When we see Michaelangelo's David or the design of the Apple Store, we assume a genius with a predetermined vision was the key to the outcome. Yet as Lorne Buchman, author of Make to Know, tells EconTalk's Russ Roberts, great art is more about embracing the process of exploration and the results that emerge in the process of creating. Buchman makes the case for embracing uncertainty in both leadership and life.
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Podcast Episode Highlights
Intro. [Recording date: December 19, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is December 19th, 2021, and my guest is author and educator, Lorne Buchman. He is the president of ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, and the author of Make to Know: From Spaces of Uncertainty to Creative Discovery. He hosts the podcast Change Lab: Conversations on Transformation and Creativity. Lorne, welcome to EconTalk.
Lorne Buchman: Thank you, Russ. Good to be here.
Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is your book Make to Know, which is about creativity and art, but we're going to get into other topics as well, including leadership and how to live with the uncertainty of life. You start your book with the creation of the Apple Store, which is maybe of surprise to some people. I mean, come on, what's so creative? It's just an interesting retail space, isn't it?
Here's how you describe the Apple Store:
The wide-open spaces, the community display tables, the Genius Bar, the invitation to engage with products by virtue of their presentation alone, the choice materials and fixtures strategically deployed, the glass and the wood, the precise use of color, the intuitive layout of the whole--all of it, one would think, must have sprung, like Zeus birthing Athena, from the head of Jobs. [Russ: That being Steve Jobs.] But is that how it came about? We know the Apple Store transformed the retail landscape at the turn of the 21st century in the United States and abroad. What was the actual process that led to this remarkable outcome?
I'm on your side: I would've thought it was just Steve Jobs had a vision, this beautiful aesthetic vision, very distinctive, very different, very Apple-ish. Is that what happened?
Lorne Buchman: No, it's not what happened at all, not if you talk with Tim Kobe, who was the lead designer of the project. He has a design firm called Eight Inc. And, he had done some projects with Apple and specifically with Steve Jobs before that, most notably the launch of the Macintosh at the Macworld event and really designed a really beautiful display. As he says, he let the products be the hero. It wasn't gussied up. It was very beautifully displayed and Jobs really appreciated that because it allowed the products themselves to shine.
But, Tim had an idea that it was really time for Apple to come out with its own retail outlet, because it was getting confused among other products in more general technology stores. And, Jobs really was quite anxious about the fact that the people who were selling his products didn't really understand them or know them or didn't present them with the kind of focus that he wanted. And so, it all converged and Tim wrote a white paper and it just sat for a while.
And, then one day they received a call from Andrea Nordeman, who was Jobs' longtime assistant and said, 'He would like to talk to you about that retail stuff.' And, Tim said, 'Well, that's fine. He can let us know a good time for him to meet with us.' And, she said, 'Well, he's in the car on the way. He'll be there in 15 minutes.' It's an important part of the story because already there was a surprise in the process; and ultimately the story is one of several surprises.
And, you would assume that the Apple store was something that came from a very clear vision: that a genius--and deservedly he deserves that title--a genius like Jobs would come up with. But in fact, it was nothing of the sort. He had a notion and that was it. And, in they went, into a long and wonderful iterative process of experimenting and making and playing and engaging materials and solving problems, and all around the frame of what Apple was and the values of Apple's. That was a north star; and I make a distinction between what a north star might be and what a vision might be.
But, ultimately what that story really tells us is: this very familiar space with all those elements that you just read is actually something that came through a process of making--of creating, of iterating, of testing, of failing--and that from the beginning, it was not a manifestation of some already-existing vision. It was a story about what making itself could reveal.
And, I tell that story at the beginning, because we're all so familiar with that space. We have assumptions about Jobs, we have assumptions about what Apple is, but in fact, they knew that store only through the making of it, and it whets the appetite for the questions and issues I really want to explore in the book.
Russ Roberts: Just two pieces of it that I found particularly interesting: One was Mickey Drexler, who is founder of the Gap, his insight, which he had an idea for the store that didn't turn out to be very useful, but he had an idea for how to get there from here that was very powerful, this idea of a prototype. So, talk about that, and then also talk about the granite on the outside of the store, which is just a sweet Jobsian kind of obsessive detail.
Lorne Buchman: On that store in Chicago, you mean?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.
Lorne Buchman: Yeah. Well, what Drexler did, which Jobs really appreciated, is he suggested that they actually build a full scale model of the store. And they rented--they secretly rented--this space in Cupertino, and they would do full mock-ups of what the store might look like, and how the displays would work, and how the lighting would work, and how materials would be activated. And, Jobs credits Drexler for that idea because that allowed for the kind of making I'm talking about. And, they would get together and they would build all these mock-ups and engage with them and reshape them and experience them. And, they went through that process of really figuring out what it needed to be until they finally opened the store. And, the first one in Virginia, I believe.
Russ Roberts: The part about that prototype mock-up--again, not what we think of as a mock-up, but more like a to-scale mock-up.
Lorne Buchman: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Instead of just saying, 'Well, on that computer-generated thing, did you move around the tables?' They actually had--they built the tables. They built the store. Very Jobsian in the way that you always feel like expense was no object with him. Like, most people would say that 'This is a ridiculous idea. You don't need to actually build it. You can get the idea of it. Use an artist's rendition. Come on.'
But, the part I found fascinating--one of the things; there were a number of interesting things--but one of the things that was fascinating was that in some of the prototype stores, the photographs of the product, which have always has been exquisite for Apple, were more attractive than the actual product on the table. And that couldn't be. So, what did they do with that?
Lorne Buchman: So, they--
Russ Roberts: Because it looks like they were lying. They were deceiving you with their print ads or these billboards with these gorgeous products, when in real life they don't like anything like that.
