I don’t believe in Experts


expert, thought leader, expert success, entrepreneur revolutionHave you ever met someone who had a particular faith, let’s say an evangelical Christian, or whatever, and then one day, something happened? Perhaps a particular set of incidents conspired to create a new realisation that knocked the legs from under their faith. Suddenly they found themselves no longer believing. Suddenly they had to modify their identity in light of this loss of certainty.It must be devastating and yet liberating. It must be embarrassing and yet empowering. To realise that many of the precepts that your day-to-day life depended on now have no meaning, or a totally different meaning. It must be unnerving and exciting. (Just for the record, it may be a similar process going the other way, from being agnostic to believer in something, I imagine).But I’m not talking about religion here. But the metaphor is apt. The preoccupation I’d like to discuss with you is not organised traditional religion, although it shares may of the motifs of a religion. I have lost faith in the Cult of the Expert.

In my model there are perhaps four types of businesses; those that are so large that they are a system, those that are so small that they are a family and those two that are an individual who operates as either a skilled freelance tradesperson selling action, or as a consultant selling ideas.*

So to make it clear, a large corporate company like Tesco or IBM operates as a system where individuals have their tasks but are unlikely to have overarching big-picture roles and are probably siloed into departments or divisions (let’s call them type A).

A small business like an engineering firm or accountancy company operates as a family as everyone knows everyone (lets call them type B).

A freelance tradesperson is a plumber or graphic designer or even a marketeer or business analyst. They do things for the other two types of businesses (let’s call them type C).

It’s that final category where the ambiguous role exists; the individuals who are ‘Experts’ (type D).

It’s been said, by Malcolm Gladwell, that an Expert can be defined as someone who has done constructive, consistent practice or work in a particular area for around 10,000 hours. (I’ve explored this myth here). The ‘Cult of the Expert’ would use this evidence to label Gladwell as a type D ‘expert’, in light of him having written the book Outliers, as an ‘Expert in Experts’. This is my loss of faith. I say he is not an Expert. He is a journalist and author. His expertise makes him a type C. He may be paid to deliver talks. In that role he is a type C, paid to share his experiences that people may learn from, but more likely he has added a new form of type C to his portfolio, that of an entertainer.

At this point let me explain that I’ve been running my type C business for 12 years. I’ve been selling my services as graphic artist, publisher and professional speaker and trainer in creativity and innovation. Perhaps there was a while when I though I might be a type D Expert. But no, I am not.

I’m proposing that Experts do not exist except in the egos of people who believe they are, or have convinced other people that they are.

If you’re a disciple of the Cult of the Expert, you may not agree at this point, or I may not have explained my thoughts clearly enough. So I’ll try harder.

Let’s imagine you are a dentist. You are not an ‘Expert’, you are a dentist. You are not even an ‘expert dentist’, you are a dentist. You might be a good or not-so-good dentist, but you are still a dentist. Your expertise is dentistry. But you are not an expert.

The Cult of the Expert would claim you are an Expert and should write a book, create a training programme and range of products to sell to others, your followers, who are not Experts, to help them become like you, an Expert. But you are not an Expert, you are a dentist. You either operate in a type B or type C business model.

In other words, to move to type D means that you are actually leaving your expertise behind to become a mediocre trainer, internet marketeer or author. If you excel at any of these new models then you have become a new type C business person; you are now a dentist and an author, trainer or internet marketeer. You have new expertise, but you are still not an Expert.

The Cult of the Expert suggests that expertise exists in isolation from actually doing something. It’s a subtle difference between the person who has expertise in an area that they have practiced and delivered and then also have the expertise to explain and train some element of that expertise or experience. This is the concept of putting a type C business person on a pedestal (or putting themselves on that pedestal) as an ‘Expert’.

Confused? Consider this. A teacher has expertise in a subject and in the teaching of that subject. They are not an Expert, they are a teacher as as such command a certain salary. Likewise a trainer gets paid a market value fee for showing someone how to do something. Then there’s a motivational speaker, who has a story to tell and some experience or expertise to share. They command a certain fee (usually a lot more than a teacher). The fee is often proportional to how famous or how wealthy they are. This is where the Cult of the Expert kicks in. It is in effect similar to the Cult of Celebrity. People will pay more for the Expert because they believe some of their magic celebrity, charisma or money making power will rub off on them.

So if I’m not an Expert, who and what am I? I have experience in a few areas that others don’t and I believe I can explain them well. I deliver my knowledge as a facilitative trainer and as an entertaining speaker. If I was lucky enough to be on tv or to suddenly make a large amount of money (in any field) then I would be a celebrity and could command higher fees. But my new celebrity status would not have increased my experience or knowledge in any way, even though I would the be hailed as an Expert.

Likewise having written a number of books has not increased my expertise in any way but has given the illusion that I am perhaps a Expert in the Cult. But I am not. My books may be interesting, entertaining and educational but they do not add to my expertise (other than I am now an ‘author’). They are marketing tools that promote what I do and what I know. They do not make me an Expert, or to give the Cult its other name, they do not make me a Thought Leader. I do not want to scrabble to compete with other so-called thought leaders to compete with their thoughts to get in ‘the lead’. I have ideas, I may have even thought of something new, something before anyone else has thought of it. That’s nice (but unlikely) and it gives me something new to explain or train. But it doesn’t make me a leader. Neither do I want to have a bunch of disciples, following my so-called thought leadership.

Why am I so against the idea of the Cult (or any ‘cult)? Because having lost faith in the religion of the Cult of the Expert I now believe that it has at its centre an erroneous belief system that is perpetuated by deception. I feel that it has a dark side that sustains it by drawing energy (and money) from its disciples, who, like many religions, are the weakest and most desperate people in any given society or community.

I have woken up to a new dawn in which there are many wonderful talented people with expertise, but there are no Experts. There are plenty of great people who have plenty to say and from who we can learn a great deal, but they should not be worshiped.

In 1970, John Lennon closed his first solo, post-Beatles album with a moving and dramatic song called ‘God’ in which he dismissed everything he had ever believed in and had ever worshiped (including Elvis, Bob Dylan and religious and political figures). In the end he closes with the devastating confession, “I don’t believe in…. Beatles”. In that one line he destroyed the myth that he himself had co-created and that was worshiped by millions. The song ends with, “I just believe in me, Yoko and me. That’s reality”.

The Cult of the Expert is the desire to set up ourselves, or our favorite celebrities, as gods. The world has enough gods already and they don’t seem to do us much good.

As business people or people in business, I believe our role should be to add value, to increase knowledge and understanding for the benefit of ourselves and others in a symbiotic relationship, that benefits the whole. I believe in humility, humanity and the service of others for the greater good.

That belief now rules me out of joining the Cult of the Expert. What about you?

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

* Ok, it’s overly simplistic and there are blurred areas, so feel free to have your own model that’s different. These are my opinions, other opinions are available and encouraged. That is the essence of this article, to think for yourself, but not to conclude those thoughts are better than someone else’s. Just because I’ve lost my faith doesn’t make those that still believe wrong, because that would be an absolute. It’s just that I believe them to be wrong. But just because I believe something doesn’t make it right. I might be wrong thinking that they are wrong. The burden of proof is now on the Experts to prove they exist. 
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Getting over brutal criticism – you won’t have it as bad as John Lennon


John Lennon 1968 pen and ink drawing white album

Drawing by Ayd Instone, aged 16

There’s no escaping criticism. No matter how good you are, there’s always someone who’ll have a pop. There’s a whole profession of people out there who describe themselves as ‘critics’ whose job is to criticise. And the more successful you get, the more open to brutal criticism you are.

When it comes to your own personal creativity and work you have done yourself, criticism is tough. It’s personal, or feels personal. Highly creative people often lack confidence in themselves and their work. We often believe that we’re only as good as out last piece of work (that’s never really true) so if we get a bad review or a finger is pointed at us and our errors, we take it so much to heart that it feels like the end of the world.

Can you imagine going from being universally loved and adored for your work to having pernicious personal criticism levelled at everything you do and then having one critic so hating you and your work that they set out to murder you.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to John Lennon.

In 1968 the Beatles released the John Lennon song Revolution as the b-side of Hey Jude. It had the line “But if you talk about destruction. Don’t you know that you can count me out.”

