Elvis, Eros, and Einstein

Spirituality Underlies Enhanced Creativity and Personal Innovation
Gregg Fraley © 2008

I did a speech two years ago in Belgium with the same title as this article.  It was a memorable event for me because I love speaking and it was a big and enthusiastic crowd and because I did the keynote with a un-casted broken ankle.  I was so psyched up that I felt no pain – until I was finished.  Then of course, I thought I was going to die.   Passion and adrenaline are great painkillers and also a clue; when you care about something deeply, when you love something like that, it’s a hint you are in touch with your spiritual base.

The message of that speech and this article is that spirituality underlies and feeds our creativity.  Creativity in turn is the font for innovation, be it personal innovation, or in business.  So, my message in Belgium was simple, get back to your spiritual roots and you will be doing a lot to nourish your creativity and that will bubble up ultimately to the innovations you desire in your life’s journey. 

I’m a huge fan of Elvis.  I heard the song Kentucky Rain for the first time while listening to a transistor radio on the way to school.  It was a bit of a shock.  I felt something touch me that overcame the Elvis schmaltz.  I was too young to have experienced the first Elvis wave — I thought he was corny and a bit of a hick.  The Beatles were more my style.  Until Kentucky Rain. It touched me in a deep place in my heart.  Elvis had a way of doing that, sooner or later Elvis hooks you with a heartfelt song. 

I read a lot of biographies. The Peter Guralnick Elvis bio Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley is a marvelously well-written and researched book.  I’ve read several books on Einstein, and by coincidence, I read the Elvis and Einstein biographies back to back.  Actually, I was finishing one while starting the other.

What occurs to me is that as different as they would appear on the surface, they actually have a lot in common. They both owe their success to the same thing: a well-grounded spirituality and a laser-like personal focus on their passion.  These passions, these loves, were part of their spirituality. For Elvis it was music, for Einstein it was physics.

What does this have to do with creativity and innovation?  I think a great deal. 

The focus in the business of innovation is often on tools, techniques, and methodologies that help foster innovation.  Nothing wrong with tools, but it reminds me of the day I rented an industrial electric “snake” so I could save money unblocking a storm drain in my driveway.  I was in hip boots wading in water up to my privates and wrestling with this surprisingly powerful piece of equipment.  The snake was down the drainpipe and pushing back with a lot of resistance.  My ex-wife looked out the window and asked me how it was going, and in that moment I lost control of the snake and it snapped up and hit me hard on the forehead.  I was darn lucky I didn’t lose teeth or an eye.  I was barely able to get it back under control before spitting out one word, “fine!”  Of course, ultimately I called the plumber to fix the drain.  The point is simple friends; tools can be ineffective, even dangerous, if you don’t know what you are doing. 

In the quest to find more and better tools managers forget that innovation springs from creative thinking.  That creativity, those imaginative thoughts, comes from someplace deep inside us doesn’t it?  That’s what makes it so hard to be deliberately creative — as soon as you start trying to force it, poof, it’s gone.  Creativity that is “top down,” that is emerging from the analytical brain or from some external desire (like money) or a tool often does not connect to your heart.  Those kinds of ideas don’t connect with your spiritual core.  Without the connection, the flow of ideas stops.  Without the connection the ideas are disconnected from an authentic motivation.

Is this getting too touchy-feely for you?  Well, this next part might be worse!  Not everything about creativity is as mysterious as “that deep place inside of us.” I do believe that creativity can be taught, and that creativity can be nourished.  Creative potential comes from two deep places in my opinion.  First, it comes from imagination, the ability to simply envision something new and different.  Second it comes from self-expression.  Ideas come out when we somehow make them manifest in a written down form, in a drawing, or even just saying it out loud to a friend.  Both imagination and self-expression can be encouraged and developed, and they thrive in an environment of love.  One can also develop one’s logical mind, one’s critical analytical skills, and our knowledge base – these are important and helpful things.  Combined, they are especially powerful –especially when supported by a spiritual base. 

It has me thinking of Elvis.

