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SXSW: Kleon, Silver and Simmons on collaboration, vision and the ‘genius myth’

by Alan Melson 8 Mar 2014 11:11 PM

Author Austin Kleon and ESPN juggernauts Bill Simmons and Nate Silver riff on creative collaboration, openness and transparency of process at SXSW.


I’m posting through Monday from South By Southwest Interactive, with updates on the colliding worlds of art, technology and human behavior.  Reach out with your questions via Twitter – @amelson – or check out all of our ongoing SXSW reports.

Crowds filled the Austin Convention Center for this weekend's sessions at SXSW Interactive. (SXSW)

Crowds filled the Austin Convention Center for this weekend’s sessions at SXSW Interactive. (SXSW)

A recurring theme at 2014’s SXSW Interactive is the idea of using creative collaboration, openness and transparency of process to accomplish greater things.  This applies at the most micro level – friends getting together to make something, let’s say – or on a massive scale, as corporate media behemoths join up to try new experiments.  Opening keynote speaker Austin Kleon and ESPN juggernauts Bill Simmons and Nate Silver used their sessions this weekend to approach this topic from each of those angles.

Kleon has made a career out of writing about such joint efforts in Newspaper Blackout, Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work.  The author told a packed exhibit hall on Friday that he takes issue with the “genius myth” – the idea that a lone wolf locks himself in a studio or bedroom and waits for lightning to strike, then churns out revolutionary work so we can “gawk in awe at his achievements.”

In this approach, he says, the artist often doesn’t share his progress and isn’t open to others’ input to shape the evolving work – and the inherent solitude may encourage stagnation, along with reactionary “terrible behavior” as others line up to heap praise (or ridicule) on the individual’s work.

He also spotlighted two personality types detrimental to collaboration:  The “vampire,” who sucks the energy out of everyone around them to fuel their own singular creativity, and “human spam,” characterized by Kleon as someone who wants a one-way dialogue of sharing own thoughts and work – who “wants you to listen to their story, but they don’t stick around to hear yours”.

The solution is for creators to focus on what Kleon calls the “scenius” approach – a term coined by musician Brian Eno.

“It’s creativity and good ideas birthed in a scene of artists, thinkers, theorists, tastemakers – an ecology of talent supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying ideas and suggesting ideas,” Kleon said.

This approach relies on that continued transparency and sharing of process, and birthed influential scenes like early-20th-century Paris and 1970s New York City – and possibly even SXSW.

ESPN's Nate Silver (left) and Bill Simmons at SXSW, Saturday, March 8, 2014.

ESPN’s Nate Silver (left) and Bill Simmons at SXSW, Saturday, March 8, 2014. (via @AdamHermsdorfer)

Despite building reputations for work under their own names, a “scenius” of smart, creative, hard-working colleagues is exactly what both longtime ESPN blogger Simmons and entrepreneurial data journalist Silver sought when building their personal digital brands into something bigger.  The pair engaged in a lively discussion Saturday morning at SXSW.

“When you lead a life as a ‘public intellectual,’ you don’t learn that much,” said Silver, who traveled 180,000 miles last year speaking around the world.  “The ratio of talking about things to doing things gets totally askew.”

Simmons, who rose to fame on the strength of his Page Two column and other projects for ESPN, is the creator and editor-in-chief of Grantland, a digital presence for sports journalism launched in 2011. Silver announced last year that he is moving his wildly successful FiveThirtyEight blog about statistics, which made its home at the New York Times for nearly four years, into the ESPN stable as well, with plans to launch the revised site on March 17.  Both said being part of a massive for-profit enterprise like ESPN has actually helped them, because they have been given the resources and latitude necessary to make their projects work.

“When you create something with a bunch of people, it’s so much more satisfying than when you’re on your own,” Simmons said.  “… I would have failed if I had to do this on my own.”

After Silver compared running a digital staff to having a bunch of kids, Simmons quipped, “(As boss) you are the dad, but it’s more like the dad on an ‘80s sitcom … you have to teach a lesson every so often.”

Simmons said the collaborative effort on a project like Grantland works as long as the leaders and staff are OK with constant, gradual change.

“You have a vision for the site, and people are trying to create things that fit that vision, but in the midst of that, another vision emerges,” he said. “Don’t become who you are – keep innovating.”

Both Simmons and Silver advocated for “slow journalism” – the opportunity for reporters to spend more time on stories.  Simmons said some good writers become great writers and do lasting work “when they have more time to think” about a story.  They also stressed the importance of hiring sharp people even when you don’t yet have a specific role ready for them, rather than narrowly defining a role first and then going out to find a fit for just that specific position.

In his keynote, Kleon also challenged the audience to chase high-impact, lasting projects – things that can make a difference both in your own creative community and beyond. And what better source of inspiration than a daily read of the local newspaper’s obituaries?

“They are near-death experiences for cowards,” Kleon said. “Reading them is a way to think about death while keeping it at arm’s length – and makes me want to live, and go out, and do things that matter.”