The revolutionary sub culture was split on whether their idol and spiritual leader had gone soft and had sold out. Was he saying they should all just be cool, peaceful and take it easy, or was he siding with the establishment?

But later that year, the Beatles eponymously titled White Album, was released with a different version of the song which contained the lyric ‘But if you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in.”

It had appeared that Lennon had done a u-turn on the previous non-violent stance. The subculture was now incensed. Not because Lennon appeared now to sanction direct action but because it looked like he’d swayed and changed his tune just to keep in with the underground.

The truth was that the album version of the song, although released second, was recorded first. Lennon’s actual stance was initially to perhaps support destruction which he later changed to be wholeheartedly in favour of peaceful protests.

The criticism he faced hurt him deeply and possibly pushed him into more proactively declaring his position (which was perhaps a good outcome) and led to his signature bed-in-for-peace events. But it also caused him to attempt to forge closer links with the more undesirable members of the underground subculture where his naivety was unable to tell good from bad. This led him to donate money and effort to some very undeserving causes, all to fend off that feeling of failure from harsh personal criticism.

This new radicalism alienated him from many of his former fans who, in Lennon’s words, “loved the mop tops and A Hard Days Night, but I’ve grown up. Have you?”

Yet this radicalism was short lived. He gained critical acclaim for his first solo album (1970’s John Lennon Plastic Ono Band) but it had poor sales figures. The best selling Beatle after the split was George Harrison with his hit single My Sweet Lord and triple LP All Things Must Pass. Even Ringo was having more hits than John. Lennon’s second LP, Imagine, was more commercial, but the third, Sometime In New York City was a disaster.

Lennon had been the first Beatle to be singled out for criticism, back in 1966, when the US radio stations picked up on the infamous ‘bigger than Jesus comments’. He’d had to suffer the embarrassment of having to ‘apologise’ repeatedly for what was a simple and fairly accurate statement made to a UK reporter months earlier and taken out of context. This event was part of their decision to stop touring. They had violent threats on their security by all sorts of weirdos including the Klu Klux Clan who threatened to plant bombs at a Beatle concert. John was physically sick before going on stage during that last American tour.

Then, from 1968, he’d had to put up with being criticised for getting together with Yoko, later blamed for ‘splitting up the Beatles’ but even before that, he had to endure nasty and disgraceful racial abuse leveled at her. He’d been criticised for turning his back on the Fab Four and pop music and being far too nutty and far out and yet also criticised for being childish and not being or radical enough.

Then he was criticised for producing ‘mediocre’ albums in the mid seventies (Mind Games and Walls and Bridges) and his LP of rock ‘n’ roll standards. Then he was criticised for not producing any new material for five years while he became ‘househusband’, looking after his son Sean. And more often than not, he was blamed for the lack of a Beatle reunion. (When if fact they’d all agreed on a reunion, but never at the same time.)

Then, in 1980, he was hunted down and killed by a ‘deranged fan’ who decided Lennon had become a ‘phoney’.

It would be hard for any of us to imagine what it could be like to have such adoration as the Beatles enjoyed (and suffered) in the sixties. It would be equally hard for us to imagine the type of criticism that followed, especially after following on from such acclaim. It would likely be impossible for us to consider that our creative work would cause someone to want to murder us.

I think when we consider what happened to John Lennon, it makes any criticism we face, just that little bit less raw, a little bit less biting and a little bit less relevant.

So don’t let it stop you. Carry on with your great works and love what you do remembering that there are no statues or memorials for critics.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

The truth is not out there


I’ve always loved paradoxes and alternative realities.

They are very useful things to be able to embrace if you’re a parent or work with young children. Children operate in a constantly changing, often incoherent and sometimes contradictory reality. As adults we often see our job as to ‘straighten them out’ by getting them to understand ‘the real world’ and to ‘get’ the ‘truth’.

I’ve put all those worlds in inverted commas because I don’t believe in any of them.

(But that’s just me. It is of course possible to prove or disprove a belief in anything you like.)

So what is this ‘truth’ that we are supposed to be weaning them onto?

Here’s an example. Do you believe in Father Christmas? Most dull adults will say ‘no of course not’. Most of the people I hang around with will say, ‘yes’ because they’re a facetious bunch. But the more we think about it, the more that opinion is correct.

Let’s look at the facts: children have a strong image of the Father Christmas/Santa Claus being. There are pictures, films and songs of him. He turns up at school and/or in shops. They write letters to him. There is a mythos surrounding his story, paraphernalia and methods. But most of all: on Christmas morning, presents turn up, just as they have been promised.

This all means that Father Christmas is real. He exists. You can argue with me if you want to and say that it’s daddy who get’s dressed up and/or waits until their asleep. But that just proves my point. The problem with truth is that so many people want to be so blumin’ literal with it. If you want to take it further there are other strands to the mythology of the concept of Father Christmas that are ‘true’ and ‘real’, some positive, some perhaps not so: wishful thinking, positive thinking, hope, greed, consumerism, trust, joy. Those feelings are real.

So to those people who say that encouraging a believe in Father Christmas is ‘lying’ – you’re not only miserable joy snatchers you’re also categorically wrong, according go my evidence and my beliefs.

I’ve heard is said that some people think it’s bad form to let children believe in things that they think ‘aren’t true’. (The list usually includes Father Christmas, faeries and God amongst other things). They think we should tell our children ‘the truth’.

So where do I begin in this quest? And where do I end? Do I tell them about violent pornography and pedophilia? Do I give them the full truth and details of mass murder, torture and cruelty? Do I tell them the details of the Holocaust? Do I explain the pain of dying from cancer? That’s the truth isn’t it? Of course I don’t, and in the moment that I censor any of that ‘truth’, I’m presenting a modified and incomplete vision of the world and  its reality to my children. (And in my opinion, quite rightly so.)

Our children recently watched the Beatles animated film Yellow Submarine. They loved it and began acting out the stories and characters in imaginative play. As a Beatle fan, I have the Beatles records and their other films in the house. Over the past few weeks we’ve also watched A Hard Days Night and Help!

Mabel said, “I wish the Beatles lived in Oxford so that they could come to our house and sing for us”. I wish that too, but I know it’s not possible. I know that the events depicted in those films took place 46 to 48 years ago. I know that Paul is nearly 70 and Ringo is 71. I know that George died of cancer ten years ago and that John was murdered outside his home thirty-one years ago. So do I tell this ‘truth’ to my children, running around the house singing A Ticket to Ride and putting on Liverpool accents and saying “I’ve got a hole in my pocket”?

The answer is of course no. In the same was that I won’t be saying that Mickey Mouse or Scooby Doo is dead. The Beatles aren’t real, not in the sense that our family and friends are real. But in a sense that Thomas the Tank Engine or Tinkerbel is real, then yes they are very much alive. It’s only us boring literal adults, locked into linear time that say they no longer exist.

By the time they realise that Paul McCartney doesn’t now look the same as he did when he was 21 and is as old as their granddad it won’t matter because their understanding of the world will by default have ungraded their own mythologies as their reality changes as they grow.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know I’m a big fan of the television programme Doctor Who. My son is 6 but he’s not watching it because I’m withholding it from him. Why? because he’s what they patronisingly call a ‘sensitive child’. He has no concept of death, and frankly he doesn’t need to have one. Not yet. He will. That will come. But there’s no rush, why should there be? Doctor Who deals with death. It deals with nightmarish monsters that currently have no place in his straightforward problem solving world of Thomas the Tank Engine. So there I am again, creating and maintaining a deliberate different reality to yours (and mine).

My children believe in faeries. I didn’t encourage that belief, but neither have a dissuaded it. The reason is that just like Father Christmas, faeries are real.

My daughter may visualise them as flittering winged creatures, akin to angels, and princesses (and cats, in some surreal way. She’s 4). That’s her reality and who am I to stomp all over it with my Gortex boots.

