Get Inspired – Interview: Frans Johansson

Together with my colleague Ramon Vullings, I had the chance to interview some great speakers at the Creativity World Forum (thanks Flanders DC to make this possible). We will give you the full interview that we did with Guy Kawasaki, Tom Kelley, Frans Johansson, Robin Chase and Marco Tempest. And of course we did something special. Instead of asking the ‘regular’ questions to give a summary of their talk or share some things about their latest book, we prepared 21 beercoasters with a question. The speaker could pick a number and decide which question (s)he got.

CWF Frans Johansson and Cyriel KortlevenThis is the interview with Frans Johansson. You can find his bio at the bottom of the page. And we have asked Frans to write down his mantra. You find the picture of his mantra at the end of the interview.

FRANS JOHANSSON: Let’s start with #17

Cyriel: # 17. Okay, what’s your personal approach to come up with new ideas? What do you do to get new ideas?

FRANS: Well, there’s a lot of different things; I’ll just mention a couple. I go on walks. And when I go on walks, I don’t have – I’m not talking about a purposeful walk. It’s just really I’m going to take 20 minutes, and I try to squeeze it into something. So for instance, I will step off on an earlier subway stop, and then I just need to walk back. What happens is that now my mind can quietly sort through many of the impulses that went on during the day and make any connections that way. It’s my rushed way of doing so.

I’m going to mention something that I haven’t talked about a lot, because I like your approach to these questions. It is indisputable, research clearly shows that one way to come up with ideas is to think very intensely about something and then taking a break from it. A great way to take a break is to go to the restroom. So I make sure that I just drink a lot of water. Because you go and you’re like, “Oh wow, this is a great insight.”

Of course, the couple of obvious ones is I look aggressively for ideas, both in people that are not the obvious choice – so even my company, when we hire people, we try to avoid – we do avoid any sort of standard approach to thinking about it. It’s not just because you worked with McKinsey, then come work for us.

Or other insights. For instance, I’ve resisted to – now most books are e-books, but if you look at my bookshelf, books are not in a specific order. The reason for that is because I always want to spend a little time trying to find the book I want to find. And the reason why is because all these things seem to work. Those are just some examples.

Another one I talk about in The Click Moment, actually, is what I call reject the predictable path. Part of the intersection is – this is what I talked about before, but reject the predictable path means that I’ll very consciously just say “no” to whatever is the first, second, or third solution I come up with. That forces me to come up with something else. Even if it’s a pretty good one, and I may pick it – I still want to see, can I find something else?

Cyriel: Great, different number.

FRANS: Let’s do 4.

Cyriel: Which movie have you already watched more than five times, or what’s a movie that you said “Wow”?

FRANS: Most movies I watch more than five times.

Cyriel: Okay. Or 10 times?

FRANS: I used to know all the lines to Star Wars.

Cyriel: A New Hope, or which one?

FRANS: Yeah, A New Hope, which I think is the best one.  But there are many other movies that I watch over and over and over again for various reasons. Star Wars when I was younger. I’ve seen Memento a lot. Lord of the Rings, I saw the whole trilogy I saw a total of 14 times in the theater. That was before I had kids. It was possible to do that.

Cyriel: Wow. My girlfriend is a big Lord of the Rings fan, but I don’t know if she saw them 14 times. (laughs)

FRANS: Diehard, I’ve seen that many, many, many, many, many, many, many times. There’s some movies that just sort of stand out, but those were some of the top of mind. There’s many others. Jaws, of course, which is probably my favorite movie of all time.

Cyriel: Okay, nice. Great. Different number.

Frans Johansson_CWFFRANS: Let’s do 12.

Cyriel: If your best friend wrote a book about you, what would the title be?

FRANS: You’d probably have to ask my best friend. I don’t necessarily like to talk about myself in that way.

Cyriel: Some key words that will come up? Words that probably – or chapters in the book? Or subtitles? (laughter)

FRANS: Let’s call it The Explorer. Yeah, explorer.

Cyriel: Because you can go in a lot of different directions?

FRANS: Yeah, there’s a lot of choices. There’s a lot of choices as to what one would imagine calling it. Yeah, I’m not sure. That’s a question that’s best reserved for my friend.

Cyriel: I think “The Explorer” is a very nice one. Keywords like “energy.” “The Combinator” maybe? “Cross-thinking,” “The Cross-Thinker”?

FRANS: I mean, look, the thing is that it also depends on which friends you should ask the question, right? You guys know – the fact is that one knows people in different contexts. These are the friends I grew up with in Sweden, the friends that I got to know in college, the friends that I know in New York.

Cyriel: They have totally different perspectives.

FRANS: Yeah, the command is from a different point of view, exactly. People at the business school were very surprised by the fact that I was going to write a book. People in Sweden were not, because I’d actually written a book when I was in high school – a fiction book, like a Game of Thrones book. So right there, you’re like, “Okay.” But for me it made perfect sense, but to them – depending on how you know them first, alters.

Cyriel: Another number. Let’s do two more.

FRANS: Let’s do 9.

Cyriel: Who is a hero for you, or a person who did remarkable things?

FRANS: I’ll tell you two people that I admire on habits. They are – my mom left a small southern town in North Carolina and moved to Sweden, through Germany. I think about that a lot, about what it takes to get into a different environment where everything is very, very different.

And my dad, I think about him when I think about what it means to pursue your passion. He loves two things: to write and to fish. So he started a fishing magazine. I’m like, that’s fairly straightforward and simple in terms of… and so I think that one comes to sticking to – my entire life, I’ve stuck to the idea that if I have to make a choice, I go to one that I’m passionate about, and then things will probably work out.