Lorne Buchman: Exactly. And, that was such--again, a discovery of the making. It was only because they could see that in real life and evaluate the relationship that they were able to come to that conclusion.
And so, they did all kinds of work with lighting and with various different, you know, processes that made sure that what they were presenting in real life matched the beauty of those photographs. Because you're right: what they discovered was that they would look like they were trying to pull a fast one on their customers, right? That the photographs would look so much better, and they would come in and then ultimately they would look at the real thing and experience disappointment instead of excitement.
Russ Roberts: So, talk about the granite in the Chicago store.
Lorne Buchman: So, the granite and story about that is they were working--Tim tells the story. They wanted to use a particular kind of granite and they were experimenting with it and they were staring at it, I think he said for five or six hours, just staring at the granite, wondering how it would work. And, all of a sudden Jobs perks up and says, 'You know, we're such idiots. We're sitting here in sunny California looking at dry granite. It rains in Chicago.' And so, they all scrambled and got buckets of water and dumped them on the granite and saw what happened when it became wet and when the water was dripping, and all of the various different ways in which it would present when it was going to be like it would be in Chicago, in the rain. And, it was through that, that they came up with the kind of final answer of the material that they wanted to use.
Russ Roberts: I can't tell you how many rocks I brought back from the beach that disappointed me when I got home. I've often thought I should get--you know how they spray the vegetables in the grocery to make them look good and keep crisp?--
Lorne Buchman: Mm-hmm (affirmative)--
Russ Roberts: I needed a rock hydrator for my beach collection.
But, actually, there's a deep metaphor there. We don't have to go into it, but I think there's something there.
Lorne Buchman: Yeah, and it's a wonderful example of how, and we can talk about this a little bit more, about how engaging with materials, which is one of the four serious principles I try to explore in the book, is such a significant part of the making. And, what the materials tell you, and how they talk back to you, and how you engage and work with them in a way that allows you to come to a point of knowing and discovery that's critical to the project.
Russ Roberts: I should mention that the book is the result of many, many interviews with artists from different domains: painters, songwriters, authors. And, I found myself thinking a lot about materials. I think for some people--like, my dad, his materials were a pencil. He never got comfortable using a word processor. His materials were a pencil and a yellow pad of paper. For me, it's a keyboard. I love how a keyboard unleashes my creativity. And, because my handwriting has deteriorated as I've done less of it over time and as I've gotten older, the idea of creating with a pencil would be very painful for me. Might--it would have some advantages, I should add. And, actually I've started to do physical note-taking in meetings with a pen and a little notebook, which changes things in ways that you don't anticipate.
But, then when you think about, quote, "real artists," meaning artists with media of various kinds--paintbrush, chisel, all that stuff--to some extent, and I didn't appreciate this until I read your book, they help the artist in their own way. Meaning, there are probably people who could be artists in the painting sense, but the brush doesn't unleash for them, whereas the pencil or pen or keyboard does, so they become writers. And, I just think the world of materials is underappreciated.
Lorne Buchman: Yeah. It's a great point. It's a really, really good point. And, you know, there's the tool, and then there's the experience of the actual engagement with the material itself.
And the tool is a very important element to that in exactly the way you just explained.
So, you're right: there will be some who find that they can--and they speak like this--enter a dialogue with the material, through the pencil, or as one of the artists in the book says, 'It's the charcoal and the paper and me, and we're all having a conversation.' And, the charcoal makes an imprint and it moves that material of the paper and then the paper responds and says, 'Okay, you give me this, I'll give you that. Now let's take it here.'
And, that's just a beautiful articulation of what I mean with how the discovery process is enabled through that engagement with the material itself.
Russ Roberts: I had a friend in graduate school--it's a different kind of artistry. He was waxing eloquent about a professor we had, who was incredibly prolific and phenomenally creative as an economist. And, he told me one day--my friend, my co-graduate student--he said, 'You know he writes all of his papers with a fountain pen?' Which is very unusual. I mean, most academics in economics don't use a fountain pen. In fact, I've never seen an economist use a fountain pen except for one who collects them. I don't know if he writes his papers with them. But, he said, 'He writes all his papers with a fountain pen.' Then he paused and he said, wistfully, 'I wish I had that pen.' And, he had an understanding in some dimension that the tool unleashed something in this very, very creative person.
Lorne Buchman: Yeah. And, I would add, Russ, too, just so the listeners get a scope of this, if you take that fundamental principle and then you extrapolate it to--well, we talked about writing and painting--but sculpting. Alexander Calder, the great--'I think in wire,' he says. I mean, that sums up so much of what I mean. That engagement with his material allows him to think in a very particular kind of way. It's not thinking necessarily only in the intellectual realm, but it becomes part of a larger sensibility and also very significantly an engagement of the body. So, we have to shift our focus there to understand really what he means when he says, 'I think in wire,' and how making is and can be in of itself a kind of ideation process that can push the perimeters of what we know.
Or, somebody making a film or somebody in performance and improvisation. Improvisation is such a wonderful illustration of what I mean, because to improvise, the process of the making and the thing made are one and the same. And, when that happens, you get a really wonderful make-to-know moment, that the making and the thing created are exactly on par.
So, you think about that remarkable concert that Keith Jarrett gave in the 1970s in Köln, right? And, not having a clue what he was going to do for that concert. And, there's a huge backstory to that, too. I don't know if you know about it, but they brought the wrong piano and it was broken and he left; and this young enterprising woman came and convinced him to come back. And, he sat down, he figured out what parts of the piano were working.
I mean, it's a fantastic story. You can find certain references to it. There was a story about it recently on NPR [National Public Radio], 'recently' being in the last couple of years. And, he created one of the greatest concerts in the history of improvised live concerts. I mean, it was an unbelievable achievement; and it was completely from the spontaneity and the energy of the moment and the making of the moment that allowed it to happen. But, in that story--
Russ Roberts:And the constraint of the bad piano--
Lorne Buchman: And, the constraint. Beautiful.