After all, she’s probably right. Faeries are nature sprites. The small fluttery ones help the flowers bloom. The gnome-like ones work on decomposition and help fungus breakdown rotting matter. What if faeries are our anthropomorphism of these natural processes? That makes them real. I’d go further and suggest that faeries are live, actual beings that do indeed work with flora and vegetation, blossom and decay. Today we tend to call them the more uninspiring names such as butterflies, bees and woodlice. Perhaps faeries are the anthropomorphism of insects? When some people look at them they may see just an insect. Their boring lack of imagination sees a creepy-crawly. I see the miraculous circle of life. If I ingested enough ergot alkaloids I’d probably see pixie faces too, just like our ancestors did.

I’ve got grown up friends who have seen ghosts, spoken to them (and got replies). The fact that I haven’t doesn’t make them wrong either. It doesn’t make their experience less valid. I haven’t seen one and I know nothing about such things. My experience proves nothing about the subject.

The esteemed professor Dawkins and his cohort would have us not believe in God. His non-belief is his own rightly held opinion although he can’t have any evidence for it, only lack of it as you can’t prove a negative. But his assertion that such a belief is like believing in an invisible unicorn or a chocolate teapot in orbit around Mars or a spaghetti monster is not the same thing and his weakest argument. No-one believe in those things because there’s no point in believing in those things. There’s a great point to believing in a creator God or a Father God and many people derive great joy and meaning from their beliefs which is why they have them and keep them. (If someone has a belief that is a threat to others then we may well have to step in to challenge their reality but they’re not the people Dawkins et al go after, preferring instead softer targets, which is a shame.)

If you ever watched the 1990s television series about the unknown, The X Files, then you will be familiar with the phrase ‘the truth is out there’. I think that the truth is NOT out there at all. It’s in here, that is I have my version and you have your version.

Another more useful phrase from that programme was on a poster behind Agent Mulder’s desk. It said, ‘I want to believe’. I like it because it has a positive flexibility within it. I may not be able to believe, but I’ll seek out the evidence accordingly, rather than a default setting of disbelief which is as inflexible as any other dogma.

To those who still maintain that so-called supernatural beings aren’t real and don’t exist: our society has some fashionable concepts that are, by all modern definitions, ‘not real’ and yet we all believe unquestioningly in them. Money being a good example. We all believe in things that very few of us really understand (such as Electromagnetism).

In mathematics there are calculations that cannot be done unless you invoke what it called the ‘imaginary number’, i. It’s determined as the square root of -1, which is impossible (and therefore imaginary). And yet we need it to solve the equations that make our modern world possible as it’s needed for signal processing, control theory, electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, quantum mechanics, cartography and vibration analysis. Some mathematicians describe i as not ‘imaginary’ but ‘pure real’.

We need the imaginary in our lives which it is just as relevant and therefore just as real as anything we can actually see and touch, which, when you come to think of it, is such a tiny proportion of our so-called reality don’t you think?

Perhaps we live mainly in a ‘pure real’ world…

Ayd works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com

The 10,000 hour rule: can we trust it?


It’s been said* that if you constructively practice anything well for around 10,000 hours you will have become world class at it. The argument is that talent is less relevant than effort. What do you think? Is this the case?

The Beatles 1964 and 1966 RevolverLet’s try to make it simple and compare like with like. Take a dozen or so rock ‘n’ roll bands from Liverpool in 1960 and send them to Hamburg in Germany to perform 8 hours a night or more in various nightclubs for two to three years. They all have the same background. They all have the same exposure to influences. They all start with similar ability (they’re all aged between 17 and 19 so have been playing music for the same amount of time, between 1 and 3 years).

They are all the same, and yet only one of those acts becomes the phenomenon known as The Beatles.

I’ve been talking about, researching and training creativity overtly for 8 years. (Yes, before that I was doing it covertly).

Creativity is still a dirty word. By dirty I mean messy. It almost doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes when I’ve been talking about it I’ve had to keep it so broad, to encompass so many things that it can become almost meaningless. I make a great point that it has to be practical, that it’s not just to do with a particular artistic discipline, that it’s about making connections, problem solving, intuitive leaps, experimentation and so on. There are different facets to it, like a diamond, and so many differing ways to engage it, express it and use it. It’s what makes us human (as opposed to animal). It’s what forms our beliefs, it’s what allows us to explore the universe and ourselves. It IS science. It IS civilisation.

Here’s a new definition for you: creativity is a human’s ability to imagine a future in the minds and then use the hands to manifest it.

But even with this glorious definition there is still a misnomer that exists. So many people still believe that some people are more creative than others. We’ve got to admit, the evidence is compelling. But it is really true?

I think it comes from a misinterpretation of what creativity is and what it does. People believe in ‘talent’ and often think that talent = ability = gifts = creativity. It doesn’t.

There are many observers who report that talent is a myth. They believe that any concerted effort into consistent constructed practice will deliver exceptional performance. They cite examples in sport, mathematics, performance, art, business, chess, science and so on. Almost everything in fact.

Are they right? If you practice, practice, practice in a constructive way, learning and growing, learning and growing for 10,000 hours or 10 years, you will become a world class expert? Really?

I think the answer is yes, and no.

The 10,000 hour rule works with certain activities. It works with activities that have their basis in pattern recognition. Any sport that is based on pattern recognition will improve with practice. This is true for tennis, football, motor racing and chess. If you want to know more on why those activities are pattern recognition and not reflexes or memory then you need to read these books: Bounce and Talent is Overrated. I’m not going to be going down that route here.

Any sport that relies on endurance, motor skills or strength will not improve with 10,000 hours practice past the limitations of a particular person’s body. We can all get fitter and stronger, but not without limit. Those limits are set by our particular skeleton, muscle arrangement etc. So we’ve found one hole in the practice theory.

It’s said that the Beatles did their ‘10,000 hours’** of practice in the night clubs of Hamburg, playing, as they did, 8 hours a night. To be able to do that, to play and sing for that length of time they needed a few things or they would have collapsed. They needed youthful energy and endurance (this was enhanced by them ingesting Preludin, a drug that increases metabolic rate, then a freely available diet pill, now known as speed), they needed to be able to sing correctly so they didn’t damage their voice boxes. They needed a large repertoire of songs so that they or their audiences didn’t get bored.

So their time in Hamburg made them world class rock ‘n’ roll performers. So the story goes, there was their 10,000 hours, and that’s what made them musical geniuses, right? Is that it?

The time in Hamburg made all those bands blumn’ good at playing Twist and Shout. But the Beatles version is undeniably better than all of them.

There were plenty of bands that performed to the same schedule as the Beatles and who came from the same starting point. Many of them we know about, you can get hold of their record and you can compare. Many of them were also signed by Brian Epstein to EMI’s Parlaphone label. Many of them were produced by George Martin and many of them had a few number one records. But only the Beatles went on to write amazing hits like She Loves You or I Want to Hold Your Hand within a year of coming back from Hamburg. Only the Beatles came up with groundbraking songs outside the rock ‘n’ roll genre of Hamburg like Yesterday or Eleanor Rigby. Out of all the Merseybeat groups that had exactly the same background and experience, only the Beatles re-defined rock music with Strawberry Fields Forever, Tomorrow Never Knows and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Cub Band.

So what did the Beatles and specifically Lennon McCartney have that the others lacked?

Can we really say that it was ‘talent’? And if so, where was that talent located and how did it emerge? Were they born brilliant? When did they become genius songwriters and how?

There’s even more to this question because if you looked at the Beatles in 1963 you would already recognise (as many comentators did) the genius songwriting skills of Lennon and McCartney, but you would have ignored George Harrison’s songwriting ability. You’d have pricked your ears up in 1966 to his contributions to Revolver but it wasn’t until  1969 with his songs Something and Here Comes the Sun and his triple solo LP All Things Must Pass in 1970 that made comentators place Harrison’s songwriting on an equal par to Lennon and McCartney (some would even place it higher).

So when did George become a genius? Was it with him all along? Was it innate talent, or was it developed by hanging around with the century’s greatest songsmiths? If it was environment, why don’t we value Ringo’s songwriting skills as highly? He was there all the time too?

Their story does point to something else, some other mechanism. But what? Were they born with the talent and potential to write Sgt. Pepper? Were they unique in that respect? If so what DOES that say for the rest of us? Is 10,000 hours spent a waste on time for mere mortals? We’ll no doubt get pretty good at singing Twist and Shout but will we ever be able to transform the experience into A Hard Days Night, never mind a Hey Jude?

Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that the Beatles really, really really wanted to write the greatest songs. They certainly had a driving passion for their chosen field. But just being super keen isn’t enough either, otherwise all the contestants on those talent shows who ‘I’ll shrivel up and die if I don’t make it as a star’ would eventually shine. We know that they don’t.

Perhaps the teenager living next door to you, playing Wild Thing or Stairway to Heaven very badly on his out-of-tune electric guitar at all hours, may well be a future George Harrison, if only he had the chance to perform and/or hang out with some serious masters for enough time? How can we know?

There STILL are too many questions when it comes to creativity and the weird, obfuscated

world of talent (whatever that is) and still not enough answers.

So for now we’ll have to just keep practicing, crank up our 10,000 hours in our chosen field after all, and make sure we do our best to follow our own passion in the best way we can.

* Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
** It was more likely 2500 hours, but that’s actually no less impressive.
Drawing by Ayd Instone. 

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


What the Beatles got wrong, part 1: Don’t flitter to the glitter


The success and longevity of the Beatles as a cultural and creative force is undeniable. And, as discussed here, their legend has a solid place in history.

But is wasn’t all plain sailing. To the people of 1962 (1964 in America) the Beatles seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, fully formed. Behind their overnight success lay many years of hard work, heartbreak, sweat and coincidence. They then went onto have hit after hit, everything they touched seemed to turn to gold for longer than seemed believable, evolving and innovating and getting better and better.

But there were a few, at first unnoticeable errors and mistakes and then later bigger decisions which nearly sank the ship.

Beatles 1968 by Ayd Instone

The Beatles in 1968. Drawing by Ayd Instone

Most people are aware of the criticism of the Magical Mystery Tour TV (the less-than) Special and the Get Back/Let it Be misery, so here are some perhaps lesser-known and hopefully more insightful decisions made, that had repercussions for the Beatles and their post-Beatles lives.

There are quite a few, so let’s choose just just one for now and it’s this:

They thought their All Powerful god-like success could be transferred to projects outside their experience and knowledge

In 1968 the Beatles launched Apple Corps (The name was a joke as it was pronounced Apple Core, although a more accurate pronunciation would have been Apple Corpse). It was a mess from the start. They attempted to transfer the hippy mentality of boundless creativity and expression, or freedom, peace and love into a retail outlet and a open door talent agency.

The Apple store lasted a few months before they knocked it on the head by announcing that everything in it was free. It brought out the worst in people who reportedly stampeded and fought to get their hands on kaftans and beaded garments. In the ugly scene that day, they even ripped out the shelving and flooring. That was the end of the Apple Store.

Apple’s idea that anyone who has a talent should just send in their stuff or turn up at the door showed another level of naivety. Like every record company and publisher, then and now, they were inundated with the bad, the ugly and the untalented. Of the handful of new acts they did pick up, only Mary Hopkin, Badfinger and James Taylor amounted to anything and they’d been discovered by the Beatles themselves, not from the slush pile of submissions.

Lennon showed admirable idealism in a 1968 interview about their business plans, for championing the unheard talented, creative masses, but also revealed his ignorance when he said that the Beatles were also going to be involved in “…what you call it, manufacturing …or something”. They really had no idea. Less than a year later Lennon admitted that if Apple continued to lose money at the rate it was, “We’d be broke in three months.”

Their decisions were bad and the implementation poor. But looking again at the ideas, they are actually very sound indeed.

The Apple Boutique was the first store of what is now an accepted concept. A shop that sells multi-cultural clothing and World music. Unheard of in 1968 and now everywhere.

The idea of encouraging talent, to give it the break it deserves is a magnificent idea. They just went about it the wrong way by using the old methods of opening the floodgate with no thought to how to manage it. Compare it with the different ideas of running initiative in schools or even television talent contests such as the X Factor. They have similar aims, but more manageable processes.

When I do my creativity talks and training, or my book writing workshops, one of the common ‘problems’ people have is that they say they ‘have too many ideas’.

So the problem is not, ‘not having a clue’, it’s more like being able to make the right choice from your ideas, to do the right thing at the right time.

The answer to this problem is easier than you might imagine: you chose the idea that you feel you can do best, that you will enjoy the most and that will give the greatest reward (in whatever measurement you choose to measure success, be it fulfillment, money or whatever).

We need to realise that we shouldn’t flitter to the glitter of the next and most brightly glimmering exciting looking idea. We should expand and innovate around our core and make the jump into something completely new only when it too has a solid foundation, just like the thing we’re leaping from.

This is the problem the Beatles had. They had too many ideas that all sounded to them as brilliant as every single idea they came up with. The mistake they made was to jump into these crazy ideas without looking where they were leaping.

The Beatles diversion into ‘business’ with Apple Corps showed them, eventually, that they were very, very good at making music. But little else. Sometimes we need to realise that it’s no bad thing to be very, very good at doing just the one big thing. If you’re going to expand into new areas, get the talent in to help so you don’t take your eye off the ball that you can play so well.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Creativity and the Beatles

This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.

9 reasons why your business needs to be more like John Lennon


John Lennon ink drawing 1967

John Lennon from 1967 by Ayd Instone

John Lennon may have left us 31 years ago, but his legacy is not only alive and well – it’s making a lot of money.

• It has an annual income of over £10M which adds to the existing £400M already banked.

• Lennon is number one in the world for rock memorabilia. Any handwritten lyrics usually sell for in excess of £400,000. In June 2010, handwritten lyrics to A Day in the Life sold for £810,000. His simple line drawings sell for around £4000

• 1 million people visit Liverpool each year to follow the Beatles trail, spending around £48M while they’re there.

• There are over 5000 books on Lennon currently in print. There are numerous stage musicals, plays and tribute acts performing around the world.

You may scoff and say, “of course there’s money, he’s an icon, a legend, due in part to the obvious fact that he’s dead. It’s not like my business at all, a completely different thing.”

But you’d be wrong. Just think about what that really means…

The aim of any business is to make money and the aim of any business owner is for that business to make money without them being there. Lennon has achieved that.

He did, in fact achieve it in his lifetime and were he alive and well today he would be making even more money. The Beatles were repeatedly offered $1M in the mid 1970s to reform, even just for one day. They couldn’t be bothered. In one such offer, they were asked live on a television show, just to turn up to the studio before the show finished. Oddly, Paul McCartney was visiting John in New York at the time. The story goes, they got as far as putting their coats on, but then, feeling a bit tired, decided to stay in and order pizza instead.

But let’s put to one side the thoughts of Lennon and the Beatles being gods with the Midas touch, leave for a moment the wonderful music and the messages of peace and love and look at some of the practical aspects that have turned John Lennon from rock ‘n’ roll performer into a massive, profitable business empire.

Lennon’s legacy is a type of business that if we weren’t clouded with the magic and beauty of his original product: entertainment and the fact that so many of us equate creativity with some other purpose other than making money, we’d see what it is. It’s a franchise.

The Lennon franchise includes those heritage tours, the museums and exhibitions, the sales of his artwork and writing, the repackaging of his back catalogue plus the ever expanding business in tribute acts, musicals, biopics and books created by an ever increasing pool of fans, friends and relatives. They may all working to keep the name alive but in the process have created  a branded merchandise franchise not too different to George Lucas’s ever expanding Star Wars (do you remember when it was just a film?) or even, if I can bring myself to say it, MacDonald’s.

There are some key choices that Lennon made, as part of the Beatles and after that helped to grow the Beatles, and then his own solo success. He also made more big, and more devastatingly bad decisions in his short career than the rest of us usually make in a lifetime.

Here are 9 great decisions and actions he used to great effect:

1. Choose one niche, do one thing really well, irrespective of what everyone else is doing

It’s hard to believe now, but when the Beatles performed their peculiar version of Rock ‘n’ Roll to audiences in Liverpool and then Hamburg in 1960 to 1962 they had chosen an obscure and almost irrelevant out-of-date musical style. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a fad that had lasted from 1957 to 1959, mainly imported from America by the likes of Bill Haley and Elvis. Many of the other acts we know about today in the pantheon of the genre were not too widely known and by 1960, rock ‘n’ roll had all but vanished to be replaced by crooning pretty boys singing safe, boring Tin Pan Alley formula songs. The Beatles chose what they liked and what they were good at, irrespective of market forces. They were told by the record company Decca, “groups with guitars are on the way out…” and they took no notice.

