Michael Gelb: Be a Creative Genius

Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci never worked in real estate, but their approaches to work and life hold important lessons for practitioners, says innovation guru Michael Gelb.

March 1, 2010

In your book, Innovate Like Edison (Penguin Group, 2007), you say that Thomas Edison is a great role model for people who want to innovate. What can real estate pros learn from the guy who invented the lightbulb?

GELB: Edison cultivated the concept of "charismatic optimism." For real estate pros, optimism by itself is not enough. Your optimism has to affect others—the buyer or seller you're working with. Edison was so charismatic that he was able to get people to invest in projects.

He built this tremendously successful phonograph business, and when part of his factory burned to the ground he convened his senior team and said, "This is a wonderful opportunity. We can start from scratch and build it better." If your market is suffering, this is a time of tremendous opportunity. It's when the creative, innovative folks will thrive. If you're just sitting there waiting for the phone to ring, you have a challenge.

Real estate practitioners may feel it's harder to innovate since they're not "inventing" something.

GELB: Inventing something is only one form of creativity and innovation. For real estate professionals, it's about how you can be innovative in the way you build relationships, in the way you write about a property to make it engaging. It's about your Web site and other communications to clients; it's the parties or events you hold or attend. We've all had real estate salespeople who bake cookies. How do you stand out? Make better cookies. Provide everyone with a recipe!

Your other book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci (Bantam Books, 2000), talks about using sensory awareness. How might this help practitioners?

GELB: You need to be sharp in terms of seeing the details, the nuances, and the benefits of every property. You need to be reading the body language and the vocal tonality of the people you're taking through these properties. It's the simplest, sustainable competitive advantage to you as a professional—to be a better listener than others.

Both Edison and da Vinci carried notebooks to record their ideas. Should real estate pros do this, too?

GELB: When the great geniuses wake up with an idea, they write it down in their notebook. The average person says, "I'm going back to sleep!" It's better to have a slightly bigger notebook so you can draw pictures like both Edison and da Vinci did.

What about da Vinci's idea of balancing art and science?

GELB: You have to capture people's imaginations, but also provide the facts and data and details they need to make a decision. Some agents just provide statistics. Others gloss over the statistics and go off on some poetic ramble. You've got to strike a balance.

You say that being physically fit is a key to approaching life like a genius. Why?

GELB: Every aspect of your appearance speaks volumes to your potential clients. What's most important is the glow of health and well-being that you emanate, so that clients want to be with you. Da Vinci embodied the ancient Greek notion of a healthy mind and a healthy body. He was renowned for his physical grace and he wrote about health and fitness. Presenting yourself well is not just a matter of wearing a nice outfit or having a good haircut. The fundamental energy that you project says more than anything.

What else can salespeople and brokers do to stand out from the crowd?

GELB: One way you stand out is by being a master networker. Thomas Edison's network included the president of the United States, the leaders of the publishing industry, scientists, financiers. Model yourself on Edison. One thing Edison always did was think: "How can I help the people I'm meeting?" There's a friend of ours who, in addition to doing real estate sales, is also a life coach. She sent out an e-mail offering free coaching to people for the next six months. I would bet she'll build her real estate business by making this generous offer. She's the one I'm going to remember.

So try to be altruistic?

GELB: Exactly. In the long term, people who provide great service, who show they really care, who build relationships, will do better. And you'll feel better about yourself.

When talking about his team, Edison said, "75 of us worked 20 hours every day and slept only four hours—and thrived on it." What about finding balance with work and family?

GELB: Edison had his methods for finding a balanced life. He and his team knew how to relax. And they knew how to laugh. Edison slept four hours a day, but he took naps at his desk. The key is to find your own natural rhythm. When we say that we're learning from Leonardo or Edison, it doesn't mean we do the exact same things they do. We take the principles with which they worked and apply them to ourselves. How can I get more done in less time? If you say, "Forget it. It's impossible," it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

You recommend 10-minute relaxation breaks every 60 to 90 minutes throughout the day. To the extent that you can, build in breaks to your day, your weeks, and your year.

GELB: Decades of research show that we learn better when we take a break. Take a walk, listen to some uplifting music, write in your journal. I teach my corporate clients how to juggle! The little bits of fun help to inspire you and renew your energy. You feel better, and you're more open to creative ideas.

What has impressed you—or not—in your own dealings with real estate professionals?

GELB: I've experienced over the years sales agents who have done the opposite of everything we're discussing, and I have never bought anything from those people. I've had agents sit there, just reading off facts when I just wanted to be in the place and get a feeling for it. I've had other ones, when I'm trying to get answers to real questions, go off and give me a lot of fluff.

You're working on your 12th book, Wine Drinking for Inspired Thinking (Running Press), due out this month. How does wine help?

GELB: Wine, in the right dosage, is a wonderful way to bring people together. With clients, we do a wine tasting at dinner, and I get them to write poetry about the wine. [For teetotalers], we usually do a comparable tasting of fine chocolate!

Learn More

Read Michael Gelb's biography and get links to videos at www.michaelgelb.com.

Karen Springen

Karen Springen is a Chicago-area freelance writer and faculty member at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.