Connecting people and ideas through improvisation

Life is tastier when you take risks – Breakfast With Strangers

Breakfast With StrangersBack in December of 2012 I saw a thread on Reddit from two people who were driving around the country and trying to meet interesting people for breakfast. They were wondering if anyone in Phoenix could help them out.

Let’s see… random connecting with people, looking for good food, a chance to show off Phoenix? I was made for this like cheese for mice! I gave them a call and swamped them with ideas for places to eat, drink, shop, and visit, and a nice list of people they could meet with.

It turned out these fine people were Courtney and Matt from Breakfast With Strangers from Portland, Oregon. After getting married they launched a Kickstarter to help fund a trip around the US to have breakfast with interesting people everywhere they stopped. They had a rough travel plan, but mostly it was they two of them driving back and forth across the country in their van, the USS Pancake, and throwing out open invitations to the wind.

You can hear their thoughts on their trip and they people they met in this video they did with AOL. My favorite part is at the end where they talk about the most important thing they learned:

In Phoenix they ended up breakfasting with the most wonderful Jenny Poon and her husband, Odeen, at Matt’s Big Breakfast. Apparently they had dined at many IHOPs across the US and I could not, would not, let that happen in Phoenix.

I met up with Courtney and Matt later that night for drinks at OHSO Nanobrewery to show off some Arizona craft beer, and I ended up being dubbed the Breakfast With Strangers Moment of the Day back on December 6th, which was rather nice of them.

Now they’re working on a book of their adventures, and I’m looking forward to hearing the things they learned along the way as much as the people they met. You can follow their future exploits on their blog or on their Facebook page.

I love their entire project, but my favorite aspect is how they trusted themselves and others to put it together as they went. They could have scripted this out from Oregon before they left, but they would have met the majority of the amazing people they did, like Barry, the curator of the National Mustard Museum. As they said in the video, the happiest people they met were ones who took risks.

Plan less and see where the world takes you, but always eat a tasty breakfast.

Plan less and explore the unexpected

There’s a time for planning, and a time to riff. Planning helps you construct something specific, when details of your product are known. Creativity is often focused in the early phases of creation and limited once plans are set.

Riffing (or improvising) has boundaries and constraints, but the final product isn’t known until the end. Creativity lives throughout the process, but scope and attributes are sometimes limited by the lack of systematic planning.  This method is often scarier, which is why planning is so popular.

Before the most recent Ignite Phoenix, I ran around with a Flip camera and asked people to “show me what love looks like”.  Valentine’s Day loomed, and I thought it would stir some interesting reactions. It certainly did.

I ended up with about 15 minutes of clips and bits of people swooning, smooching, hearting, and being silly. These were people improvising to an improvised idea, and it showed. Brilliantly.

Unfortunately, I still had no plan what to do with all this great footage. Thankfully local Phoenix band, Super Stereo, provided a piece of the puzzle when they generously donated one of their tracks to the Phoenix music compilation CD. I got their permission to use a track and started seeing how things lined up with the footage.

It was pure, silly, fun creation. I had no vision for how this would turn out, and was along for the ride as things fell together. What I ended up with was a light little music video that showcased a lot of Ignite fans and friends having fun. A visual love letter.

It’s entirely not what I had in mind when I started, and it’s not going to win any awards, but I think it’s great. Could I have scripted it out all in advance, asked people to do specific things, and paced it better? Sure, but I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun.

Creativity is as much about the process as the final product. Let go of your planning sometimes, explore, and see where it leads you. You may love it.

Pandora and The Whiz Dumb of Crowds

I’m a big Pandora fan, and many moons ago I had an idea to make a spiffy new station – I’d crowdsource it.

I put a tweet out asking for what song could you not resist getting up out of your chair and dancing to, and fed them all into a new Pandora station. The goal was the greatest high-energy, must-dance, spazz-inducing station I had yet laid eardrums on.  So that was the goal.

What I got was two things. First was the most infuriatingly annoying station in my entire Pandora collection, and the second was a lesson on the serious limitations of the crowd.

The Crowdsource Dance Throwdown

The Pandora Station ended up with a lot of good songs going in, but ranged across such a wilderness of styles and formats I spent more time laughing than dancing.  Plus, Pandora takes your addition of a single rocking song from an artist as a reason to add every lame ballad that artist ever belched forth.

I thumbed down some very obvious misses, but generally left the station as it came to me.  I’m going to leave it that way until the end of September, then start editing it to suit my own tastes.  You’re welcome to give Crowdsource Dance Throwdown a listen and chime in.

Crowds know data, but not value

What I realized on a larger scale is that crowds are great for sourcing lots of general knowledge but there still must be someone curating it, like Wikipedia Editors do for Wikipedia. When you ask for opinions without any guiding hand you just get a disorganized pile.

Each individual idea might have merit, but the ideas don’t all have the same value when mooshed together.  It’s like a salad. When a salad is in a bowl you can pick around the bits you don’t like (tomatoes) or add the things you really want (like bacon bits).  If you drop it into a blender and make a single smoothie out of it… well, you’ll get something very colorful but not so popular on the menu. This has not been my most appetizing metaphor ever, but you get the idea.

Be careful when you get input from crowds on yourself and your ideas. Listen to their input (if you want) but only let it advise you; never let it replace your own judgment.

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