I’m thrilled to be joining The Sync Project as CEO. I feel the things I’ve done and enjoyed in my life so far, as an entrepreneur, designer, and musician come together in this ambitious venture.
The Sync Project’s mission is to develop music as medicine. We are bringing together the scientists, technologists, clinicians and musicians of the world to accelerate the discovery of the clinical applications of music. We’re building a data platform that maps music characteristics to real time, objective measurements of physiology from a rapidly growing variety of sensors and devices.
I've been investing in and advising early stage companies. I work with teams on products that improve human expression, awareness and interaction. Here are a few examples:
Thington, co-founded by former Dopplr CTO Matt Biddulph and designer Tom Coates, is building a better user interface and service layer for the Internet of Things. I was the first investor in Thington, and am very happy to have been joined by Ray Ozzie, Eric Wahlforss, Steward Butterfield and Joi Ito among others.
Luup is a beautiful new take on mobile video. What Instagram did for photos - making everyone a better photographer - Luup is doing for video...with the power of music. I was the first investor in Luup and have been joined by Taavet Hinrikus and Indrek Kasela among others. Luup is launching during the summer 2015.
Oura is a ring with unique algorithms that measure your activity and sleep, to help you recover and perform better.
Nadya Peek and I started a band. We are Construction. Here we are with Joi Ito as our deckman. This photo was taken by David Kong aka DJ Kongo at 99 Fridays at the Media Lab.
Nadya plays the Roli Seaboard, and I am playing a Tobias 5-string bass. Together we also play a bunch of other things, including Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators and OP-1s, Korg Volca Beats, and the Mixtape Alpha.
You're known as a very precise conductor, many people say that of you, but some of your colleagues in the orchestras have also said, it feels like Esa-Pekka is driving an extremely fast car on a narrow road, when you conduct. There was a quote, that you recently said on Stravinsky’s The Firebird, you said, “Well, you should push them, the orchestra, but not beyond the invisible wall beyond which things start breaking apart.” Could you talk about control and letting go?
I think my long-term experience [is] about control versus inspiration, control versus freedom, controlling versus enabling musicians. This has been one continuous learning process. I would say, that as a young conductor, I was much more interested in controlling everything; I had an illusion of my own importance in the big picture.
Of course, as you get older and you work with fantastic musicians, fantastic orchestras, you start to realize that the most important function of a leader, in that kind of context, is to enable people, to give them tools to actually do their work, do their job as they’ve been trained to do. That’s actually the one lesson I’m carrying from all those years.
Now, I must say that, I get a little pleasure out of the fact that I don’t think that I’m irreplaceable, I don’t think that I’m omnipotent. I see my role as primus inter pares, working together with extremely talented people, trying to give them impulses, and ideas and concepts, but by no means thinking that I’m on a higher level than anyone of them.
There’s another aspect to control which is, if you like self-control and music, it grabs all of us, in a way that we can’t always anticipate. Recently, you were discussing your violin concerto which was premiered in 2009 (A beautiful piece, if you haven’t heard it.) You were saying about a section, that this is a place where it’s easy to get sucked in, but you have to consciously cool down. That even the conductor can get drawn in and then you have the guy with the baton who's lost control.
Well, control is obviously important in this profession or any profession. Of course, control is not a goal in itself, we have to see control as a tool to achieve certain goals.
In music, obviously, the great classical repertoire has a very powerful emotional message, and the emotional content is very strong. As a conductor, we get very moved and very inspired by all this at all times, but we have to be wary of the centrifugal powers of this music. We don’t want to get sucked in completely because that would mean that you actually lose your ability to help the others to achieve the goal.
So, you have to keep some kind of a distance even minimally. There has to be some kind of detachment between you and the material you’re actually dealing with at any given moment.
One core thing is to keep learning, no matter how much one knows. It might be the case when you get up in front of the orchestra, you de facto know the piece better than any individual player there in some sense, you’ve prepared it and know all aspects of it, but how do you stay open to surprises and learning?