2. Appoint people to your board who are better than you

The American author and speaker Bill Stainton puts it best in his book about the Best Decisions the Beatles Ever Made where he points out what bigger and decision could a teenager like Lennon could make than to allow a cleverer, more talented, prettier musician into his own band with whom he’d have to share the limelight with? Lennon knew that the Beatles would be better with McCartney. His ambition and decision making process was not clouded by pride.

3. Charm the media with natural wit – not a fake persona

One of the keys to the Beatles immense success was the way they charmed the World’s media. Lennon was the best at it. It worked because he was always himself. Whereas McCartney was always awkward and embarrassed in front of the cameras, Lennon appeared natural and honest. He could be cruel, cheeky and very funny. The Beatles became quickly seen as young men of interest and influence, not just grinning pop singers. Their opinions were sought on a variety of intellectual topics that before the Beatles appeared, would be unthinkable to ask a mere singer or musician. Lennon’s honesty and integrity came across and it connected people to him.

4. Bring your interests and expertise into your money making products and services to make them more unique and more compelling

The towering beacons of the 1960s were undoubtedly the Beatles and Bob Dylan. What’s fascinating is how they admired, hated, loved and influenced each other. Lennon inspired Dylan to expand his music arrangements into new areas and Dylan inspired Lennon to expand his lyrics into new areas. Dylan couldn’t understand how Lennon could write such interesting, deep, funny and clever prose in his two books (In His Own Write, 1964 and A Spaniard in the Works, 1965) and yet kept that use of language, wit and allegory out of his song lyrics. Literary reviewers had likened the poems in In His Own Write to Edward Lear. High praise. And yet Lennon was still writing songs about banal topics as ‘diamonds and rings’.

Lennon took this observation seriously. The first results were the introspective coded lyrics of I’m A Loser (Beatles For Sale, 1964) and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Help!, 1965). These were followed by the creation of songs whose theme was not romantic love such as The Word (Rubber Soul, 1965) and the mighty Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966). From then on, Lennon’s songs explored obscure themes of existence and thoughtful psychology with only the exception of songs directed inspired by his relationship with Yoko. Look at the internal questioning of Strawberry Fields Forever, the dreamlike Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the wordplay of I Am the Walrus and the surreal imagery of Happiness is a Warm Gun.

5. Be prolific

From 1963 to 1966 the Beatles averaged every year two national tours and a world tour, 3 to 4 number one singles, 2 top charting EPs, 2 number one albums, a film and a few short promo films, a Christmas show, numerous tv appearances and a weekly radio show, every year. That’s prolific.

6. When you have nailed your first key product or service, move onto the next natural one. Constantly change by evolving

Having conquered the hit song, Lennon and McCartney started selling their spare songs and writing songs for other performers to sing. This increased their earnings considerably. Lennon then entered the world of book publishing with his collection of funny surreal verse, another win. Then they entered the movie business producing four hit films, A Hard Days Night (1964), Help! (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968) and Let It Be (1970). The Beatles left frustration and feelings of inadequacy with other rock musicians in their wake. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was frustrated with his own groups inability to change and evolve their sound as quickly as as unexpectedly as the Beatles. There was a secret competition to out-do each others albums that came to a head when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band causing Brian Wilson to give up and have a nervous breakdown. He shelved the Beach Boys album Smile (it was finally released in 2011) feeling it wasn’t enough. He knew that the Beatles sound was constantly evolving. “Each Beatle album sounded different” he said.

7. If it’s boring, stop doing it

Like everyone of his generation, Lennon wanted to be a film star, among other things. After getting the taste for it in the first two Beatle films, he agreed to be in Richard Lester’s How I Won the War in 1966. He described the experience as being “as boring as hell” and would not appear in a movie again (bar the Beatles own biopic, Let It Be.)

8. Marketing is simple if you keep it simple

Lennon was a genius at marketing. Just think about the ‘Bed in for Peace’ from 1969. It’s still talked about today, 42 years later.

9. Seek out new experiences and new muses

John Lennon ink drawing 1974

John Lennon by Ayd Instone

John had a number of creative breakdowns, each of which he recovered from with something new. The first was perhaps after the whirlwind of touring as a performing Beatle came to an abrupt end in 1966. He, like the others, felt defined by being a live performer with a full schedule. What was he to do now? After throwing himself into the red herring of film acting, Lennon and the Beatles found that experimenting in the recording studio wold give them a new direction. It worked and a new level of creativity was reached.

The next breakdown was sometime in late 1967. Sgt. Pepper had been a massive success, as had every other piece of music that had come from the studio experimentation. But by the end of the year Lennon was creatively drained. His home life was at its lowest ebb. The increased use of drugs was having an effect on his ego resulting in a massive loss of self confidence and feeling of failure. Added to this was the death of the Beatles manager and Lennon’s close friend, Brian Epstein. He was questioning the meaning of everything and losing his purpose.

There were two parts to his escape from this low. One was the getaway: the Beatles retreat to India. Intended as a spiritual retreat, it re-fueled each Beatle’s creativity, composing so many songs that their next LP would have to be a double, The Beatles aka The White Album (songs from India also made it onto the Let It Be and Abbey Road albums the following year as well as onto Lennon, McCartney and Harrison albums for many years to come.)

The other aspect to Lennon’s creative revival was Yoko. Many people cite Lennon’s pairing with Yoko as the worst thing that could have happened, and the reason for the Beatles split. The truth is more complex. It’s true that Yoko replaced Paul as Lennon’s main collaborator. It did mean the fab four would never be the same, but that had been true throughout their career anyway. Yoko started off as John’s new muse, his inspiration, then became his competition and then his business manager and finally Empress of his legacy.

After the Beatles split, each Beatle suffered heavily with lack of purpose, low self confidence, doubt and criticism. In many ways John suffered most, in part because George and Ringo came off, initially, so well in comparison. It must have confused and galled Lennon that Harrison, freed from the restrictions of two songs per LP in the dominated world of Lennon-McCartney, had just released a triple LP of critically acclaimed material. Ringo became (briefly) the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Paul carried on being Paul, now teamed with his new wife Linda, and was having melodic hit after melodic hit. And yet there he was, the instigator and powerhouse of Beatlemania, struggling to enter the charts, estranged from a hostile press, addicted to Heroin and within a few years separated from his second wife. (He and Yoko nearly divorced, their 18 month separation was re-branded as ‘The Lost Weekend’ by Lennon after their reconciliation of 1974).

His recovery from all this took the rest of his life to turn around. First, during The Lost Weekend, he was re-aquatinted with old friends and collaborators, healed old wounds and wrote and performed for fun. He hung out with Ringo, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Bowie, Elton John and Mick Jagger, but it was his oldest friend that would seal his fate to create the final chapter in his life. He’d been seeing Paul McCartney on and off in 1974 (they even had a jam together with Harry Nilsson and Stevie Wonder). John was ready for a reunion and Paul had the choice, after a conversation he’d had with Yoko, that he could get the Beatles back together, or, relay how Yoko felt and what John needed to do to heal their marriage. Paul chose to help John and Yoko. They got back together in 1974. The Beatles reunion was postponed for the next opportunity, but by the time it was planed to happen in 1981, it was too late, John had gone.

But returning to John’s creativity breakthrough, it needed two elements, missing from the early 70s, which he finally found in the last years of his life. One was security. At last his finances were in order. His lifestyle was healthy, his home life was stable. He has a proud ‘househusband’ and father, bringing up his son Sean. The second was adventure. he sailed a boat single-handed through a storm in Bermuda and he thought of returning to the stage with new material (plus greatest hits of his solo and his Beatle hits) in the new year of 1981. The first fruits of his renewed creativity gave us the LP Double Fantasy and the posthumous tracks on Milk and Honey. There would have been much more to come if history had taken a different course on 8th December 1980.

