Awakening Our Childhood Genius

An Interview with Marco Marsan, author of "Who Are You When Nobody's Looking" and, with Peter Lloyd, "Think Naked: Childlike Brilliance in the Rough Adult World"
By Vern Burkhardt
It's okay, indeed it's smart, to cheat. Smart people look everywhere for suggestions, answers, and to stimulate their thinking. Ask someone who knows nothing about your business. Get smart help, strategic inspiration, and sage advice.

Want a powerful combination? Combine the inquisitive way you saw things as an innocent young child with the way you see things as an adult using the benefit of all your experience.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): You have been described as an innovation expert, motivational speaker and marketer, and corporate anarchist. What is a corporate anarchist and how does it apply to you?

Marco Marsan: The idea of corporate anarchism stems from my love for purposeful defiance, purposeful defiance with a positive impact. Although the term may sound negative the intent is to create something that will have a positive impact.

Corporate anarchism should be about understanding the value of always being adept with issues of change.

VB: In what way does that apply to you?

Marco MarsanMarco Marsan: It probably starts with the way I live and the way I think. I've never done any mundane task the same way twice. This helps to keep me relevant in the way I deal with life and business issues. I'm very adept at applying this anarchism to the ways of looking at any given opportunity or problem.

VB: From reading your books I gather you had a wonderful childhood. Is that the main reason you have remained a creative genius?

Marco Marsan: I'm humbled whenever anyone uses that kind of term—creative genius. I don't think it is that big a deal because 98-percent of us were creative geniuses. Retaining a high level of confidence starts with the way your parents treated you during your childhood.

Also when there's not a big down side to being wrong you become less concerned and embarrassed about taking chances. I've never felt being wrong was a really big deal and, as a result, I've probably taken more chances in the way I think. I've probably retained the ideal of creativity at a higher level than some of my colleagues.

VB: Do you subject yourself to a lot of different experiences?

Marco Marsan: Yes, I'm always open to different experiences. This is the engineer's son in me. I look at all stimulus and all experiences as data points. The more data points you have the more you move forward. You have a greater chance of hitting on novel and new expressions. You also have more information in general and when you have more information you can be more creative. (Vern's note: "Data point" is used by statisticians to describe data that can be plotted on a graph, but in Marco Marsan's use it means information, and random combinations of information often form original ideas.)

VB: In Who Are You When Nobody's Looking? you refer to childhood's special kind of genius as thinking naked. You provide the image of the free imagination of a child in a bathtub or running naked after getting out of the tub. How did this imagery help you develop your approaches to encouraging creative thinking—such as "Brain Wedgies"?

book cover: Who Are You When Nobody's Looking?Marco Marsan: When we created the metaphor it became clear that it immediately conjures up a great image in people's minds. You can really feel the giggle of a child, the little naked body running past you dripping water on the floor, and you can feel the freeness this image conjures in your mind. The child running with great abandon and unabashedly.

I'm keen on this metaphor now because it's exactly what I'm experiencing as a father. I've got an almost two-year-old. It has served me to be a better father, a good husband, and a more adept and innovative businessperson. I encourage people to give themselves the latitude and the luxury of thinking like they did as four-year-olds.

book cover: Think NakedIf you let yourself imagine and feel the metaphor, you can't help but be more fluid in the way you think. You can't help but be more confident in saying things because you have less embarrassment. You can't help but not care about breaking rules as long as you're not malicious. If you can capture the imagery of that single metaphor in the way you process information and think, you will become more creative. And Think Naked ended up being the name of our next book.

VB: And the metaphor involves a sense of being innocent?

Marco Marsan: I don't know how innocent you can be when you've done all that you've done in life. But you can certainly lose yourself and lose some of the cynicism that has become part of your adulthood. So to that extent, innocent.

VB: Earlier you said that 98-percent of us are geniuses early in life but you have also said the majority of us lose our genius through fear of being wrong or embarrassed, through rules that hardwire our brains into established patterns of thinking, and through socialization, including education and aligning ourselves with our "tribe."

Have you seen actual examples of people regaining their creative genius by following your advice?