First of all, I don’t think that I’m necessarily the most profoundly talented person in the room when I conduct an orchestra. On the contrary, I’m wiling to accept the fact that statistically it’s more likely that they’re a few that would be more talented and perhaps would have more encyclopedic knowledge about the piece that we’re performing.
But that’s not the point, really. It’s more like, that I try to enable this talent, in a cohesive way, to work together in order to achieve a goal. In order to keep the situation dynamic and alive, one has to be open to impulses from the orchestra back to the conductor otherwise it would be kind of meaningless.
So, in fact, what happens is some kind of feedback loop. That I throw an idea or an impulse to the players, then they give me something back and I take it. All this happens in real-time, as it were, and intrinsically, intuitively, not necessarily rationally, but there’s this kind of feedback loop; I hear what they’re giving back to me. There might be this kind of idea, which I’m detecting, and I have to make a split-second decision whether I accept it and run with it, or whether I reject it or try to guide the musicians into a different direction.
That, of course, makes it endlessly fascinating because no day is like the previous one, no second, no one moment in that kind of music making is similar to any other moment that I have experienced before.
Therefore, now when I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years - scary number by the way! - I have realized the most profound pleasure, the greatest joy I can ever experience is the realization that I’ve learned something. And how do I learn something? I learned something from these talented, dedicated, very well-trained people I’ve worked with around the world.
In business as in music, feedback. You’ve mentioned the feedback loop even during a live performance, but as you’re getting ready for a performance, how do you give feedback? If there’s something you need to correct, and how do you take feedback?
All we all know, feedback works on very different levels. There’s the direct feedback i.e verbal, somebody says “No, I don’t think so” or somebody says “Oh, I think that’s a very good idea.” There’s this other feedback, you can read this in people’s faces, you can read it between the lines. You can tell there’s something funny about the atmosphere now, what I did or what I said wasn’t somehow taken well.
Then, in music of course, there’s this kind of feedback, where you do something, you give an impulse to the musicians and then something comes back that was not what you thought it would have been, or maybe it’s not as good as you thought it should have been. I think that’s the most profound sort of feedback I’m experiencing. That I’m expecting to hear some kind of reaction and then something else happens and then, of course, I have to make this split-second judgment whether this is actually something I accept, or reject, or something I actually think is better than what I had to offer and that makes it absolutely fascinating.
You’ve used technology in your work, perhaps the only classical composer/conductor who's been featured in a World Cup football, World Cup TV spot. Going really mainstream with the commercials together for Apple for iPad and those methods. How does technology serve in your daily work in composing?
Well, the way we use technology in classical music is basically divided into two categories. There’s, of course, the technology to distribute music i.e. through streaming and through social media using various consumer electronic methods such as iPads, iPods, tablets, what have you.
There is, of course, the other side, which is technology we use in the actual creation process of music and I use, in my composition process. I use software, I use computers, I use MIDI systems, sequencers, notation software and so on. Which is fairly normal these days, even in the so-called classical circles, we are not as hopelessly analog as people think! There’s still a lot to do, but many of us use technology and the best software available.
In order to get the message across to the larger audiences, I think we have a lot to do still. What I’ve been doing, together with my colleagues at the Philharmonic, is trying to kind of invent new ways to bring classical music, the great repertoire, the great experiences, closer to people who basically communicate with the world through touch screens and that sort of interface. The few pilots, actually quite a few of them already, have been quite successful and we are now convinced that this is the way to go and that we will develop further the concept that we started with a few years ago.
If you’d like to hear more, a little plug for the rest of the program, at 2:30 pm on the Green Stage, we start the Product Design track at Slush and Esa-Pekka and Richard Stanley, his collaborator on The Orchestra app, as well as some other installations will be giving more detail on that work.
Finally, great creative breakthroughs are often about the team you assemble. Often times, I suppose, you are meeting a team you’ve worked with for a long time or in front of a new orchestra. How do you develop talent? How do you seek new talent?
