Your parents tell you that you're this or you're that. Like they know you better than you know you. So you make your move. You bust out. You veer. You show them who you really are. It's not this. It's not that. It's something else entirely. Something they could never have imagined.
This brief, generalized history of adolescence is what I think of when I think about what the Beastie Boys accomplished, 25 years ago, with Paul's Boutique, their second album. Today, the Beastie Boys are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. You can't write the history of American popular music without them. But in 1989, when Paul's Boutique first came out, the public--including other musicians on the hip-hop scene--were surprised about the extent to which it veered not only from License to Ill, the Beastie Boys' 1986 debut, but also from the history of recorded rap, up to that point. Here's how the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame describes it:
While [License to Ill] typecast the Beastie Boys as party animals, the group exploded any notions of one-dimensionality with its ambitious followup, Paul’s Boutique (1989)....A kaleidoscopic montage of quick-cut samples and smart-mouthed spiel drawn from seemingly every corner of the pop-culture spectrum, from Johnny Cash to the glam-rock group Sweet, Paul's Boutique attained the status of a critically revered masterpiece. "It’s safe to say that nobody has ever made a more unexpectedly brilliant sophomore blast than the Beastie Boys," wrote Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield in a retrospective re-review.
If you've never listened to Paul's Boutique, which has sold more than 2 million copies and made innumerable "Greatest Album of All Time" lists, including Rolling Stones' and Time's, here's what a "kaleidoscopic montage of quick-cut samples" actually means. In "Egg Man," the fourth song on the album, there's a sample from the bass riff in Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly." It also uses sounds from the movies Psycho and Jaws. The result? "A rumbling cinematic jumble all about chucking eggs at passersby," Billboard magazine noted in its superb song-by-song breakdown of the album. Other songs sample Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and countless other sources, including a duet between Afrika Bambaataa and James Brown.
The long-term success of the album provides a compelling reminder that consumers and critics will ultimately base their loyalties on the excellence of the end product.
They want to be entertained. They want your product or service to make them happy. They do not, by and large, want to assign grades for how original a product is.
Like a lot of hip-hop artists, the Beastie Boys recognized that what matters most is whether your music can "move the crowd," so to speak. Does it make them dance? Then use it. Effectiveness, delivery, and happy customers matter more than scoring points for achieving a platonic ideal of novelty or aesthetic excellence.
Chris Bogan, the founder of Chapel Hills-based Best Practices and the coauthor of Benchmarking for Best Practices, has argued that companies need to do a better job of borrowing effective management and operations methods from outside sources. "Performance improvement is blind to the lineage of good ideas," he writes.
In other words: In business, the only thing that matters with an idea is whether it improves your performance. Where the idea originally came from--the source of the samples, as it were--is strictly academic.
So stop putting so much pressure on yourself to originate all the ideas. Instead, you can improve your own practices by taking the best of what's worked elsewhere.
For a recent example, look no further than the strategy of Rocket Internet, a red-hot incubator based in Berlin. As Mark Scott points out in his recent New York Times profile of the seven-year-old company, Rocket Internet's entire premise is borrowing business models that have already proven effective: "Rocket Internet has turned the usual business model for technology companies on its head, compiling a team of high-flying finance and management specialists and arming them with the money they need to mimic already successful Internet companies--applying these proven ideas in other countries, often in emerging markets."
Some other entrepreneurial examples make the point as well. Apple did not invent MP3s or the MP3 player; but their products were the ones consumers liked best. Amazon did not invent the e-reader; but theirs is the most popular. They sampled the original ideas, tweaked them to please customers, and put the proper sheen on them. They figured out how to move the crowd.
Sampling is, of course, a key part of the art of making hip-hop records. But hip-hop is hardly the only genre in which artists create their products by borrowing and polishing ideas that initially appeared somewhere else. In fact, George R. R. Martin, whose books are the basis for HBO's wildly popular Game of Thrones series, recently told Rolling Stone's Mikal Gilmore that original ideas, in and of themselves, aren't worth much to him:
Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it's the execution that is all-important. I'm proud of my work, but I don't know if I'd ever claim it's enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.
Most of Martin's fans would attest that, indeed, the world of Game of Thrones is uniquely his own, even though you can locate many of his ideas not only in the Wars of the Roses, but also in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and William Faulkner, and in the stories of Norse mythology.
Likewise, it's easy to trace the ideas on Paul's Boutique back to their original sources. But what matters most, all these years in, is that the album has become a world of its own. It's still eliciting praise and smiles from elated customers, 25 years after it first hit the shelves.