I went for a walk in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, which was one of the first garden cemeteries in the country with walking paths, trees, shrubs, and beautiful views. Its residents include Civil Rights pioneers, sports legends and famous writers. I took a few friends with me for an experiment in thinking between things, sharing ideas and looking outside our sometimes narrow perspectives. Oakland Cemetery provided the backdrop I was seeking. A place to become immersed, inspired and free from the distractions of the modern world. Its cozy paths, stunning stone architecture and century-old trees presented an interestingly profound sense of peace. For about two hours, my friends and I walked through the concrete paths between the rows of headstones as the sun slowly sank giving way to Atlanta’s evening skyline. Occasionally, we would find a small nook to sit and explore a deeper segment of one of the topics that emerged. There were no wrong answers, dumb questions or subjects limited by political divide or correctness. Through radical open-mindedness, insatiable curiosity, and patient teaching, our mission was to connect and put something back into a world that has given us so much. Protected by its large brick entrance and wrought iron gates, we walked together without expectation deeply inspired by Oakland Cemetery’s surroundings and history.
My walk in the cemetery that afternoon continued to echo a chorus with a harmony that was becoming richer with a presence of sound that was hard to ignore. It reminded me of the importance of present interaction with uplifting people and the giving of yourself without any expectation of return. Pure truth-seeking and exploration with similarly curious and creative minds will spark new ideas, reveal hidden paths, generate new and more thoughtful questions and fill your well with positive energy.
In 1925, Napoleon Hill wrote about the idea of a mastermind group, which is a group of peers that come together to discuss ideas from multiple perspectives. At the time, this was not an innovation, because Ben Franklin, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison all participated in and found value in mastermind groups. Hill’s approach to his own was a little different than most. He built a Council of Invisible Advisors consisting of the likes of Lincoln, Darwin, Paine, and Emerson. The reason they were invisible was that they were all dead. Hill resurrected them in a beautifully creative expression that would be questioned in 2018, but potentially earn one a label of certifiable in the early 20th century. He would imagine himself at a large table with all of his advisors circled around him. The purpose of the gathering was to delve into the meaning of his life, share ideas and concepts he’d been considering or pose questions that were resulting in professional stalemates. In order to have these unusual conversations, Hill vigorously committed to learning as much about his intellectual heroes as he could by reading about them and studying their lives. He knew so much about them that they began to seem like close friends. It registers a bit outlandish, especially for the 1920s, but this mental exercise helped him harness the power of some of the greatest minds in history.
Reading is the acquisition of material.
Synthesis is taking that material and putting it to use.
It is the transformation of knowledge into wisdom.
Picture Hill sitting at a table visibly alone, while consciously enveloped.
Consider a question he posed to the long-deceased Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Mr. Emerson, I desire to acquire from you the marvelous understanding of nature which distinguished your life. I ask that you make an impress on my subconscious mind of whatever qualities you possessed which enable you to understand and adapt yourself to the laws of nature.
– Napoleon Hill Think And Grow Rich
It still may sound crazy, but isn’t this exactly what many do in prayer? Please know that I am not making any comparison between Napoleon Hill and any religious icons, but my comparison involves the process of conversing with beings that are not physically present or alive in the biological sense. Hill was also one step ahead in understanding that peace lies in the adaptation of humanity to nature and not the other way around.
In the early days of Pixar, Ed Catmull and his close-knit team of directors, writers and producers were building a creative machine based on clear communication, personal responsibility, and pure collaboration. In fact, he once ordered a large, traditional conference table be removed in favor of a smaller, cozy square table. Anything that imposed hard limits on truth-seeking and story was swiftly removed. One of the key cogs in this machine was a group called the Braintrust. Every month or so, the group would convene to review the stories in progress and the state of the current productions. Each participant was carefully selected, had been through the process of making a film and was well experienced in their craft of storytelling. Forthrightness led the charge as this group of in-house experts approached the puzzles that come with prioritizing story while silencing ego and personal narratives. The group wasn’t meant to solve the problems or make any final decisions. It was a trusted community of like-minds that allowed solutions to emerge through thoughtful questioning and intentional listening.
If Pixar is a hospital and the movies are the patients, then the Braintrust is made up of trusted doctors … the movie’s director and producers are doctors, too. Its as if they gathered a panel of consulting experts to help find an accurate diagnosis for an extremely confounding case … Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love. If I could distill a Braintrust meeting down to its most essential ingredients, these four would be among them.
– Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
In order for a group like this to really work, the individual participants have to subscribe to the same playbook and respect the rules of the road. Pixar Director, Andrew Stanton was an early and frequent participant in these Braintrust meetings and identified a common pattern.
Here are the qualifications required: The people you invite must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put a lot of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.
– Andrew Stanton (quoted in Creativity, Inc)
Experiences like the walk in Oakland Cemetery, Hill’s Council of Invisible Advisors, and Catmull’s Braintrust all require parking your competitive mindset in a far-away place. While we are conditioned for competition through our genetic drive for survival, these are not moments for ego-driven battles to defend your belief system and perpetuate your personal narrative. In these situations, we acknowledge reliance on our ego while loosening its constraints on our actions, we listen intently, we ask thoughtful questions, and we embody an additive mindset. With these guidelines, magic will happen.
Can we really know anything with 100% certainty? Can we truly understand anything with reasonable confidence without seeing it from another perspective? Is there a better way to explore, learn and grow than to help someone else do the same? Get out there and find some willing participants, build a team, erase any expectations, leave your ego at the door and enjoy the ride.
I’m calling my friends for another walk in the cemetery.