I was the Chief Conductor, or the Music Director, of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years and in that capacity, I hired about 60 musicians so I have a lot of experience of trying to find the talent and then having found it, trying to nurture it and trying to guide it into the right direction.
This is an incredibly complex field, but I think it’s absolutely central for us as well as every one of you: How do we find talent, how do we encourage it, how do we nurture it, and how do we keep it within our organization? That’s also a big challenge sometimes, when the most talented people, of course, have a lot of demand around the world. How do we keep them motivated, how do we make sure that they can flourish in the environment we are creating so they will stay loyal to the organization and to ourselves.
Maybe the most important thing for the leader in this context is to realize that he or she is just an enabler, not some kind of all-knowing, faultless thing that would never make mistakes and instead would lay out fantastic strategies that would take the organization to ever-new heights. It doesn’t work this way. I think what we do is really to give impulses, ideas, and try to make sure that everyone within the organization feels that he or she has been seen, has been noted, and is supported in whatever the goals of the organization are.
Ruska is the Finish word for the turning of the leaves in the fall. "Ruska occurs," writes designer and pamphleteer Dan Hill, "when birch, larch and rowan trees explode into russet tones of richly saturated purples, reds, yellows and oranges, before shivering off their leaves for winter. It's an extraordinary vivid and life-affirming cycle." Ruska is an apt metaphor for replenishment and renewal, of both organizations and the individual. And while there is so much talk these days about leading others, leading change or changing the world, I'd like to address something more close to home, changing oneself.
How do you lead the creative self? How do you create the physical, cognitive and social conditions for creative work? I'm not talking about the designing itself (of which there is much to say) but rather enabling the everyday conditions to make creative breakthroughs as we've done and you’ll continue to do in the studio.
I want to share with you some of the simple techniques I've used to stay creative, sane and productive. To be clear, I don't mean to be didactic. It's not as if I've figured it all out. I've barely figured anything out. This said, most everything I have learned about leading myself has been by modeling other people I respect. So I offer these thoughts as models and patterns, for you to consider, prototype, or tweak in your own everyday. I’ll do this under three broad headings: your week, your energy and your habits.
(1) YOUR WEEK: 4321
Many people doing creative work feel they are not in control of their workday, they feel stuff just "happens" to them. The way many organizations use tools like email reinforces this feeling, with the daily tsunami of mail in the inbox every day. Here's a framework - "4321" - for making your week more proactive rather than reactive. It's a tweak of a model 925design developed as part of a project they did to redesign the workweek.
4 GOOD HOURS A DAY
Do four hours of good work a day. Good work is work on those things that are meaningful to you and give you satisfaction. This doesn't mean that you only work four hours a day, but that you make sure you have four good hours in a day. How do you do this? You decide to do it, and commit to it. One very practical way to ensure this is to schedule yourself several hours of “good time” every day that you then simply dedicate to your most meaningful activities.
3 GOALS A WEEK
Give yourself three big, meaningful goals every week. For me, two are work-related and one is related to me, my home or family. The work goals are typically about design (e.g. a key product or portfolio decision), people (e.g. closing a key hire to the team) or working on enabling conditions for design (e.g. intervening to improve the way we work with engineering, sourcing, portfolio planning).
The home-related one could be e.g. “hang the painting in the living room” (finally, it's been four months after all!) Of course there are running lists of smaller things that need attention (see the next point), but these goals give a filter on how to use your four good hours every day. I also keep a rolling forward list of the goals for upcoming weeks. And I share these lists with a few close colleagues, so they know what I'm focused on and understand why I’m saying “no” to other things.
2 STEPS TO CLEAR THE MIND
To be creative you need to clear the mind. Many of us have hundreds of things a day that demand our attention and potentially our action. Clear your mind in two steps.
