Photo by Paul Oemig

Learn creativity from a rock star

Peter Himmelman offers a way to subdue your fears and actualize your ideas


Though his career has taken a few curve balls, Peter Himmelman has always been creative. The Minnesota-born songwriter, musician and singer started out by becoming a rock star, first with the group Sussman Lawrence and then with a band under his own name. From there he became a composer for film and television. When that dried up, he formed Big Muse, a company that helps businesses become more creative. His clients include McDonald’s, the Gap and Adobe. Oh, he also landed a gig teaching at Kellogg’s School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois. Peter’s latest creative act is a new book, Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life. He’ll be doing a reading from it on Oct. 29, 8:30 p.m., at Open Book in Minneapolis.

MNBIZ: Tell me a little bit about your career transition and how you were able to segue from being a rock star to being a composer for film and TV to being now a business trainer.
Peter: You should know that just from the start, I never abandoned any of those things that I learned, because that's the one thing that's important. It wasn't that I transformed from one thing to the other. What I think I did is just project out the skill sets I already had into other areas.
I would say that right from the start that when people think in terms of transitioning or something they often think, and fearfully so, about losing something, about giving up something, as opposed to this sense of it being additive, or creating new opportunities, without in any way forgetting about losing the older thing or the first thing. It doesn't diminish those things either in any way. Having this sort of multifaceted look at life, you can synergize all those things and have each reflect energy into the other. Ideally that's what I think I have done.
MNBIZ: That's kind of the basis of your book, that there's a continuity in your creativity through all your different capacities. The single bad guy is MARV which is an acronym focusing on fear, right? 
Peter: MARV is not a bad guy. He is in fact, the voice of fear, this voice of fear within each of us, whom I've given the acronym MARV, standing for Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability. MARV is literally the opposite of the bad guy. He is a metaphor, he actually is our will to live. From a scientific point of view it's something in the amygdala that is alert to fear and danger.
MNBIZ: The primal brain… 
Peter: … in the brain stem. What happens with MARV -- he's such a good guy, he's so much in favor of our being alive and walking the earth -- that he's constantly alert for danger. The danger can be real. It can be you fell into the polar bear pit at the zoo. That's true danger. It can be lying awake in the middle of the night stressing about things. All those things MARV perceives as life-threatening danger.
It's up to us to have some sort of what they call meta-cognition that we can see our own selves, to determine for MARV which of the anxieties and stresses we face are truly harmful, because he puts them all in one bucket. Making a difficult challenging phone call that fills you with stress is not the same as falling out of an airplane without a parachute. Once you're able to say, "Wait a minute. This is MARV working too hard. But relax. I've got this wonderful lemonade and a Popsicle. You can sit in the sun while I get this phone call made," or whatever it is that you need to do to drive your business forward.
MNBIZ: The problem is that the amygdala cannot distinguish between reality -- 3-dimensional reality -- and your imagination, what you're thinking about or even watching on TV. The response is there no matter what.
Peter: For example, if you burned your hand on a stove, you would learn immediately. You don't have to read it and figure out some calculus. You immediately know as a young child that the flame is dangerous. You pull away from that flame. It's very fearful. If somebody started moving your hand towards the flame, it would be incredibly panic provoking. If somebody, when you were a kid, said that you were either too big or too small or somehow gravely offended you on a personal level, that is horrifying on the same level as a flame.
As an adult, if you feel offended somehow you have the same exact response you had as a kid you pull away from it as a grievous danger. As adults, we do have the capacity to arrest that process and say, "Wait a minute, I know I feel this anxiety in my stomach, this panic brewing," but if you can catch yourself it is possible with time to separate our fears, real fears, from anxieties. There's a point to that because all of us are stymied in our development, both business and personal, by an overwhelming number of anxieties. Some are noticed and some just go on unnoticed.
They prevent us from moving ahead. Let me just say for the record, I'm not an expert at dealing with my anxiety. I don't come in my book or in my workshop as somebody who says, "I've got this totally licked." It's important for me to tell you that I've taken careful note of these things and what happens in myself. I'm still very challenged by the whole thing. These techniques that I purvey in the book have been very helpful for me to slowly push away my fears, to slowly get the things accomplished that I want to get accomplished in my life.
MNBIZ: Part of your emphasis, and the reason we brought up MARV, is that MARV is our friend, not our enemy, but still MARV can prevent us from creating things that we want to create. MARV, being overactive sometimes, can stop us and obstruct us from pursuing happiness or in a business context, perhaps pursuing a new business or getting a new invention going or even getting out a solid search for funding. 
