The Passion-Driven Pivot

The Passion-Driven Pivot

“What? You’re a Stanford-educated man. You should do something more noteworthy!” That’s the reaction I got from someone whom I told about my pivot to becoming a self-described “Soul Food Scholar.” Many others reacted similarly, especially women that I tried to date. Up until that time, I was a pretty risk-averse person. No longer. After a decade in Colorado politics, I cashed in my modest retirement savings, and lived on that sum to write a book on the history of soul food. I had no idea if the book would be well-received and what kind of job I would get afterwards. Here’s why that financially unsound choice was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.

My interest in the subject was piqued in 2001 when I read a sentence that the late John Egerton wrote in his classic book Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History: “But the comprehensive history of black achievement in American cookery still waits to be written.” With no prior experience writing a book, but extensive experience eating soul food, I said to myself, “I can do that.” That’s what launched my wondrous journey! Researching African American culinary history is a passion, but it’s always been a side hustle. I could never figure out how to make it lucrative enough to support me.

Once my stint in the Clinton White House was over, I moved back to Colorado with a plan to run for office and eventually represent Colorado in the U.S. Senate. Sticking with my career goals, I worked at the Bell Policy Center for six years, and then another four years for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. Like an earnest graduate student, I spent hours online and at libraries finding out everything that I could about food and African Americans. I read more than 3,500 oral histories of formerly enslaved people, thousands of digitized magazine and newspaper articles, spoke to hundreds of people about culinary traditions, and then ate my way through the country for the sake of “research.” What drives me is a desire to tell untold stories, and revive previously told stories, about the contributions that African Americans have made to our nation’s cuisine. Fortunately, and unfortunately in a sense, there’s plenty of these stories to tell because mainstream media has continually overlooked African Americans.

Things have turned out pretty well thus far. My first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Reference. My second book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas was nominated for several awards. My third and latest book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, is off to a roaring start. The books led to more financial opportunities. I get many opportunities to speak and write freelance articles for a decent amount of pay. Oh, and that person who was critical of my creative pivot. She now holds me up as an example to her children of how anything is possible if you pursue your passion!

Adrian Miller is a critically-acclaimed food writer, former politico, attorney, and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado.

Cast Yourself in the Role of Your Customer

Cast Yourself in the Role of Your Customer

When you were a child, what was your favorite game of pretend? Did you pretend you were a dinosaur? Or an astronaut? Or maybe an adventurer on a magical quest?

Whatever your favorite game of pretend was, you surely spent time immersing yourself in a world different from your own. All children do.  We do it because play and pretend are one of the main ways that humans learn about themselves and each other. They are crucial tools for developing insight and empathy.

They are also tools that we need to bring back into our lives as adults and business professionals.

To find exciting new options for our organizations, we need to understand our customers and our marketplaces in a new way. And we need to get beyond the same-old analysis that leads to tiny variations on the same old “insights.”

We need to stop thinking about our customers and instead teach ourselves to think like our customers.

One fun and high-impact way to do that is to return to the world of pretend. Specifically, we can use the tools that actors use to portray a character on stage.

The discipline that trained actors use to create a character for the stage calls on both creativity and extreme focus. It is a remarkably useful process for deepening our understanding of our customer.

The process starts with seeking to embody and become someone new.

Theatre artists are trained to ask detailed questions about their characters and to answer those discovery questions in the first person. Instead of looking at a character in a play and asking what “they” are feeling or doing, theatre artists assume the character’s identity for a moment.

Actors seek to step inside the character’s body and see the world through their eyes. They explore the “world of the play.” Then, from the point of view of the character, they ask:

  • If it were me in these circumstances, what might I be thinking and feeling and doing?

  • What are the factors in my history, environment, and needs that drive my actions and outlook?

  • What are the forces acting on me that are impacting my options and decisions?

As they do this, good theatre artists seek to continue to dig deeper. They do not accept the first and most obvious answer. They keep looking for more profound and more unexpected levels of discovery.

Actors use this mental exploration and a host of other physical and emotional techniques to achieve a state that theatre artists refer to as “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.”

The idea is highly relevant to business strategy. It is a focused process of ideation.

Great organizations combine research and data with insight and imagination until they can fully understand their customers’ circumstances. They may not know every customer by name, but they know the “character” of their customers so well that they come to know the “truth” of their customer’s experience. 