In the next article I’ll discuss more of the best business decisions Lennon ever made plus look at some of the most devastating bad ones that almost brought the myth, and the money, crashing down.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


9th December 1980


John Lennon 1968 by Ayd Instone

My drawing of John by me aged 16

We were getting ready to go to school one cold Tuesday morning. We had the radio on, which was on most mornings. Beatle songs were playing. I think it was my Mum who said it first, “John Lennon’s been shot”.  It was 9th December 1980. I was nearly 10. I listened in for details. Was he going to be ok? What had happened? John had been in the news recently anyway as he’d just released a new LP and single after being hidden away for five years.

Then it was made clear. He was gone. My eyes welled up. I’d been a bit choked when Elvis had died three years earlier, but that was more of just picking up on the cultural feel that was around and watching the news. This was personal. I didn’t want to go to school. It didn’t seem right. Especially as they were playing non-stop Beatles and John’s tunes all day on the radio.

So I went to school on that cold and damp day, depressed and sad, with the tune of Woman playing in my head, thinking about Sean Lennon who was five years younger than me and wondered what he must be thinking.

In 1979 Beatlemania gripped me and my mates as the BBC broadcasted all the Beatles films: A Hard Days Night, footage of the Washington gig in 1964, the 1965 Shea Stadium concert, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine and Let it Be. (This was the last showing to date for Shea Stadium and Let it Be.) It was amazing. My friend Sean and I formed a band, calling it the Bronze Beatles. I had got a guitar the previous Christmas but couldn’t play yet and we made a drum kit from chocolate boxes, drew guitars and sang songs from Help! (Sean’s Dad had the LP). I wanted nothing more than to be a Beatle and live in Help!

That Christmas my brother and I got a tape recorder for Christmas. We had two blank tapes. I filled them up by recording my dad’s Beatle LPs and singles by placing the take recorder as close to the record player’s speaker as possible and telling my brother to be quiet.

In January 1980 my Mum and Dad hosted a Burns night super. My Dad had got some Highland music records and he wanted them on cassette tape to play in the stereo system they’d borrowed. He had to tape over my copy of Help! It would be five years later later before I’d saved up enough money to buy my own vinyl copy. But my Dad got me a tape of the Beatles Rock ‘n’ Roll Music volume two to make up for it which gave me some new songs I’d never heard before such as I’m Down, Any Time at All and the brilliant Hey Bulldog.

Up until then I’d only had access to a few Beatles tunes. My Dad had three Beatle LPs and I inherited (or rather, I sneaked out of his collection and into mine). There was Beatles for Sale (their 4th LP from late 1964), With the Beatles, their 2nd LP, from 1963 and Revolver, their 7th, from 1966. He also had the EP Twist and Shout which contained four songs stripped away from their first LP, Please Please Me and the singles She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand and Day Tripper/We Can Work it Out.

My Dad had a Bush single speaker mono record player. It played 45s, 33&1/3s and 78 rpm records. You could stack up a few singles on the spindle and it would play one and then another would drop into place.

John Lennon 1968 by Ayd InstoneI discovered the record player at a very early age and rifled through my Dad’s collection of records. He had a handful of singles, most from the early sixties. Quite a few LPs, mostly Johnny Mathis, Herb Albert, the odd Sinatra and Dylan plus a bit of classical. I ignored all these. I was drawn to those four faces that stared out at me from the gatefold cover of Beatles for Sale. I knew that they were the same faces as those on With the Beatles. I found out they were called John, Paul, George and Ringo, but there was nothing on the sleeve to say which was which so I had to guess. My mind worked out that since they looked younger on With the Beatles and that it was in black and white, it must be the first album, perhaps preceded by Twist and Shout – also in black and white, but smaller. Then must come Beatles for Sale because that was in colour and a gatefold. But what about Revolver? That was in black and white but looked quite odd. The music was slightly different too. It was 1973. I was nearly 3. I surmised that With the Beatles was the past, Beatles for Sale was the present and Revolver was from the future.

An earlier thought I had about the Beatles was that my Dad was John Lennon. The evidence was the photo on Twist and Shout looked just like him and the message of We Can Work it Out  I felt expressed he ethos of my Dad. That was obviously a short lived theory.

It wasn’t until around 1976 that I found out that the Beatles weren’t still together. The re-issue singles were in the chart, as was Lennon’s solo Stand By Me and Imagine singles. From that point, like every other Beatle fan in the world, I’d been hoping and longing for that reunion.

John Lennon, 1974

John Lennon, 1974

John Lennon, 1967

John Lennon, 1967

Years later we learnt that John had planned to visit the UK in early 1981 and the four Beatles had agreed upon a reunion recording, perhaps a performance too, that year and had sworn secrecy on the details. All hope was dashed with the news on that December day.

I’ve read loads of accounts of the Beatles and their lives in the hundreds of books published on the topic. There is a strange feeling reading the details of that fateful day, about John’s sessions at the Record Plant studio, of the killer’s meeting with Lennon earlier in the day where he signed a copy of Double Fantasy (there’s a photo of the two of them together). As I read the details and it all becomes more and more real I start to feel as though I can change the outcome somehow, as if the history of has not been decided. I meet John outside the recording studio and urge him not to go home straight away that night, then I wait near the Dakota building as dusk falls and spot the killer, tackle him, call the police, anything.

But history doesn’t work like that. It felt as though there was so much more of the Beatles story to tell, so much more songs to come. As it must be the same as with anyone who loses someone, anyone, it feels as though we’re cheated by being given an alternative, grimmer history that the one we were promised. People older than me have said that the Sixties finally ended that day and the dreams of their youth were over. You can mourn a man you never met if what he stood for was an important personal idea. It was that idea that died that night.

John Lennon 1965 by Ayd InstoneSome people say the Beatles, and Lennon, aren’t important. They’re wrong. Derek Taylor described them as ‘the 20th Century’s greatest romance’ and he’s right. We still don’t know why or how it all happened, but it did, and for a short while, many, many people in the world shared something. It represented probably the last great collective memory, a potent beam of optimism, hope and fun, that touched so many lives in so many ways.

On 8th December 1980 the world was reminded that we are all mortal, ugly, vicious, spiteful and powerless. But there is still hope. We can still put on a Beatle record and find that the magic is still there, divorced from time and space, separated from the mortal men that created it.

There IS joy to be sought and cherished in life no matter what undesired twists and turns we face.

Creativity and the Beatles

This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.

Read more here.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


Imagine and the Millennium Prayer


John Lennon beatlesIn 1999 I wrote an article about the two songs released at Christmas that year which competed for the number one slot in the UK single charts.

They were John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘The Millennium Prayer’ (the Lords Prayer sang to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’).

As we approach the 31st anniversary of John Lennon’s untimely death, I thought it might be worth looking at again.

Both songs were saying very different things to very different people – or were they?

Both are very simplistic musically and lyrically, presenting quite complex ideas with enormous consequences in straightforward everyday language.

‘Imagine’ is John Lennon’s most famous song, but by no means his best selling (that honour goes to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’). It was composed a year after the Beatles split, at his house in Ascot in 1971, becoming the title track of his second solo album. Some of the lyric came from his wife, Yoko’s book ‘Grapefruit’. The song stands out on the album like a healthy thumb on a sore fist – its plea for world peace is at odds with the bitter and cynical songs that follow it. It was not released as a single at the time and had to wait until 1975 when it was released to promote a Lennon greatest hits compilation (reaching number 6). It was re-released following his death in 1980, taking the number 1 slot for four weeks in January 1981.

In April 1970 Lennon had walked out on the most successful and popular entertainment phenomena in history. After leaving the Beatles, he began the process of deconstructing his cheeky, friendly mop-top image, much to the disappointment of his fans. John had married Yoko One, an avant guard Japanese American artist in 1969 – from then on the two were never seen apart. John began his new role of dressing in white and parading around the world outraging his fans and critics alike by proclaiming peace and ‘War is Over – If You Want it’.

His message, like the lyric to ‘Imagine’ was simple and by his own admission, childish. If everyone stayed in bed for a week, there’d be no more war – Lennon knew he was no politician (who he described as ‘all insane’) but he knew he had a presence and the attention of the world’s youth. Outraged by the crisis of the late sixties and Britain and America’s involvement in Biafra and Vietnam he began his bed-in for peace campaign.

