If you only look for inspiration in your own field, you’ll never break new ground.
Instead, whenever you find something interesting or exciting in any field whatsoever – television, books, art, food, architecture, fashion, business, weather, anything at all – stop to examine it. What is it that makes you interested? Why can’t you take your eyes away? What’s the root quality about that experience that brings joy to your heart?
Then ask yourself, “How can I build that into my own work?”
I’d like to tell the stories of some of my favorite past inspirations, times when I’ve taken joy and tried to adapt it into my own life.
The Humble Humor of Richard Simmons
There’s nothing funny about exercise – that is, until you watch Richard Simmons at work:
It’s impossible to watch Richard at work without smiling. You just can’t do it. The first time you see one of his videos, you start giggling because it’s all so wrong – his outfit, his hair, his shoes, his body. When he starts talking, you laugh harder.
But when you listen to what he’s really saying, hear his self-deprecating humor, and see the impact he has on other people, you stop laughing at him – and you start smiling with him. He’s completely genuine. He loves what he does, and he’s damn good at it. He embraces the way he looks and uses it to his advantage. I firmly believe that while many people might say they hate Richard Simmons, deep down, they like him too.
When I was working for Quest Software and we were looking for a unique angle for a webcast, we decided I’d impersonate Richard Simmons and talk about “How to Lose Waits Fast.” The title was a pun on SQL Server wait statistics, a performance tuning topic. Stephanie McCulloch, our admin, said she could get me a Richard Simmons costume complete with short shorts and a chest hair wig.
The results are speechless for themselves:
It was an instant smash. People still talk about it in the SQL Server community. A lot of people laughed, and I’m quite sure they were laughing at – not with – me, but it worked. They paid attention and they chatted like crazy in the webcast.
Inspiration is more than just impersonation, but this was an extreme example that makes for a great first step. Find someone who inspires you to pay attention, and decide whether their personality makes a good fit for your own. Sometimes, someone else is a cartoon version of ourselves: Richard Simmons is a cartoon version of me. I’m self-deprecating, out of shape, and obsessed with helping other people in the community improve their lives. I’m nowhere near as good as Richard – but I can take his inspiration, adapt it to myself temporarily, and help move my own work towards his.
The cartoon version only works when it fits your own personality, though. I’m inspired by the kind of entertainment that Gordon Ramsey delivers, but I’m not the kind of guy who can stand in a server room screaming obscenities at people, telling them they’re incompetent. I bet Hell’s Datacenter would make a great webcast, but Gordon Ramsey isn’t a cartoon version of me, so I can’t use inspiration there. (I do love a good rant though.)
The Proud Practice of Ken Block
Race car drivers earn their fame for winning races – unless they’re Ken Block, who become incredibly famous just for his practice videos:
That’s Ken zipping around an airfield showing how he practices for rally car racing. Not how he races – how he practices. He makes car control look absurdly easy until you watch some of the in-car clips carefully and realize that he can’t even see where he’s going. His Subaru is sliding sideways at high speed, and yet he manages to slide it perfectly between barriers, alongside ramps, and around a man riding a Segway.
Just another day at the office for Ken Block.
The rest of us sit slackjawed, dumbfounded at the amount of finesse he displays.
When I watched Ken’s videos, one of the things I noticed was the number of black skidmarks on the track. I paused the video and counted how many times he’d practiced a particular turn – sometimes half a dozen, sometimes a dozen, but rarely more than that. Ken’s first video (and he produced many more) was the result of years of practice, and Ken was rightfully proud of the work he’d put into mastering his car control skills. When faced with a new track, he practiced it a little, but not excessively so.
The more I thought about that, the more it resonated with me. As I build new presentations, I try to strike a balance between rehearsing the bejeezus out of it and maintaining a fresh, upbeat level of excitement. The more I rehearse, the less excited and spontaneous I am. I have to bust my ass learning the art of teaching in general, but I shouldn’t over-rehearse the same session specifically.
The Creative Craft of Jose Andres
Chef José Andrés has hit the big time: he’s opened killer restaurants, beaten an Iron Chef, hosted several of his own TV shows, published books, won awards, you name it. He specializes in my favorite kind of food, molecular gastronomy – or as I like to think of it, stunt cooking.
One of his latest restaurants, é by José Andrés, is hidden away in the back of another restaurant, and it’s a private masterpiece. It has just eight seats, only does two seatings per night, and fills up long in advance. Eater’s article explains the reservation process, and Jose explains:.
“I honestly do believe that restaurants are the entertainment industry of the 21st century, and that going to dinner is like going to see a play or show. The guest in many ways is an actor and the restaurant is the stage.”
Adam Machanic first got me in last year, and last week I had the pleasure of introducing Grant Fritchey, John Mazzolini, and Steve Jones to the fun. As the chefs prepared course after course (23 in all) right in front of us, we marveled at the taste, the wine pairings, and the showmanship. I’m so glad I had the chance to share it with those guys.
As I watched the chefs work, I kept looking around the room and asking myself how I could get my SQL Server health checks to run at this level of excitement. After all, the scene wasn’t really all that different from my typical consulting engagement: eight people sitting around a table, watching someone work as they explain what they’re doing, displaying skills that took over a decade to hone. It sounds pretentious, but how can I push myself to bring that level of entertainment?
Sometimes, inspiration comes in the form of someone amazing that makes me want to raise my game. Other times, well…
My Building Management Company
I recently moved into a new apartment, and what should have been a really enjoyable experience has turned into a constant struggle. This weekend, the last straw hit when the building turned away my furniture delivery. I’d been complaining to the property manager for weeks about the problems, and so this weekend I escalated it to the management company. What I got back was a real gem, including such lines as:
- “we have no contractural (sic) obligation to you”
- “Perhaps if you are this uncomfortable, you are living in the wrong building.”
- “Your slanderous comments and opinion…should be kept to yourself…”
I’m not going to mention the management company’s name or link to ’em because this post isn’t about bashing anyone. I’d originally written almost all of the post before this weekend’s shenanigans went down, and as I went to publish it, I added this last section on the management company.
They inspire me just as much as Richard Simmons, Ken Block, and Jose Andres: our lives are influenced by not just the positive experiences, but our negative ones as well. As I go through each of these experiences, I challenge myself to deliver the best service I can.
If you want to be inspired to deliver better experiences to your customer, you have to go out and have amazing experiences yourself. It’s not just about enjoying life – it’s about raising your game.