the art of becoming a (badass creative) thought leader

 

 

I used to watch Project Runway (back in the days when I still watched TV) and the judges would talk about whether or not the aspiring designers had a point of view.

At the time, I didn’t get it. How could something like clothing have a point of view? It was only when I realized that I was interested in style rather than fashion that I made the connection.

Great personal style is an expression of who you are, so distinct and singular that it might even make you an icon (Kate Moss). It becomes a statement of identity. You move beyond expressing yourself to ideas of the self, inspiring others to adopt those ideas to express that same sense of identity.

That same point-of-view.

We talk about voice a lot. So-and-so has a great voice. You need to find your voice. She needs to get her voice ‘out there’ (wherever ‘there’ is). The best writers have voices so distinct that you can not only recognize them at a thousand yards, you recognize pale imitations.

Voice is about style of expression, but it’s also about the ideas that shape that expression. Readers take that ‘voice’ and construct a sense of identity around it. When you think of Hemingway or Stephen King or Anne Lamott (or Picasso or Jackson Pollack or Mick Jagger or Adele or Donna Karan or Steve Jobs, to take examples from other creative fields) you get a sense of the person as well as the work. Because although the person isn’t the work, the work (at least of a matured artist) is the person: an identity expressed through a particular point of view.

(It’s why we flinch at criticism, or sabotage ourselves to avoid it altogether. We take an attack on our work as a direct attack on us, at least until we train ourselves to think differently.)

I like to say that “style is the story you tell about yourself to the world”. Your ‘voice’ also tells a story. And every great story has a strong point of view.

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Global business guru Paul Arden talks about “the conventional or popular” point of view versus the “small or personal point of view.”

Advances in any field are built upon people with the small or personal point of view.

This is what we talk about when we talk about thought leadership, whether it’s art or literature or pop music or business or blogging. Arden points out that “having an original point of view or angle is a novelty.”

People are like sheep: they follow the leader. It is the leader who has a point of view about which way they should go….

Having the courage to stand up for it in the face of public opinion is what makes you a winner.

It’s why telling your story isn’t (just) an exercise in narcissism, but a political act. It’s the overriding point of view that shapes the culture. It not only sets policy but influences the way we talk and think about different groups of people as well as ourselves.

(For example, a woman who marries or divorces a wealthy man is assumed to be a golddigger long before the man is considered to be abusive or an addict or maybe just an asshole, to take the examples of ex-wives like Robin Givens and Denise Richards and how they were treated in the media before revelations of Mike Tyson and Charlie Sheen came to light years later. If this culture was told from a woman’s point of view, would the ‘golddigger’ story be the default cultural narrative, the kneejerk story that we like to tell? And what does that narrative say about the way we think about women? But I digress.)

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A strong and original point of view is what sets you apart from the masses, which means in today’s overpopulated post-consumer marketplace, where anyone can upload and self-publish, it’s more important than ever to have one.

But if it’s to mean anything to anybody other than yourself (and your mom), it has to connect with an audience in a way that resonates: they have to see themselves in you. By aligning themselves with your set of ideas, they’re expressing a key part of their identity.

(I’m going to form a different impression of someone who dresses like Audrey Hepburn from someone who dresses like Lady Gaga, for example.)

Which goes back to the whole leadership thing.

It’s scary to lead. You are putting yourself out there. You are hanging part of your identity on the line. You become a target for all kinds of criticism.

There’s a theory that the fear of public speaking – the most common phobia out there – has its roots in the ancient survival instinct.

If you were out on the plains, and you felt eyes trained on you, chances were it was someone or something with hostile intentions: to kill you or eat you. It makes a lot of sense, according to that primitive part of the brain, to get the hell off the stage.

So how can you put yourself out there and keep those eyes trained on you in a way that your old brain can tolerate?

I think that’s where purpose comes in.

When you connect yourself to something bigger.

When you shift your focus from your self (and your own self-consciousness) to the ideal that you want to serve, and how you embody or manifest that ideal for other people. When you know what you represent. So when your wrong people attack you (and they will) you recognize that they are attacking what they think you stand for, not you personally; and you, in turn, are defending your ideas (or opting out of the argument altogether).

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The challenge then becomes identifying what your purpose is, and understanding how it connects to other people.

Your purpose has to be authentic, so that it invokes your intensity and passion and stamina, and rings true to your natural audience. It has to run through the center of who you are. In that sense, you don’t choose your purpose; your purpose chooses you, and you don’t discover it so much as unearth it from your layers of personality and personal history.

(But more on that in a future post.)

I’m reading the book GROW by Jim Stengal, who examined how “ideals power growth and profit at the world’s greatest brands”. His study noted how the ideals that connect with people in a way that inspires fierce brand loyalty – and deep, engaged followings – are

grouped into five very rich and interesting fields…five fields of fundamental human values that improve people’s lives by:

Eliciting Joy: activating experiences of happiness, wonder, and limitless possibility.

