Transcript Josh Linkner - Creative Quarantine

Josh Linkner
May 12, 2020

Josh Linkner

Five-time tech entrepreneur, hyper-growth CEO, NY Times bestselling author and venture capitalist.
Creativity & Innovation Personal Growth Business Virtual Presentation


Brian Lord: Hi, I'm Brian Lord, your host to the Beyond Speaking podcast and today we have on a proud, creative troublemaker, Josh Linkner. So Josh has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies that sold for a combined value of over two hundred million. He's the author of four books, including The New York Times bestseller Discipline, Dreaming, and the Road to Reinvention. He has invested in or mentored over 100 startups and is the founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners. Josh is also a passionate Detroiter and I can back that up. We get so much Detroit stuff. Detroit, shirts, Detroit mugs. He's extremely Detroit. He's a father of four and is a professional-level jazz guitarist and has a slightly odd obsession for greasy pizza, which makes sense. So, Josh, welcome on.


Josh Linkner: Thanks, man. Great to see you.


Brian Lord: So, you know, we're recording this in April of 2020. So the main thing on everyone's mind is the Michael Jordan series, The Last Dance. And so as a proud Detroiter, I know that's- [Inaudible] a proud Detroiter. What do you think about Michael Jordan and the Bad Boy Pistons?


Josh Linkner: Well, I mean, anything Detroit, like I'm going to the mat for Detroit. You know, whether it's pizza or sports teams or anywhere between. So, you know, I can't come off of my roots. I was born in the city, not the suburbs. So there's a deep connection.


Brian Lord: Yes. Well, check some of that stuff out and the Bad Boy Pistons, I disliked both of them. I didn't like the Bulls or the Pistons. I'm an Indiana guy through and through. And so Reggie Miller and the Pacers, that was kind of my thing. So the other thing that is going on right now is, you know, that kind of shapes nearly everything else is the coronavirus, the response to that and how we are being pulled in so many different directions. We have so many different demands on us right now, and it's such a challenging environment. So why do you think- you're an innovation guy- why do you think innovation is so important right now but why is it also so difficult?


Josh Linkner: Well, so innovation, I think, is the way out. I mean, frankly, it's been the way out of any problem, whether it was a social problem or a disease or an economic challenge or anywhere in between. If you think about innovation is simply reimagining a future state and coming up with a better way. Now is a perfect time, a required time. It's a must-have to be innovative as we hopefully will emerge stronger but different after the crisis. But the reason it's so hard and it's so hard, especially right now, turns out that fear, not natural talent, fear, is the biggest blocker of human creativity. It's that poisonous force that interferes with our creative thinking. And if you really think about it. Fear and creativity cannot coexist in the same room. So, of course, a crisis like this with so many unknowns, we have an unknown economic situation. Many of us are fearful from a health perspective. So with so much anxiety and fear, it's a natural, to a degree, an antidote for our creativity. So I think what we need to do, recognizing the importance of being innovative, recognizing the importance of inventive thinking and creative problem solving, especially in difficult times, is we need to kind of get our arms around the fear, even if we can compartmentalize for a few minutes, say I'm going to spend the next hour putting the fear aside- nothing I can do in the next hour anyway and do nothing but focus on creative solutions. I'll get back to the fear in 61 minutes. But for right now, I'm going to compartmentalize and focus on the opportunities ahead, not just the challenges of today.


Brian Lord: Why- I guess that's one of those things... Like I love that idea. Do you think people have a hard time putting their fear aside?


Josh Linkner: Hundred percent. Yeah, and it's a totally natural thing, and I do and by the way, everybody that we celebrate from Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to Henry Ford and Gandhi, everybody has fear. So it's not like, you know, if you're feeling afraid about this, that you're weird or you're an oddball, well, quite the opposite. And I'm not even a suggestion that you eliminate or conquer fear. But the idea of compartmentalizing can be very effective. In other words, you know, if you went to sleep, while you're sleeping, you're probably not going to solve the coronavirus situation. You're probably not going to have a new solution on how to pay your light bill. So if you can go to sleep for eight hours and not focus on it, why can't you take an hour of waking time and focus on creative opportunities rather than only being immersed in the near-term challenges? So I've been advising people to say, hey, instead of spending every waking hour consumed in the near term and albeit often necessary things that we need to do for today. Why not schedule it a little differently? What if you took even 30 percent of your time and say hey I'm gonna spend 70 percent of my time worrying and dealing with today and worrying about paying my mortgage and how do I do with my whining kids? But then that 30 percent of your time go hide in the corner somewhere and really let your imagination soar, compartmentalize the fear and the challenges of the day to liberate the opportunities of tomorrow.