Russ Roberts: which you talk about. We might come back to that, but that which seemed to be a handicap unleashed him.
Lorne Buchman: Right, exactly. And, to that point, just to help the listeners, designers and artists talk about constraints not as things that limit, but as things that open possibility; and it's a really interesting kind of paradox that goes on there.
And so, you think about the fact that Jarrett was able to achieve this remarkable kind of thing; and how did he do it and how did he push the perimeters? And, it's really important--and this becomes a very important point in the book, too--that Make to Know isn't building the plane as you fly. Make to Know is--I don't mean that it's some kind of variation, fancy variation on 'we make it up as we go along.' That's not the point. And the reason is that we bring so much to our process of making. We bring our experience. We bring our education. We bring our values. We bring our priorities. We bring our ethics. We bring the questions that stir us.
But, all of that really forms the scaffolding on which we stand as we reach into places of the unknown, as we reach into uncertainty.
So, what Jarrett did on that fateful day was he brought incredible skill. Gladwell's 10,000 hours comes to mind--a kind of way of really building very precise skill and ability. And, that in turn becomes, again, that scaffolding to reach into uncertainty.
So, people often ask me, 'Well, amateurs make to know as well,' and that's a really important principle. The difference is the scaffolding. The difference is the level of support. The difference is--you know--how much and how far one can reach based on one's own experience, one's skill base, one's knowledge--which is, again, the business I'm in of educating artists and designers and helping them build that scaffolding, and, equally the courage--because they have that scaffolding to reach into places of uncertainty, where they can discover and where there's a way of finding again what making art feels[?].
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I think about a couple things. I'm thinking about, from our discussion of materials, a musician who can play more than one instrument and how their music on one instrument is so radically different. Often they put in more time practicing piano, say, rather than guitar. But, a lot of people can play both and they comfortably move back and forth. And, I've never thought about how the instrument changes their musical creation.
On the example of the courage and the intuition--I don't think you use that word actually, but that's the word that kept coming into my mind, that there's intuition. I think for a lot of people, they think of it as a negative thing: It means guessing or just a hunch. But, it actually is, I think a honed skill that comes from experience, wisdom, knowledge. It's not just whatever feels right at the moment.
And, as you get older and you do hone your craft, I think great artists know what to push, when to pull back.
A very modest level in my case--I often digress on EconTalk or in my lectures. For me, it's a way of, I don't know, it does something for me. I hope it does something for the audience. But, there's an art to knowing when you've gone too far, when you need to keep yourself quiet. And, it's an intuition. It's something you learn. It's not a science, obviously. It's a craft and it's important.
Lorne Buchman: And you can go too far. But, I would say, if you can keep it in balance, the digression ultimately enhances the fundamentals or focus of the conversation.
And, I learned that through the interviews I conducted for this book, of the--and it manifested in a couple of different ways. One, a couple of the artists talked about how they doodle in meetings, and that distraction or digression allows them to focus on what's going on in the meeting in a much more focused and precise way.
Or, the single most frequent statement made by the artists and designers that I interviewed was, 'I thought of the idea in the shower.' And, I mean, I have that experience, too. But there's something about--we think it's all happening right in the studio, in the actual engagement as we're writing. But so often it happens, artists and designers report, when they're in the shower, when they're washing the dishes, when they're driving the car, when they're out for a walk.
And, the interesting distinction that I think they make and that I learned from them is: it's not like they've stopped the creative process to do these things--that they understand there's a whole art. There's a spectrum, a range of engagement and activity that's all part of it and you can't separate it off, but you bring it in and allow yourself to have the benefit of that change of context or that mundane process that actually is feeding into something in a very important way.
Russ Roberts: And, we've talked about this on the program before: that a lot of problems that we have--intellectual problems, work problems, relationship problems, creativity problems--that we're trying to solve, get solved when we're not consciously working on them. And that there's a remarkable power of the brain to make advances while we're thinking or doing other things. And, in fact, often it's the doing of the other things--the shower, the walk--that frees up the brain to work in the background. You know, it's that the process is still going.
I wrote a poem the other night in my sleep; I hope it turns out. I woke up to it--a little bit like Coleridge, probably not quite as good as Coleridge, but I honed it--
Lorne Buchman: I'm sure you get very close.
Russ Roberts: What?
Lorne Buchman: I'm sure you get very close.
Russ Roberts: Oh yeah, for sure. But, I literally wrote it in my waking, where I was not really awake. I was still half-, three-quarters asleep. And, really, it was an amazing experience. And, of course, it happens in all kinds of ways in daily life.
Russ Roberts: I want to focus on an issue we've left in the background because, you know, for listeners who haven't read the book yet, it really focuses on what you're talking about. Which is: that our culture's view of great artists are: A genius, a madman, or a person who--historically, a person who's got a hotline to the divine. So, we talk about divine inspiration. We talk about the 'mad genius,' even. And we think that this process of great art, of magnificent art, is the--for people with, you know, a magical gift to foresee a beautiful work of art.
You talk about this--I've always loved this example, now I think it's grossly misleading, but I used to always love it--that Michelangelo wanted to sculpt an angel, or my favorite would be David, his sculpture in Florence, which I think is just one of the great moments of human creativity. And, the story is: How did he do it? Well, he took a block of marble and he cut away everything that wasn't David. Meaning, he had this vision that he fulfilled through the artistic process.
And, I think--you know--Beethoven heard the symphony and he's deaf, so he hears it in his mind and he just writes it down.
And, I think, as you point out, that's our cultural--that's a very romantic view of art and human creativity. And, I think we're suckers for it, we love the idea of it. But, as you point out, it's really remarkably misleading. Why?
