Line up all the elements of Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s success story and what you have is a list of all the things you shouldn’t do: skip homework, drop out of college, run up credit debt (despite his extraordinary success Stone still had debts until as recently as 2010), and show up to crucial job interviews worse for wear. Stone’s path may not have been traditional, but it is certainly inspirational, and it is explored in depth in his new book “Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind.”
Part memoir, part business manual, part creative treatise, Stone’s book traces his success (non-linear and not without its bumps), all the way back to his school days and reflects upon the qualities that set him on the path to achieve the extraordinary things his young self always sensed he would.
Here, Stone, a generous and committed philanthropist, discusses the more empathetic, evolved success metric he now aspires to and explains how it relates to his new venture Jelly (an app which enables users to tap into their social network to get answers to life’s questions). He reflects on the risks he took, the rules he challenged, the “stuff”” he can live without, and how our digital evolution has only just begun.
You once toasted your “future self who will pay for all this.” You say you felt destined for something extraordinary. Was that intuition or ambition?
I guess it was more of an intuition. I wouldn’t describe it as an ambition. I just felt like eventually something really important and big would happen, I just didn’t know what it was. When I was a little kid I always dreamed that I could fly, and then I thought maybe one day I’ll actually be able to fly, and then as I got older I was like, well, I don’t think I’m going to be able to fly but maybe something big -- I just didn’t know what it was. I was just sort of constantly in search of that. And it finally came true.
You were raised by a single mom who struggled financially. Did your early awareness of how money impacts quality of life and social standing, influence your attitudes to work and risk?
That’s a good question. Well, my attitude towards work was that I just always had to work. I started working when I was nine years old mowing lawns. I just always had jobs, I was always working, so I mean there was no question that work had to be done; you had to make money somehow.
With regard to risk, that’s an interesting question because you would think that I would be averse to it -- having achieved any level of homeostasis would be good enough. There was just always this intuition that there was something greater. My hunch was always that I should just follow the next thing that I felt was right, but was also very, very intrigued by, and they could turn into big opportunities. First it was becoming a designer and making that into a career, and then it was my first start-up, and then it was this idea of democratizing information, and I became very passionate about that.
You had debt until as recently as 2010. We hear a lot about the toxicity of debt but for many it’s a necessity. Would your success have been possible without it?
I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about that. I did stuff you just shouldn’t do; you shouldn’t pay your rent with your credit cards, I mean that’s just a terrible idea. Basically what I did is I lived as if everything was going to work out: “my future self will take care of it.” I wasn’t concerned about the fact that I was basically hurtling towards doom. I refused to use coupons or anything like that; I just went ahead and lived as if everything was going to work out. Now, that I think about it, when you have that kind of attitude it’s more likely that it will work out. If you think that it’s going to work out, there’s much more likelihood that it will.
You talk about the power of visualization. Some might scoff at that; do you still use that technique and why do you think it works for you?
It’s this weird thing where I would sort of put something in the back of my head and just let if kind of knock around back there and visualize myself doing what I wanted to be doing. Then a couple of years would go by, and I’d say, “Here I am, and this is exactly what I visualized.”
Imagine what you would like to do, forget trying to categorize it.
It’s how I help people too. Often when I’m trying to help someone through problems, whether it’s a friend or a family member, I say, “Let’s just pretend that you have $10 million and you don’t have to worry about money for the rest of your life. What do you do when you wake up in the morning? Where do you go? How do you spend your day?” And then I have them describe that to me. Someone might say, “Well, I get up and I go into an office where there’s about twenty other people and everyone’s creative and fun and I don’t know what the work is but I enjoy it.” And we get to the point where I say, “Well, that sounds like an advertising agency,” or whatever it is, I kind of back them into it by saying: imagine what you would like to do, forget trying to categorize it. Just visualize your day. In a way, it’s what I did a lot throughout my life: Where do I want to be next? Where do I want to be in two years? It all came to be.
You say your greatest skill is listening to people - do you find what they’re telling you changes as you become more successful?
Well, that depends entirely on who you’re talking to. I surround myself with very authentic, nice people who I honestly think will tell me the truth and will tell me what they think. You know, everyone’s biased: even my dear friend and mentor Steve Schneider, if I were to ask him right now, “Hey, should I take this job in New York?”, where he lives, he’d say, “Yeah! You should definitely do that!” Because he wants me to live in New York and be his friend. So, I have to take that sometimes with a grain of salt.
What I tend to do is I have a trusted group of people and I run things by them, I listen to all of them, and I sort of let all of that set together. Then when I find myself arguing against them for what I think I should do, then I know that I’ve found my answer.
The demise of so many successful people is they surround themselves with people who just say, “Yes, yes. That’s a great idea. Of course, you’re a genius.”
