21st Century Leadership Keith Yamashita TEDxSanFrancisco

September 16 1978 I was 12 years old and my engineer father gave me this sx-70 Polaroid camera the invention of Edwin land and it quite literally changed my life because when you have this camera this thing as it develops I don't know who this was for you who invited you into your creative life but for me when my father gave me that and put in my hand this ability to look at a lens it changed how I looked at the world it made me slow down it made me understand relationships that mattered it made me understand the things that make us who we are that's my dad right there you see a creative life begins when someone invites you to see the world not just look at the world and for me as I discarded that camera and started with a rangefinder and started looking seeing stopping pausing to look at what goes on in the world I started to see unique things I started to see abstractions that became concrete I started to think things that were of other cultures and it made me look at my own culture it made me stop to look at things that seem very abstract and then things that were incredibly concrete that's my son miles up there things in the realm of business and things on this absolutely crazy world it turns out that some of us I think born as creative beings get the great chance and opportunity to make creativity our profession so those of us in this room who practice design it really is this creative thing that you're born with professionalized and when you get a chance to do it really in my case for almost 50 years you get a small glimmer of being able to practice design in its highest calling now what is that that starts I think with the same thing that that little lens and in xx 70 gives you which is an ability to truly see the world and then in your mind's eye create and conjure something new and extraordinary but you know sometimes it's not just seeing the world that matters sometimes it's not just conjuring and imagining a world that matters you have to have the confidence to go make it real so let me take you into my fourth grade classroom I remember showing up on the very very first day sitting down in my chair next to all these classmates I did not know and in walks my teacher she goes to the board and writes her name missus trig Lee and she does this in kind of a cursive writing that for all of us at the time was kind of like hieroglyphics cuz we didn't know cursive yet right and she's I remember her to this day she leans in and it was like she was talking to our entire class but to me it felt like she was just talking to me I'm that asian blob there in the striped shirt um and she leans in and she says it may take me all year long but I'm going to find something special about you that's your gift that makes you unique in a way that no one else in this class has and she had such confidence as she leaned in and offered this to all of our classmates so I remember sitting there I'm like I have no idea how she could be so confident this woman this four foot eight Anita shrinky what is she talking about but you know is interesting really really early in that year she reaches out to me and she says you know Keith we're in a brand new classroom we have thing on our bulletin boards I think you should pick a topic study that topic and then share with your classmates what you learned so I went to the shelves and opened up all of the Encyclopedia Brittanica books I most of you probably don't even know what Encyclopedia Britannica is there were these like volumes of books that had lots of knowledge in it okay so start with the A's and start going through I read the entire thing got all the way to the W's and chose my topic learn about whales so I got out my construction paper and my sitter scissors and my pencils and my colored pens and I got at the glue stick you do remember glue stick glue stick and I started to create these bulletin boards and it was what is a whale's life like what does it mean to live this far under the sea what does it mean to be able to hold your breath this long what does it mean to be in a sea of mammals versus just fish and plankton and it turns out like I remember so distinctly sharing these bulletin boards with my classmates and I was so proud I was like I made this and this is what I learned and this is what was important and this is what a whale is and as I was done with it mrs. Anita strictly reaches over and very quietly without anyone hearing except me says Keith maybe that's your gift maybe this explaining things to the world is your gift it was just the right amount of confidence you know when someone believes in you more than you believe in yourself it was just the right confidence and it made me more curious and it maybe look at other things about whales and maybe understand that there were many many other things that I could learn it maybe revisit the Encyclopedia Britannica and maybe understand relationships and connections in this great ecosystem all because she said maybe that's your gift some of us I said who were born with a creative life get to do it as a profession so as I got to be older and creativity became my profession this ability to practice design hopefully practice it in its highest calling what became true to me is the worlds of Charles and Ray Eames which is if you want to practice a creative life you can never delegate understanding I run a company called sy partners it was founded here in San Francisco 20 years ago and basically what we do is we go to that Encyclopedia Brittanica of life every day we try to understand something and we try to help other people understand it so they can take action so when you get an invitation from IBM to build an exhibition which is about humankind and how we use information to improve our lives and to improve the world we get out that metaphoric Encyclopedia Brittanica and we learn everything that's required and it results in the world's largest infographic about New York City and how you could use data to curb pollution and crime and fraud and help citizens take control of their lives in positive ways when you have this ability to never delegate understanding when the invitation comes to study cities and how they come together and what makes people connect with each other what are the underlying systems manmade natural what are the the kind of tributaries that feed cities of success what are the things that mankind does the environment what does it mean to understand you stand ready to take that understanding and bring mayors together to talk about how to make a city smarter you stand ready to go into a community to understand hopes and dreams and missing services