8 Lessons from Neil deGrasse Tyson for Creative Results

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize Neil deGrasse Tyson’s unique talents. His baritone voice is virtually the sound of modern physics, so accustomed we’ve grown to his narration in scientific documentaries. A natural teacher, his ideas instill in us curiosity and a desire to learn. I can’t help but wonder, how does he do it? Not to mention, Tyson laps us all in productivity, seeming to get more done than most other humans. In an effort to capture what makes him such a star in his field, I’ve identified eight behaviors Tyson uses that drive creative results.

  1. Obsess. Does your creative practice inspire you with passion, does it wind through your thoughts like an obsession? Tyson studied astrophysics with such fervor that he was noted for giving talks about the topic by age 15. If you devour the wisdom of the best and brightest in your field, then evangelize, you’re obsessing like a rocket scientist.
  2. Renew. Do you have a counter balance to your work, something that helps you renew daily? In addition to scientific studies, Tyson participated in crew, wrestling and dance during college. There are many ways to say it, all of them true–you have to renew what you use. When you have found a way to recycle your own energy, you follow in Tyson’s steps.
  3. Be tenacious. Are you driven to persevere, even in the face of failure? Tyson’s attempt at a PhD from University of Texas at Austin was denied, but he continued his quest and earned his credentials. If you are serious about your goals, make achieving them only a matter of time.
  4. Give back. Do you consider becoming a mentor to others part of your creative path? Tyson credits Hayden Planetarium as a hub for his early education, and assumes responsibility later in his career for continuing that tradition. People who take an interest in bringing up the next generation in their field have a bit of Tyson’s scholarly ethic.
  5. Fascinate. Can you translate your work into concepts that are accessible and interesting to laypeople? Tyson has consistently brought the public sticky ideas about physics. He coined “Manhattanhenge,” a name for the phenomenon two days per year during which you can see the sunset on some streets in NYC. When you coin terms for ideas people want to understand and share, you’re downright Tysonian.
  6. Be true. “[Tyson’s] a creative guy and sort of a lone wolf. He has gotten where he is basically because he’s followed his own voice, not anyone else’s,” says Columbia professor Joseph Patterson. Develop your voice, and carve out your own space.
  7. Give face. Are you willing to be the poster boy for your field? Tyson has appeared as on-camera host in several scientific shows and series, and made several appearances in pop culture films and shows. Perhaps most notably, he championed then hosted the series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Leaders in their field take opportunities to speak up and represent their specialty, as Tyson does.
  8. Ship. Do you get things done, and then find more things to do? Tyson has authored 12 books, in addition to his 13 research publications. That’s not even counting chapters and prefaces he’s written for other books. He credits using “interstitial time” as one of his secrets to productivity. If you like to bring work into world, then get up the next day and do it all over again, you’re creating like Neil deGrasse Tyson.


Alison Beard. “Life’s Work: An Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson” Harvard Business Reviewhttps://hbr.org/2016/01/neil-degrasse-tyson

Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_deGrasse_Tyson

Hayden Planetarium http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/

Karen Heller. “Star talker: Neil deGrasse Tyson on fame, education and tweets” http://wpo.st/XzaA1

Spark Innovation the Renaissance Florence Way

When considering how innovation stacks up, it can be difficult to gauge who has the most lasting impact in real time. When we go back in time, it’s easier to read innovation more clearly, without the distraction of brands and details about technologies. Suddenly, the question becomes “did the work stick”? And the stickier the work was, the more effective the innovation.

For that reason, I was intrigued by Eric Weiner’s Harvard Business Review piece “Renaissance Florence Was a Better Model for Innovation than Silicon Valley Is.” Talk about a compelling title–everyone wants to be the Silicon Valley of their industry, and yet Weiner has pointed out what is lacking in that fabled land of innovation.

Weiner presents several principles of an innovative climate, two of which I’d like to share. Taking a look at the novice-master relationship, he suggests that people today move out of the apprentice stage quicker than necessary. In contrast, Florentine Leonardo da Vinci remained an apprentice for 10 years before beginning his remarkably innovative career.

“… Why did Leonardo stay an apprentice for so long? He could easily have found work elsewhere, but he clearly valued the experience he acquired in the dusty, chaotic workshop. Too often, modern-day mentoring programs, public or private, are lip service. They must instead, as during Leonardo’s time, entail meaningful, long-term relationships between mentors and their mentees.”