Lorne Buchman: Well, I'd like to contextualize that just a little bit to say that in the hundreds of conversations I've had about the principle of Make to Know over the course of several years, no one has looked at me quizzically and said, 'I don't get what you mean.'
And, that kind of concerned me, because I thought, 'Well, am I just saying the sky is blue, here? I mean, is there anything to this?' Which prompted me to really try to explore how, in Western culture anyway, we think about creativity.
And that's exactly--what you cite is exactly what I tried to address--is that there seemed to me to be three dominant narratives about the creative process. One, the obsession with genius. Two, an obsession with the artist as mad. And three, the focus on the fact that there are an elect few who can channel the gods--the muse in Homer.
But, none of that had to do with making. Right? It had to do with something else, something outside.
And, as I try to explore in that essay, that narrative is so dominant, that it has limited our capacity to talk about the relationship of making and knowing.
And, it has also limited our capacity to think of ourselves--us normal, rank and file human beings--it's limited our ability to think of ourselves as makers of our lives, as creative humans, who are engaged in that kind of process every day.
And, it's so interesting to see how much that persists. Right? I mean, it really does go back to Homer. The obsession with genius goes back, goes through a really interesting evolution, which is, it used to be that you were visited by a tutelary god who was of a genius. Right? And, then through Kant and the romantics, it became: You are the genius. And so, it became the difference between having genius and being genius; and this kind of deep obsession with that.
Now, let me say, I actually believe there are geniuses among us. I am not saying genius is an illusion. What I am saying--
Russ Roberts: Homer was probably one of them--
Lorne Buchman: Likely.
What I am saying, however, is our focus on that has limited our sense of what the creative process is; has imposed a narrative and vocabulary that has actually not allowed us to explore this other idea of the relationship of making and knowing. And, that work and that study for me, allowed me to realize that even though it's a very familiar concept, Make to Know, it's actually unrecognized and hasn't really been explored or expounded in ways that I hope the book began.
Russ Roberts: So, I just want to reiterate the sort of fundamental lesson at the heart of the book, which I think applies to lots of things way beyond art, certainly on how to live. You have many, many quotes from artists that capture this idea of make to know. You have W. H. Auden, the poet: 'No poet can know what his poem is going to be like until he has written it.' Pablo Picasso: 'To know what you're going to draw, you have to begin drawing.' Philip Roth: 'You begin every book as an amateur gradually by writing sentence after sentence. The book, as it were, reveals itself to you. Each and every sentence is a revelation.' And, finally, a more general one--not quite an artist, maybe not quite at the level of those, but maybe he should be considered--Bill Watterson, the creator of "Calvin and Hobbes." He said it very beautifully. He says--I love Calvin and Hobbes, by the way; I'm a sucker for it, big time--"The truth is most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive."
And, I think there's a modern tendency to think of our lives as an algorithm to be followed or a plan to be created. And, I've talked about this many times on the program: That, that's often not what we do, and maybe not even a good idea. And, I think most people would say, 'Well, it's not what we do, but we should be. You should discover where you're headed first.' And, I think the Watterson image, that we discover where we are headed when we arrive, is profound. And, it applies to, of course, much more than just art.
Lorne Buchman: And so, here's where things become really interesting in the overlap with my life and with how I think we can get stuck in the way we live.
A huge motivation for me to write this book, frankly, was for my students at an art design college who tell me--and the faculty back this up--that they get paralyzed when they don't have it all figured out from the beginning. And, they can't start doing their work--because that dominant narrative of the artist as manifesting great vision--which maybe Michelangelo did, I don't know, but some do--and this is, you know, but most artists and designers don't talk that way. But that students felt stuck that they couldn't actually engage until they had it all figured out and all the details so that they were in fact, doing work that wasn't making to know. It was manifesting a vision.
And, as I alluded earlier in our conversation, I think working toward an existing vision, can be--it doesn't have to be all the time--can be actually narrowing and limiting as opposed to expansive.
And, the whole idea here is to help our students become expansive and to trust in a process of engaging materials or solving problems or improvising that allows them to make those great discoveries as they move forward.
And, art design education, therefore, to a significant extent, becomes helping them realize, helping them discover in the making, helping them understand what making might reveal as opposed to feeling like they have to have it all figured out from the beginning.
And, then you--it's not a difficult step to take, to say, 'Well, how many people do we know in our lives, or true for ourselves, where we can't get started because we don't have it all figured out?' We don't have the vision. Right? We haven't done all that we believe is necessary in a kind of preparation for something?
Well, if you shift the language in the make-to-know realm and you say, 'Well, we have urges, we have questions, we have desires, we have curiosity, we have ways in which we want to go into something and begin to explore it.' Some poets talk about it as a stomach ache. Whatever the entry point is, we need to move into places of uncertainty.
And, that's scary, for sure. And it's unsettling and destabilizing.
But, what I learned from artists and designers is that while it is a very scary place, this thing we call uncertainty, it is also a deeply creative place. And, when all is said and done, uncertainty is the cost of great beauty and discovery.
Russ Roberts: And, if you're not careful, I think you think, 'Well, that's great for Keith Jarrett, who went into that concert without any preparation of what he was going to play or how he was going to play it and had a mediocre or a broken piano with certain limitations; and that's fine for a great musician, a great sculptor, a great whatever. But not for me.' I mean, 'I've got to have the comfort that the thing I'm majoring in, in college, is going to have a good salary, and then I've got this career arc that I can plan and it'll turn out this way.'
And, I think there's some comfort obviously to having that vision. But, most of us, our visions, life doesn't turn out the way we planned.
And, I think most people would--a lot of people respond to that by saying, 'Yeah, but it's better to plan than not to plan.'
