The Tango Lesson

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Inspiration can come from any place
Inspiration can come from any place

Instead of pushing through when your imagination is blocked—let go and let Tango! 

“The Tango Lesson,” a 1997 drama film by British director Sally Potter, is the autobiographical story of a woman sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, suffering from writers block while struggling to write a new screenplay. Dissatisfied with what she is creating, she abandons the pen and paper and surrenders herself to the sensual world of the tango. 

In her story, Potter poses the question, “How do you follow when your instinct is to lead?” For me, this question leads to other questions: How can you lead if you've never really surrendered? Where do ideas come from?

The answer?  Try following Sally's lead:  Let go. Play like a child. Remain curious.

I once worked with a photographer who was losing his sight. Imagine that.

Yet even with his undependable eyes, the world still held an intense fascination for him. He was constantly setting up photos in his mind's eye.

Shot 1. The bowl of tripe on the table at La Pantera Restorante in the North Beach section of San Francisco.

Shot 2. The rotund waitress balancing plates of pasta for a table of 6.

Shot 3. The light cast through the window on the faded green Italian wallpaper.

Ideas come from paying attention to the world around us—from embracing it. They come from the smallest things, such as when a child watches a bee fly through a church window in search of a spring flower to pollinate. Imagine that child as he sits on a hard bench, bored with God but fascinated with the secrets of nature. Who would suspect that such vigilance might one day turn into a concept for a maker of epinephrine pens? Imagine.

Ideas come from losing things. For example, losing one's tonsils might stir the imagination into exploring how the body works—from zygote to fully developed human.

Ideas come from growing things. Consider that growing a radish, a carrot, a strawberry might lead to cultivating a taste for good food. Or it might focus one's attention on the changing seasons.

Ideas come from being irresponsible or from being silly. Try looking at a cat and wondering how to skin it 10 ways, or how to dress it like 10 of your favorite super heroes.

Ideas come from answering to no one. They come from what's new, from what's old—and from knowing when to steer clear of what's tired, clichéd.

A client once suggested the following tagline: “The Ultimate Surgical Machine.” The best idea was to tell him it was a bad idea. It's not that BMW had a bad idea; it's that BMW owns the idea. Imitationin this case, is not the sincerest form of flattery. It's just a cheap imitation.

Some clients have great ideas. Always provide better ones. Some ideas are filled with energy and light. People connect with brilliant ideas, and brilliant ideas take on a life of their own. Ideas are like a Joni Mitchell lyric of bars and cars and connecting stars. They take you places, they change you.

Ideas come from that moment you go to sleep to that moment before you wake. They come from experience, from love, from a life well lived.

Ideas come from that nether, elusive place that has no name—but never, never do they come from a blank piece of paper. So, the next time you get stuck—get up and tango!

Thank you very much, Sally Potter!

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