Step 1: Get the things out of your head. Step 2: Make gaps in your day to review the things. Step 1 is about getting the things you need to remember to act on out of your short-term memory - where it drains energy, glucose etc. - into a system that you trust and will review. Step 2 is about having time to review the system continuously.
I personally use Getting Things Done (or as a colleague affectionately once called it “GTD...for men”) with a small paper pad (with single sheets) and Omnifocus, Evernote, etc. for keeping things for reference. I was introduced to GTD several years ago by author and technologist Ben Hammersley. But the exact method doesn't matter as long as you do Step 1 and Step 2.
One key thing I've done in the last year is shorten my many meetings to 20 minutes maximum and leave 10-20 minute gaps always in between. These gaps are critical for me to review the things I need to act on, but to also just clear the mind and maintain presence and focus. And this leaves more time for the most important recurring, organic conversations we need to have around product and strategy.
1 QUESTION A DAY
Give yourself permission to think of one big, ambitious creative question a day. Only one a day. You can have the same question tomorrow again if you’d like, but you can’t have more than one question a day. You don’t need to actively think about the question, just give yourself permission to focus on it whenever, as you’re taking a walk, on your morning swim, during your commute to work, as you’re making dinner, really whenever. Surprisingly you may make progress. This is a technique I hadn’t tried before hearing about it in 925design’s work. And I’ve found it remarkably productive.
(2) YOUR ENERGY: MOVING AND SLEEPING
As much as there is talk about “time management” I think “energy management” is much more important. How do you maintain a consistent, optimal level of energy for focus, presence and performance? In my experience, this is one of the most difficult things to do on a daily basis.
For the last year, I’ve been fortunate to have worked personally with Dr. Aki Hintsa, who coaches many of the starting drivers in Formula 1 on consistent, high performance. Over years working with world champion athletes and professionals at his clinic, he’s created a framework for dealing with energy and attaining consistent high performance. The framework is incredibly simple, which is really no surprise as it’s dealing with big human fundamentals. Here, I’ll only highlight two themes that have been most important for me from my work with Aki and maintaining consistent energy levels: moving (aka physical activity) and sleeping (aka recovery).
Moving: To keep my mind clear and energy levels consistent during the day, I need to keep moving. Baseline physical activity of around 8,000 - 10,000 steps a day has been the most important change for me. This means four 20 minute walks a day. To achieve this daily, two of these 20 minute walks need to happen during my workday so I typically have two walking meetings a day. It became a standing joke (in a good way) at Nokia house, that you need to wear walking shoes when you meet with me. And the habit has spread.
Of course looking at models and prototypes while walking isn’t really possible but for most conversations, walking simply makes them better.
In addition to walking as part of my baseline I do a short 20minute tweaked “bloke yoga” + pilates routine every morning and swim 1km a day. And I’m working on adding 2-3 muscle and aerobic sessions during the week. But more important than these heavy workouts for consistent energy is the baseline activity.
Sleeping: For the vast majority of people 7.5 - 8.5 hours of sleep a day is what you need to function creatively and with full energy. Consistency of sleep is a big challenge for me and my circadian rhythm is very much that of an evening person. I’ve worked deliberately towards a more regular and slightly earlier sleeping pattern.
One key change I’ve made is to have 30 minutes of screen-free time before going to bed. It turns out that back-lit screens impact the sympathetic nervous system in the same way that bright light lamps do: they excite us. They trigger our fight-or-flight response and reduce the quality of our first cycles of recovery sleep. E-Ink displays (like old Kindles or other older ebook readers) are ok, but tablets, computers and flat screen TVs are not. And this is not something you can train yourself against either: it’s basic physiology and neurology. Lower lights before falling asleep improves the quality of recovery during sleep.
And in case you’re wondering about alcohol, more than two glasses of wine closer than two hours before going to sleep effectively destroys the recovery, the growth hormone generating cycles of sleep, that night. You may fall asleep easier, but the sleep is not real recovery sleep.