Brian Lord: So you in real life are a really nice guy, get along with everybody, but you also call yourself a creative troublemaker. What is that?


Josh Linkner: Yeah, I'm absolutely a creative troublemaker. If I had a tattoo, that's what it would say. But, you know, being a troublemaker doesn't mean you have to be mean. It doesn't mean you have to hurt people. Quite the opposite. To me, it just means that you're willing to challenge conventional wisdom, kind of stick your finger in the eye of normalcy in order to uncover fresh possibilities. And when you do that, it actually is a giving, positive thing. It's making the world a better place. Like how have thousands of jobs been created at successful companies?  Because someone had the guts to be a creative troublemaker originally and start a company that would serve clients in a new and fresh way. So I think we all can make a little trouble. We can all be a little bit of a misfit and stir the pot a bit because isn't that what we were built to do, really? And isn't that our biggest opportunity to make a positive impact on the world? So being a troublemaker doesn't mean you have to be a bad person. I think it's worse if you have great creative ideas and you hold them back and don't share them. That would really be more negative than making the trouble that I'm talking about.


Brian Lord: So do you have any examples of creative troublemakers or times where that's worked?


Josh Linkner: Yeah, frankly, every time in my life where I've been able to accomplish just about anything, it's by being a troublemaker. And again, you pick anybody. I think the people that are working on the coronavirus vaccine right now are troublemakers. They're saying, hey, normal cycles to invent and deploy and fully test a vaccine takes 18 to 24 months. How could I do it in six months? That's an act of creative troublemaking. And whether you're launching a new consumer brand or you're wearing a hoodie and starting a mobile app company, anyone of us who's willing to challenge the conventional situation to imagine "what's next" instead of "what was" that to me is the act of creative troublemaking and I think it's actually a beautiful thing. And to a degree, I think that's our calling for most of us. The thing is, you don't have to be good at art or music or dance to be a creative troublemaker. You could be a creative troublemaker if you run a call center or if you're a salesperson or if you run a landscaping business or if you're a lawyer. So I just think that the whole thing is, look, there's a way we've always done things and then there's a new way. If you tend to gravitate toward the new way and you're willing at least to explore the new way. Welcome to the club. You're a creative troublemaker.


Brian Lord: Now, where did this start for you? Like where you like this little first grader and putting this into action, or when did you realize that's part of who you are?


Josh Linkner: Well, I've always- you know, funny you ask that. When I was little, I always felt different. And not necessarily in a good way, it wasn't like I felt better, quite the opposite. But if there was like 20 kids in a room, I would think there's 19 of everybody else and one of me, again, not in any way better. I just felt like the oddball often. But I think I really discovered my creative troublemaking roots when I was 11 years old and I started my first business. And you and I have talked about my first business as a tech startup. But truthfully, 11 years old, I started an illegal fireworks business. I would buy firecrackers from the juvenile delinquent around the corner from me, stick them in my school backpack, take them to school, and sell them to my middle school classmates. And it worked great. I had distribution. I had great margins. I, I had a treasury issue because my whole treasury was I'd take my profits as 20 dollar bills and crumple it up and stick them in my underwear drawer. And I was ultimately brought down by a regulatory burden. In this case, my mom who discovered my illicit, my ill-gotten gains and made me shut down my business. And so, look, it was luckily no fingers were lost in the making of this true story. But it really did give me an idea, like, you know what? Why do I have to follow what everybody else has done? Why can't I imagine something different? And yeah, I shouldn't do that. But what else could I do? And hence I became a troublemaker.


Brian Lord: So, you know, this is you mentioned this is a time of crisis, it's a time for troublemakers. Why do those two times seem to be a good fit?


Josh Linkner: Well, when you're in a situation of crisis like this, the world is shifting so dramatically. So if everything is in a vacuum and nothing's changing, you probably don't need to make all types of creative changes. But in periods of inflection points like this, that's really the perfect time to make some trouble. To again, even if you don't like that word, reframe it as saying creative problem-solving or inventive thinking. And it doesn't necessarily mean, again, that we need to go out and start some giant company or come up with a new rock band. We can add creativity in the way that we interact with a colleague or call on a sales prospect or send a report to a boss. And so if we inject what I like to call big little breakthroughs or everyday innovations, the notion of practicing creativity as a daily habit, lots of small, little, teeny creative bites, rather than waiting for the big ones, if it becomes part of who we are, just amazing things happen. And the cool thing, Brian, is this is accessible to all of us. The research is so clear here. There's no such thing as "this is a creative person and this is not a creative person." Truth is, we're all creative people. And the way you develop that skill, because it really is a skill, not just some God-given talent, you develop that skill through practice the same way you learn to play an instrument, the same way you learn a new language.