Marco Marsan: There are examples of people regaining their creative genius because when you get older you don't care quite as much about what people think. If you look at the principles involved in Think Naked you start breaking rules—as an older person you really don't care. You start to express yourself more.

Look at how creativity and innovation have changed the way companies operate. They now value creativity training. At one time creativity was considered an innate trait that some people had and some people didn't. Twenty years ago when you said "creativity" people thought of Disney. Disney has institutionalized creativity, but now a lot of people understand its value and are trying to nurture creative and innovative abilities in their workforce.

VB: Do you think it's also happening in governments? Will it be emphasized by the Obama administration in the United States?

Marco Marsan: That's a great question. All of us can hope. There's the general assumption that creativity arises out of necessity, so I believe we're going to see more creativity in the new administration.

VB: And people with fresh perspectives?

Marco Marsan: The campaign message Mr. Obama gave was, we've been growing poorer because we've been thinking the same way—and now we need new thinking. That message seems to have worked in his favor.

New thinking sometimes gets lost when everything is peachy. We only engage in new, creative thinking when we have to. We need to learn to always think that way so we can stay 20 minutes ahead of the curve.

VB: In Think Naked you say that no matter how smart you are or think you are, there's always someone smarter. You recommend we cheat by asking advice from others who know nothing about our business. The reward may be sage advice, smart help, or strategic stimulation.

Are more and more businesses following this recommendation?

Marco Marsan: You would think it would be the way to do things but ego can get in the way. On the other hand, there are a lot of companies that understand the value in this type of cheating.

VB: Can play be used as a significant stimulant for generating individual and group creativity—even in a business setting?

Marco Marsan: There is proof that people taking naps refreshes them. There is also proof that when people are in a playful environment they tend to be more creative and more fluid in their thinking.

Play and some of the other things that we did as children make us more productive. I'm all for it. I'm not advocating just goofing around. I'm advocating that, in some way, you create a more playful environment. You build in some of the things that enabled us to be our creative and inquisitive best at age four.

If you can accomplish this change, you'll reap the benefits of being more productive as an individual and as a company.

VB: You say whenever you get "The Look" it probably means you've proposed something original, especially if you are involved in creating a novel solution to a problem. What are some of the skills we need to learn in order to overcome the tendency to react negatively or withdraw when we are given "The Look"?

Marco Marsan: "The Look." It's a funny concept because when you say something others don't understand often they'll give you "The Look"—their eyebrows will scrunch down and they'll look at you kind of funny. Sometimes it feels very judgmental.

What you need to do in that moment is not be too self-doubting. Try to build a bridge from your last thought, which created "The Look" reaction, to another way to express your thought so the person who scrunched their eyebrows can better understand.

"The Look" is often evidence that you're in uncharted territory. And sometimes it's an accolade for your being in new and uncharted territory. If you don't get "The Look" at some time during a creative endeavour you know you haven't pushed hard enough.

VB: Getting "The Look" is a positive thing?

Marco Marsan: As I was trying to climb the corporate ladder I got "The Look" a lot and it used to mess with my brain. Now if I don't get "The Look" with some frequency, I know that I'm not pushing hard enough. My job is to be the anarchist that pushes. "The Look" for me now has taken on a whole new meaning. It's a really good barometer for my effectiveness.

VB: You talk about blockbusters and ask us to assume all is change. "Life is change." "Everything changes." Do you have any secrets for learning to use your blockbusters to significantly increase our creativity by helping us to break out of our hardwired, status quo thinking? (Vern's note: blockbusters are techniques or mental exercises to break down habitual ways of thinking we have learned since childhood in order to generate more creative, more innovative thoughts.)

Marco Marsan: Most of us want to be right when we're trying to serve up answers. If somebody were to keep track of all of the times we gave answers from the time we were born to this moment in our lives, I'll bet the number of wrong answers that have come out of our mouths is exponentially more than the number of right answers. Some of us take it very seriously when we give a wrong answer and fortunately many of us don't.