Sometimes you could relate it to massive financial difficulties, but it still worked out. That’s because when you do something you’re passionate about, you’re probably going to do well. You’re going to focus on it and you’re going to give it your all. I care about the messages that I’m talking about; you can probably sense that when I’m on stage.

But doing that – so that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this, aside from the company I have and a few other things. But you need to do it well. You can learn how to do it well, or you’re motivated to learn how to do it well.

Outside of that, I think that there are people that come at this in lots of different ways. I’ve found myself inspired by both fictional and nonfictional people. Somebody that keeps working at something intensely, those people, the stories of them inspire me. Even in the past – I’m thinking about somebody like Shackleton or someone like that, that you’ve just got to stick through with endurance. Richard Branson I think is always a common source, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

But then also other characters that we can look at. Authors, I should mention some authors that – simple. It’s not the hyper-advanced ones. I like people that can choose to do things without necessarily believing that they have all the skill sets to do it. Dan Brown started to write a couple books; he’s not a writer. So yeah, many times his writing completely sucks, sorry to say – although I really like The Da Vinci Code – but you know, that tells you a lot. You can actually, you can go ahead and you can push for something, and you don’t have to pass whatever bars that society tells you that you have to have to try it. That to me is inspiring. I think about that.

I like to listen to music, and what inspires me there is the purity of say a person’s voice. If I really want to be inspired by what it means to feel, have a soulful voice, I listen to Aretha Franklin. I don’t know if there’s been a voice like her, ever. It is so filled with nuances. So there’s different things. I’m inspired by different aspects of what people can do.

Cyriel: Absolutely makes sense. Last question?

FRANS: #21.

Cyriel: Can you share a “nearling”? Probably you don’t know what a nearling is.


Cyriel: A nearling is something that you did with right intention which has not led to the right result. What I see, certainly in Western Europe and U.S., a lot of people look at the world, you do something that works, it’s a success; you do something that doesn’t work, it’s a failure. The whole area in between, you could say it’s an attempt, but it has a negative connotation.

So we came up with a new word, nearling. You need to learn something from it. Do you have a nearling, something like “Oh, I did this, I learned a lot, but…”

FRANS: Can I add something to it?

Cyriel: Yeah, absolutely.

FRANS: Because I think that that is true, but you say here “something new that you did with the right intentions which has not yet led to the expected result.” But I was saying during my talk, the expected result is probably the weaker result. In fact, I’m not looking for the expected result. I’m actively not looking.

Every single time I’ve broken through, there’s been an unexpected result that’s come out if it. The community that adopted the ideas of my first book, the strongest in the United States, was a community that focused on issues of diversity. Not scientists, which is what I thought, and not even R&D folks – although it connected with them, yes.

But my book was just one among many books. So it was another book like that, but in the diversity community, it stood out. And I never expected that. So to me, if I push for something that I know I’m supposed to do – so for instance, I came here with the intention of energizing this audience, and I achieved that. I think I can say that (laughter) without sounding like a douche. But that’s my goal. That’s what brought me here. So in that sense, that is an expected result. That is what I’m looking for.

But I believe that to accomplish that result, I needed to do something that the audience rarely sees. How do you discover what that is? Well, you constantly experiment. I tried actually one or two new things in this presentation. I always try a couple of different things. So even when you’re going for the expected result, there’s something unexpected about how you achieve it.

So to me, the unexpected is really the heart of the matter. The unexpected is the thing that I’m looking for. I mentioned a couple of examples, and even doing these talks, you discover, oftentimes by accident, something that the audience reacts to. Could be an example that you throw in last second, and “Oh wow, it really resonates.” You say something a particular way and it’s kind of funny. The audience here was a little bit quieter than I expected, but there is the whole sort of Belgian thing going on.

Cyriel: And also a quiet region of Belgium. It’s a cultural thing.

FRANS: But even then, I got people to – I was like, “Okay, they’re saying something.” But those sorts of things I get into, trying to understand and learn each individual audience. And it used to be that I really tried to do a tremendous amount of tailoring of my talk to each individual audience, but I also realized that once again, that means that I’m taking something expected and I’m creating something that the audience may have seen before.

I think it’s better to, as long as you can provide value – so it’s not just fluff, but if you can provide value, then the audience will go along with you. And if it’s different, they will go along with you stronger. So what’s actually happened is that I have accentuated, I have amplified those things that make me a bit different. Those are some thoughts around it.

So yeah, we could call it a nearling, but the fact is that – it’s almost like it’s a farling, because it’s the thing that pushed you even further out. Further out from what – or at least some of them. Not all of them, but some of them are going to actually take you further out. And I think that the vision of success for a business, they’re able to define success as “What is success?” “Well, that you set a goal and you achieve it.” Okay, but what if you set a goal and you achieve another goal?

Cyriel: A better one.

FRANS: Yeah, a better one. And guess what? That’s what usually happens.

Cyriel: Okay Frans, thank you very much for your time and sharing these insights.


Mantra Frans Johansson

Frans Johansson is an author, entrepreneur, and consultant. His debut book, The Medici Effect shattered assumptions about how great ideas happen, and was named one of the “Best Books on Innovation” by BusinessWeek. His follow up book, The Click Moment, obliterates the idea that in business you can strategise, plan, and analyse your way to success.

Frans has advised executives and captivated audiences from 30% of the Fortune 100 as well as startups, venture capital firms, government agencies, and universities around the world.

Frans Johansson has founded a software company, an international healthcare firm, and a hedge fund. He has written articles on healthcare, information technology, and the science of sport fishing.

Interested in more inspiration. Check out the following interviews:

Interview Guy Kawasaki
Interview Tom Kelley
Interview Frans Johansson
Interview Robin Chase
Interview Marco Tempest
Interview Fredrik Härén