Advise and Consult
Larry Robertson, photo taken on one of his visits back to Tucson.
Advise & Consult
The Sonoran Desert doesn’t just inspire creativity, with its cyclorama of endless, cloud-flecked blue, jutting mountain ranges and plant palette that mixes the beautiful with the bizarre.
It rewards creativity … even demands it. “Want to survive?” it whispers. “Discover my secrets, or pack your bags for some gentler landscape.”
Author/teacher/consultant Larry Robertson, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, not only knows a thing or two about the desert — after all, he grew up here — he also has spent decades delving into the mysteries of creativity. The kind that allowed early settlers to thrive in the Southwest. And the sort that leads to startling innovations and inventions in fields ranging from politics to medicine to the arts.
Whether you want to be the next Dr. Jonas Salk, or Ludwig von Beethoven, he’s a good guy to have on your team.
His latest book, The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, provides valuable insights and lessons for each of us, regardless of our career paths or goals in life. It’s the result of many hours of conversation and research with some of the most brilliant minds in the world today, including some located right here in the Old Pueblo.
And Tucson, not coincidentally, is where Robertson’s story starts. “I was actually born and raised there, along with my brother Brent, and attended Fort Lowell Elementary, Townsend Middle School and Sabino High School,” he explains. “Even further back, my grandparents were, the way I think of it, some of the original Tucsonans when it stopped being a fort and an outpost and really started to become a town. They arrived in the 1920s, both singles from the East Coast, and some of my other relatives go back to around 1908.”
Growing up, he enjoyed the escape that Southern Arizona’s environment offered, the chance to take in a lung full of Nature on a pine-scented trail, meditate while scaling a mountain ridge, clear his head while gazing at the vastness of a clear night sky.
His vision was shaped, too, by a string of summer jobs. “I worked for Tucson Moving and Storage loading and unloading moving trucks in the summer. I learned so much from those guys, many of whom did not even have a high school education — why they did what they did, and how, as well as what things they engaged in that were beyond their job to keep their lives balanced and sane. I worked for two years in a pet store across from Park Mall and the two guys who owned that place taught me a lot, too. And two summers, the one after I finished high school and the one after my freshman year in college, I worked for Jim Click selling trucks. Across those experiences, and other working ones I had, especially in junior high school and high school, I learned about the other people in my community, who I was, what I wanted to be, what I didn’t want to be. I learned how to sell myself, and those were amazing experiences for me.”
As he tried on many hats and pondered his future, one thing was clear. “I knew what I was not going to do. I come from, on one part of the family tree, a long line of lawyers. And I recognized without a shadow of a doubt that I did not want to do that, even though I was very proud of the people in my family who practiced law.”
While that branch of his family helped to nurture his disciplined pursuit of knowledge, another offshoot taught him about the hard work that goes into developing and growing a business. “The other influence and side of my family is what you could call an entrepreneurial approach; relatives like Larry and Lemma Robertson who came from the East Coast as singles and wanted to be in a place that was considered out in the wilds like Tucson. Or my other grandfather Howard Williams out in Iowa, who finished high school and started his own print shop.”
Just like the desertscape is shaped by water, wind and sun, Robertson’s understanding of his true gifts came about while attending Stanford University and later, Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
“I didn’t come out of high school saying, ‘Gee, I want to start my own business,’ but I was attracted to the mindset that went with it. Could I do something with it? Could I create something that I could call my own and have an impact, or create some value that didn’t exist right then? That’s what turned me on. My career path was to do different jobs where I thought I might have that opportunity. For example, one of my first jobs out of college was working for this small venture capital investment banking firm. That was in the days when there really wasn’t much venture capital, and people weren’t putting money into the early stages of organizations. So that was a big influence on me. And for a time I worked for Disney, in a division that was starting or acquiring new companies. It was as if we were saying, ‘In the shadow of this 800-pound gorilla that is movies, TV and theme parks, can we transform these other ideas into businesses?’ The Disney Stores and other enterprises came out of that.”
In some respects, Robertson was like a pioneer who has started out by working someone else’s land until he could purchase his own and improve on the concepts he has learned.
“I started my own practice, called Lighthouse Consulting, of advising entrepreneurs and people who wanted to chase similar ideas and dreams, helping them to make those real,” he says. “The majority of my business begins with clients coming to me and saying, ‘Here’s my problem,’ and the bulk of the work is about revealing to them what the real issues are.”