Born out of clownish stupidity John described himself and Yoko as the ‘Laurel and Hardy of the peace movement’ seeing their role as drawing the world’s attention to the issues then allowing the serious peacemakers who lacked his public appeal to take over. John wanted to fight the enemies of peace with humour, vowing he would never take himself seriously, because he said, ‘all the serious people like Ghandi, Kennedy and Martin Luther King got shot’.

After ‘Imagine’ was released, the World Church approached Lennon to ask to use the song as their theme. Initially he was interested until they asked to change the line, ‘Imaging no religion’ to ‘Imagine one religion’. Lennon flew into a rage saying that they had misunderstood the whole point of the song. But what was ‘the point of the song’?

John refers to himself as being regarded by the world as a dreamer. He knows that the sentiment of ‘peace’ sounds idealistic and even foolish. He then informs us that he’s not the only one and that someday hopes that we, the listener will join with him and all the ‘dreamers’ so that the world will live as one, in peace. To me that’s the most important part of the song. A personal request for us all, when we’re ready, to join those who dream of world peace.

The Beatles had been involved with religion before. In 1967 they attended a talk by the Marharishi Mahesh Yogi. Ringo never really got stuck into the eastern philosophy (he didn’t like the food) and Paul’s Catholic upbringing made him feel uncomfortable with it. George and John however dived in head first. George was the first to renounce drugs in late ’67 in favour of meditation. John’s affair with the Hindu mystic was short lived, pulling out of their stay in India after discovering that the Marharishi had urges that were certainly very human.

A year earlier had come the first sign of Beatlemania turning against them. John had mentioned in an article in a British magazine interview that he believed the Beatles were now more popular than Jesus. In Britain no-one took any notice, but the southern states of America went into a frenzy of burning Beatle records in numerous bonfire points culminating in the Beatles receiving a death threat from the Klu Klux Klan. In a very uncomfortable interview, John had to explain to a press conference what he had meant, and apologise. He said, ‘I didn’t mean that we were better, or greater than Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong and now it’s all this. I use the term Beatles as I see them…If I has said television was more popular than Jesus I might have got away with it.’

John’s involvement with the peace movement was always from a common sense point of view. He was attacked by critics for seemingly criticising protestors involved in the riots in 1968. His Beatles song ‘Revolution’ says that instead of violence, ‘You’d better free your minds instead’. In an interview around that time he said, ‘Ok, so you bring down the government, what then? You assassinate the leaders, what then?’ Lennon’s view was that it was the system that needed attacking, not the people and to attack the system people’s minds needed changing on an individual basis, a personal belief that he had found lacking in eastern mysticism.

Lennon gave up his peace protests in 1975 after the birth of his son Sean. Now living in America, he had been threatened by the CIA who had been bugging his telephone and had agents following him around over a period of two years. With the risk of him losing his permit to stay in America, he wrote to all the movements that he had been involved with, including his record company, saying that he was withdrawing from public life to bring up his son.

Lennon said in 1970, ‘Jesus was all right. It’s his disciples twisting it that ruins it for me.’ At that time he was surprised to hear that his close friend Bob Dylan had become a Christian. And yet in his last interview (two days before his death in 1980) he talked about studying early Christian gnosticism and had become an avid viewer of television evangelism.

Taken alone, ‘Imagine’ appears to describe a humanist utopia, but in the context of Lennon’s life and his other, rather large, body of work, it proves to be a reductionistic prose that, like the Lord’s Prayer, hints at a greater goodness. It would take many more words to explain fully but through gentle well chosen passages, stirring strings and a haunting piano, it manages to capture the attention of today’s impatient minds, perhaps just long enough for them to consider the message.

Lennon’s work alternately switched from proclaiming peace and love to proclaiming his own humanity and frailty. The line in the song, ‘Image there’s no heaven’ is presented as though he believes that it exists, like he believes there are countries and possessions. What he wants to achieve from the song is the removal of obstacles that prevent world peace and that prevent us living for today, the same message as ‘give us today our daily bread’ – we cannot eat yesterday’s or tomorrow’s bread, only today’s.

The message of ‘Imagine’ is the same as of most of the Beatles songs, essentially the same as the Lord’s Prayer, that of universal, eternal love.

In 1967 the Beatles were chosen to open the first satellite broadcast around the world to 300 million viewers. John wrote a special song for the occasion called ‘All You Need is Love’. George Harrison said of the song and the broadcast as ‘an opportunity to do PR for… God’. It wasn’t that he really thought that you don’t need food or water, only love, but instead that we actually do have everything already, but what we really need, the thing that is missing, is love.

What would Lennon make of his song being used for the Millennium? From his reaction to other things in his life we can safely assume that his reaction would not be the one we’d expect. Having his song used for a bland aimless celebration of nothing he would certainly have disapproved. But if in minds of the hedonistic aimless revellers at the white elephant of the £789 million Millennium Dome, it it stirred some thoughts on peace, he would have been pleased.

Cliff Richard’s ‘The Millennium Prayer’ was released by an independent record label, Papillon Records, after Richard’s own label EMI refused to release it. Proceeds of the single went to aid charity Children’s Promise. It was panned by the critics and many radio stations refused to play it. A 2004 VH1 poll labeled it the worst number one record of all time. (Imagine had been ranked by Rolling Stone as the third greatest song of all time)

The Millennium Prayer won the Ivor Novello award for the best selling single of 1999. It was Richard’s fourteenth number 1 hit, hitting the top spot on 4th December 1999 and was the third highest-selling single of his career. The re-release of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ sat behind it at number 3. Both singles were beaten to the Christmas and new millennium number 1 spot by Westlife with their ‘I Have A Dream’/’Seasons in the Sun’.

Creativity and the Beatles

This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.

Read more here.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


The Imaginary Audience and the Ingredients for Creativity


I’ve written nearly 500 songs. The lyrics for the first 400 or so are typed up and bound in a book. The original lyrics and chords are contain in dozens on hardback notebooks, usually written in multicoloured ink, dating back to 1985. All my hundreds of cassette tapes and recordings have been remastered onto 96 CDs, all with nice covers.

All my music on CDs

I haven’t written too many songs of late. And there’s a backlog of unfinished songs from the past few years, some good ones, crying out to be recorded. But recording seems to take so much time these days. It’s hard to get my old band mates together. I often don’t get my guitar out of its case between shows that often. What’s going on? Obviously I’ve got a young family now. But has my creativity run out of steam? Am I just too ‘busy’? Or are there other, missing ingredients that I once had, that are now lost?

I’m not boasting that I’ve written 500 brilliant songs. Some of them are an embarrassment, like this one, See You at the Top.

Some, which I derided at the time, have a certain quality now, years later. What is interesting to note is that because I wrote them down and gave them a ‘number’, they are all different. I didn’t re-write the same song over and over and I didn’t re-write someone else’s song; each of them are unique.

Have a listen to The Land of Dreams. It had the best lyrics I’d ever written and yet we preferred it without any at all, so here it is as an instrumental. That’s just me and Jase just after we both turned 21.

I have a particular fondness for the ones that were composed with others, where John or Jase contributed a line or a chord or where Twan and I would sit down and craft a hit tune for our forthcoming CD or record something really weird to send in to Nightshift (Oxford’s music magazine) to see what they would make of it.

Try this for weirdness. We randomly arranged fridge magnet words and used them as the lyrics as an etherial stream of consciousness. It got a good review: Ghost Writing.

Dreamweaver - The World Turns All Around CDHere’s a more serious example, The World Turns All Around. It was written when I was 20. Here’s the original solo version.

And here’s the band versionwhich was our second biggest seller. I was 26. Our biggest seller, incidentally, was this song.

Going back even earlier, I would write a new batch of songs and record them as my new album just to impress Jase, just to beat what he could do. Then he’d do the same and I’d be amazed at what he’d come up with so I’d go back and wrote a new album of songs with even deeper themes, cleverer lyrics, catchy or haunting tunes and so we’d go on, out-doing each other. My favourite from this era is Pipedream. Here’s the original solo version from 1991 and a live version with Twan on mandolin in 2002.