Mentorship has a huge impact on growth, and we ought to do a better job feeding those relationships. At the same time, Weiner feels that a candidate with great potential but relatively little experience might just be the best choice to deliver results–even if he has not achieved in the same arena previously.

“When Pope Julius II was deciding who should paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was far from the obvious choice. Thanks to the Medici patronage, he had become well-known as a sculptor in Rome as well as Florence, but his painting experience was limited to small pieces — and little in the way of frescoes. Still, the pope clearly believed that, when it came to this ‘impossible’ task, talent and potential mattered more than experience, and he was right. …”

In this way, we err on the conservative side when we insist the best for the job has already done the job. The Renaissance atmosphere allowed for granting a relatively inexperienced painter the opportunity to create a magnum opus work–isn’t that an environment we should remake? Frequently I discuss the importance of mentorship in the arts, because I feel that mentorship is vital for mentees in gaining experience, as well as for mentors who have a need to give back. I think we as a culture would spark innovation by recreating some of these Renaissance conditions for artists today.

A Plastic Ocean: First Look

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on February 3, 2016

“What are you working on?” people always ask me. For the past three years, I have been telling my friends about A Plastic Ocean. Today we’re sharing our trailer for the first time.

How did this project start? You may have heard media stories about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You may even think you have seen pictures of it. Jo Ruxton, an adventuresome soul who has produced for BBC, heard the stories too and started thinking about making a documentary. She joined a scientific expedition to the center of the Pacific for a month of research. Jo discovered there is no floating plastic island… instead, there a truth far more insidious. The doc she wanted to produce became her mission.

That was seven years ago. Documentaries take time! Jo and her colleague Sonjia Norman embarked on a fundraising drive. It was another two years before they had raised enough for the first filming trip to seek the elusive Pygmy Blue Whales in Sri Lanka.

Production continued in stages of fundraising and filming, resulting in trips to twenty locations around the world, all the time accruing more and more information as research was building within the scientific community. Journalist Craig Leeson became an on-camera explorer and the film’s director, and world record-holder free diving champion Tanya Streeter joined the team. I came on board as a producer as well. In A Plastic Ocean, Craig and Tanya investigate how plastics enter the environment and affect wildlife and human health. They join expeditions by world-leading scientists, diving to the bottom of the ocean, visiting first-world countries as well as the remotest island communities blighted by excesses of waste. Most importantly, they share solutions that are real and practical. The film will make you aware, present optimistic choices and, we hope, incite social and political action.

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We have locked picture and will have the film completed in a matter of weeks. At that point we will start to reach out to possible distributors to complete this journey with us. If you’d like to get updates along the way, please sign up here.

Every year humans produce more than 300 million tons of plastic, half of it designed for single use, and more than 8 million tons of it ends up in our oceans. Because the Earth is a closed system, we can’t throw things away: there is no “away.” Plastic does not biodegrade, and almost all the plastic ever manufactured still exists here, somewhere, in some form.

Perhaps the most poignant of all sequences, certainly in Jo’s eyes, was the situation in Tuvalu, a tiny island nation few people have visited. Once part of Kiribati and now independent, the islands that make up Tuvalu lie along the rim of an extinct volcano in the southern Pacific Ocean. Surely they should be everyone’s idea of a tropical paradise, with palm-fringed, white-sand beaches. Yet, as A Plastic Ocean reveals, they resemble an unregulated landfill of plastic waste. There is no space to bury it, more and more is building up daily and the only solution is to pile it up – or worse, burn it, forcing toxic fumes to permeate the air. In many ways, Tuvalu is a microcosm of our entire planet.

We are all extremely proud of this film, and I think it will astound you – just as it did our adventurers, who captured never-before-seen images of marine life, plastic pollution, its ultimate consequences for human health, and viable, practical solutions that are already working and just need to be put into global action.

Please share this trailer with your friends and all who will be interested.

Website: http://aplasticocean.film/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aplasticoceanfilm/
Twitter: @awaveofchange
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/aplasticocean/
Sign up for updates: http://aplasticocean.film/index.html#signup

Tanya Streeter, Craig Leeson, Jo Ruxton

From left: Free diver Tanya Streeter, producer Jo Ruxton, explorer/director Craig Leeson (photo: David Jones)

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Top image from the film’s key art. Courtesy Plastic Oceans Ltd.