Peter: Right, you can go on. Let's say you're a business leader. You're a CEO. You might find yourself supporting other people's ideas because you feel for somebody that MARV is telling you, "Look, if you're not coming up with the great ideas you could lose respect and therefore the business could fail or your board will clamp down on you." It's giving, for example, a CEO or a president, the wrong impression. The impression that a CEO or a business leader should have is of empowering other people.
I've seen in many cases the thinking isn't that. It's that I need to do everything. It has to be my way. I start micro-managing as opposed to enabling and ennobling the people around me. That would be direct result of MARV. How you sell your product to people outside your business, it's external client facing. Those can then generate a lot of fears too. What if my product isn't good? I don't know if I want to go to this guy as you said for funding or just to market a product. In all areas this MARV character can impede our growth.
MNBIZ: How do you tame MARV so that you can go on and do what you need to get done? 
Peter: You never fully attain control of MARV. This book of mine is not about transforming your life and everything is going to be bliss, no. You're basically going to have the same fears and anxieties you always have had, but you're now going to have a set of actions and understandings and skills that you can use to get things done to temporarily push MARV aside or gently suggest that he go to sit in the sun so you can get something done.
For example, I'm trying to think of something, a phone call that I had to make the other day. He's a person who's literally a billionaire, a multi-billionaire. We're sort of friendly. I didn't want to bother him. I could feel, because I have this cognizance of MARV, I've been thinking about it, I wrote him into my book. I'm very mindful of his interruptions throughout the day.
I thought to myself, "Okay, look, this is MARV, and what is MARV telling me when I'm about to call this multi-billionaire?" MARV is saying like this, "So Peter, you're kind of friendly with this guy but he's going to be really busy. He's not going to take your call, and when he doesn't take your call you're going to feel like you've failed. When you feel the sense of failure, that engenders this second sense, which is even worse, it's a sense of shame."
MARV goes one step further from the shame  He says, "Shamed people are abandoned, and abandonment means death." It's really that basic and that real. When we're prevented from doing something, it's important that people understand this, it's not just some small thing. It's literally a micro-cosmic connection to our own fear of our own mortality. How do you deal with this? You sit down in a chair and you dial seven digits. As soon as you do that, MARV is saying, as he said yesterday, "Oh, Peter you're actually doing it, cool. I'm going to have a latte. I'm going to read the New York Times. Tell me how it went. I'm happy for you. This is amazing."
As soon as you take action, in other words, as soon as you switch gears from the nervous mulling about which MARV is freaking out and protecting you, just saying, "I'm now moving into the world of action. The actions are incredibly small in the case yesterday of calling this guy. I literally dialed the number. Well I got him on the phone. He was pleased to talk to me. We set up a meeting. It's all good. Had I not been cognizant of this MARV idea, and able to sort it out in my mind, the chances of me calling this guy would have been greatly diminished.
MNBIZ: In your book you talk about this transference of having MARV take a break. You also talk about two sides of the brain, the logical side and the fluid brain. Is MARV in the logical side?
Peter: I have a lot of friends who happen to be neuroscientists. It's neuroscience is almost like astronomy or something. It's an art and a science. It's like an endless world that hasn't been totally explored. The answer is I don't know. I do position MARV somewhat outside of the cognitive brain, either the fluid part (what they call the right brain) or the more analytical left brain.
MNBIZ: That makes sense. Then let's just ask simply describe how you use this ... You say it's kind of a speculative division. You can say we all have a fluid side and a logical side. How do you explain those two sides into how you can promote creativity? 
Peter: First of all there are a lot of misconceptions around creativity. I go into this in the book. I hear constantly, on a weekly basis from people, who have jobs that don't sound creative on the face: an actuary, an insurance salesman, a mail carrier, a soldier, a trucker, somebody in the industrial supplies business. Those designations don't sound as creative as poet, musician, dancer, painter. What I'm trying to say, and I fully believe this, it has nothing to do with creativity.
I say to the people what creativity really means is that you are for the moment in a state where your fear is minimal and you're able to freely access the skill sets that you do have whether it's in conversation, whether it's in mathematics, whether it's attracting clients, whether it's talking to your staff, your leadership team, whether it's thinking of new solutions, those are ways of advancing creativity. It doesn't matter if you're a singer or a songwriter or not, and as I mentioned in the book, many times myself, I'm songwriter, that's basically what I am, I find I'm repeating myself over and over. I catch myself.