And, what you're saying, or the way I understand what you're saying is: Maybe not. Maybe it's better to plan on not having a plan.
And it doesn't mean--and I think this is why I think this approach scares people--it doesn't mean, 'Just randomly try different stuff.' Or, 'I'll just go wander off into this field.' No, it's not that. But it's not the extreme on the other side of everything set in stone--to take a sculpture metaphor. Sorry.
Lorne Buchman: No. Actually what you just said is enormously helpful. And, here are the principles that I think are important. I think what we learn here is that discovery is not something we can control: We can only make the conditions for its realization. And so, it becomes a question of: Well, what is the planning that you're talking about? Is it a manifestation of an already-predetermined vision, or are you planning in a way that you're setting up that scaffolding or you're creating the frame? I talk a lot about frames for improvisation. They don't come out of nowhere. There has to be a context.
There was a context for Jarrett, a very wide one. Miles Davis riffing on a Gershwin tune is also a frame or a frame you can think about in terms of theatrical improvisation.
Improvisation requires a frame. It's not just something--but that's the point. And, then what happens within that frame and how does the breeze blow through it and how do you move within it, as opposed to something that is rigidly set or some matrix that controls everything?
So, that's one really important piece of all this, is that we understand that part of our work is to create the conditions that allow for discovery--or if you prefer the other metaphor, scaffolding that we stand on--that allows us to reach into uncertainty.
But, the other piece of it, too--and this is so important--and I think about artists like Ann Hamilton and Diana Thater and others that I talk about in the book where they plan in incredible detail, but what they're planning, again, is not the final result. What they've planned is the conditions that allow them to be ready.
Russ Roberts: An analogy, for me, is: Doing this interview, this conversation, I have a set of questions I've written down, but if all I did was read the questions and let you answer them, it would be a different experience. I am open to what you're going to bring up outside your book; you've already done it a few times. And, that's what I'm paying attention to, not, 'Oh, wait a minute, we've got to get to Question 7 here or we won't finish the interview.' And, conversations should be like that. I'm not saying all interviews should be like that. There's something to be said for the very planned interview.
But, that readiness idea, there's really two aspects to it. One is the conditions, the tools, that you've got the tools with you to do your work, whether they're your intuition or your physical tools--obviously it matters. I think about my--I love photography. I've spent a lot of money on expensive cameras in my life, and I don't have any of them with me. I didn't bring them to Israel. I brought my iPhone 12 and I love the pictures I get from it.
Every once in a while I wish I had my Fuji, but I've got my camera with me: I've got it in my pocket all the time now. And, I try to learn to work within that constraint. It has obvious constraints compared to a larger camera.
So, that's one sense of readiness, is the tools and the atmosphere. Maybe it can include things like getting a good night's sleep, reading something in advance to be prepared. Right? I didn't just say, 'Well, I know the idea of this book, let's just explore it.' I've got to read the book. I got to do the work. It's not all improvised. So, I think that's important, but the second kind of readiness is--
Lorne Buchman: May I just interrupt for a second?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Lorne Buchman: Or, in order to improvise, you need to do the work. That's really what I'm saying.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly. Because otherwise, it's not very good and it's not--
Lorne Buchman: And, great improvisers are incredibly ready and incredibly skilled. And, you can't be a great improviser without those, quote-unquote, "10,000 hours."
Russ Roberts: Right. I'll just play random notes and maybe it'll work.
Russ Roberts: But, the other point I was going to say is that readiness, I think in life, is to be open to the unexpected. And, again, I think it's so hard, as you mention, it's frightening: 'Just tell me where the path is. After I finish law school, I'm going to have that opening job. I'll work a lot of hours, it'll be hard, but then I'll make partner.' And, you have that vision. But, the readiness to be open to something different is really hard, because it's scary. We like to plan. I get it, we all get it.
But, I think, again, this isn't about--for me, it's not about, 'Take risks in your career,' although that's not a bad idea. It's really more about, 'Pay attention.' Because things are knocking on your door that you might miss if you're not paying attention. And that's a different kind of readiness for me that you're talking about, and it's really beautiful.
Lorne Buchman: Yeah, I love that. I think you're absolutely right. And, so much of this is creating the conditions for us to pay attention, in optimal ways.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's not--there's nothing casual about what you're talking about or--
Lorne Buchman: Nothing casual. And it's--yeah. Right. And that's why I say, without really thinking about the depth of what is implied by make to know, you can kind of write it off initially as, 'Oh, it's kind of casual,' or you know--
Russ Roberts: Fooling around. Just fooling around. See what comes next.
Lorne Buchman: Yeah, exactly. It has nothing to do with that. Nor is that very interesting.
Russ Roberts: I've sometimes quoted Faulkner and you have different versions. I don't think you quote Faulkner in your book along those lines, but you have different versions of it.
Lorne Buchman: Everybody else though, yeah. Yeah, it's too bad I missed Faulkner.
Russ Roberts: What?
Lorne Buchman: It's too bad I missed Faulkner. Yeah, go ahead.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, I mentioned before on the program that he liked to pull a fast one on interviewers and say things, just to provoke them. And, he'd tell one interviewer one thing and another interviewer the opposite, because he was bored or he didn't respect them. Whatever the reason was, I don't know. But, at one point he said, 'Writing a book means, 'Oh, it's easy. You just follow around your characters with a pencil and paper and write down what they say.' And, he obviously did a lot of readiness. He thought a lot about what he was going to--the setting he was going to put those characters in and what would be the central, maybe, issue they were going to grapple with.
But, there's a lot of truth to that. And I think it's mirrored in the interviews you do. It's certainly something I've felt many times: that, the thing you're creating, the thing you're making takes on a life of its own.
