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The Edge of Creativity

Why taking time to listen reaps benefits you can’t predict

During a recent visit to the new Faena Hotel in Miami, I found myself lost in the tap-tap-tapping sound of my own shoes against the hard mosaic surface as I walked across the lobby. Momentarily hypnotized by the clicking of my feet, I thought of an idea for a television commercial. When my attention bounced back to reality, I reflected on the fact that, as a result of my listening, I had just experienced intense creativity.

I have always been fond of good listeners, and I find them particularly fascinating now that many mobile devices distract us. I fear many of us are missing out on the art of listening. If we learn to hear we will learn to feel, and feeling can take us to many creative places in business and in life. Of course, creativity is so much more than listening—it is visual, too. But when you remove the visual, close your eyes and focus on isolated sounds, I’m still surprised by the ideas you generate. As an investor, I listen because doing so makes me a better partner, advisor, mentor and source of ideas.

I have a theory that I call the edge of creativity. The edge of creativity is the place where you have to stretch your senses to harness a rare idea. When I’m standing at a critical creative juncture, I listen to the people around me. Then I ask questions so that I can listen to them some more. I spend hours with podcasts, like NPR’s Hidden Brain. At night I’ll tune in to the symphony of crickets outside. I’ll put on Motown, my favorite genre of music. That really stirs my mind.

My imagination has long had a habit of running wild, and it all started when I was a young boy, with the power of the human voice. I was very stressed out as a child. I did not do well in school, struggled with self-esteem and experienced constant anxiety. When I couldn’t sleep, which was too often, I would crawl into my closet—a place where I felt safe—with my radio and listen to The Voices of Philadelphia, a talk radio program broadcast from a station near my hometown. The voices of strangers comforted me, and their stories captivated me. I would imagine who these people were, what their worlds were like and how they looked. It would quiet my mind in a way that reduced my angst and opened up space to stimulate ideas.

Today there is so much noise and too much information coming at us from all directions. We certainly benefit in many ways from multitasking with modern technology, but I hope we can encourage younger people, including extraordinary entrepreneurs like those I meet every day, to consider a good old-fashioned way of listening. Not half-listening, or listening because one has to. But really listening because you are curious.

I don’t know whom to credit for one of my favorite quotes, but I imagine it told in the voice of Barry, the on-air host of my childhood pastime: “The world is giving you answers each day. Learn to listen.”

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