When Rick Rubin proposed the idea of Run-DMC recreating “Walk This Way” in the mid-1980s, he never thought it would be a commercial success. Instead, as he discussed with Malcolm Gladwell on their Broken Record podcast, he wanted to build a bridge for fans of rock to realize there was something familiar going on in this new world of hip-hop. In his mind, if he could bring people across the gap, then maybe they could see the same connection he saw. History suggests he succeeded – it was the first Billboard Top 10 rap album, the first Billboard Top 10 rap single, and Run-DMC became the first rap group nominated for a Grammy. All thanks to that song and Rubin’s vision.
Much like the rock fans who didn’t like rap in the 1980s, we see this mentality all of the time in our professional lives. People self-identify as “this” and “not that.” They have a headspace and a worldview that we have to acknowledge. Rubin’s gift has always been finding some commonality and helping people cross it in a satisfying way. We can channel the same skill.
Typically, when presenting strategies or plans, people will only have a loose understanding of what we’re talking about – and that makes sense. We’re the professionals and not everyone thinks about what we think about all day, every day.
For every bit of obsession Rubin had, the rest of the world had but a fraction. That also meant to the interested or curious person, Rubin possessed real insights. He recognized that the rhythm of the vocal on Aerosmith’s version of the song was as close to rapping as rock could get without declaring themselves rappers. The hook of the song wasn’t about the melody so much as it was about the rhythm of the delivery. He saw that common essence and capitalized on it.
We often find ourselves talking to engineers who understand math and can benefit from seeing the formulas, doctors who understand the health of a system who can benefit what makes a plan or strategy healthy, and artists who understand design and can benefit from how their assets connect across time and space. It’s the common essence that builds the bridge, and like Rubin, we just have to look for it.
The better we are at understanding the nature of the gaps, the better we can become at building bridges. There aren’t mass produced or commercial answers, as much as many institutions would like to believe. These are all highly personable and customizable jobs for us to seek out. The opportunity is substantial – while the big players are looking for a big hit, all we need to do is help people make a personal connection that they like. Empathy is hard to automate. Once in a while, a big hit will just go viral. We don’t need to aim for it, just to do our best work.
So ask people to “Walk This Way.” Build them a bridge to a new understanding. It’s an opportunity to help, for the sake of helping, and to do so on their terms. “Hey, I get this now,” is always the goal.