Elvis was indeed The King… of self-expression.  He was not a tools and techniques guy – he never had a singing lesson in his life.  He sang what he Felt.  And where did his feelings come from?  Based on reading his bio, I’d say his family.  His family was dirt poor but they had love, and, they sang.  They sang together to keep their spirits up; they sang gospel, country, folk, and anything they heard on the radio.  Elvis was a big fan of Mario Lanza!  Don’t believe it?  Listen to It’s Now or Never.  But I digress, singing was the Presley’s entertainment and it was the glue that kept them together when times were tough.  It was this spiritual base, this environment of love and support (this is the “Eros” of the title if you were wondering) where Elvis got his ability to take a schmaltzy song and make it his own.  To him, all music was good, and any song worth singing was worth putting his whole heart and soul into.  This was the seat of his genius, his creativity, and ultimately his innovation in the field of pop music.  Make no mistake, Elvis was an innovator.  Even if you are not a fan it’s hard to dispute that he did what had never been done before, and he did it effortlessly because it came from his heart.  He didn’t use a “tool” to combine elements of gospel, country, and rhythm and blues; he created it from the palette of sounds in his head.  These were the sounds he loved and cared about, the sounds he heard at home, in church, at shows, and on the streets of Memphis.  Music was all around him.

Einstein wasn’t bad at self-expression himself.  He was a better than average classical violinist, and he was no stranger to a good joke, he had a sense of humor.  Anybody who has even seen that famous picture of him with his tongue out would know in a glance he was a man who didn’t take himself too seriously.  What he did take seriously – but with a sense of play — was science.  It was invoked in him very early on, and like Elvis, it had its roots in family.  Einstein’s uncle had a clever way to introduce math concepts to young Albert, characterizing algebra as a “merry science where we go searching for a little animal whose name we don’t know.” He made a game of algebra – why don’t all math teachers do that?  What a wonderful thing to say to an imaginative child.  Einstein, like Elvis, was a loved child, and science was all around him.

Einstein’s spirituality had to do with respect for nature.  Perhaps it was those long walks he took in the woods in Germany, but he somehow developed a deep respect and a curiosity about the nature of the universe.  His famous quote on this is “God does not play dice with the universe.”  He devoutly believed that all things have an order and his life was dedicated to discovering what that order was.  The mystery of life was Albert Einstein’s religion and it was this mystery that propelled his quest for knowledge.  This was the spiritual center that his creativity, and ultimately his innovation, came from. 

The difference between the two men is that Elvis lost his spiritual center and Einstein did not.  Einstein held onto his passion for the nature of things, physics, in spite of financial difficulties, trouble finding a job in his field, and working alone for many years on his ideas.  If he hadn’t published three papers in 1905 that dropped like bombshells on the scientific world, he might have died as a Swiss patent clerk.  

Elvis died searching for a way to find a way around fame back to his spiritual center. Sadly, he never found it.  Happily, he shared a lot of joy with us in his time and so for me it’s hard to see his life as a tragedy.  Learn from his mistake, don’t get too far away from your spiritual base, whatever it is for you.  So, to close, if you are seeking more innovation, go back to your spiritual roots and build up from there.  Connect to what you have a passion for, what you love, and you’ll feel your creativity emerge. It’s a bit of self-love.  It’s funny how love keeps coming up.  The Beatles were right about that – love is all you need.   

Gregg Fraley

Gregg is the author of Jack’s Notebook, a Business Novel About Creative Problem Solvingpublished in March 2007.  It’s the first business fable about deliberate creative problem solving and personal innovation.  The book reveals  “CPS” a proven six-step process for addressing complex business or personal innovation challenges.  CPS training is expensive and not widely available.  Now, with a fast-paced and inspirational story, Jack’s Notebook is becoming to the field of creativity and innovation what The Goal was to the manufacturing industry. It gives innovation teams and small companies a common language for problem solving and a complete system for taking ideas into action.  Fraley is a recognized expert on creativity and innovation; he speaks internationally and consults with many Fortune 500 companies on new product development. He is the co-host of the Innovise Guys, a leading podcast on innovation and improvisation.  For more information about Jack’s Notebook or Gregg’s consulting or speaking services, visitwww.greggfraley.com or email him directly – gregg@greggfraley.com