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How to Create Something Great

“To create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap.”

So says author and tech pioneer Steven Johnson in the latest edition of WIRED.

Johnson cites a number of examples, from TV (which was too expensive to produce to be really bad until that great thing called YouTube came along) to spectrum (which was once too precious to be wasted, but once unregulated was open to great ideas that waste it, like Wi-Fi) to the Internet itself (that which allows spam also allows Amazon).

Radio spectrum, too, is a precious commodity, a scarce jewel in the media universe, too precious to waste.

But without the freedom to be wasteful – the freedom to risks, the freedom to fail, the freedom to create that which might be “really bad” – without all that, what are the odds we can create something great?

Howard Stern revels in his legacy of firings, his history of “bad.”  Indeed, the greatness of his cast of characters is in direct proportion to their badness.  In the business, he hopped from one “failure” to the next.  Had he not been willing to risk everything, he could easily have settled into a gig that would leave his name forgotten today.

As Johnson says, “you need error to open the door to the adjacent possible…If we didn’t have genetic mutations, we wouldn’t have us.”

In our zeal to create great products, we have to recognize that when you wash a brand of every stain, when you place it carefully in a glass case on a pedestal, you inadvertently strip it of its ability to surprise and delight.

Nature is full of rough edges and complicated, imperfect shapes.

It’s not media consolidation that makes us vanilla, it’s aversion to risk and innovation.

Does the fact that I produce so many audiocasts and videos represent a monumental waste of my time, given that pretty much nobody else in our industry does it?  Or does it speak to a broader vision, a greater possibility, an opportunity to dent a tiny little new corner of our universe?

This is not an argument for being bad or being sloppy.  This is an argument for devoting a portion of our products and a portion of our day to projects and ideas which invite something new and in the process risk being awful.

Sometimes the difference between “bad” and “brilliant” is in the ear of the beholder.

While our over-the-air assets may be scarce, our digital ones are infinite. There is your playground.

Now play.

Here’s Johnson on the broader theme of his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation


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