And, just a famous example that I misunderstood for years: I was always told, I always thought that Flaubert, the French novelist, he wouldn't write down a sentence until it was perfect. And, then he just wrote down that one and then he wrote down another one that was perfect, and eventually he had a perfect book.
That's not how he did it. Boy, did he revise, did he let the book change while he was working on it, did he not plan.
Or Elizabeth Bishop whose poem I love called "One Art," that starts, 'The art of losing isn't hard to master.' That poem went through 17 revisions. We have her notes. They're wildly different. And you see the poem take on a life of its own. Its form changes. It becomes a certain way. And then all of a sudden she's stuck with that form and she just moves forward with it and it--she loses control.
That idea that the artist loses control of their work is a mystery. It seems--it's a paradox. 'It can't be. What do you mean? How could they have lost control? It's their book, they can write whatever they want.' But, you find out after a while, you can't. And, talk about that, because it's such an extraordinary thing.
Lorne Buchman: It's beautiful. Thank you. You know, just that example, the Faulkner example you gave, in fact, one of the provocations or one of the things that I love, that really got me to think about this book and ultimately to write it is exactly that, when novelists say, 'I created the shell of my characters and then they told me what they wanted to say.' I mean, that to me is, you know, a very clear statement about the discovery that can happen through the making--and the attentiveness of the artist, of the writer in this case--to what the book is saying. Or that hilarious line by Umberto Eco in the postscript to The Name of the Rose--
Russ Roberts: SPOILER ALERT for the readers who have not read The Name of the Rose, because it's going to give something away. Go ahead. Those who are worried about that, can skip over the next 20 seconds. Go ahead.
Lorne Buchman: who said, 'I didn't know Jorge was the murderer until I put him in the library.' That's beautiful.
That's exactly the point, right?, of what it means to--as a couple of artists have said to me, 'The words are so much smarter than I am. I just need to listen to them. I need to listen to the process.'
So, it's not so much about a loss of control as it is what you said earlier, it's: What are you paying attention to? What are you listening to? how are you engaging in a way that is giving you that message?
I just recently heard the poet Hirshfield, Jane Hirshfield, talk about her process. And, she said a couple of things that were really interesting. One was, 'If I'm not--first of all, I have no idea what I'm going to write when I sit down to write a poem. And if I do, it's not going to be a poem.' And, the second thing she says is, 'If I don't discover something in the writing of the poem, it won't be a poem. It will be a draft of something. And, only in the discovery will it start to take on the dimensions of--if I've learned something, if I've found something through the making of it, will it have the power of what I think a poem needs to have as it stirs our insides and rearranges us there.'
And, the third point I would make, too, is: the novelist Aimee Bender talks about the fact that if there's not a sense of discovery, if there's not an engagement that is honest and true, the reader knows that. And, there's a wonderful kind of communication with writer and reader, where, when you're reading something or when you're engaged with any work of art, really--I don't think it has to be limited to words or to the book--that consciously or unconsciously, you're always sensing something. And, if there's an honest kind of process of discovery that's happening on the artist's part, on the creator's part, the reader knows that somehow and will be that much more deeply engaged. And, I just love that. I love the mirroring that happens. And, part of what Make to Know teaches us is the importance of that, the significance of that, to how others will respond to the work that we create.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, I think mediocre art--art that doesn't break our hearts or inspire us, mediocre art--has no surprises because it fits the genre. I think I've talked about this recently: you know, country music, there's a certain expected ending, even plot-twist. And we listen to it because we find that comforting. And, there's nothing wrong with that. I'm a big fan; I love country music, by the way. There's many country music songs that actually do make me cry, so I have to take back what I said before. But, those type of genres don't get the respect that the kind you're talking about do. Maybe they should.
But, it just strikes me that part of it is, when I'm reading a great work of art, I don't know how it's going to end. And, I could think of a number of novels I've read recently--I'm not going to name them--where the ending was so disappointing because it felt like they couldn't figure out how it was going to end, so they just killed off a character and that's how it ended. And it just didn't--part of it is I didn't want them to do that. I felt cheated. But, part of it was just like, it didn't feel authentic. It didn't feel organic. And, I think a lot of what you're talking about is the organic nature of great art. That, it emerges--to take our economics example from Hayek and others. It emerges. It isn't top down. It's bottom up.
Now how can that be? Because, what could be more top down than the author? And, what we're suggesting here is that the author actually lets it blossom.
I think this plays a role also in interpretation. When I think about a great work of art and somebody comes up with an interpretation that's, say, different than what most people think it means and you say, 'I don't think that's what the author meant.' And, my answer to that often is, 'I don't think the author meant something necessarily. The author created something for you to explore alongside the author.' And, sometimes you see something the author didn't see that's part of the story. It is part of the narrative that the author unconsciously built, allowed you to find. And, if you learn something from that, the fact that it's, quote, "not what the author meant," as if the author only meant one thing--I mean, come on.
Lorne Buchman: Right. And, what I would add to that is the kind of honesty or courage of the creator in all of that and how that moves us or touches us as readers or observers.
As you were speaking, I was reminded of an acting teacher I had many years ago, at Stanford actually, who said to me, 'If an actor is not somehow telling a secret about themselves, nobody will be interested in their performance.' And, whether that secret is conscious or unconscious and whether the observer or the spectator in the theater or on the film is really responding consciously is not the point. The point is that there is a level of honesty and spontaneity that's coming through that engages us in a great acting performance. I think that's the same principle of what we're talking about here. That statement has stayed with me in all kinds of ways. I find it incredibly compelling and really absolutely true when I begin to think about the great performances that I've witnessed in my life.
Russ Roberts: Yes. Say it again and then I want to comment on it.
Lorne Buchman: That unless a performer is telling a secret about themselves on some level, consciously or unconsciously, nobody will be interested in their performance.