You have a creative sounding job title but you're not creative at all. You're just repeating things. It's only when I get into a new state of mind, a freer more fearless state of mind, something original arises. It's only then that I'm creative. Now more directly answering your question, you have to have all sorts of structures in place in order to advance creativity, in order to make something.
It's always a combination of two things. Structure: What do I need to design? Who are the people I'm designing it for? It could be a business plan. It could be a strategy into the future. It could be a design for a new product looking at framing it in terms of business. What are the things? When do I need this thing done? Who are the people it's going to serve best? What's my budget? All these things would seem not to support creativity somehow. They are very rational. Without those it's almost like pouring water onto the ground. There's no vessel to contain the creative ideas. You need to have these rational processes, these deadlines, these organizational constraints in place in order for your mind to have somewhere to go to think of new ideas.
On one hand, you have this very human connective ideas, artistic, floating things, and on the other hand it's married and wed to these core containers I would call them, things that are really planted in quote, reality. Nothing of any value from Michelangelo to Mozart, MNBIZ Jobs to Bob Dylan, none of these things have ever come about without a fusion of the two factors, the structure which seems very cold sometimes and analytical and the, for lack of a better word, the mystical or the inspired.
MNBIZ: Part of the challenge is that a lot of people have ideas but to make that idea manifest in the concrete world that's the trick. 
Peter: It is so much a trick. Everybody has all sorts of ideas. In order to get things done, for me, I had to create my own structures because I never worked at a company. I was always self-employed. I was always an entrepreneur. In order to make things happen I had to set dates for myself. Well for example I'm going to use the metaphor of making a record album because that's what I do. It's easily universal.
I felt it was time to put out a new record. I didn't really have any songs. What I did was I called a studio. It happened to be Minneapolis, this friend of mine named Rob. He's got a studio on Nicollet I booked four months in advance 10 days of studio time. I hired a bunch of musicians. I bought plane tickets, four months in advance, so that I had this structure in place which was also providing me a requisite amount of pressure. I've now created a certain amount of expense for myself. That expense, rather than inhibiting the creativity, was generative of the creativity. It was an invitation. It's "do" now. I need to access and marshal these resources, in my case, songwriting skills, in some of the other's case whatever your skill sets are. They become "do" because I created these deadlines.
In other words a project or an idea without a deadline, without a structure, will never materialize. If there isn't some already in place, you have to create it for yourself. You have to create allies around you. You have to share the idea. You have to create expectations for it. People that are interested in seeing it, I call that a posse, to create a community around you. It could be within your business. It could be one or two people that you share an idea with. Keeping things by yourself, having no structure, you can guarantee that idea that you want is never going to come.
MNBIZ: As you say that can be manifest in all different sorts of ways starting from your metaphor. It's not even a metaphor. It's more of a memory. 
Peter: Yeah, exactly, right. It really happened. I do it all the time in different ways.
MNBIZ: You have a few lists here that I want to point out. You had 3 pieces of advice for people to carry things out into reality. Be specific, be in the present, and be true. Can you explain that little triad? 
Peter: Yeah, specific, present, and true, that was almost going to be the working title of the book at one point. I let it go after a while. The way I describe it in the book is if those 3 elements are always present in anything that ever makes itself manifest, anything that's ever created, certainly anything of value that anyone longs to see in the world. It could be as simple as a phone call to your mom if you haven't talked to her in a long time. It could be anything.
It could be a new invention, a new business initiative. First of all, it has to be specific. You have to break the idea down into small parts. The metaphor I use in the book is you want to be a baseball star. You're a kid. Okay, so that's your goal. Let's get specific about it. You need to practice your swing. Maybe you're practicing with someone who's telling you exactly how to stand and how to hold your bat. You're not talking about how you're going to sign baseball cards later on. This is something else. It's very specific. Let's work on your swing. That's specific. 
Present means I'm going to do this thing today at 10:25 for 45 minutes. I've called this person who's going to serve as my batting coach. He's going to meet me down at the park. We're going to do this at 10:25. As opposed to, "Yeah, I'll work on my swing. Yeah, maybe one day later," No. You do it presently, even if it is just a small piece of what your goal is.