What did we write our songs about? Probably what every teenage boy starts writing songs about: girls. Usually particular girls. In my case most of the early songs were about the same girl (she never knew). Can you write a dozen, very different songs all about the same girl? Of course you can, because she wasn’t a real person, or rather she was based on a real person but became something else: a muse.

Here’s one of those songs: Dreamcatcher

Here’s another, with the lyrics I’m most proud of as the songs began to get more sophisticated and eclectic, describing abstract feelings, emotions and consciousness. This is Never Forever.

At college almost every one of my friends was a musician, and most were songwriters too. It was like being in a stable of artists like how I imagined London to be in the 1960s with all the bands hanging out together with Mick and Keith from the Stones popping into the Beatles’ Revolver recording sessions and John and Paul returning the favour on the Stones’ We Love You recording. There was a sense of belonging.

Inspired by Syd Barrett, George and I spent two days immersed in what we thought was the founder member of Pink Floyd’s mindset, to attempt to write and record a batch of songs just like his. We did it, and the results are still impressive today. We were both 17. A year later John, Mark and I (then called The Jinx) wrote and recorded this Pink Floyd style song, Soul Survivor. The inspiration for which was the cover of a Brian Aldiss science fiction novel (You’ll see why when you see the cover for Last Orders).

Of course, between the ages of 17 and 22 is the time in your life when you have the most time on your hands. No wonder it was my most prolific era. I had no responsibilities except for failing my A levels (because they came second after the music). Plus we all got by without the pressure of having to earn much money.

Back in 1980, John Lennon felt as though he’d left the buzz, the wild times and the charts behind. He’d been writing the odd song here and there but since 1975 he’d been concentrating on his family and bringing up his son Sean. He felt that the magic had left him somehow and that his creativity had nothing to hang onto. There seemed to be nothing to fan the flames. By all accounts, he was generally happy, after all, he wanted for nothing at that point.

It was during a sailing trip around Bermuda when he re-discovered his mojo. A storm came up and the crew where unwell and unable to sail the ship. It could have been certain disaster but for the 39 year old Beatle who, with rain lashing at his body, sailed back to safety. He felt ‘alive’ again. The next day the songs came thick and fast. The first ones to be finished went out on what was to be his last album, Double Fantasy, in October 1980 just after his 40th birthday. He continued to write and record right up until the night of the 8th of December when a gunman cut short his creativity and silenced the voice of a generation.

If we analysis all this we have a few ingredients that are needed to be a prolific songwriter, and in fact, to be prolifically creative at anything. Here is what I think, from my experience, is needed:

• The fun of collaboration
• A muse
• Heathy competition
• A sense of community
• A particular goal
• Time
• A lust for life

But there’s one more element needed that I’ve failed to mention properly. One of the most dehabilitating thoughts and feelings when it comes to your own creativity is a lack of confidence in your abilities. This can often be worded as ‘people don’t think I’m any good’, or ‘who’s interested in my stuff?’

I find that a real block to writing a song today. Who’s interested in my stuff? I mean really. I’m not 17 anymore. I haven’t had massive chart success. There are millions of songwriters out there. I’ve got no fanbase. Who gives a fig? What’s the point?

What’s happening here is that there is a need for an audience for our creativity. We want approval, recognition or at least acknowledgment that we have done something. After all, art isn’t art until its put in a frame and hung on the wall. It’s not art when it’s in a drawer or in the attic.

The irony is that at this point when I think I don’t have an audience, more people have viewed my band’s song Whatever Turns You On which has had 527 views on YouTube, than ever saw all of our gigs put together. My song about the psychic octopus has had 3574 views.

In a way we’re like a post-modern Velvet Underground. That ‘famous’ band featuring Lou Reed only ever played in their home town to small audiences. By the time the world had caught on they’d all but split up.

The other odd irony is that when I was at my most prolific and when we were in the band, pushing our own boundaries of song composition and performance, ‘who’ did we think we were doing it for? It certainly wasn’t to just impress the twenty or so people who may have turned up to one of those gigs. It wasn’t even to impress potential record promoters, managers and talent scouts as we knew they were not likely to be there.

In our heads, we were at Shea Stadium. We were on the Ed Sullivan Show. We were on the Apple rooftop. In our minds eye we were doing a spot on Wogan or Parkinson, on TFI Friday, on Ready Steady Go!, on the Tube, The Old Grey Whistle Test and of course on Top of the Pops. We imagined our own audience and wrote and performed for them. By doing that we were constantly trying to beat our personal best for our ideal audience.

So if you don’t feel you have the audience, or the right audience for your creative project, or have a block or that feeling of being uninspired, whether its songwriting or a book you have in mind, or something else entirely, look to see how many of the ingredients listed above you have.

Think of the ideal audience for your work and play to them. You never know, they may just turn up…

Here’s one more song to end with. Play this on Saturday Morning

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: www.aydinstone.com


How to write songs (or create just about anything)


John Lennon and Paul McCartneyThere’s an important difference between most classically trained musicians and self-taught musicians that gives us an interesting clue into our creativity. It’s to do with the difference between prescriptive practice and trial and error…

Few self-taught musicians play classical music, they tend to play more popular styles. The reason for that is that classical playing is difficult and requires dedication and discipline that, in most cases, needs tuition to get right. Pop music on the other hand has few rules and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what they are.

Most songwriters and music composers are of the self-taught pop music kind. In fact, being a self taught pop musician almost always leads to composition, whereas much fewer classical players write their own music. (Just about every fledgling rock guitarist has written a batch of songs within 6 months of learning to play. The average member of any orchestra, no matter how accomplished, may never put pen to paper).

The reason is that the two types of playing, or rather the journey that arrives at the types of playing, use different kinds of learning and result in different types of creative expression.

With the classical musician, the task is to master the instrument in the proper way, to learn the language of music to be able to read it and perform it with accuracy and then hopefully, with personality.

With a pop musician, the task is to knock out your favourite tunes to entertain yourself and others as quickly as possible.

With the classical musician, the task of learning heads towards perfection through practice. Mistakes are corrected and eventually eradicated.

With the pop musician, mistakes arrive quickly due to ignorance or lack of technical ability on how the favourite song should be played. But instead of correcting, some of these errors are kept in to give a deliberately imperfect performance of the song. Getting ‘the gist’ of it gives a much quicker result.

With the classical musician, the task of playing does not naturally lead to original composition whereas with the pop musician, original composition is the natural destination. When the pop musician strikes the wrong chord, or sings the wrong note or lyric and that mistake sounds ‘interesting’ they have, due to that mistake, become a songwriter.

The thing that first impressed Paul McCartney when he first met John Lennon when John was playing with his band The Quarrymen at the school fete on 6th July 1957, was that John clearly didn’t know all the words to the rock and roll songs they were performing and because of that he made new ones up that sounded roughly right. He was already a proto-songwriter.

The driving force for many pop musicians isn’t that different from classical musicians: they both start off wanting to perform a particular piece with perfection.

With Paul McCartney, he wanted to sound like his heroes such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. His early inadequacies meant that he could get close, but not all the way. Those performances that were close, but slightly different then easily became modified into new songs in their own right. They sounded similar to the inspiration but had a different personality. This inability of Lennon and McCartney to write songs exactly like their heroes is what gave us that amazing Beatle sound and those brilliant new songs.

As the sixties progressed and McCartney became such an amazingly proficient musician, he could replicate his favourite songs exactly and easily so had to draw upon new sources and methods to create new songs. You can hear the transition in 1965/66 with the songs like Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby. The reason he could move on to write in a different way was because of the way he had learnt to play, by trial and error. The resulting connections in his neural pathways gave rise to a whole new direction for his composition.

With a pop musician, most new compositions arise from the happy coincidence of unusual chord progressions, melody or rhythm combinations. This is because the way they learnt to engage with music was in a way that allowed errors, and, allowed those errors to be incorporated and developed.

In business we need to think more like the pop musician rather than the classical musician. Our aim is not to aim for a prefect rendition as an end in itself, but to aim for perfection as a method that throws up interesting diversions that could very well lead to a fantastic innovation.

Creativity and the Beatles

This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.

Read more here.

Book Ayd to speak at your event.
For more interesting info see:

www.aydinstone.com