A blockbuster means different things depending on people's differing vantage points. I look at blockbusters and I think they're built into my psyche. I'm always trying to find new and different ways to look at things. People who are already fairly adept at using blockbusters know their value.

There are other people who have, over time since childhood, become more hard-wired in the way they process information and think—for them a blockbuster is an annoyance. It's never going to be used.

The irony is, these people are the ones that need blockbusters more than anyone else.

VB: Is it possible to convince these hard-wired thinkers to try using blockbusters?

Marco Marsan: A lot of times the only thing that will get such people to be open to a blockbusting approach is pain or when they're in a corner. In these cases they have no other alternatives, their current ways of thinking have not served them well.

VB: That could be pain in terms of a business not going well, or perhaps a physical ailment?

Marco Marsan: Yes. Whenever you're feeling at some level that you're on a sinking ship, when you're physically, mentally, or spiritually under duress, then most people will try something new. Even in these cases it's never too late. But it's sad that pain is what it takes to motivate many to think differently.

VB: It is often too late.

Marco Marsan: I don't want to say it's too late because if you can right the ship that's great. But I think you're right—typically it's too late.

VB: You talk about the "see saw" balance—combining the way we "saw" as a four-year old genius with what we "see" as an adult as a result of our experience. Will this model of examining a challenge spark our subconscious to come up with creative ideas?

Marco Marsan: It is such a great theory. This harkens back to my earlier point that the more stimulus you're exposed to the more tools you have for problem solving. I've always been an advocate of getting outside of the things that make you comfortable.

There's something about putting yourself in a strange, new, and different environment that'll show you relevant data points. The pain of getting outside your comfort zone will give you some answers about how to alleviate your pain—your feeling of discomfort. That's why "see saw" is such a powerful metaphor.

VB: And you practice that type of thinking?

Marco Marsan: I practice it more than I should probably. I'm half kidding and I'm half not when I say "more than I should," because I almost always try to find what is the status quo in any given situation. And I then try to find how to exceed the status quo by virtue of getting data points. Invariably the data points are going to make you feel things at a painful level.

VB: You say most people aren't creative thinkers because they're lazy thinkers. How can what you call "Brain Chain Reaction" help us become less lazy thinkers?

(Vern's note: Think Naked advises us to start with a "gut reaction" to a problem or question and let random thoughts and ideas flow. This "brain chain reflex" is a chain of ideas with each idea being a step along the road to an "incredible solution." A Brain Chain Reaction is the result of recording every thought that comes to our mind during this random thinking process and drawing links between the ideas as they come to mind. Great ideas rarely come all at once; they usually occur as a result of round after round of refining and recombining ideas. This process can happen when one is thinking by oneself or generating ideas as a group.)

Marco Marsan: The idea of Brain Chain Reaction is built around being a very active and participating listener. Listening is an amazing skill but instead we tend to listen just to great orators or to be self-absorbed. The Brain Chain Reaction is a way of giving props to the person you're listening to. You're showing that you're doing deep listening. You're reacting to the amazing stimulus they are giving you by what they are saying.

VB: You say loss of passion might be the most common and devastating disease of modern adulthood. You also say when you have passion you have permission. Would you explain?

Marco Marsan: Passion is such a tiebreaker. It's a tiebreaker in sporting endeavors, in great relationships, in everyday life, and also in great companies. When people are impassioned they tend to exceed their own and others' expectations. When you're not impassioned you tend to accept some things you shouldn't.

VB: Is thinking naked and encouraging others to think naked going to be hard work?

Marco Marsan: Many people would love to think naked more often. They smile when they think of the metaphor of the child running out of the bathtub. They smile when they think of their innocent days when they had the luxury—or they felt that they had the luxury—of being able to think naked.

For me thinking naked is not hard work. It has served me and continues to serve me very well in my personal mental health and in the way I see the world. Most of us would benefit from consciously taking this approach. Most people would love to be able to increase their ability to think naked in this rough and cynical world. And they can if they make the mental shift.

VB: And not be embarrassed to show they think naked.

Marco Marsan: Almost half of us are going to be embarrassed no matter what. The other half are already thinking naked so they will likely love the fact there is a fun-loving term that captures the way they think.