True is where the meat of the book exists. True means that this thing that you want to bring into the world is self-generated. That it's something that you truly envision, that you truly envision it's going to be good for yourself and for the world. The metaphor again I use in the book with this baseball-playing kid. If in fact he's pressured into wanting in quotes, to be a baseball star by his dad who didn't quite make it and wanted to live vicariously through his son, that kid is never going to have the strength to do it because it's not an internally generated aspiration.
You want to look, in some sense, and this is sort of the idea that stands high above all the others, is the meta idea. You want to figure out what you stand for in your entire life, what it is you're doing. If I can digress for a second. I just did a workshop at the Kellogg's School of Management at Northwestern a couple of weeks ago. What I have people do there is first examine what are their highest ideals in their life. It's the first question I ask. It's in the book too, “Why you?”
Most of the answers, they're very aspirational: I want to teach people. I want to bring good into the world. I want to leave a legacy of good for my children. These are the kind of things that people say. Later on I have people write songs about a single experience in their job life of 10 or 20 or 30 years where they had a moment, an exchange with another person, where they felt very much like they were connected to this highest ideal.
It wasn't a moment where they made 20% on gross. It's nothing like that. It's an actual experience with this human being. This guy, who's the CEO of this giant industrial supply company, somewhere in the South, told the story through a song, ultimately, about how he moved his company and several of the staff to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Using their industrial supplies, they built homes for people. One home in particular was for this elderly woman who had her grandchildren around her and now was warm and safe in this new house. This guy, who was a CEO, came to visit her.
He was so moved by the fact that something that was just industrial supplies, that's what we do for a business, he saw how it made it out in the real world as being this generous offering and can truly -- not in some fake, abstract way -- but truly advance people's lives. That, back to this specific, present, and true, once he understood the value of what he was doing that was true to his deepest understanding of his mission statement and life, he became a much better business leader. He became much more resilient. He understood that there was purpose, that he had meaning in his life.
MNBIZ: There's something that I've noticed, once again going back to songwriting and rock and roll and all the top 40 hits, I noticed there's a number of one-hit wonders. What happens is that they have a hit song and it sounds like their second song was an exact duplication of their first song. I can just imagine their managers saying, "That was great. Do it again. It's what they want." Rather than, "This is inside you, we've got to get it out." 
Peter: There's so much pressure on that second song or that third song. You have to really, especially when you sign a contract of something -- what was once a poetical expression, something that you did alone in your bedroom, and you might have even cried when you wrote the song -- you go to the lawyers and you sign your name, and you're signing all these contracts, and now there's all these other people with their hand in what you're doing. You feel these pressures. That can be related to any kind of business. An entrepreneurial business starts to go, you have to constantly reflecting back. It's a very difficult process. What was my initial impetus? If you can't find it maybe it's time for you to quit and find something else to do.
MNBIZ: I think the analogy would be that someone has an idea and before it could be manifested, they run it through a focus group which scrambles it. 
Peter: Focus groups, I'm sure there's some utility to them. My experience with them, in terms of bringing something very unique, very connected, very human, into the world, it literally dilutes these ideas. It can do no more. It could be when the idea's fully formed you bring it to a group and perhaps there's information that you can use to make it even better. When originally thinking of things you're in that green stage that iterative stage, having all these voices around you, it does nothing but confuse and stifle the process.
MNBIZ: It's as if MARV is overactive then. 
Peter: Yeah, well when they start talking and criticizing that's, as I say in the book, is rocket fuel for MARV. He gets really amped up because basically it's a social issue that amps MARV up, the sense of abandonment that I talked about before. That's really what he's trying to avoid. If it's not a rabid jumping on your or something. When it takes place in a social sphere, he's talking about abandonment. He's talking about rejection. As I said, without it ever being really conscious, at the root of it, those are mortal fears. A focus group at that early stage kills things. They talk about there's data on this and it's nothing people didn't know before. The worst way to have a brainstorming session is to have everyone in a room around a table together shouting out answers. The loud and intimidating people run the group. Then maybe not the best or the most creative will.
MARV is causing them to be loud. The best way to iterate and to brainstorm is to learn together, to be inspired together, to feel something as a collaborative, as a collective, and then retreat into your private sphere, and privately iterate. Then bring those things back to the group. That's how Lennon and McCartney used to work. They weren't sitting there together in a room writing one line, and then one word. They would write a section of a song and bring it. John would go to his house and write a bridge and bring it together. They were really, in some way, working collaboratively. There's also this space for introspective solo work.
