Bill Howard is my father. He was a history major in college. Don’t even ask him a simple question about the civil war unless you’ve blocked out at least 10 solid minutes for a response – most of which is delivered with his eyes closed because as my mother says, he’s reading it off of the back of his eyelids. I, on the other hand could never remember dates, names, or significant events. I was always painfully bored in my own history classes. But lately, I’ve been pondering the importance of studying history, especially as our economy vacillates between recession and recovery. Where do we go for a better answer?
Last week, I was lucky enough to come across copy of Leonard Bernstein’s,Findings. I was particularly struck by an essay he wrote called, An Old Fashion Artist. This was a speech given in 1961 to honor Lillian Hellman at The Brandeis Creative Arts Awards. Here’s an excerpt:
Today, more than ever, the talk in art circles is about the newest, the latest, the way-outest, the beatest, the sickest, the cliquiest – all of which to say the most dated. Nothing dates so fast as exteriorized experiments, or willful shock of the bourgeoisie. Don’t misunderstand me: I am all for shocking the bourgeois of the world, for stirring up discussion and provoking controversy; but not when it becomes a primary artistic goal. Such goals float away in a half decade, down a brackish river; and the moment we take artistic stock – even with the tiny perspective we have about our own century- we find that all durable hard has been made by old fashioned artists.
Bernstein also goes on to describe an old fashion artist as one who is, “An extender of tradition, acutely aware of roots and lineage, who extends these by measuring them incessantly against the future; therefore, of course, an insatiable progressive.”
Fifty-five years later, we as a society, are still obsessed with the latest, greatest, youngest, hippest especially when it comes to business and entrepreneurship. Just yesterday, Entrepreneur Magazine wrote an articlehighlighting a shift in the recent artisan entrepreneur wave and the challenge of the transition from product to vision. And the author corroborates that which Bernstein warned us about 55 years ago: those businesses that were out to be the latest have floated away in half a decade. This also reminded me of one of the best and most simple pieces of advice Bill Howard gave me when I started working in business and was thinking about consulting: Never be a fad.
So how can you ensure your creative venture wont be out in half a decade? Well the answer was further illuminated when I stumbled upon Saltie’s new blog called, The Gam. I was most moved by the motivation that Caroline had for creating this space: as an homage to those who have come before us. An education for some, a reminder for others and an opportunity for all to learn and think again about the culinary heroes of the 20th century. Just as Bernstein emphasized, the importance of history. What I like about their first entry, dedicated to Paul Prudhomme, is that the author, Eva, identifies a key reason Prudhomme became a cook:
“Prudhomme learned to cook because he had to – he was one of thirteen children living on a sharecrop farm that produced sweet potatoes and cotton. He inherited the duty of helping his mother cook at age seven, using ingredients he and his family foraged, grew, and slaughtered themselves. Prudhomme’s appreciation of the importance of fresh produce and knowing how your food got to be in your kitchen came way before the term “farm to table” was invented.”
“Prudhomme eventually settled back from whence he came, the calling of the food of his youth perhaps too strong to be apart from for too long. He couldn’t help cooking the food he loved, it turned out, and realized that he had a strength and appreciation that others wanted to learn about.”
Paul Prudhoome had purpose and he had a vision; two of the most important, yet underdeveloped core pieces of a business. He didn’t look at the market and determine how he could fit in. He, instead, identified his deepest motivations and found a way to create a space for himself in the marketplace. This is why he had longevity. He may not have used words like purpose and vision in his own business, because they came forth from him so naturally. For many of us, we need to stop and make sure we too are creating from a bigger vision and not just selling a product – the trap most creative small business fall into in this economy.
When I teach business growth, I always stress that the most successful business is a marriage between your vision and customer demand. The key there is identifying your vision first and then understanding how to meet in the middle. What we never want to do – if we want to live beyond 5 years – is look at the market first and fill a need. That’s an outdated way of working that doesn’t fit in this economy. The thing we must understand is no one actually “needs” our products, but we can create a vision they’ll want to continue to experience for many years.
As one of my students at Industry City recently said, we’re done innovating for innovations sake. It’s passed, we’re no longer shocked, we need something else. And if we have any sense about us, we will step back and learn from those before us. Those who warned us 55 years ago that fads don’t last. Those who set the right example and created from a deeper purpose than being the latest or greatest. Even if we’ve jumped into the economy without thinking about it, we can still step back, redefine our purpose, redefine our values and set a long-term vision that will ensure our own creative business won’t float away down a brackish river too.