Get Inspired – Interview: Tom Kelley

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 Tom Kelley and Cyriel KortlevenThis is the interview with Tom Kelley. You can find his bio at the bottom of the page. And we have asked Tom to write down his personal mantra (+ he gave us the mantra of IDEO). You find the picture of his mantra at the end of the interview.

Cyriel: Hi Tom, Thanks for your time. We want to do something different? So if it’s okay for you, what we have done is we came up with 21 questions, and you can take a number.

Tom Kelley: I can pick it randomly?

Cyriel: Yeah, and I think we’ll do it for 10 minutes or something.

Tom: Like Gordon Mackenzie. You know Gordon Mackenzie? He wrote a book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball.

Cyriel: Yes.

Tom: What Gordon would do is he’d show up at an event and he had these sketches. He did his sketches himself; he had this very childish, fun – and the sketches would be – he literally used a clothesline, and he would put the sketches across the room. Then each sketch had a number on it, and he’d say “Okay, I’ll talk. We have 60 minutes. Shout out a number.” “43!” And then he would tell the story of #43.

Cyriel: Same system. And it’s nice, because we also don’t know what question you will get. So you can ask…

Tom: Lucky #7.

Cyriel: Lucky #7, let’s go for that one. And if you want to elaborate on a question or you think “Ah, I have a story behind it,” that’s fine. Question #7: do you believe in luck?

Tom: Excellent question. Two answers. One is absolutely I believe in luck. I believe that most success stories are – well, more success stories are tied to luck than are tied to let’s say deserving it. You meet these people who are really successful in their career, like I know these people who are triple digit millionaires, and they say “Well, I really worked hard. I deserve this.” It’s like, no. Did you ever meet a farmer? A farmer works way harder than you do, and they’re not – deserve to be?

Malcolm Gladwell has written about this a lot. He said Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were lucky to be born in the time and the place they were. He said Steve Jobs wouldn’t have been Steve Jobs if he had been born 2 years later or 2 years earlier. He was lucky. So I totally believe in luck; I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life.

Tom Kelley_CWFI’m probably off topic, but I met my wife totally out of luck. I mean, it would take too long to tell you the whole story, but randomly in a bus stop, in a neutral country, in Australia, and she’s on foot and I’m in a car, and she doesn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese. Total luck that we were able to somehow build a relationship from that kind of odd start.

But back to your question. Totally believe in luck. I’ve been very, very lucky many, many times in life. And I think that creative people make their own luck. That things happen to you, but they happen sometimes because you put yourself out there. There was that story yesterday from Austin Kleon.

I ended up having dinner with him because I loved his story so much. That story of running into his hero was total luck, but – but – it doesn’t happen at all if he doesn’t write the letter and put himself out there and risk looking stupid. You know what I mean? A lot of this, a lot of creative work is to take that little bit of personal risk.

We talk, and I mentioned today, about failure; people don’t fear failure as much as they fear being judged. So for him as a kid to write that letter to this big famous guy, he risked feeling stupid or looking stupid or getting an angry response or whatever. He put himself out there. And yes, he then did get lucky, but then he turned the luck into more. So there’s absolutely luck, and it helps if you can put yourself in a situation in which luck can happen.

Cyriel: “Luck favors the ones prepared.”

Tom: Yes, exactly. That was Louis Pasteur, right. I wrote about this in the book; if you go back to the original French – and I don’t – well, I studied a year of college French, but it can be interpreted when translated into English to mean “luck favors only the prepared mind.” So there’s something about that. But anyway, yes, I believe in luck.

Cyriel: Perfect. Great, different number?

Tom: Okay, we did lucky #7, let’s do unlucky #13. In Asia, 4 is the unlucky number. Both Japan and China. But you’ll see buildings in China that don’t have a fourth floor. Nobody wants to stay at Room 4 or Room 404 in a Japanese hotel, so they’ll put foreigners in that room. The word for “four,” shi, sounds like the word for “death,” which is why it’s considered unlucky.

Cyriel: And in China, I believe 8 is the lucky number.

Tom: 8 is the lucky number. So that’s why the Beijing Olympics were 8/8 and 8 p.m.

Cyriel: Yeah. Let’s see what 13 will bring. #13: When was the last time that you did something for the first time?

Tom: Well, I try to do that every day. Yesterday – there’s all this buzz about a restaurant in this town that we’re in, which you pronounce Kortrijk?

Cyriel: Kortrijk, yes.

