A Marriage of Skills

“I think I’m both…”

We often define ourselves and others according to our dominant skill-sets. We create identities around a specific skill or ability and often ignore or deny unexpected qualities that don’t conform to our ‘image’ or personal brand.

But, truthfully, people are complex. We usually have a diversity of skills and interests. Narrow our perspective of our or other’s capacity and we miss opportunities that this complexity provides. Put simply, over-simplifying can cost us.

Steven Jobs

Steven Jobs, co-founder of Apple, obviously had technical know-how and vision. He was also artistically oriented. Jobs valued his design training, specifically a college class in typography. Typography is a design form where beauty and functionality come together. Perhaps that’s where he first said, 

“It’s not just what it looks like, it’s how it works.”

Steven Jobs

Jobs believed that focusing artistry, technical innovation, and performance on user experience was critical to Apple’s success. That’s how Jobs’ personal marriage of skills came to life professionally.

You may know what happened next. Jobs lost Apple when the board of directors replaced him. Undaunted, he put his skills to work developing the NeXT computer. Although innovative for the industry, NeXt did not survive commercially. Jobs then went on to lead the creation of a division of LucasFilm called the Graphics Group. Graphics Group became one of the first successful digital animation film companies. You know it today as Pixar, producer of Toy Story, Coco, Wall-e, The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo.

Having further developed his business management skills, Jobs returned to Apple for a very successful round two. Could he have done any of this without his unique blend of skills?

From Quinine to Mauvine

Here’s a less well-known example of how a diversity of interest gave rise to opportunity.

Back in 1856, Sir Henry Perkins was a young chemist working in a lab to create a synthetic quinine treatment for malaria. One day when cleaning up, he noticed that a few chemicals had blended to form a particularly vibrant shade of purple. That might have been it, except … Perkins was also an amateur painter and photographer. Artistic interest took hold.

Perkins recognized the value of his discovery in both its unique color and its potential as a synthetic dye. He and his brother got to work. They did not cure malaria. They invented a dye they called “Mauvine”. Until then, dyes were made from organic substances. This was the world’s first synthetic dye. The Perkins brothers went on to make many more, giving birth to an industry that’s responsible for the color of your clothes, your walls, your boat. They changed the visual landscape of the man-made world and made millions doing it.

Both Perkins and Jobs were extraordinarily successful not because of a skill, but because of their unique marriage of diverse skills. (So, remind me, why is it all about STEM and not STEAM? but, I digress …)

What is your marriage of skills?

Shine some light on yourself by taking your own skills inventory!

Look back over your life and remember your different interests and activities. How have they informed your perception and thinking? How have they made your work product unique, creative, even innovative?

Now, consider what you’ve accomplished, produced .. the mysteries you’ve cracked. What diverse aspects of you came together to make that happen?

Has your love of gardening fed the way you grow your team as a manager? Has your baseball habit nurtured your understanding of statistics? Did your bread-baking phase develop the patience to wait for a project or relationship to rise? Has a love of movies inspired your retail business communications? Do painting or music-making enable a deeper understanding of harmonics and patterns in data, biological codes, or energy signatures?

And what about you managers and parents? Take a closer look at your team and family. How do their diverse knowledge, capacity, or experience inform their work individually and collectively as a group? How does it contribute to their success? Do you hold this up and recognize it, foster it? Do you do your part to promote the marriage of diverse skills over single-skill worship?

Are you growing?

We live in hectic, dare I say frantic days. No doubt you are learning some new things.

Remote work demands, adopting different ways of parenting and leading, developing a talent for flexibility and regrouping are all part of our response to Covid-19 … and then there’s that early-pandemic explosion in learning to bake that continues on. Yum, keep it up!

If you haven’t taken this opportunity to explore something new, consider your inventory or do some brainstorming. Find a quality or interest you’d like to develop. Then, you might try searching for information on the internet, YouTube, LinkedIn Learning, and start playing around a little.

“Play is the highest form of research.” 

Albert Einstein, Scientist

I’m a math person … and an artist … and a baker … and …

Perhaps you’ve never considered the cost of defining ourselves too simply. Embracing our human complexity means a greater capacity to innovate, create, collaborate and solve. It also makes life more interesting.

Your marriage of skills is an important part of who you are and what you create. So, just say no to boring, one-trick identities. Embrace that intellectual diversity. Who knows, you might just discover a new industry while cleaning the lab, or baking bread, or surfing, or …

Let me know what it’s done for you!

Want to learn more about Creative Thinking? Check out CEJ Studio on Creativity.

Breaking the Ice: Icebreakers

So, you’ve got another meeting to plan. It’s that weekly meeting. Same people. Pretty much the same topic. Need something to up the engagement?

Sometimes it’s as easy as starting with an icebreaker. Sure, you all know each other. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something more to learn about your co-workers. And, play can loosen up the room … spark  creative thinking.

In fact, some icebreakers work best when everyone already knows each other.

Try this …

Put a blank piece of paper in front of each attendee. When all are seated, have them write a question on the paper and crumple it up, then toss the paper ball to another person at the table to be answered. Meeting virtually? Have each person message the question to the person to their left on the meeting screen.

Or this,

Write these three questions on a line or virtual white board or on large sticky notes on the wall:

  1. What is the last movie or TV show you saw that gave you an idea about your work?
  2. Name a problem you would like to solve.
  3. What great idea of your own or someone else’s did you experience last week?

Each attendee answers each question in five words or less. Discuss.

The internet is full of icebreaker ideas.