VB: You mentioned you have a young son. Are you consciously using the principles and lessons of Think Naked in the way you relate to him?

Marco Marsan: I have two sons—Shane is 20. The other is 22 months, but when asked his age he says "month." I guess it's because his parents refer to his age in months and it changes so often—month is easier to remember.

When I had the privilege of writing Think Naked with Peter Lloyd, it was with the memory of the way Shane had been and the way he processed information, together with the research we did to create the metaphor. Now I have conclusive proof of the value of encouraging a child to continue to think naked as I watch and interact with young Rocco. The way he thinks and generates images and ideas is so much more creative than I could ever be as an adult. I see the proof.

I think back sometimes to my first attempt to be a father—I was more heavy-handed. So yes to your question I am using the principles and lessons of thinking naked with Rocco.

VB: It is unfortunate that parents and the education system don't receive this message, because we so often suppress that think naked enthusiasm. How do we encourage the ongoing development of childlike inquisitiveness and creativity, and not stifle it in the workplace?

Marco Marsan: I don't like to be cynical but people like proof. If there was proof that people in the highest echelons, in terms of salary or achievement, were also adept thinkers, more people would be convinced of the need to nurture creativity and innovativeness.

The other part of it is a greater understanding of how individuals can help the integrated collective. We tend to be delusional sometimes when we're talking about world peace, feeding the poor, having a positive impact on the planet. But the truth is you've got a great opportunity if you've got a child.

Imagine if everybody thought, my part is going to be how I make my child better than I am. Better means more of a problem solver, more open to life's challenge. In some way less embittered with the things that I was embittered with. And more adept at being positive and creating positive change.

If I can do those things, be aware of myself as a data point, and make my child better than I am, I will give a hand toward peace on earth and feeding the hungry.

That's the way we ought to be thinking. We ought to be thinking from a very granular level about how we can positively affect things by raising great kids.

VB: There is a lot of talk about how the N Generation is composed of people who think differently and have different values and priorities. Is the N Generation going to have more think naked-type people?

Marco Marsan: They are much more fluid than my generation because they get a lot more exposure, a lot of more data points and a lot more stimulus. They have seen models of blockbusting.

Never grow up. Don't lose your youthful ways of thinking because it's hard or impossible to get back.

VB: Do you keep notes of all your thoughts?

Marco Marsan: Yes I do.

VB: How does that work?

Marco Marsan: They're all over the place. They can be in many different media, from paper notes to myself to blogging and notes on my iPhone. I've got notes everywhere that resulted from experiences and thinking about things.

VB: And keeping notes of your ideas sparks your creativity?

Marco Marsan: I think when you write something down and you look at it sometime later, you'll sometimes find it's a novel thought or it may serve as a spark to lead you to some other novel thinking.

I encourage people to write down their thoughts, dictate them into a recorder, write a blog, or bounce them off other people to get their reaction—don't just tuck away your recorded ideas, refer to them. Part of my reason for writing books was to sort out some of my ideas.

I've always felt like writing down my thoughts and ideas, expressing them and floating them to others. It's a good way to discover new and novel approaches. When you float ideas you invite criticism and a lot of times when you receive criticism it will jog you to further develop your ideas or you'll know you're on the right track.

VB: What do you mean by floating ideas?

Marco Marsan: Sharing ideas and letting people take potshots at them or at least sharing them with people you trust, who are going to be agnostic and tell you what they think about the ideas. If you have ideas you want to commercialize or monetize, it means talking to people you trust and who will give you honest and helpful strategic or tactical advice.

VB: You recalled an experience in which a senior vice-president of a company didn't want to work with you as a consultant because he assumed you didn't know the complexity of his business. Why is having an outsider involved in solving your business problems such a valuable thing to do?

Marco Marsan: It is necessary to be open to change in a changing world. Something that works today may not and likely won't work in the future.

When people talk about Madonna, for instance, they always talk about how she reinvented herself. The one thing Madonna did was always look for the new and different so her voice would be relevant. She always kept an open mind and as a result her music would evolve every time she was exposed, for example, to Eastern philosophy or to the hip hop generation. Whatever she did she always found what the hook was and she then was able to express it.