The exciting news is that this is a process we can do consciously and “on-demand.”  Fostering creative insights does not mean you need to sit around waiting for inspiration to hit you.

All arts disciplines have processes that their practitioners use to encourage insight and skill development. There is still hard work involved, and you will run into stuck spots, dead ends, and frustrations the way you do in any meaningful human endeavor. But, there is a process to follow.

And, if you stick with the process and allow yourself to take risks and fail along the way, you can often come out on the other end with exciting new insights and opportunities.

The first part of the process starts with awareness and openness.

Instead of beginning with a specific result in mind, simply explore. Allow yourself to start with mindful exploration.

Take a walk or grab your journal and begin by asking yourself how your customer sees themselves and experiences their world. Challenge yourself to avoid asking yourself about how your customer sees your product or service. Instead, explore in a more open-ended and holistic way. You may be surprised and delighted by what you discover.  

Imagine If…

Imagine that you are the Executive Director of a Writing Studio in a small city.

Suppose that in the past, you have identified your customers as middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment, and your competitors as other organizations in your city that offer writing instruction.

You may have even occasionally considered other creative and artistic classes as part of your competitor base and mused about how to attract more young people and more people from diverse populations to your studio.

But your thinking is still stuck in an old model of looking at your customer from the outside-in. This will make it perilously easy to keep thinking about what you have already done and making many small (and possibly contradictory) tweaks to your offerings.

It will be hard to generate the insights that lead to a genuinely fresh look at your obstacles and opportunities and develop a bold and compelling new strategy.

It will be hard to differentiate.

But you can open up new possibilities by taking a new approach.

What If:

  • You began by creating a safe space to take risks and challenge your thinking to explore an imaginary future customer from the inside-out?

  • You pretended that you were an actor getting ready to play the part of your prospective customer in a play and had to get to know them deeply and intimately?

  • You had some handy questions to prompt you into thinking both deeply and differently?

Let’s try it out.

Instead of starting with the idea that our customers are “middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment,”- let’s try creating a character of our customer.

We are not trying to think about all our customers, or even most of our customers. We are taking a deep dive into one customer and paying with the idea of “becoming” that customer for a short while.

We will walk through some questions. And as we do so, we will work on trusting our imagination to explore these questions without worry about getting the “right” answer. Some of our responses may come from research, internal organizational data, or what we know about existing customers, and some of them may come from pure conjecture and fantasy.

That is OK. There are no correct answers, only ones that lead to exciting thoughts or opportunities.

The process starts with the question of identity. From the customer’s point of view and stated in the first person, we may choose to ask:

  • What is my name?

  • What are my pronouns?

  • Who am I demographically? (age, gender, occupation, race, geography, etc.)

  • What cultural norms or expectations do I want to accommodate?

  • How do I want others to see me?

  • How do I see myself?

  • Is there a conflict in how I want others to see me and how I see myself? (For example, “I want others to see me as a polished, professional businesswoman, but I see myself as an underdog and harried mother of 3 who can barely keep it together.”)

But we don’t stop here. We keep going.

The next step is looking deeply into needs and obstacles. Remembering to answer questions in the first person from the customer’s perspective, we ask:

  • What do I want in my life, long-term?

  • When I wake up on the average Monday morning, what do I most want for that day?

  • Why do I want the things I want?

  • How must I get those things? (Does it need to look a certain way; do I need to get other things first etc.)

  • What do I usually do to get what?

  • What other things will I do to get what I want- how far will I go?

  • What are the practical obstacles in my way?

  • What are the internal obstacles in my way?

  • What cultural norms or prejudices must I navigate to get what I want?

  • How confident am I in my ability to get my wants and needs met?

Finally, we want to ask ourselves about circumstances and events. From your customer/character’s point of view, ask yourself:

  • On a typical day, what am I doing?

  • On a typical day, what else must I do?

  • On a typical day, what outside forces are impacting me?

  • What special events or circumstances are going on to make this day (the day they seek your product or service) different from all the days before?

While it takes some time, and you might not get great answers to every question or even understand how every question relates to your context and your customer, just walking through this process can open new ways of thinking.

You may discover, for example, an entire change of organizational identity.

