Where Good Ideas Come From

by Rebecca Cochran

I read a neat story about Franz Schubert (1797–1828), the Viennese composer who wrote more than 600 songs, plus much chamber and orchestral music during his way-too-short lifespan. Schubert is one of my personal favorites.

An old-fashioned manual burr-mill coffee grinder.

An old-fashioned manual burr-mill coffee grinder. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He was reportedly very disciplined in composing, working diligently every morning, nearly without fail. When a student once asked what his secret was, Schubert replied simply, “When one piece is finished, I begin another.”

One day, however, when his friend the German composer and conductor, Franz Lachner came calling unexpectedly, Schubert was not in the mood for work. He suggested to Lachner, “Let’s have some coffee.” Schubert then hauled out his most prized possession, an old coffee mill. He carefully measured the coffee beans, then took off his glasses and started grinding.

Within moments, Schubert exclaimed, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! You rusty little machine!” He threw the coffee mill into the corner, sending the beans flying. “What have you got?” asked Lachner.

“This coffee mill is a wonderful thing,” explained Schubert excitedly. “Melodies and themes come flying in. You see, it’s the ra-ra-ra, that’s what! You search for days for an idea, and the little machine finds it in a second!” And, he began singing the themes of what would become the String Quartet in D minor, Death and the Maiden, which Lachner faithfully wrote down.

Apparently, even Schubert benefitted from the occasional change in his morning routine. This little story is an excellent example of how some of our best ideas can come from the most unlikely places.

Coffee anyone?

Reference: The Book of Musical Anecdotes, by Norman Lebrecht, published by The Free Press, 1985

Practice

by Rebecca Cochran

practiceWhat did you practice today?

Practicing isn’t just for musicians. Or ballerinas. Or Olympic athletes.

We all need to practice in order to improve. In order to learn. In order to ingrain strong habits within ourselves.

Practice enables us to do things. Even simple things like cooking. Or gardening. Or blogging. Practice also enables us to do things well.

The act of regular practice helps us to get better at innovating within our companies. Practicing innovation skills such as questioning, observing, networking, experimenting and associating, can enable us to effect change within our organizations.

Practice doesn’t have to be complicated or even time-consuming. Any of us can do it. The key to accomplishing anything is to establish a practice routine. Your routine may be weekly, semi-weekly, daily or whatever. The important thing is to carve out time on your calendar to engage in regular practice of the activities or skills that are important to you.

I think we all need to practice practicing. Or, as Aristotle so adeptly put it, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Walking Backwards

BackwardsDid you ever try walking backwards? I did the other day. Well, not actually walking backwards…

I take a walk daily. I’ve been doing so since I was a little girl. It feels so good, so natural and it’s such a simple way to exercise my body and my mind.

The other day, on a whim, I decided to start at the end of my usual route and walk from there to where I usually begin my walk. I know…that wasn’t exactly rocket science, but it was interesting to take in everything in reverse, to see the “backs” of things: trees, buildings, signs, everything.

As I “reverse-walked,” I couldn’t help but see things differently. I spied a hidden garden that I’d never noticed before. I saw sunlight glistening on a building, giving it a dazzling glow that I’d been missing all those years I’d been approaching from the opposite direction. And, I couldn’t help thinking that I should walk backwards more often, literally and figuratively.

What might I be missing each time I start a project at “the beginning”? Could I achieve a better result if I started somewhere in “the middle” or, even, at “the end”?

Could I be a better problem solver if I consciously worked backwards? By clearly defining what the end result should be, could I reverse-engineer the steps needed to reach that goal?

Certainly, as a musician, I recall teachers suggesting that the best way to learn a piece of music is to “learn it backwards.” In other words, start from the final measure, then append and learn a few prior measures, little by little, until you find your way back to the beginning. This works particularly well when memorizing anything.

Might I be more creative if I consciously “work backwards” more often? It’s incredibly easy to fall into the habit of sticking to a system, especially when that system has been working well for a long time. If I reverse my creative process, might my results be, dare I say it, more creative?

The simple exercise of taking my walk from “back to front” has reminded me that there is more than one way to approach a problem, reach a goal or generate a new idea.

I need to practice walking backwards more often.

What analogies can you add to this list?

by Rebecca Cochran