhancing interaction, innovating within a framework, seeing both good and evil, and manufacturing need are all interrelated components worth exploring? Now would be a good time to review—our conversation is only beginning.

As a side note, I believe what is most interesting about the progression of this blog, is the visible connection between ideas of great authors. For example, using Rand’s philosophies as evidence for this post, rather than Dostoevsky’s would bear no consequence on the concept of birthing cool, as it relates to business. Rand believed men should not be slaves to the audience they create for. I hope you see this as proof that the concepts we are exploring are timeless, no matter what your business pertains to.

Books Mentioned:

Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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9 thoughts on “Dostoevsky X Self-Interest: Birthing Cool

  1. “non-economic self-interest”…is it possible that this idea could ever exist at a higher level of business (i.e. larger companies)? I could possibly see this applying at the level of an artist or maybe an inventor (such as what you spoke of), but to find that “cool” at a larger scale seems well out of reach for human nature. Funny thing about “cool”, it hardly ever is sustainable. And for companies like Apple, cool = money. How/where does the aspect of serving the customer meet this self-interest? Do some people (like Steve Jobs, Picasso) get lucky because their self-interest meets/creates/intersects the interest of everybody else? I hope this doesn’t come off as combative, but I find this interesting in the sense that I’ve always been taught what you have, which is, “businesses begin the innovation process with front-end customer feedback,” or even the design thinking ideal. The artist’s approach seems often to be the failing approach in my eyes. The consequences of “one’s own free, untrammeled desires, one’s own whim…all of this is precisely which fits no classification” all seem to make the “coolness” add up to zero. But, once again, all this stuff is a great read, bringing the relevance and irrelevance of thinkers throughout time to the surface and allowing the comparisons and interrelations to show…the propagation of thought.

    • Interesting, and frankly, very challenging thoughts, Haden. I appreciate them, and thought that might be an objection. To start, I want to be clear– I am not advocating the “artist’s approach” as the best approach, simply saying that it has its place– and an important role in initiating and sustaining innovation. As I said, this is new territory to me, because my business instincts previously made me uncomfortable with the idea. Now, historically, the artist’s approach is, as you say, limited to artists and inventors. But, this doesn’t necessarily limit profitability, which was why I mentioned “finding your audience” as an important part of the equation. The reasoning was similar to Emerson’s reasoning, “speak your latent conviction and it shall be universal sense.” His argument is that there are certain elements of the human mind that are united, and that we share and value many of the same ideals– but at the same time crave to see the uniqueness of other’s interpretation and display of these ideals– which means we can’t arrive at these outcomes if we are only listening. Emerson also believed, to quote loosely, all of poetry was written before time, and man’s job was simply to record it faithfully. Though, many would try to perfect the words, and thus, miswrite the poem. Here again you see evidence in the belief in a collective soul. Contrary to the argument of less profitability in fact, an empirical study might prove it more profitable, because the idea or ‘thing’ is more proprietary than in any other situation. Consider a Picasso, as you say, which began it’s life humbly, but is now worth millions because Picasso found a patron. The artist might not have seen all of the profit, but the impact of cubism on the art of today– now that is immeasurable. And, what about the money generated from artists who followed in this style during its popularity? But something else you hinted at was practicality. How practical is it, really, to depend on this sort of innovation? Well, that’s a great point. It is difficult to gauge. The inventor’s and artist’s approach certainly is sporadic. My personal philosophy is to take these ideas and blend them. I think it could be a wise strategy to trust perceived market gaps, and rather than over-validating and missing the opportunity, creating something that strikes your own fancy to fill it. I think the other important idea is the concept of awareness. The main purpose of my writing is to make people aware that they even have a position about these issues, regardless of which side they are on, because so many people simply work toward a job description, or quarterly results without questioning alternate approaches. Injecting the artist’s approach into a bigger business is a tough proposition, many times because it simply isn’t considered a valid approach, and even if it were, there would be status-quo opposition to it. At least in design thinking, the innovation is, at some level, personal creation. I would even say the i-pad is an interesting blend of the approaches. People didn’t neccesarily ask for it, but it was designed around a perceived need, and with the traditional Apple flair. I’ll have to think on strategies more, and hopefully generate a new post with some good ideas. What do you think? Any good ideas?

  2. “Contrary to the argument of less profitability in fact, an empirical study might prove it more profitable, because the idea or ‘thing’ is more proprietary than in any other situation.”