Maybe you were a Writing Studio that serves middle-aged professionals who seek to develop their writing skills for a creative outlet and personal fulfillment.

And perhaps you are becoming a Retreat Center for High Performing Executives who seek to recover from a mid-career crisis by developing their creative capacities and connecting with a community of visionary business leaders.

Anything is possible.

You can create whatever is possible for you by looking behind the curtain, casting yourself in the role of your customer, and stepping into your studio to explore deeply.

Enjoy it. 

And break a leg!  (For those of you who don’t yet know, that is theatre-speak for Good luck!)

Pulling Back the Curtain on Customer Viewpoint

Pulling Back the Curtain on Customer Viewpoint

Here is a strategic riddle: What do peacock feathers, blue shoes, and mirrors have in common?   What springs to your mind?

The good news is that it doesn’t matter what your answer is. Looking for the correct answer is more important than finding it. Just scanning your brain for possible answers to such an odd question opens you up to both creative and divergent thinking.

Creative and divergent thinking are essential because they allow us to take a fresh look at our customers and our marketplace and differentiate our offerings in meaningful ways.  Getting your brain primed to think creatively can be a decisive first step in developing an ideal business strategy.

In many instances, that priming can be as simple as a thought exercise of asking yourself a seemingly nonsensical question and taking the time to let yourself explore possible answers.

We can also go further if we wish. We can change the associations we bring to the puzzle of meeting our customers’ needs.

For example, when I asked you how blue shoes and peacock feathers and mirrors are related, I had a specific association in mind that may not have entered your mind.

You see, in addition to being an entrepreneur, business strategist, and performance coach, I am also a theatre artist. I have spent tens of thousands of hours working as both an actor and theatrical director.

And, while there is no correct answer to my question, there is an obvious one for many theatre artists.

It is common superstition in the theatre that it is bad luck to bring these items on stage. It is thought that they will distract or derail the actors and hurt the performance. And while most actors don’t take the belief too seriously- it is still an association lurking under the surface to be brought to mind when the conditions are right. Theatre artists are a superstitious group. Our craft’s history and shared experiences have led to a host of specific habits and conscious and subconscious beliefs that drive our choices.

Just like your customers.

Your best customers probably have habits, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world you just haven’t considered. They may be making connections between things that you are missing.

This is not happening because you or your organization is lazy or indifferent. Often, we work diligently to understand our customers. We need a new approach.

We Need to Look Behind the Curtain

The challenge with traditional approaches to creating organizational strategy is that we tend to be both too broad and too shallow in our thinking. We do not dive narrowly or deeply enough when working to understand the end-users of our product or service.

Common approaches often lead us to think we are creating meaningful customer profiles and marketing messages while we are, in fact, not seeing things from the customer’s perspective.

What is evident to them is often invisible to us.

We delve into demographics and, perhaps, talk a bit about psychographics as though we are putting a few sprinkles on a cupcake.

We rarely take the time to shed our preconceptions about who we think our customers are and why we believe they want or need our offerings.

Simply put, we rarely develop a robust enough customer persona. This approach attracts bad luck to our ventures because our strategies are muddy, and our offerings are not sufficiently differentiated.

But it is bad luck, not bad intention.

We have not been given skills to use to tune into the hearts and minds of customers. To make matters more challenging, we can’t spend significant personal time with our customers to learn their viewport firsthand. In many instances, we might have never met them at all.

And because we can never fully know all our customers and potential customers, particularly if we are developing new initiatives or offering services at scale, it can be difficult to tell if we have arrived at the “right answer.”

This brings us back to the world of theatre. Actors, directors, and other theatre artists are taught to set aside “right answers” and instead look for discoveries. Even better, we are taught to discover truths about fictional people or historical characters we can never meet. We have tools to help us look for the “wow” insights and open up entirely new ways of understanding others and seeing our possibilities.

We are even frequently asked to look for discoveries about characters who we might not condone. We are asked to metaphorically listen to characters we might feel morally or emotionally distanced from but still need to understand deeply. Not every actor gets to play an admirable hero; some stories require us to look unflinchingly into the mind of a villain.

All this leads to a knack for seeing into what is obvious to others that were, at first, hidden from us.