MNBIZ: There's all that hard work on the back side. It seems to be great art, or great anything has this sense that it looks effortless. If you can see the strain, it's not as good somehow. 
Peter: Right, so true, whether it's movie editing or a song, it takes a lot of work to make something simple and beautiful. You can make something simple, but it's not beautiful. Maybe beauty has simplicity built into it. I remember there was a saying that somebody said that you name the art form. That song is incredible and original. Unfortunately what's incredible about it is not original. What's original is not incredible. You have to have those two things working in tandem. Those are very hard to get with a bunch of voices shouting in your ear in a group.
MNBIZ: I assume you've been developing your book over the last few years as you've been giving training sessions to all these major businesses that you've dealt with McDonald's, the Gap, Adobe, et cetera. Do they get a sense of, well it's time to get out of looking at the bottom line and start thinking about our minds? 
Peter: It surprised me because when I went into this I had no idea about any of it, none whatsoever. The word, ROI, I didn't know what that stood for, I had never heard the term “leadership and development,” I had only basic understanding of HR. In other words I came to it very blindly. My assumptions were that these ideas were for human beings. I did have, and I say this with somewhat sardonically, a suspicion that corporations were staffed by actual human beings. At the root of the day, and at the end of the day, people are still human.
These human ideas, these emotional ideas, these ideas about wonder and surprise and delight and creativity and the fear of conformity, the need for structure, all these things that we needed in our rock band touring around in a van and a bus for 30 years. I should mention too I got a scholarship to study at, I think I mentioned this to you before, at Kellogg's School of Management. I'm teaching there now. Really it was amazing to me to find out, and very confirming, that the things I learned on the road, playing in clubs and theaters with record deals and drummers and bass players, it was exactly what they were purveying at the school in so many ways and certainly in different terms.
I found not only the grudging acceptance of these ideas from corporations, but the hunger for it, and the understanding of it. These people are very smart and very hip. None of this is like shockingly new to them. What is new I think is my specific means of presenting the idea. They all get it. They all have read all sorts of things. They're incredibly creative people. The people that I've met in business rival any poets I've ever met for sheer creativity. Again, while it doesn't manifest itself as a work of poems, it comes out as something else, some business related idea. What it took to get there was all the same process.
MNBIZ: We have an initiative with young entrepreneurs 35 and under. It seems like their definition of capitalism has changed kind of the way that some of the older business leaders are reacting to the recession -- that is that we ought not make money the goal. We ought to make the general good the goal and money is just a means to that end.    
Peter: I've heard that a lot. At first when I heard it I was skeptical. There's a group that I work with a lot: Conscious Capitalism. They were one of the groups that were big purveyors, big drivers of this idea. When I saw them and met them my natural, cynical mindset was somewhat put to rest. I do think that in many ways what you're saying is true. I believe it to be true. I also believe that the people who are talking about it believe it themselves. The money is important. It's just like – look, forget about business for a second. It's just like life.
Money is important. You need to have money to live and to put your kids through school. If that's your goal, let's say a marriage, if that's your primary goal, you're going to maybe have some money but you're not going to have a marriage. It's not sustainable. I guess that's the word that people use, sustainability. It's not only in terms of the environment where people always make the mistake. Sustainable means this is something that benefits not only the company but all the stakeholders, people that live in the area, the environment, the world at large. 
If they have a stake in the success of your business, they can thrive for many years. If you as a parent and as a spouse, who also needs and understands the value of money, but has a higher value, then we're going to be faithful to one another. We're going to teach us, our kids, certain values, that the purpose of a marriage is a high one. It has its base and is built on values. That's also a sustainable thing. In other words, they're taking an idea which is truthful in all the world and applying it to business. I think there's a certain logic to it.
MNBIZ: Well good, do you have any final comments about things I didn't ask? 
Peter: You know whenever I'm asked that I never do and then I lay awake at night and say, "Damn, why didn't do that?" Yeah, one thing very briefly. I think they're positioning this as a business book at first. I think that's just where the path led to on this. In truth, it addresses the human aspects of what makes a business leader. I think it's important on many levels. The book doesn't talk a lot about business. It talks about human beings and the way that we can advance ourselves.
MNBIZ: As you say, a lot of business people are people, too. 
Peter: I hope that all are. Everyone I met is a person. Nobody's yet transcended that. Maybe Google can invent a way to get beyond humanity, but I'm not sure.
MNBIZ: If anybody can they can. 
Peter: That's right.