and things that everyone hungers so that you can work with companies not just to design new products and services for a community but of a community you stand ready when you get an invitation to study the american high school and to understand that we're actually rate ranked 27th in math in the world and you have to go back to 200 years ago when high school was founded in this country on this extraordinary idea to create an education for all to help everyone be available to get a career in profession they want only to understand that that career back then was largely to be a factory and so the schools that were designed were kind of a pre factory for our factory and that's where we put our kids and that's where we've kept them ever since it is only when you have that understanding that when an invitation comes from Laurene Powell Jobs to form something she calls the XQ super school challenge that you stand ready to help her in her quest to call all Americans to the table to reinvent a new American high school what happens when you get to practice this kind of design is that you realize that what we're trying to do as human beings is just understanding cos and understand consequence once you start to have a creative life part of your job is to nurture that creative practice and you and you do that often by finding mentors early in my career I was heavily influenced by Paul Rand and many of you know Paul's work he really is considered the godfather of graphic design and I had an opportunity in my late 20s to go visit Paul to have some of my firm's work critiqued by him so imagine you're in Los Angeles he's staying at a hotel you're up against the hotel door you ring the doorbell the door opens and it's not actually Paul Rand at all it's his wife Miriam who herself is an incredible design leader and she looks at you head-to-toe she says my oh my Keith where is your dinner jacket let's dress pretty much like this and I said well Marian III didn't know where we were going to dinner I was a little bit nervous about this whole thing and she goes yeah a designer should always be ready to go to dinner a little bit nervous so as we're walking into the room were polished she goes oh by the way what school did you go to what design school and I said oh I went to school at Stanford she turns around she goes wrong choice you should have gone to Yale we sit down at Paul's table and Paul says ah doesn't matter doesn't matter where he went to school doesn't matter that he doesn't have a dinner jacket I didn't want to go out anyway we're just going to order in and so we ordered in an over dinner we started to critique the work that I brought and I have to say it was the most eviscerating and most emotional and most difficult critique I've ever been in it was like kind of fall to the floor critique not easy not good um very very late in the conversation right after dessert Paul leaves the room to go into another room and he returns and he puts in front of me a typeset galley so for those of you well pretty much everyone in this room a typeset galley is how they used to set books before there was computers to set books so he puts this typeset galley in front of me and it's from a chapter of one of his upcoming books he says please read this so I'm sitting there and I'm reading and I'm thinking to myself this is not very good and at just that moment he leans and he says what do you think so there you are with your mentor the person you've idolized the person who followed your entire you know growing through design school and you say what are you saying I said well Paul you put forth this great hypothesis in the first paragraph and for some reason the rest of the page doesn't actually live up to that hypothesis Pauline's de marion said I told you it was crap turns out that the Masters the most talented the most gifted among us as creative beings get there because they learn the ability to edit that they learn to separate what's important from what's not what's meaningful from what isn't and they make things that are simple from things that start as complex so all of you think about your own life how you came onto this planet who your missus shrinky was who your dad was who helped you look at the world in a new way who your Paul Rand was who taught you that to do creative work you have to be brutal and how you look at your own work so that you can get to the best and remember I think one last thing which is often in our creative lives our very best inspirations are our friends let me introduce you to David binder he is on your left I met David when he was 26 years old David was an assistant associate associate producer off-off-broadway so far off it was like he was in New Jersey and David then was obsessed by this work that was starting to be developed by an artist in New York it was a character that they had created called Hedvig in East Berlin ER with a botched sex change operation and that caricature became part of a song which became part of a group which became part of an off-off-off Broadway production all the while David is dedicating his whole life to this endeavor this kind of crazy idea I had no idea what this play this musical is about and he stuck with the year after year after year last year I think many of you know he brought this work to the Broadway stage with Neil Patrick Harris in the lead role as head Vig I want to play for you because it was such an amazing moment to watch her friend toiling through 20 years of this his Tony Award winning acceptance speech for Hedvig this thing he had dedicated 20 years of his life to Sir David binder most people think a producer's job is to find ideas but actually I think the opposite happens the ideas find us they get into our bloodstream and then they circulate into our heart and then our brain and they take over every thought and they haunt us and then it's our jobs as producers to move them forward to find wholeness to find completion think about your creative life we often think that a creative life is about bringing ideas into the world and what my friend David binder taught me is that actually ideas choose you think about your life think about what it's meant to this moment think about as you go forward ideas choose you and when they do what becomes your responsibility I hope you'll do like David did when that calling came to him it came as a whisper it came as a crazy idea he said yes to that idea and 20 years later over this long haul he's bought this amazing art into the world what is your art and when it calls you what will you do I hope you'll say yes the same way David did because when you do that is the essence of a creative life say yes thank you you