Russ Roberts: When you say that, it reminds me of one of the most remarkable evenings I ever had in the theater, which was the show Next to Normal, which is a deeply depressing--sometimes uplifting, but, just, I've never felt anything like it in the theater. And, the star of that show, when I saw it in Washington, was a veteran musical performer, Rachel Bay Jones. And, it's about a woman struggling with serious mental issues. And, at the end of the first act of that show, I couldn't move and just sat in my seat. My wife had to go to the restroom, so she got up. I mean, this was at intermission. And, she said in the ladies' room--in the women's bathroom--nobody was talking. They were so overwhelmed by the performance and the show.
And, part of what you're getting at with that quote is that to portray that person, you have to tap into the most vulnerable parts of yourself. And, I think what makes great acting--I'm going to say it a different way than your quote--but there's an inherent vulnerability of standing in front of an audience live, where you don't get a retake, and exposing yourself really emotionally as this show makes you do. And, it's a tightrope. Everything about it is dangerous--emotionally dangerous.
And, when you see it done well, it gives you access to another human being. Which is weird. Because, for all I know, Rachel Bay Jones is a totally happy, well-adjusted human being. That would make her unusual: most of us aren't; we're complicated. And, she, in that performance exposed her humanity for us to share. And, it's a intimacy that only great art can create. And, live, it's especially exhilarating, an amazing thing.
Lorne Buchman: And, it's an argument for Make to Know, because unless you're in the making--if you're acting to manifest some vision that's already in your head--as I did, when I talk about that experience I had when I was in college: Why I'm a terrible actor is I have a sense of what the character needs to be, and then every time I'm in rehearsal or performing and I'm not meeting that vision, I start panicking and I start getting out of character and I start losing the whole because I'm so in my head.
Whereas, an actor who is performing in the kind of way you just described, an actor who's telling a secret about themselves, an actor who is opening up their vulnerability is in a making process. They're not manifesting an already-thought-about vision because that would create a rigid, artificial performance. Whereas, one that is alive in the making and it allows for the discovery to happen through the making is the kind that has the power that you just elucidated.
Russ Roberts: And, I never thought about it: we use the word 'wooden' for an actor that is just delivering the lines and fitting a particular style that they think is appropriate as opposed to organic, which is not wooden, it's alive. It's more like a tree. A tree's not wooden. It has wood in it, but it's not wooden.
Lorne Buchman: Right. And, this illustrates why--the manifestation of vision or working toward vision can be a very narrowing, limiting, rigid, wooden way of creating. Whereas creating conditions and going to uncertainty and allowing discovery to happen, gives it an energy and a power and a humanity that is essential to great art.
Russ Roberts: And, you talk about in the book, and give us some insight into this because it's a world that most of us have no access to: in your youth you were a director, a theatrical director. And, I think most of us think of the director as the person who tells the actors what to say, where to stand, and how to say the lines. And, if they don't deliver the line right, we say, 'Once or more with feeling. Come on, do that better,' and 'Stand over there,' and, 'You should be puzzled at this point, because the script says puzzled.' And, that's what I always assumed directors do, but you found out it's more interesting and complicated than that.
Lorne Buchman: Yeah. And, actually it became my training, my work at Stanford and then in the Theater Department of Berkeley, all of that was I was directing. It's an amazing metaphor in a lot of ways. But to me, the work of the director is--again, you have a notion and idea surrounding a project, a text, a performance, whatever the case may be, and then you begin to work with a community.
And, the work of the director really has everything to do with exploring that notion, that idea, through a making process that we call 'rehearsal,' that we call engaging in character, the many levels of what happens along the way. And, then you begin to take that idea and it becomes better. It becomes better because there's a collaboration. It becomes more interesting because there is a conversation: there is a making process that happens within the context of the theater. And, the work of the director is to work with the community to shape that idea.
And, then, as the rehearsal period comes to an end and opening night looms, what the director has to do is hand over that to the actors--and the crew and the designers, etc.--but they're the ones who actually have to take ownership of that. They have to hold it in order to be able to create the most important moment, and that's between a spectator and a performer. And nobody's thinking about the director at that particular point. What the director has done is created a context for that to happen.
And, before we conclude, I'd like to get to that project in Holland because it so beautifully articulates what a make-to-know of leadership or directing can be. Right? And, I said, just to complete that, too, is that being a theater director and thinking about directing that way has created the greatest preparation I can imagine to be a college president. The work is exactly the same for me.
It is about having values, commitment, a sense of what it means to educate people well--in this case, artists and designers--to work with a community, this time not of actors and designers, but of faculty, of students, of trustees, of alumni, with these ideas, engaging in conversation, making sure that we are staying at the edge of what we understand, breaking the perimeter, breaking the boundaries, and helping shape those notions so that they are collectively that much stronger, that much more interesting, that much more compelling for educational purposes.
And, then at the end of the day, that most important moment, which in the theater was spectator and performer, now is between faculty and student, or student and student, or faculty--whatever the learning moment is. And, the president is, like the director, nowhere to be found. That's not the role. But you've enabled something. You've created a context for something to happen. You've drawn what's best in people to have that engagement, but they ultimately own it. And, therefore the learning can be as alive and as dynamic and as human as possible.
Russ Roberts: Well, I appreciate that career advice as a fellow college president. I want to say one thing about directing, and then I want you to close with the Holland story that you mentioned and that you talk about in the book. The thing about directing--sometimes an actor will praise a director. I have always wondered, 'Yeah, they just want to get the next gig.' But I think they are actually--I'm sure there are many directors who are actually deeply appreciated by the artists, the actors that work for them.