So, the answer is no, but you’ve got to choose the right people. This is the demise of so many successful people is they surround themselves with people who just say, “Yes, yes. That’s a great idea. Of course, you’re a genius.” And it’s not true.
Your take is that success amplifies who you are, but does your ego evolve? Do you still have moments of insecurity and self-doubt?
I guess that depends on who you are. Not for me. I am not more confident than I was before. I haven’t gained confidence because I’ve found success. In fact, I’m starting a new venture now and it’s very likely it could fail.
Do you fear that?
I do, I mean there’s not the fear of going back into debt but now it’s a different kind of fear. Now, I’m in the public eye, so now it’s more that I’d have to endure everyone making fun of me, but I’m sure I can handle it.
You haven’t spent your wealth on mansions and fast cars. Is there a sense that living like that would remove you from people? That an income gap can create an empathy gap?
I hadn’t thought of it that way. Maybe that’s true. Yeah. It just seems so showy, it just seems so unnecessary. I just don’t like having stuff. But maybe you’re right, maybe when you do all of those things you do kind of separate yourself from reality in a way, that’s a good point. But I also think it just has to do with who you are as a person: What do you like? What do you want? For me, spending the morning at the Farmer’s Market with my wife and my son is a wonderful, awesome thing.
You say, “The more connected we are the more empathy we feel.” There is a flip-side to that: our obsession with our devices is becoming detrimental to our social relationships. What do you make of that?
I think both are true. These days, from a philosophical standpoint, I tend to think in the much longer term, and when you do that you realize we’re just getting started with all of this stuff. I mean, the iPhone came out in 2007, so if you’re thinking in terms of evolutionary scale, we’ve just begun to explore the concept of a hyper-connected humanity, and what that means and how we use it as a tool, and how we use it to become better people and achieve greater things together in shorter amounts of time. Or, how destructive it could be and how it might remove us from reality.
I have a very aspirational view of the future and I tend to think that people are basically good...
I have a very aspirational view of the future and I tend to think that people are basically good and when given the right tools they will exhibit that behavior every day and so, we’re exploring the tools and we’re figuring out how those tools can make us better as humans. And, of course, there are bad actors mixed in there, but in general, people are basically good. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to have cities and coordinate anything, so it has to be true. So, when we use these tools we tend to try and find ways to use them to become better. It’s just so early, we’re still feeling these things out.
You talk about a new success metric defined as financial reward, loving the work, and making a positive impact on the world. Are we entering an era of more conscious capitalism, and how does Jelly align with these values?
I do, I talk about raising the bar and redefining the success metric for capitalism. I’m seeing it. This book is basically for me a manual of how I should be running Jelly. We were launched about a month and we did a project with Product (RED) where we turned thank-you cards into dollar donations to help fight AIDS in Africa. Normally, a company that’s one month out doesn’t do something like this. But what I explained to my board of directors was, “Look, Jelly’s tag line is ‘Jelly helps people.’ By doing this project with Product (RED), what we’re doing is a marketing spend. It happens that we’re helping to save lives, but it’s marketing the concept that Jelly helps people.”
The future of marketing is philanthropy.
So, the future of marketing is philanthropy. There’s potentially a way that your company, your product, your service, aligns itself with something meaningful in this world, and attracts not just more consumers who are seeking more meaningful choices, but better employees who are attracted to this more meaningful type of work. So, I am seeing it happen. I am definitely making it happen with Jelly. And there is data out there that is suggesting that companies who do good do well.
At school, you successfully lobbied your teachers to stop giving you homework so you could better manage your time; what are going to say when you have a teenager using that to justify doing the same?
Well, see, the No Homework Policy is really an illustration of how we should look at rules. Rules are great but you should analyze them and look at them and revisit them and see if they’re correct and if they’re right for you. I just don’t think we should blindly follow rules just because they exist. We should look at them and understand them. The idea behind my No Homework Policy in high school was that something had to go. As I describe in the book: I go to school, I go to sports practice, then I work until 9 p.m., then I try to do all the homework given to me, and that takes me until 3 a.m., 4 a.m. in the morning. That can’t go on though the entire four years of high-school, and I can’t quit my job because I need to make money for myself and my family; and I’m not going to quit the sports team that I helped found.
So, I went to each of the teachers and I explained to them why I was implementing a No Homework policy. They had a laugh at me but then they end up supporting me because I was so straightforward about it and I traded something for it: I really am going to pay this much more attention in class because I’ll have to if if I’m going to get anywhere. So, if I have a teenager who says, “Well, Biz didn’t have to do homework, so I don’t have to do homework,” I’m going to tell them they have to have a good reason to not do it and you have to have an uncomfortable discussion with your teachers.