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The Art of the Idea: Delving Into John Hunt's New Book

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It is a lesson which all history teaches wise men, to put trust in ideas, and not in circumstances. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

John Hunt is a professional idea man. At the highest level.

He helped Nelson Mandela get elected. He has won awards as an author and a playwright. He is also the worldwide creative director of one of the top global advertising agencies. (Full disclosure: I had the pleasure of working with John at that company, TBWA.) His new book, The Art of the Idea, is an inspiring collection of astute observations culled from years of cultivating and nurturing ideas around the world.

Much like the gentleman himself, the book is unassuming, yet powerful. Calm, but compelling. Whereas most business-minded books tend to be didactic, The Art of the Idea is reflective, never preachy. It offers readers indispensable insights into the modes of human behavior that can as easily squash great ideas as champion them.

I asked John about the book and about ideas.

RR: Why this book now?
John Hunt: When I first started my career, I thought having an idea was a purely intuitive process. It was only much later that I saw consistent patterns emerge on why ideas took off and flew or why they crashed and burned. The book reflects on these patterns.

R.R. What's the biggest misconception about creativity?
J.H.: The fallacy still exists that only certain kinds of people can have ideas. I don't think that's correct - there's no hierarchy to having an idea. Original thought belongs to everyone.

RR: So big ideas can come from small places?
JH: Ideas can come from anywhere. Big or small. The trick is to join the invisible dots in a way no one has seen before.

RR: For example...
JH: George de Mestral took his dog for a walk and came back covered in burrs. He looked at how the burrs had attached themselves to his clothing and promptly invented Velcro.

Another is that the music industry was in a mess. No one was making money and piracy is rampant. It seems like the perfect business to avoid. But if you create an online music store like iTunes, and sell the songs individually for 99 cents, rather than the entire CD for an outrageous amount, suddenly you're sitting on a great idea.

RR: That's brilliant execution at work as well.
JH: I've always seen ideas as having two parts. The eureka moment and then the way it ripples out, which I guess you could call execution. Without the latter, you might be intellectually self-satisfied, but I doubt you'll change the world.

RR: John Cage said, "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones." What's with that?
JH: Many of us are afraid of new ideas. Although we claim we're bored with life that moves in a straight line, we tend to cling to the comfort it brings. A new idea, by definition, resets the system and that makes us a little nervous.

RR: Does the ubiquity of information make it easier or harder to develop new ideas?
JH: Information can be your friend or foe. It depends how you use it. The problem is, with so much of it around, we've begun to confuse information with insight. Hence the birth of the data junkie. It's important to remember that information, no matter how beautifully it's repackaged, does not constitute an idea.

RR: Is there really an art to ideas?
JH: I called the book The Art of the Idea because I wanted to create something that wasn't a typical business book. I'm hoping that by being more artful, the book is also more accessible. Plus Sam Nhlengethwa's artwork helps make it a "kept book", one you want to keep in your briefcase, rather than throw away once you've read it.

RR: What was it like working with an artist like Sam?
JH: I'd never met Sam before doing the book, but had admired his work. I only discovered later on that he was such a renowned artist. I love his intuitive understanding of colour and lack of pretension. I also wanted the book to have a kind of African feel, as those are my roots. Working with him was a joy. A lot of green tea and with one of his 10,000 jazz CDs playing in the background.

RR: I'm in the mood for jazz. What are some of Sam's favorite recordings?
JH: Kind of Blue - Miles Davis & John Coltrane
Köln Concert - Keith Jarrett
Big Band Emergence - Roy Hargrove
Living Water - Dwight Trible
Wholly Earth - Abbey Lincoln

RR: Aside from music and green tea, where does one find inspiration?
JH: Inspiration can come from anywhere. But for me, being in a wilderness area or anywhere with a view seems to help. We tend to connect with the world as if we're watching it from a speeding car. Just stopping occasionally seems to break the mental gridlock.

RR: Arthur Clarke remarked that "New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can't be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along! How does one "sell" an idea?
JH: You have to convince everyone not just that it's smart, but also that it's doable. Ownership of an idea then becomes much less important than its portability. So in selling, it often helps to pass the idea over to the "sellee" and say, "How can you contribute to this and help me get this off the ground?"

RR: What are the great ideas of the future?
JH:I think many of the great ideas in the future will be how we harness nature to make our planet and our lifestyles much more sustainable. The next big idea will come from the geniuses who find new ways to use the sun, wind and sea. They'll be the idea heroes of the future. Watch out for "Wind Master" and "Sun King". Coming to your neighbourhood soon.

RR: What do you know for sure?
JH: I know for sure that the future will not be patterned on the past. And clinging evermore tightly to a tottering status quo is dumb in the extreme.

Whether you're a global CEO or a cab driver, if you're interested in how great ideas can come to be, buy The Art of the Idea by John Hunt. The book comes highly recommended by Tom Peters and Seth Godin, two giants of the business world. And all profits go to Room 13, a unique initiative that provides an environment for underprivileged children to unfurl their imagination by expressing themselves in areas from painting and drawing to drama, poetry and storytelling.

"The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea."
Martin Luther King