Search on ‘meeting icebreakers’, ‘class icebreakers’, ‘improv games meetings’, etc. I found these 5 Awesome Meeting Icebreaker’s to Get Your Meeting Started.

In any case,

Be careful about underestimating the value of an icebreaker, especially when in a group that already knows each other. They inspire, build community and momentum.

Icebreakers help gel the ‘marriage of skills‘ that is your team.

Walking Increases Creativity

We’ve all heard by now about the negative impact of inactivity on our bodies, our hearts, our muscles. But moving isn’t just good for the body. Researchers are learning that walking, specifically, can be good for the mind. In fact, it appears that walking can help stimulate creativity.

Reminds me of a book by one of my favorite ‘creativity’ authors, Julia Cameron, called Walking in this World. It explores the value walking has on Cameron’s own creativity and offers new strategies and techniques for creative breakthrough.

Cameron’s first book, The Artist’s Way, is a seminal handbook for all seeking insight and tools on how to develop their creative potential.

What are you still sitting there? Put down that phone and get on up!


Mistakes are an essential element of creating. It’s not a question of ‘doing it wrong’. It’s a question of observing, playing, experimenting, analyzing, visioning, trying things out, trying ideas on. Mistakes are about learning.

If you’re not making mistakes, then you are not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.

John Wooden, Basketball Coach

Mistakes are arrows painted on the road to a creative destination.

Managers, hear me now…

If you are not willing to allow your team to take the ride, don’t expect them to arrive. You will likely be disappointed in the final result if you expect your team to innovate, discover or create anew without making mistakes.

Walk with me:

You are a child. You are playing ‘kitchen’ or ‘toolshed’ or ‘bikes’ or something. Let’s say it’s ‘kitchen’.

You have the Bake-It-Easier-Than-Mom oven going. You’ve whipped up your first little chocolate brownie cake, popped it in the oven and set your little table. Your siblings are seated and waiting. Everyone hears the ‘ding’ that lets them know the baking is done. Mouths are watering.

Excited, you open the oven door and take the ‘cake’ out. It looks a vaguely grey on one side, but hey, it’s a cake and you made it! You break it into pieces, pass the plates, and everyone takes a bite. Your youngest sibling get’s an awful look on his face. The older one let’s out an ‘eewwww’ and they leave your table disappointed. You are crestfallen.

You try to recover your baker confidence as Mom helps you determine that maybe you didn’t stir the ingredients enough. The sibs were getting a big mouthful of salt or baking powder. Round two …

What if you are the first person to try to make cake?

Let’s say you are the first person in the world, ever, to try making a cake. No one has done this before, so no one knows what it could taste like or what happens when you don’t stir the batter enough. Fail this time and your whole village is disappointed. You may decide, “It doesn’t work.”

No cake for the world because you quit on the first try. On the upside, maybe the world is a little slimmer, but really, no cake?

Or, maybe you’re the boss …

Let’s say you were the boss of the first person to try making cake. They failed and it disappointed customers. You said, “That’s it. It doesn’t work. No more messing with this cake thing. It’s a waste of time and resources.”

No cake for the world because you put on the brakes …

And, Your Competition?

Your competition across town may keep at it. They begin to understand cake problems and figure out the solutions.

After one-hundred or so mistakes, they actually invent the cake. It’s delicious. People don’t just like it, they love it! They love the baker for making it. They buy that baker’s bread, muffins and pies, too.

That baker probably agreed with Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” … Until, they found the one that did.

That baker now knows a lot about cake, too. They have stories about the art and science of making cake. You know what that means – interviews, articles, guest speaker engagements, a prime spot in the culinary history books. Probably a picture, too.

I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.

Thomas Edison

(Sometimes a mistake isn’t a mistake)

Here’s a thought. Sometimes, it’s not about getting it wrong. It may be about timing or being in sync with people’s needs, expectations, or understanding.

I learned as an actress that if you thought a perfect, mistake-free audition was going to get you the part, you would be in for a lot of disappointment. The casting director could want a blonde and you are brunette, or they’d want someone more like that one … and you weren’t.

Or, they like vanilla and you made a strawberry masterpiece. Or, they want the widget to be fireproof and yours is innovatively flammable and self destructing at the perfectly timed moment and they don’t understand or trust. Get the picture? Be careful about what you are calling a mistake. (Remember, stickie notes were just someone else’s take on a failed permanent glue.)

Back to mistakes: make room for them. Trust in them.

Plan for and welcome mistakes and setbacks. Reframe them as learning experiences. Explore and value the information and work product that come with them. Make the time for creating something truly special by making time for mistakes.

Make sure your team knows that you expect the learning experiences that come with creating. They will make mistakes and watch to see if you mean what you say.

Mean it. Cement their trust.

Then, creative energy will flow. With trust in the process, your team will loosen up, redouble focus and release imagination. You grow a confident, creating machine that surprises you and themselves. You take us all places we haven’t been, create solutions, products, and worlds we haven’t imagined.

That’s what mistakes are really good for. Not just the learning they produce, but the creative freedom they bring and the passion they can generate.

One can measure passion and sense of purpose for a subject or project by how willing we are to wade through the challenge of mistakes and learning. Do they turn on our wonder and hunger to know more? Or, do they make us tired and bored? The latter is more often a result of one’s interest and passion than of the value of the project itself.

If you are about having your innovation cake and eating it, too, mistakes are part of the recipe.

If the work is creating ’new’ … a new dish, script, program, painting, system, procedure, technique, company, song, fragrance, answer, question, a new solution, …

… people are going to be making mistakes.

That’s part of the fun 😉