    This is, I think, one of the most important things that causes an artist’s/inventor’s approach to work. The created work, while created by a single person (which is ownership in itself), compels and demands the ownership of others outside of the original person; these ‘others’ can grasp and claim ownership of that individuality in the idea or ‘thing’ created by someone else. What is personal and individual is valuable. The only problem in actually creating something that so captures, not only your own individual personality/view/idea/imagination, is that you must transfer that ownership to somebody else.

    • Absolutely. I think you are really hitting on something with the idea that people want to ‘grasp and claim ownership’ of things created from this approach. Of course, things can go terribly wrong profitability-wise as well.

      The concert I went to Monday is a great example. The guy, Johnny Flynn, was on the shortlist for the Mercury Prize (best album) in England. Yet, he played a $10 show in Dallas for a total audience not more than 20 people. He didn’t bring any vinyl with him, because his record company couldn’t afford to press it. Clearly, he is still finding an audience here.

      Back to the idea of making this applicable, companies need to support spontaneity and a culture of entrepreneurship. Many have figured this out, such as IBM and 3M, and many silicon valley companies. On some level, the key seems like a function of being willing to support spin-offs that don’t meet the financial metrics for internal projects, such as Christensen suggests in The Innovator’s Dillemma. But, entrepreneurs tend to have a maverick approach similar to artists, and find success by ignoring the status quo and moving on trends rather than enslaving themselves to statistics and analysis. True, in some cases, they are listening. But, most of the ‘cool’ ideas I have heard are borne out of only a few pieces of key knowledge, and the entrepreneurs unique ‘take’ on the issue. They usually have stories about everybody that told them what a terrible idea it was too. I see this as compelling proof that ‘cool’ alone can help make up for a lot of imperfections. And, what could be better than developing a cult-like following while you iteratively make product improvements?

  3. Tyler, this is an impressive piece. It’s good to see that you are thinking and I shall certainly recommend the reading of what you have written herein.

    I have no background in “business” per se, but this “design thinking” is very close to the way I deal with people and situations on the job, only more intentional.

    You bring up a good point that people have an innate need of that which is imperfect. Like others, I, too, have thought about how to design a perfect world. Even if we thought we had finally achieved it, where would be the character building that comes from adversarial conditions? And if we congratulated ourselves that we had finally achieved goodness universally but were actually wrong, who and what would be left to make us see our error?

    Instead of reaching for some personal ideal of absolute goodness and perfection in the whole world, perhaps it’s better to encourage individuals in whatever context, business or cultural, to consider how, in the course of their job performance, life decisions, and support of public policies they have fostered the dignity of the human person.

    • Very interesting, Kathryn! That you used the term ‘dignity’ is especially important, in my opinion. I think this is why ‘replicable innovation’ and ‘sustainable innovation’ are not one in the same. We might be able to churn out millions of hit products that meet human needs, and have replicability; but, without dignity of the creator, how sustainable is it? That the artist’s approach maximizes dignity is crucial to it’s value, because the underlying principals at work can stand the waves of popularity or obscurity over sustained periods of time.

      I also loved the question of ‘who and what would be left to make us see our error?’ This is precisely what I was hinting at by comparing the ideas of socialist utopianism and democratic design. Obviously, democratic design does bring more dignity to individuals in the near term, but does it really lead there in the end? Brilliant insights as always, and great to hear from you. Would love for you to contribute a guest post sometime to, if you find yourself making similar connections.

  4. Love this pair of entries on Innovation. Great work.

    I would like to bring up the work of another Russian, Genrich Altshuller, who created the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (aka TRIZ). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRIZ
    Mr. Altshuller believed that innovation followed predictable paths on known dimensions and is driven by the pressure to resolve contradictions. Nokia uses this methodology to design it’s next generation of cell phone features. Conceptually, these ideas could be applied to music or other art forms like architecture.

    You also seem to be touching on the ‘always traveling, never arriving’ issue. We can attempt, but never achieve the perfect musical composition, the perfect solo, the perfect product, the perfect fulfillment of human need. Our desires and needs grow with fulfillment.

    I also wonder if the desire for imperfection is more closely tied to nostalgia or sentimentalism… Perhaps imperfection implies authenticity.

    • Very cool connection– thanks for the tip.

      I think you are right about that ‘always traveling, never arriving’ in a way. But, more than that, I just believe in the idea that fulfillment doesn’t come from perfection– at least with consumer goods and user experiences.

      Good to hear from you again…

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