Steven Hoffman is a serial entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of the start-up incubator Founders Space. His new book, Make Elephants Fly, provides a roadmap for successful innovation, which includes prioritizing rest, fun, and relationships. I asked Hoffman to further explain the link between creativity and a balanced existence.
You say that “working all the time is the death of creativity.” Why is this the case?
The problem is that when you work without a break, it doesn’t give your mind time to relax and look at your job from a different perspective. Only by stepping back from your work can you see it for what it really is.
When you’re working nonstop, you get so caught up in the details that you often overlook the bigger picture. Creativity comes from connecting non-obvious thoughts. The free flow of your thoughts is narrowed when you just focus on work. This restricts your ability to imagine alternative outcomes and possibilities.
I highly recommend all entrepreneurs take weekends off, no matter how busy they are. But weekends aren’t enough. Vacations are important too because they allow you to be able to truly get away from work. You need at least a week without any emails or cell phone interruptions to truly escape the hamster wheel of work.
You specifically challenge innovators “to spend at least one day a week doing something completely pointless and unrelated to anything in your business.” How has this benefited you?
In my current company, Founders Space, I came up with the idea of going to China simply by taking time off. Someone invited me to come to China to meet potential business partners. At first, I dismissed the idea as a waste of time.
However, after taking a day off walking in the woods with family, I realized that it would be fun. I had nothing to lose. I had never been to China. Why not go? At the worst, it would be an interesting experience.
Two and half years later, I find that China is the biggest part of our business. We have opened up Founders Space startup accelerators in Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan, and we have two more about to open in Shenzhen and Chengdu.
There’s a good chance this would have never happened if I didn’t take a day off.
Image courtesy of Steven Hoffman
You say that company founders need to focus more, taking on small projects rather than trying to do too much. How can entrepreneurs do this?
Entrepreneurs need to focus. Focus is the key to progress. If you are trying to do too many things at once, you naturally spread yourself thin. This means you cannot go deep enough into any single project to break through.
Breaking through is the key. That’s when you discover something no one else has realized, and this is where your business can gain a true competitive edge.
The only way to do this is to cut the scope of your project. Narrow it down to the core elements, and focus all your energy on figuring out those first.
For almost any business, there is a core that if you do well, you will be better than everyone else. You need to identify this core and put all your resources into making sure you are the best in the world at this one thing. That’s how you can beat out everyone else.
The added benefit is that focusing allows you to iterate faster, learning from your mistakes, and this cycle is at the core of innovation. You need to increase the rate at which you run experiments, until you learn more than anyone else to reinvent your business.
Why do you think having relationships outside of work is necessary for the health of founders and their businesses?
If all you do is talk to the people you work with, then you are severely limiting your access to new ideas. People in your industry all tend to think alike. If you really want to stimulate your brain, you need to engage with people who spend their time solving problems in different environments and think differently.
Creativity is about combinatorial play. It’s the act of combining new ideas that don’t obviously fit together. You need to feed your brain, and best food for creativity is interacting with other interesting minds.
Maybe it’s a surgeon or musician or anthropologist who sparks in you that new idea on how to engage your customers. When you are curious and dive into their lives, you can learn so much, and you’ll bring that back to the office with you the next day.
It’s also about pleasure. Life is dull when you do the same thing over and over. Don’t limit yourself. Expand your life. Engage others. This will enrich your life and your mind.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs on how to pursue their start-up dreams in a sustainable way?
Balance is key. Don’t do any one thing to excess. I know we all read about Elon Musk and his obsession with his business, but a recent study found that the most successful CEOs in the world don’t work the most hours.
Remember, it’s not how long you work that matters. It’s how hard you work on the right problems. If you’re spending endless hours trying to solve the wrong problems, you won’t be making any progress. You need time away from the job to make sure you’re tackling the most important issues and not wasting your time slaving over something that will never materialize.
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