But that’s only one of the ways in which he assists those looking to tap into their full creative potential. “I’m also writing books and teaching. I no longer teach at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, just because it’s so time consuming to teach at that level. But teaching is a regular part of what I do. And I’m trying to start up a non-profit institute to study creativity. The idea there is although we often look at creativity in specific sectors or fields — technology development all the way to psychology or mathematics — what we never do is look at creativity all on its own. To look across all those sectors and identify what’s similar and what’s different. What you soon find is that there is a bottomless pool of things to know. People are constantly learning more, not only about creativity, but how it’s applied and what limitations you can face and how to get around them. They’re sharing experiences, ideas and things of that nature.”
Sharing insights into creativity is what Robertson’s writing career is all about. In 2009 he published A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress. The book was born out of the realization that innovation begins when we stop to ask ourselves, “Why is this particular thing this way? And how could it be made better?” Robertson studied more than 200 entrepreneurial leaders in order to discover their methodology in seeking out answers that result in improvements to processes and outcomes.
The Language of Man also resulted from many hours of conversations, including with neuroscientist Nicholas Strausfeld, ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, and conservationist Sandy Lanham, all MacArthur Fellows as well as Tucsonans. The book uses the lessons of people who are exceptional in various areas of endeavor to ask questions about investing in the creativity that is in each of us.
There are a number of concepts that Robertson introduces readers to as essential in understanding how we learn, and what processes lead us forward, as well as which ones short-circuit our brain’s ability to grow and respond in new ways to shifting demands. “One theme that I explore early in the book is the way our brains are built. The whole idea of neuroplasticity … your brain wants to keep growing, experience new things and encounter new information. It wants to stretch, which is a uniquely human trait. And yet, if you think about many institutions in the world, they’re not really about encouraging that. They’re about promoting something else we need, which is order, but they’re not about openness to experimenting.”
The histories of scientific exploration, artistic excellence, military victories, and political upheavals, often show evidence of unplanned brilliance. “One of the terms that I introduce in the book is ‘purposeful accidents.’ Creativity happens as a result of purposeful accidents. You’re very deliberate and intentional in taking the time to be open and look at things differently, but what happens after you do isn’t always predictable. It’s most often accidental.”
Robertson mentions a couple of famous case studies from American business that illustrate the need to foster openness and the willingness to let people working in one sector cross over into another arena to explore. “At 3M in the 1970s, they let their engineers play for extended periods of time with ideas that in the short run weren’t proving to be anything. They not only were willing to play it out a little bit longer and take it a few different directions, set it on the shelf and come back to it, they were encouraged to cross-fertilize and play with one another’s ideas. In the case of Post-It Notes, engineers from different departments were sharing with each other, and it was a combination of ideas that turned into a product that many of us use every day.
“Bell Labs, which for decades was really kind of protected from the business of the Bell Telephone Company, were able to create inventions like the transistor, Atlantic cables and binary systems for communication that we’re still living off the fruits of 50 to 60 years later.
“These big ideas don’t just fall out of the sky. They aren’t just lightning strikes, or moon leaps. They’re very gradual. One of the MacArthur Fellows I interviewed referred to it as ‘playing in the adjacent possible.’ It’s the stuff right at the edges of what you know and what you do. Just putting your toe over the line or taking one step. Every time you step across your border you’re going to see something different. And any time you return back within your borders, things are going to look different because you saw outside of them. When you step into that adjacent possible or cross one of your borders, you actually expand the possibilities on both sides; you make the whole pie bigger than it was before by some new combination.”
Robertson learned long ago the need to stay balanced by not just pursuing entrepreneurial interests, but engaging in life at every level. He travels to visit his brother Brent (who lives with wife Katie and kids Emily and Will), and often returns to Tucson to see family, including mom Judy Davis, stepfather Art Davis, father Larry Robertson Jr., and stepmother Tammy Robertson.
He loves to take family vacations (especially with electronic devices left behind) with his wife Kai, son Noah and daughter Ella. “If they are not out in Tucson each Thanksgiving, they think the world has gone wrong,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s one of their favorite places to go, especially to see their grandparents.”
And Robertson, who lists his hobbies as kayaking and hiking, continues to appreciate that flame of creativity that was sparked long ago in the Sonoran Desert. “Besides coming back several times a year to see family and friends and do some business, visiting Tucson is still one of my favorite things. I find I am most inspired and my mind really opens up when I can get back out in that desert,” he observes like a true son of the Southwest. “I believe some of my interests and roots as it relates to creativity go right back to that, because of that kind of openness, constantly looking at how we can progress further, trying new things, being willing to question. Those are all at the heart of creativity. Maybe I was just steeped in that naturally by growing up in Tucson.” TL