(3) YOUR HABITS: BRUTAL FEEDBACK AND FOLLOW-UP
We all have habits that we’d like to change. Even more importantly we all have habits that we may be unaware of that are annoying our colleagues and holding us back from creating greater things together. How do we become aware of these habits? And how do we change them?
I was very lucky to hear Marshall Goldsmith speak several years ago and immediately found his approach to self-improvement disarming in it’s simplicity and focus. He had a very vocational school take on personal change which resonated with me. I took two techniques from that day, both simple and powerful: brutal 360-feedback and daily follow-up.
Get confidential, brutal “360-feedback” from your colleagues. I asked a neutral third party (in this case it was an external coach) to interview, in confidence, my immediate colleagues. I asked her to speak to as many people as possible, up, down and sideways in the organization - to get a broad view of my strengths and weaknesses and to identify habits that I might not be aware of that are holding me back. I then had this third party confront me with what everybody really thinks. I tried to listen as best I can without prejudice (this isn’t always easy). Together with my coach I identified some habits to improve, and then advertised to my colleagues what areas I was seeking to change, and - as importantly - thanked them for the feedback. Period. No “Thanks, but...” just “Thank you.”
The other technique has to do with follow-up. I agreed with a person I respect (not a family member or immediate colleague) to call each other every weekday. Both of us had identified several issues in our own life that we weren’t happy with and wanted to improve. Both of us made a list of a dozen or so small daily tasks that we personally needed to do to improve in our chosen area.
And then when we called each other once a day - for about 5 minutes - we’d simply ask each other our questions. He’d ask me my questions, I’d ask him his questions. For example, at the time I was working on my baseline physical activity he’d ask me: Did you do your morning practice? Did you swim 1km? Did you walk 8,000 - 10,000 steps? And we wouldn’t pass judgement on the answers, simply listen to them. As odd as this may sound, this method significantly increases the likelihood of positive change. Not immediately, but over time. (If you can’t arrange a peer-coaching call like this I’d still recommend doing a check at the end of your day with yourself. How did I do today? This will already increase the likelihood of change.)
The daily techniques above are some examples of what each of us can do to change ourselves, to become a better version of ourselves by our own lights. I offer them to you as examples for you to sample, prototype, tweak, and/or improve.
Yet nearly all creative breakthroughs are group things, collaborations. Fundamentally I believe that similar techniques of self-reflection, thinking about our own thinking and ways of interacting with others, of habit change, can also be applied to groups, to the studio, to the system of designers, engineers and marketeers creating breakthroughs together.
So the larger questions are: How do we together create a creative culture that leads to breakthroughs beyond what we individually could imagine? To use philosopher Esa Saarinen’s term, how do we create a creative culture of elevation?
The spirit of elevation is beautifully captured in a remarkable scene from the movie Invictus, where Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa (played by Morgan Freeman) and Francois Pienaar, the captain of that nation’s rugby team (played by Matt Damon) meet in Mandela’s office over a cup of tea. The micro interactions between Mandela and Pienaar, how Mandela welcomes him and engages him, are in themselves an example to study and follow.
And then we get to the heart of the matter. “What is your philosophy on leadership?” Mandela asks Pienaar. “How do you inspire your team to do their best?”
“By example,” the captain responds, “I’ve always thought to lead by example, sir.”
“Well, that is right. That is exactly right,” Mandela says. “But how do we get them to be better than they think they can be? That is very difficult, I find.” (pause) “Inspiration, perhaps. How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us?”
Indeed. It’s up to you. Make it great.
Ben Hammersley on GTD in The Guardian: “Meet the man who can bring order to your universe”
Esa Saarinen and his paper published by the The Good Work Project at Harvard “The Paphos Seminar. Elevated Reflections on Life as Good Work” (pdf)
My brilliant wife Lisa is running for European Parliament. Many people have asked Lisa what her father-in-law thinks about her candidacy. On this short video my father Martti answers directly.