Jeffrey Walker on flow, jazz, and your role in creative teams

I love this talk by Jeffrey Walker.

When people ask me how I became a designer, I talk about some of the formative experiences in my childhood:

  • Having easy access to a big box of Legos (of course), and a kind and caring older brother who showed me how to build some really impressive stuff.
  • My seven-year odyssey to transform an off-the-shelf BMX bike into a pure expression of my personal, there’s-no-gnarly-jump-I-won’t-take point of view. (only the original front crank and chain remained by the time I had to leave it to go to college)
  • Nine intense, wonderful years playing the saxophone in various jazz bands.

And that last one is always the  most significant to me.  I wrote a post about on the theme of music and teamwork and flow about a year ago.  To echo Jeff’s great thoughts in the video above, I wrote:

Infusing creativity: I learned so much from being in 8 O’Clock with Mr. C.  Practical things, like how to work with a creative team of people toward a shared goal and how to stand up in front of hundreds of people and do your unique, personal thing.  It also gave me the creative confidence to formulate a strong personal point of view and to create on top of that; I can think of of few better ways to prepare for life as a designer than to learn how to do jazz improvisation under pressure in front of a live audience.  On a more intangible level, my hours blowing a horn gave me a deep appreciation for the more ethereal aspects of a life well-lied, such as beauty, elegance, and joy.

Most important of all, I was able to six years of daily reaching a state of flow.  When everything is going right in the creative act, you feel a sense of transcendent joy and power and mastery.  It’s simply so awesome to experience as an individual, and in my opinion, it’s even better when done as a team.  Just look at the body language of Brecker and Stern in that video above — there’s extremely deep communication going on between then without a spoken word shared, and they take deep delight in helping each other get up to the top of that peak, and beyond.

When I interview people for design roles at IDEO, I’m always listening for a sense of whether the person in front of me has ever experienced that sense of flow.  Knowing it, wanting to get back there, knowing how to get back there, these are all things I look for in people who are going to be great design thinkers.  And what a bonus if that experience of flow came via some sort of team activity, be it sport or music or being part of a Girl Scout troop.

To be sure, normal education plays a central role in giving you depth of expertise in your area of “craft” as a designer.  That could be engineering school if you’re an ME, business school if you’re a Biz Designer, industrial design school if you’re an industrial designer, and so forth… you get the picture.

But it might be that the most important schools of experience are those found on a stage, or out on a soccer field, or out in the woods around a camp fire.  Knowing the delight of losing oneself in the passion of the activity in front of you, and understanding how do so in concert with a group of like-minded individuals around you, that’s the key to becoming a great designer.