And the process is not complex or arcane. To facilitate unexpected discoveries and explore both comfortable and uncomfortable insights, theatre artists begin by simply asking detailed questions about the characters and how they fit into the world of the play.

They don’t begin with how they, as an actor, would like to portray the character. Instead, they work to deeply understand the character’s experience and worldview and hone in on the unmet needs that may consciously or unconsciously drive the character’s actions.

I believe that most business strategists want to do a great job delving into the minds and hearts of their customers. They have not been shown how to peer into the minds of their customers effectively.

As business leaders, we must do the same.

To uncover a meaningful view of our customers and drive a higher impact strategy, we need to start by subtracting rather than adding. Instead of sitting down and trying to organize everything we think we know about our customers, we can start with the opposite.  

We can start by asking ourselves if we are making assumptions about our customers which are not valid. 

We can ask: how do our customers see themselves? 

Often our customers see themselves and their worlds through entirely different eyes. 

Taking time to look for and weed-out, assumptions can open us to new and more actionable insights.

I invite you to take some time this week to ponder what you think you know about your customer that might not be quite right. And then join me for our next blog, where we cast ourselves in the role of our customers and use the actor’s process to delve more deeply into their world.

Inspiration for Differentiation Strategy

Inspiration for Differentiation Strategy

I’m often asked about what it takes to be a successful fashion designer and how I’ve become recognized in my field in Denver. Here are my thoughts. I believe these answers can pertain to anyone planning to “rise above” and who wants to differentiate themselves in any industry and any city.

 

    • Be passionate and obsessed about what you do. Are you intrigued every day about the work you’re doing? Do you contemplate what it’s about, do you read about the latest technology? Do you network with others in your field? With passion and work comes success.
    • Understand every aspect of how your industry works. This is not always taught in schools or sometimes even at work. Learn this from the school of hard knocks, take seminars, ask your co-workers and bosses questions, and do your research.
    • Don’t give importance to “lip service” and stay humble. Fans will rave about your work, especially on social media, but the biggest compliment is when someone pays for your product or service – and they return for more.
    • What you do or create eventually should have meaning in people’s lives. As a fashion designer, I believe it’s vital that people buy and use my designs and listen to my fashion advice.
    • Remember your customer. Customers look to you as an expert, but they also have their ideas of what they want or need. It’s essential to listen to your customer.
    • Not everyone is your customer. Chasing every sale when your customer wants something completely different could end up in a dissatisfied customer and potential loss in revenue for you.
    • Choose the right forums for marketing what you do. Do those forums translate to sales? How do you reach your end customer? Please make sure they’re your primary target.
    • Prepare ahead for PR that may come your way. Have a current bio ready. You’ll need a short version, medium version, and more extended version, and often you may be asked for a specific version according to the project at hand. Typically, this can be anywhere from 75 to 200 words. Run it by different people for ideas, be accurate, and try not to be too humble. PR experts can help you with this, if necessary. Also, make sure you have a few polished-looking headshots and full-body photos of yourself at the ready.
    • Know your strengths and weaknesses. Your career and business will reflect both. Always work on improving yourself.
    • Ask for help. If you don’t understand specific things, find an expert. Don’t avoid difficult advice. Assess if what they’re saying is true. If it is, go with it.
    • Pace yourself. Create a business plan for at least 3 to 5 years. We always love to hear about the latest star in one’s industry, but true success stories are made of those who have stayed in their careers for the long haul.
    • Stay inspired. Keep up with what successful people in your field are doing – locally, nationally, and internationally. This will keep you humble and inspire you to do better.

 

Finally, don’t forget to evaluate where you are periodically and assess if your strategies are working! Remember that the process is as important as the end goal. If you’re enjoying the process and working efficiently, you’ll get great results!

Bonus tip: Record your process. Hold onto important notes, writings, videotapes of yourself, old photos. You never know when previous ideas turn out to be the ones that are relevant for you to use today.

Mind Your Muse! Thoughts on Finding, Honoring, and Tapping into Your Creativity

Mind Your Muse! Thoughts on Finding, Honoring, and Tapping into Your Creativity

There is a Picasso quote that says, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how does he remain an artist once he grows up.” I’m thinking, Picasso had the right idea!