Brian Lord: So how do you like, say someone wants to start that tomorrow? They want to start coming up with these, you know, big little ideas. How does someone do that when they get done watching this? How do they do that?


Josh Linkner: So the misconception is that you need to swing for the fences. So you're like, hey, I'm going to be creative, why don't I just go invent a cure for coronavirus? It's putting such huge weight, it's so overwhelming, it's so much pressure. It's not going to be a good strategy. Da Vinci's first painting wasn't the Mona Lisa. Instead, Da Vinci first had to learn to paint. He had to learn to paint every day. He had to love to paint. I had to learn how to screw something up and correct it. And so the way you become a creative person- and if you really do want to create game-changing creativity, don't even start there. Just start with small daily acts. So like I said, I'm a pizza lover. Try ordering your pizza next time with the pepperoni under the cheese instead of on top. That's a creative act. Seriously, do little teeny creative things. Take a different route to work. Redo the way that you- maybe if your wife cooks and you clean, flip-flop that next time you have dinner. So small, little, teeny daily acts of creativity start to build the muscle, build a skill. Those are the things that ultimately drive the biggest breakthroughs that we seek.


Brian Lord: One of the things you like to talk about, too, is is creative brainstorming. Of course, now we're adapting that to, you know, doing things through Zoom or group chats or that sort of thing. What are some ways that people in sort of the current environment here can brainstorm, you know, adapting things that you used before, but also to make it fit for today's world?


Josh Linkner: Well, brainstorming, which we all know, it's a perfectly designed exercise to yield mediocre ideas. And the reason is back to that fear thing. So in our world, when we when I came come up with an idea, I'm immediately judged and held accountable for that idea. So why would I share my big, crazy ideas if I'm going to get laughed at? I'd rather share my safe ideas. So here's a simple way to do it, to solve this. It's a great technique that I developed a decade ago and it works perfectly over Zoom. It's called "rolestorming." Rolestorming is brainstorming in character. So instead of brainstorming as you, you're brainstorming as if you're somebody else. So imagine you and your colleagues at Premiere were all on a Zoom call. And you, instead of being Brian, you chose to be the role of Steve Jobs. Well, now no one's going to laugh at you for coming up with a small idea. No one would laugh at Steve. They might laugh Steve for coming up with a small one. So, in other words, you're liberated to say anything you want. No fear of retribution. Imagine you're on a Zoom call and you got Shawn, who's playing the role of O.J. Simpson and you got Dwayne playing the role of Darth Vader. You got Carl Ware playing the role of Attila the Hun. I mean, you can be a villain. You can be a movie star. You could be a sports figure. Anybody that you want and pretend you are that person solving the actual real-world challenge that you're facing. Here is what will happen: Because fear melts away because you're no longer responsible for the idea, you'll become liberated and your best ideas will start to flow. It's the simplest exercise- I know it sounds goofy, but you want to go make some trouble in a safe way. That's a way to brainstorm via Zoom.


Brian Lord: So your company is Detroit Venture Partners. Who are you most of the time when you play this game?


Josh Linkner: Well, I do this not only for my own work but also on behalf of many clients that we serve all over the world. I like picking really weird characters. I honestly like picking villains. But what do you think? Like, how would Charles Manson solve this problem? It's you're not glamorizing bad people, but you're putting yourself in a mindset that is so far removed from your ordinary path. New patterns emerge and new worlds are generated. So you might first say, well, Charles Manson did some horrible thing. But you're getting the spark of the idea out there. Then secondly, you look at the idea and say, well, that's horrible and illegal. I would never do that. But is there a germ in there? Is there a little essence that you could flip around, do a legit flip, and ultimately becomes that cool idea that you would have never thought of? So I personally like playing the role of villains just because I'm not like that at all. And it really forces me to think differently.


Brian Lord: So, you know, when you're you're coming up with these new things and I know one of the big projects are working right now is on your new book Big Little Breakthroughs.  Where did that idea come from and how is that different from some of the other things you might be familiar with?