Tom: Okay. And it had a confusing name, even: Paul’s Boutique. I was like, “Wait, it’s a restaurant or it’s a clothing shop?” I really fully expected it to be both, that there was going to be clothes on one side. You know, like Hard Rock Café, where every time you go to eat food, they try to sell you clothes. Anyhow, I’m like, “Must check this out.”

I’m pretty much – to get back to my topic of today about experiments, pretty much always doing some kind of experiments. I’m going to live in Japan for a month in January, just as an experiment.

Oh, here’s a little experiment I have going. My daughter, who’s doing a startup in New York City, she emailed me about 2 weeks ago and said “Oh Dad, you need to have one of these Narrative Clips.” Because I write down pretty much everything that happens to me, but I forget. If I don’t write it down at the end of the day, which I usually don’t, then I forget a bunch of details. This little thing – but no interface, no buttons, no nothing.

Cyriel: But only a camera.

Tom: It’s a kind of camera. So what it does is every 30 seconds, it just snaps a photo.

Cyriel: Fantastic.

Tom: It’s a perfect memory of your day. I mean, a little too perfect sometimes. You don’t want to show people your Narrative Clip thing.

Cyriel: It just syncs into your phone?

Tom: Well, the interface is a little awkward right now. You cable it into your PC. It takes like an hour or two to do that, and then you load it up to the cloud, and that takes an hour or two. So it’s really off. But…

Cyriel: A day later you can see.

Tom: Yes, which is just weird. But anyhow, it’s like what I talked about. This is the first prototype; so far it’s only with early adopters. But here, I’ll show you – let’s see. Oh by the way, then once you’ve uploaded it, you can’t look at it on your PC or your Mac. You can only look at it on the app. You can go to, and there is no capability – but anyhow, it’s early days.

So here’s yesterday, but let me skip yesterday, because I know that can lead to embarrassment. (laughter) You’ll probably see me in the bathroom or something like that.

Cyriel: Yeah, you don’t know what… (laughs)

Tom: Here, I’ll go back to one I’ve looked at already, so I know it’s safe. It puts things into what it calls Moments. And it’s imperfect. This was a dinner that I had with this young couple, and these should be in the same Moment, because I never got up, I never walked away. I watched an American football game the other day, and it knew that that was all one Moment. It’s more than 2 hours long, and it was all one Moment. But anyhow.

So here’s a Moment – not separated perfectly. In this Moment, there are many pictures. One way to look at them, the most efficient way to look at them, is if I just press this – oh, by the way, since nothing’s stored on my phone, if I don’t have internet access, I can’t even look at them.

Cyriel: You can’t hold it or save it?

Tom: No. Oh yes, an individual photo, but there are thousands. It takes more than a thousand photos. So anyhow, I’m going to press this, and assuming my internet connection’s okay, it’s going to play a little stop action –

Cyriel: From those Moments.

Tom: Yeah, for Moments. So it’s currently taking pictures of the ceiling over there. There’s no switch on it, but if I turn it down, it knows not to take a black photo. So it will now turn off until I pick it up again. This is an experiment. So far, aside from the awkwardness and the interface, I actually love it. I can imagine, as this technology evolves, wearing one for the rest of my life. And then what I really need, though, is I need search.

It recognizes every face. I have like 3,000 photos of my daughter Maya, and so I can say “Show me pictures of Maya,” and it can tell – even if she wears sunglasses, even if she’s dressed in a costume, it still knows. There’s something about the geometry of her face. What I want to be able to do in the future is say “Show me Alex” – that was the guy’s name. It’ll show me every time I met Alex in the last 10 years. That would be handy.

So I came here a few days ago, and I knew that last time I was at the Creativity World Forum was in 2008.

Cyriel: In Antwerp.

Tom: Yeah, it was in Antwerp. Did I know because it stored in my brain? No. No, I don’t have room for that. But I knew because I’ve written down everything that happened to me in the last 30 years, and it was on the timeline. So in the future – but I’ve just got it in text. What I want is the future in images.

I have a friend in Rio de Janeiro, Stewart. Every time I go see Stewart, I just search his name, and I can tell you – it’s fresh in my mind. When were the last five times we were together? What did we do and where did we eat and who did we see and whatever? And lots of people in my life, they think I have an incredible memory. I have an external memory.

So this becomes my external memory. And as you get older, this is actually more important, because people take it personally if you don’t remember them. But in the future, it’s going to be scanning for faces all the time, and it’s going to be whisper in my ear, “Oh, you saw them 6 years ago.”