And, again, I'm talking about directors, but we think about actors as, 'Oh, they just say the lines.' But of course, as you point out they're doing something else. But, we often hear from an actor that, 'Oh yeah, so and so, that director really brought out the best in me.' And, I've always naively thought that meant, 'Oh yeah: they got me to say the line the right way,' or, 'They put my body or my facial expression in the right place,' or, 'They gave me something to think about.'
And, what you're really saying, and I think this is profoundly important for leadership generally, in all aspects of life, is a good leader puts people in a position to succeed and creates that preparation we were talking about earlier--that environment, that collaboration that you were talking about as a director.
And, it's not about telling them how to hold their face or when to pause or how to look at the other actors when they're delivering their lines. It's about creating a space for them to collaborate with each other and letting go.
And, that's that letting-go part that's so hard for, I think, the people at the top of an organization like a president or any type of leadership and management. Because, to take a famous quote that gets attributed to modern people, but it's actually at least as old as the 19th century--I think the late 19th century, early 20th century; I'm going to get this date wrong--but, the Panama Canal, the person who was in charge of the Panama Canal project said, 'There's no limit to what you can accomplish, if you don't care about who gets the credit.' I've heard that attributed to lots of modern politicians and other people, but it's a very old insight and it's a very deep insight.
And, what you're saying is: If you want your ensemble to live, to come to life, to be truly great art, organically, you have to let them go and you have to release them and you have to be content with setting the stage for them--to serve a bad pun--but set the stage for their work to blossom, and then letting it go where it's going to go, as opposed to dictating where it goes. I'm sure there's directors who--I assume there's some that did have an authoritarian aspect, but--
Lorne Buchman: Right. And, just to take this full circle and then it's a great segue to the Holland story. But, just to take this full circle: If you're not doing what you just described and instead saying, 'You need to do it this way, and this way, and this way,' you are again--the parallel is clear--you're telling them to manifest a vision not even theirs, the vision of the director. Right? And, then you have all the risks associated with that kind of wooden performance, that lack of context for discovery to happen that's going to really stir the souls of the people that are watching.
So, that's about[?] leadership. And, when you think about a make-to-know leadership, the--I put so much of this together when I discovered this story about this intersection in Holland. And, do you want to say something first? Sorry.
Russ Roberts: Mm-mm (negative). No, go ahead. It's a fantastic story. I love it. For an economist, it's a great story. For a Hayekian, it's a great story. For an artist, it's a great story, and for a leader. Go ahead, tell it.
Lorne Buchman: Exactly. So, the last chapter of the book really takes the make-to-know concept and tries to explore implications for how we live. And, when it comes to leadership, I came across this story that had a profound effect on me, and it goes like this:
There was a very dangerous intersection in a town in Northern Holland. And, there were cars crashing into each other. There were pedestrians that were being hit. There were bicyclists that were being injured. And, the more the problems ensued, the more the various different traffic engineers put up more signs--tried to kind of narrow the possibility for danger--'Slow down' here, and 'Don't cross' here' and 'Keep your distance' there.
Russ Roberts: And, 'Watch out for bicycles'.
Lorne Buchman: And, watch out for them, yeah. And, the more signs that came up, actually the worse it got. It was a terrible situation.
And, a traffic designer by the name of Hans Monderman came along; and he had a very different approach and a different thought process and was inspired by watching people on a crowded skating rink and how--except for the couple of jerks or something like that. But, basically people behaved actually very well and didn't really bump into each other, as if there were some kind of instinct that people had to be careful and to watch out for each other. Or a flock of birds or a school of fish, and how they moved together in this precise choreography.
And so, his whole philosophy was: Don't put more onto this intersection. In fact, take away. Open up the space. And, ultimately he designed a roundabout; and they took all signs away and they completely redesigned the intersection and it became a roundabout. And, immediately cars came in--and this is where the principle of uncertainty is so significant--as they were approaching the intersection, they weren't sure what was in front of them and so they naturally slowed down.
The accidents--the car crashes--stopped happening entirely, the pedestrians weren't hit. The bicyclists weren't injured. And, what the roundabout did was allowed, really, people to start owning--just what I was saying about the actor, too. They started to own--they were makers in their safety in that place of uncertainty. And, it brought out that instinct and what was best in them to create a safe environment.
So, you extrapolate that to what it means to be a leader, a make-to-know leader. The best we can do as leaders, I think, is to create roundabouts--create those structures that allow people to be makers in the process of what the organization needs to be, the values that need to be realized, the learning that needs to happen to engage in that world from the best part of us and with the instincts that are going to allow us to thrive optimally. And it's just, to me, a fantastic metaphor of what you can extend as you think about Make to Know, and as you think about what our work is as leaders.
Russ Roberts: And, we have an essay from years and years ago, that Dan Klein wrote on the skating rink as an example of emergent order. We have lots of other examples like that. They're all about bottom up versus top down.
And, there has to be a top-down element to leadership. Obviously that person had to think of the roundabout. They didn't just say, 'Well, we'll just take away all the signs, everybody will figure it out.' Although they do that in certain parts of the world: it works shockingly well, given how you might think it would work. But, there was leadership there of top down, but then the rest, it was really that, that top down structure allowed the bottom up to emerge and for people to take responsibility for their own interactions with each other. And, in almost all those--
Lorne Buchman: It's almost like--and, just to take it to that point we were making earlier, it's scary not to have the signs. It's scary not to have the voice of authority saying, 'This is the way to do it.' It creates a place of uncertainty that is destabilizing. But, when it works, it also brings out the creative. When it works, it brings out, again, what's best in people.
And, it's a different way of defining authority, is another way of saying what you're saying, too: that, the authority is not 'I have the answers'; it's not a follow-the-leader kind of paradigm. It's: 'I'm helping this community create a structure so that it can thrive in the best possible way.'
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Lorne Buchman. His book is Make to Know. Lorne, thanks for being part of EconTalk.