An outside influence helps you understand there are other things you need to consider if you are to remain relevant. When you're insulated and not looking and listening to anyone from the outside, you involuntarily do the same old things. You tend to think the same old way and you are not adept at change.

It's an enormous responsibility for leaders to always expose themselves and their employees to relevant stimuli from outside of the walls of the company.

VB: Who are you when nobody's looking?

Marco Marsan: All of us are trying to be good. We're trying to create a good life or we're trying to be good fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, boyfriends, or girlfriends. Whatever it is, most of us err on the side of trying to be good.

Whoever our maker was threw in a lot of moving parts and a lot of those moving parts in our brains make us think and do weird stuff that gets us off the goodness wish we all have.

Who are you when nobody's looking? The intent of the book and the question is to make us think, I don't know who I am. Some people say I'm the same as what you see. That's who I am when nobody is looking.

The truth is we're very complex and complicated beings and I would say the majority of us want to do something good in the world and in our life. But we sometimes need help. We need strategic mantras. We need positive influencers. We need the things that are going to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Who I am when nobody's looking is that same sort of promising and wretched soul that all of us are. The same person in need of the same tools. The same person trying to be as good a husband, father, and human being as possible.

VB: You have been called the "billion dollar problem solver"? Why?

Marco Marsan: I've been involved with multiple billions of dollars worth of new-product and service creations, but the truth is, when we coined the phrase "the billion dollar problem solver," it was to get people to pay more attention to us.

I've been lucky enough to be involved in the development of lots of products and services but, in the context of your question, we were trying to be cheeky. Having a bit of fun and trying to get people's attention—it's better than being the million-dollar problem solver.

VB: That just shows you the impact of inflation.

Marco Marsan: I guess now that we're talking in trillions of dollars the billion-dollar man is not worth that much!

VB: You are the founder of Marco Polo Explorers. Would you tell us about the origin of the name and about the services provided by Marco Polo Explorers?

Marco Marsan: When I created Marco Polo Explorers over ten years ago I was going by "Marc." A friend who knew my original name as a child and also my Venetian roots, thought Marco would be the perfect name for the company.

About six years ago when it was decided I was going to write Think Naked it seemed appropriate as the author to revert to my childhood name. Everyone thinks I named the company after myself. I actually named myself after the company.

Marco Polo Explorers is an innovation consulting company that helps our clients with new-product and service innovations. We have been successful in helping create a wide range of new-to-the-world goods and services for some very smart companies.

VB: What interesting projects are you currently working on?

Marco Marsan: A wide range of things from trying to help people with their eating and drinking habits all the way to what they are doing in their business lives.

VB: Are there any other messages our readers should hear about creativity and innovation?

Marco Marsan: First of all I'm humbled that you you've read Who Are You When Nobody's Looking, Think Naked and The Lion's Way.

I'm an innovation guy who has tried to evolve. The nature of innovation is to evolve one's thinking, to not lose creativity, empathy, and strategic direction in one's life. We didn't have a lot when we started this journey, but with each new thought there are more ideas to be explored. They are pieces of work that lead us to be as relevant as possible, and to be a positive influence on the people we are privileged to be around.

VB: Thank you very much.

How can we shake ourselves out of our adult thinking patterns and use more of our natural, childlike brilliance? Marco Marsan recommends we follow four principles to develop a mental environment conducive to thinking naked. They are:
• Wear Your Cape—attack fear
• Use Blockbusters—develop nimbler ways of thinking to get rid of conventional thinking, break stereotypes, challenge authority and change the rules
• Look at Your Neighbor's Paper—get help
• Show-N-Tell—find out what makes you passionate.

Marco Marsan is a motivational speaker and marketer, innovation expert, corporate anarchist, and founder of Marco Polo Explorers. His motivational speeches focus on the power of innovation and creativity. He has written Who are You When Nobody's Looking and with Peter Lloyd, Think Naked and The Lion's Way.

Share on      
Next Interview »