Creative Leaders Get Their Hands Dirty

In the last few decades, technology has encouraged our fascination with perfection — whether it’s six sigma manufacturing, the zero-contaminant clean room, or in its simplest form, ” 2.0.” Given the new uncertainty in the world however, I can see that it is time to question this approach — of over-technologized, over-leveraged, over-advanced living. The next big thing? Dirty hands. Let me explain.

A couple weeks ago I spoke at Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco to a packed audience of tech-savvy talent. The most interesting moment of the conference for me happened in the green room. While my fellow speakers were busily checking their email and tuning their presentations, I found a small audience of young innovative technologists who were curious about my recent change in coordinates from the MIT Media Lab to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). As I described the incredible heat of RISD’s glass furnaces, the piquant odor from our special collection of rare woods, and the ease by which I can bring a stuffed cougar back to my office from our Edna Lawrence Nature Lab (literally!), I felt an overwhelming fervor among occupants of the green room who wanted to drop their keyboards and mice and make their way straight to RISD.

Immediately after my talk, I went out on to the street outside of the Moscone Center, and saw an artist sitting next to his bicycle with a manual typewriter and a big cardboard sign that read, “Poet for hire. Your price.” So I said to him, “Five dollars.” He replied, “What topic?” “The street.” So he clickety-clack typed on the old-school red/black-ribbon device, manually adjusting the vertical feed along the way, and lovingly shaped a paragraph-long parable about the street. On the resulting dirty, inky Avery label he scribbled his URL in pen. I took the poem and noted the ink transfer on to my own hands. Ironically, only a few minutes before I had left the gleaming showroom of the Web 2.0 conference, with its baskets of free hand sanitizer. Should I go back in? No. I was happy and fine to be dirty, thank you.


Just then a middle-aged man came up to me and told me how he enjoyed my talk and was particularly moved by my “dirty hands” slide — a photo I had taken of a RISD student’s hands that were filthy from sanding a piece of furniture she was developing (shown above). He said to me, “I’ve been an entrepreneur for ten years, and now I want to go to RISD to get a ‘dirty MBA.'” He explained further that he wanted to get close to the customer, to the cash register, to the moment when something is done for real — when real effort is translated as real effort and real results. In short, he wanted to get his hands dirty again. And my presentation of RISD reminded him of what he had lost and desperately wants to get back.

When I talk about RISD, I find that many people feel their sense of creativity has not only been lost since childhood, but has been lost in this economy. There will be a rise of new creative leaders in the world, fueled by rich humanity. Values that are uncommon in today’s world will drive these emerging leaders: unbridled passion to do the right thing, insistence on a purity of concept to drive the execution, and above all placing the necessities of humanity over the possibilities of technology. The world is already noticing these new creative entrepreneurs. A recent article in TIME Magazine profiled two such startups, — and AirBnB — both started by RISD graduates. Coincidence? I think not.

Read the original here, by John Maeda & Becky Bermont @ Harvard Business