As children, creativity just seemed to ooze from us—and well, naps and snacks didn’t hurt either.  We felt free to explore color, sound, and expression.  But as we grew older, the weight of the world and navigating the issues of the day seemed to move us further and further from our source of creativity.

So why is this concept of creativity so important?

For me, being tapped into my creativity—my muse—allows me to see things differently, apply improvisation as I navigate my day, and generally helps me to consider different ways of doing things.  My muse is music.  When I make room for it, it energizes me, frees me, and gives me a vehicle to express myself freely.  You want to know what I believe, what’s important to me, or how I feel—just “listen” to my songs’ lyrics.

And what does the term “muse” mean anyway?

In Greek mythology, it’s written that Zeus fathered nine daughters with the Goddess Mnemosyne (pronounced: “Nem-Mo-Zine”).  The Greeks believed that these nine daughters—known as the Nine Muses, presided over all artistic creativity and were known as the goddesses of artistic expression.

Today though, the term “muse” refers to that thing that sparks your creativity. It’s that place where you can be your true self. It’s that one thing that lifts you or inspires you. It could be a person, a place, or a thing.  For you, it could be music—like it is for me, or puzzles—like it is for my wife Roz, or a place—like a beach or even a simple quote!  But be warned, it will also challenge you and nag at you when you ignore it for too long, and it will want to engage you at times when you don’t feel like it.  But in the end, however, it’s all for something beautiful.  There is not a more satisfying feeling when someone says to me, “Man Wil, your lyrics in that song moved me or spoke to me.” It’s like right at that moment; you know you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing!

How do you find your muse?

I truly believe that in each of us, we possess a creative gift. It’s just a matter of finding it and tapping into it.  For some, it might come easy and early on in life, but it is a struggle for others and may not show up until later in life.

While growing up, music seemed to be ever-present in my life. From the humming of my mother while she was doing daily tasks, to the visits from my Uncle George who traveled the east coast performing with his gospel singing group, or even my mischievous acts of sneaking and listening for hours to my older brother’s vinyl records – music just struck a chord in me.  But as I started to lean into it in junior high school, sports took charge and became what I thought was my muse.  It would not be until after graduating from college that I rediscovered music and fully leaned into it by joining my church choir.

For you, I would suggest doing a little self-evaluation if you haven’t quite yet found your muse.  What inspires you, what’s important to you, what makes you feel alive?  Or perhaps you could reflect on your past and the times when you felt energized, empowered, or simply your authentic self.  My guess is that once you do, you’ll find evidence that your muse was right there all along.

How do you honor your muse?

Once I discovered music was the framework for my creativity, I had to learn to honor it.  I had to learn to recognize when it was calling me.  There were times I would have very vivid dreams of performing songs or hearing songs in a dream only to realize later it was my muse using my subconscious mind to push through.  Or as I’m going about my day and I hear a song, a phrase, or a thought that moves, I’ve learned to take the time to jot it down and revisit it later.  The key is to give your creativity room to breathe and permit it to show up when it needs to.

I’m reminded of the story of how my song “Live A Life of Love” came about.  As my wife and I were unpacking in our new home in early December 2020, I came across a porcelain cross with the inscription, “Live | Life | Love,” and underneath that, it read, “Ephesians 5:2,” which is a biblical scripture. It was a piece that we’ve had on our wall for about 10-15 years, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it previously.  But with all the social unrest happening around the country, and I was in a place thinking about songs for my “Covid Chronicles 2” record, that “Live | Life | Love” expression struck a chord with me.  I paused our unpacking, went in my office, and jotted down the phrase and a few other ideas for a song, and it ended up being a fantastic song that will be on the record when it’s released later this summer.  The lyrics evolved to, “We need to live a life of love. Because hate is a burden that’s just too great to bear. If we could all just learn to love each other for what each has inside;  What a day, oh what a day…that would be.”

Creativity is critical to living a whole and well-rounded life. I know… I’m a living witness. It can initiate different ways of thinking, disrupt old habits of doing things, and connect to our true selves.  But that gift—that muse—must be honored and cultivated.  When appropriately engaged, beautiful stories are written and told, and innovative ideas can be realized.  In the end, it’s not just good for us as individuals, but it’s good for all, as the ideas and concepts put forward possess the power to heal, inspire, and even motivate others to find their muse!