Josh Linkner: Having now studied human creativity for 30 years, being a jazz musician and an entrepreneur and such, I just think that most things that we've been taught about innovation and creativity are dead-wrong. As I mentioned, we're taught that it only counts if it changes the world. We're taught that you should only, you know, it's only disruptive if you crush everybody else. I mean, all these myths. We're also taught, by the way, in school don't make any mistakes. And there's only one right answer. And all this nonsense that we've been taught. I feel horribly restricts this incredible gift that we all have as human beings to express creativity in positive ways. So big little breakthroughs flip traditional thinking upside down, and it puts creative thinking under a microscope and really looking at how do you develop that as a habit? How do you learn it as a skill? How can you apply high-velocity small ideas, which, by the way, in and of themselves are wildly valuable? But ultimately, that's the best way to unlock the giant ones. And so it's a nontraditional, flip upside-down look at the process of being a creative person.


Brian Lord: So one thing, switching gears a little bit here, you know, we're in this- You are one of those people that have that sort of bounty mindset where, you know, a rising tide raises all ships. You're not trying to destroy other people, even though you do play, you know, Darth Vader, you know, in some of these games, that sort of thing, the villain. But right now, a lot of people, you know, operate under fear are kind of, you know, may have a desire to really close in and stop working with others where it's others at their company that they might be competing with. The company says hey we may be letting people go or, you know, companies are competing with each other within the same industry. That's always been kind of against what you do. What advice would you have companies or for companies or for people who are getting into that "we're losing everything" type of mentality?


Josh Linkner: One thing that I've learned now as an entrepreneur, I started my first company literally 30 years ago, 1990. It is that when you're an entrepreneur, there are these very high highs and very low lows. So the first time you are at a high high, you think you're like the king of the world. And then you lose a client. You feel like you're, you know, a notorious evil person. But what happens over time that oscillation of up and down, you become less sensitive to both the highs and the lows. And so I've learned that there are lows like the way we're in right now. And that sucks. And we've got to be honest about it. And we've got to look at it in the face and we got to tackle it. But we also don't need to think the worst. We don't need to panic. We don't need to think that the world is falling and we can't overreact. And so these oscillations that being an entrepreneur have taught me to not overreact when things are great, but also not to overreact when things are a struggle. So my advice would be that certainly there are appropriate things that we need to do. I'm not saying be reckless. If you're gonna be in public, wear a face mask, for example. But at the same time, I think over time, generosity wins, abundance-thinking wins. Helping others is the best way to ultimately enjoy personal success and growth. And so if you have that mindset again, take whatever appropriate measures are needed now, of course. But let's not overcorrect. Let's not overdo it. And let's make sure that our compass ultimate is pointing to a spirit of generosity and helping others. That, for everyone that I've studied, is the winning formula. For those of us that chase money and have selfish intent, we rarely even get those things. But counterintuitively, those of us that are generous and give and don't keep score the world has a way of rewarding us handsomely. Chase doing the right thing. The money will come as a byproduct. And the same thing in this challenge. You know, chase doing the right thing, chase helping others, lift people up instead of kicking them down. And we will all enjoy our fair share of the reward.


Brian Lord: Well said. So one of the lasting to talk about is, you know, during these tough times, how can we emerge stronger and more creative than we were when we came into it?


Josh Linkner: For me, I'm looking at this as an opportunity to really double down on my craft and my art. And anyone who's listening has their own craft and art. Maybe you're a professional speaker. Maybe you run a stock business. Maybe you own a law firm. But if you think about whatever your craft or art is, how can you come out as an even better expert? I'm one of my heroes, Charlie Parker, the great jazz musician. He was a touring musician. He was pretty good but he wasn't like the king of the hill. I mean, he was getting booked, but sometimes he was losing gigs. But at one point, he took upon himself to leave. He left the scene for 10 months. He rented some remote cabin in the middle of the woods in the middle of nowhere and did nothing but practiced, worked on his craft for fifteen hours a day. In other words, he self quarantined, came out of that and he became the Charlie Parker that became a legend that made history. So in this case, that wasn't a chosen quarantine and we have one that's been thrust upon us. But nonetheless, why not use this as an opportunity to elevate our art to just like what Charlie Parker did. He went off to this little woodshed, came back a superstar, came back a hero. When have we ever had the chance in our lifetimes or our careers, to get to those things that we always say, gee, if I only had the time? I'd love to do that. But who has the time? Well, we have the time. And so let's use this as an opportunity so that we emerge from this quarantine that really chasing down what we are meant to.


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