Happened to me here, where somebody who I’d met like 4 or 5 years ago came up to me, and he recognized me, and he really wanted me to recognize him. I meet 10,000 people a year. Anyhow, but this can help me.

So you asked about doing something the first time. I ate in a restaurant yesterday; about 10 days ago, I started doing this Narrative Clip thing.

Cyriel: Wow. Maybe one more.

Tom: Sure. Let’s go with lucky #1 there right on top. What’s the first question?

Cyriel: Okay, what’s one of your favorite blogs or websites where you get your inspiration?

Tom: Favorite websites where I get my inspiration. One of my favorite websites as far as frequency of use is Pulse news. This is how I consume – because what I find is the big Yahoos of the world and stuff like that, it’s news, but it really skews towards pop. They’re going for a large market segment, and that’s mass media, and that’s great for them.

And it’s not quite the news I want to consume, and so I find Pulse is better than that. Better for me, even though I bet Yahoo’s got a much bigger reach. But I just saw Marissa Mayer speak about Yahoo, their CEO.

Other sources – I have a thing that is – it’s a blog, but it has a push element to it. I get something every morning. I don’t read it every day, but it’s called Cool News of the Day. It’s a guy named Tim Manners, who I kind of sort of wrote a book with about 10 years ago. He produces it every day. He just scans the world for interesting things that he read yesterday, and about 5 a.m. Pacific Time every morning, it hits my inbox. So if I have an extra minute, I’ll read it – like today, I didn’t, so I didn’t read Cool News of the Day.

But I’ve learned a lot. And of course, there’s always a link. I follow the link a lot. Because that’s the thing, is we all need pretty much continuous stimulation if we’re going to keep up, because the world changes so much.

Cyriel: Link curation.

Tom: Yeah, exactly.

Cyriel: Perfect. We have two more things. One, we want to give you something because you’ve been talking about the experiments. Have you already heard of the word “nearling”?

Tom: No, I haven’t. I know “yearling,” of course, but not “nearling.”

Cyriel: What’s nearling? Nearling is something that you did with the right intention, but which has not yet led to the right results. Normally, and certainly in the Western world – I think in the U.S. it’s about the same – people do something and it works, they call it a success. They do something that doesn’t work, it’s a failure.

The whole area in between, that’s a nearling. We can look in the network, because you can say it’s an attempt, but it also has a negative connotation.

Tom: Yes, I like that. On this thing about mistake and failure – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this; there’s a Harvard professor named Stefan Thomke – he wrote a book called Experimentation Matters. It’s an old book now, but he tries to make the distinction between a mistake and a failure. Which as a distinction doesn’t quite fit with modern usage of the words, but it’s still an important distinction.

By his definition – he’s redefining terms, which maybe it’s better to use a new term like yours – by his terms, a failure is something, an attempt that doesn’t succeed, but yields learning. Whereas a mistake is something you’ve done before and didn’t work and you did it exactly the same way, and it didn’t have learning because it led to the same failure.

So he said what you want is an organization that tolerates a pretty high level of failures, at least behind the scenes, but doesn’t make many mistakes.

Cyriel: You’re saying mistakes in the learning.

Tom: Yeah. Because a mistake is something you already know doesn’t work. So his example, or one of the examples he uses – very bright guy – he says the first time as a child, if you are to touch your finger to the face of a hot iron, you pull your finger back, and that was a failure. You’ve burned the tip of your finger a little bit. But you’ve learned that irons are hot and should not be touched. By his definition, if you touch it again, knowing it, that’s a mistake. I already know that.

Now, what you’re kind of alluding to is there’s some situations where doing something similar might work because the world is caught up with you or technology is changing, the world is changing. But this thing where you do the same thing right again, it’s like “What were we thinking?” Because you tread over exactly the same ground you’ve been on.

Cyriel: So maybe then a mistake is a failure you’ve forgotten.

Tom: Yes. Or it’s not that they’ve forgotten; it’s that they didn’t adopt the learning.

Cyriel: Okay great. Thanks a lot for the interview.

Mantra Tom Kelley
Biography Tom Kelley

Tom Kelley practices innovation every day. His ability to foster a culture of creativity in the companies he works with has made him one of the most beloved figures in innovation.

He is general manager of IDEO, the widely-admired design and development firm. At the heart of IDEO’s success is the Creative Confidence philosophy: everyone can contribute creatively to a project if innovation is part of an organisation’s way of life.

Tom was named the first-ever Executive Fellow by the dean of the Haas Business School, University of California Berkeley, and received the 2009 Kellogg Award for Distinguished Leadership.

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