Enabling Connection: enhancing the ability of people to connect with one another and the world in meaningful ways

Inspiring Exploration: helping people explore new horizons and new experiences

Evoking Pride: giving people increased confidence, strength, security and vitality

Impacting Society: affecting society broadly, including by challenging the status quo and redefining categories


I’m fascinated by how we can take this stuff from the business sphere and apply it to what we do, both in our creative work and the voice with which we ‘promote’ it through our ‘platform’ (I hate both those words).

If we can recognize our own specific point of view and the purpose that powers it (and motivates us in the first place).

If we can locate that purpose in one of the fields of “fundamental human values” mentioned above, and understand how that connects us to our right audience.

If we can take that set of ideas – and ideals – and create a ‘platform’ that actually means something, in a way that becomes an organic extension of the work itself.

Our platform, then, becomes a discussion of the ideas that inform our creative work, which can refine and deepen our own understanding of them – and make us better artists (and entrepreneurs). And our work – whether it’s a novel, an installation piece, or a company — becomes a way of illuminating those ideas/ideals through the emotional experience it creates for other people.

And we become thought leaders in the true sense of the phrase.

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In my previous post about the power of introverts (inspired by Susan Cain’s book), I noted how our culture is a story told from an extroverted point of view.

Extroverts throw themselves into events; introverts throw themselves into the meaning-making of those events. It’s why so many introverts grow up to be creators of one kind or another, and so many extroverts go into sales or business (with its emphasis on constant networking).

My point isn’t that one is better than the other (we need both). But extroverts, by their very nature, tend to dominate the conversation (while introverts hang back, observe, and keep their own counsel). This leads to an increasingly lopsided perspective. I see this in social media as much as anything else.

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Recently I was at a conference where I sat at a table with four other people. During a break in the seminar, three people started networking with each other while the (cute) guy beside me and I worked on our assignments. When he and I engaged in conversation, we went to the deep stuff – the ideas the seminar was presenting. Then we relaxed into the where-are-you-from and what-do-you-do kind of smalltalk.

Thinking about it afterwards – and having just read Cain’s book – I recognized that encounter as textbook introversion. Cain makes the point that the ‘small talk’ so many introverts claim to hate is an important form of social glue. It allows us to connect with one another. But whereas extroverts tend to open with small talk, and use it to bond with each other — and then move to the deep stuff — introverts do the opposite. Introverts prefer to open with ideas. And then they move to the smalltalk.

Cain also mentions that one out of every three or four people is an introvert, as seemed to be the case at my conference table. Despite the stereotypes (often created by extroverts), you wouldn’t recognize us just by looking. We can present ourselves well and add to the conversation. It was actions rather than appearance that suggested introversion.

So my point is this:

There’s a significant part of the population that bonds over ideas. Because they’re the quiet sort (and the extroverts are not), this might not be readily apparent. Social media may seem to be ruled by small talk, chitchat, nonsense chatter – but your corner of it doesn’t have to be. Like your creative work, it can express a strong and purposeful point of view that connects to the value system of other people like you.

And they will be so glad to find you.

If you’re willing to put yourself out there.

I hope from the bottom of my heart that you do.

The world needs your story (even if it doesn’t know it).

And some of us – maybe a lot of us – need you to lead us.

We’re waiting.

Feb 3, 2012
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8 comments · Add Yours

Justine, this is an amazing piece of writing. It addresses so many issues that I have faced in my life that if I were standing next to you, I would want to give you a hug. As a person who has supported myself most of my life through the arts, I consider myself somewhat battle-hardened against criticism and mass opinion. But there are still moments where I want to lock myself in a dark room and scream why didn’t I become a lawyer, or an engineer. I’m 52 years old and my mother still wonders when i’m going to get a real job. I really enjoy your blog. I think you must be an amazing person to hang out with.

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Justine, this is one excellent piece of writing!

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Stellar post! What was particularly noteworthy for me was when you spoke about the overriding point of view that speaks for the culture and used the gold digger example. It challenged me to explore narratives I believe about my own life and whether or not I should find a new narrative to pursue.

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I have found that expressing my deepest longings for other people to see what we need to do to connect for peace around the world in poetry on my own blog, and then joining in dialogue with many others online, has gone a long way towards showing me how to speak out and become a conceptual leader. Introverts are often introverts because they have not learned how to “gentle” other people into listening to their ideas which they have researched carefully and feel very strongly about. Poet that enchants is using a tool like the Piped Piper used!

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Inspiring as always, Justine. I hate the words ‘platform’ and ‘promote’ too. I just read that a big platform and sizable following is more of a focus for nonfiction writers who are querying to agents, rather than for novelists who are doing the same. That’s a bit of a relief as far as social media obligations go.

Would you agree with that statement?

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One of the most thoughtful and inspiring blog post read of late. By an introvert.
Thank you.

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Thank you for this fabulous, fabulous post! Point of view, style, originality, and the connection to something bigger are all topics I spend a lot of time thinking about, and applying to my writing, my blog, my business and my life. I think it’s so important, and I’m glad you took the time to write about it.

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Very inspiring and encouraging. Your blog helps me endlessly in the search for my own voice and purpose as I begin my own blog and figure out what to do with my life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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