Beware the Purists, Lest They Kill Your Innovation

Sep 24

Mrs. Blankenship surprised me a few months back with date night tickets to see Herbie Hancock in concert. I spent a good portion of the evening occasionally reading over the shoulder of a gentleman in front of me as he carefully, confidently typed an exhaustively venomous email to a friend about the show.

Photo credit: from the liner notes of Maiden Voyage

On and on (and on) he went. Hancock had “forgotten his jazz roots” and was “trying to be too hip”. He should “never allow that electric bass on stage” and has to “leave all this weird synth keyboard stuff alone”. Every time the band stepped out of the neat confines of his imagination, another three paragraphs of missives would erupt.

This Purist was relentless, because, by definition, that’s what Purists must be.

He didn’t actually want to see Herbie Hancock; he wanted to see an idealized/idolized version of Herbie Hancock—an era frozen in time like a fossil cradled in amber. He wanted the young prodigy pianist who was sought out to join Miles Davis’ second great quintet. He wanted BeBop. He wanted Blue Note. It didn’t matter what Herbie had been up to for the last 48(!) years, The Purist wanted The Summer of ’63.

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.
—General Eric Shinseki, former Chief of Staff of the Army

Purists are passionate, but their passion will build boundaries that stifle, strangle and eventually kill off innovation. When you set such strict standards, you must logically and consistently adhere to them. You force yourself to follow them to their logical conclusion(s) or risk excommunication from other standards bearers. You dig in your heels. You demonize anything that stands in opposition to the standard. You will not be moved. In that kind of culture, “other” becomes lesser and “that’s not how we do things” becomes mantra.

Amazing things can happen if you let smart, talented people have some room to run. The same things that are happening now will happen if you don’t.


  1. Jarred Sumner

    This site is designed excellently.

  2. Aaron

    Love this. The designer who works for me is a purist. That is obvious. But what wasn’t obvious that I realized when reading is that I am too. Thought not as a designer but In my perception of those with whom I do ministry. You’re right. It is draining.

  3. Mom

    “But we’ve always done it this way,” “But he always did it that way and should not change,” “We will always do it this way and never consider change,” are quite possibly all variations on a theme and killers of innovation. Never look at what you are doing to see if, quite possibly, something might need changing. Maybe.

    Worse, is to look at something others are doing and criticize because they HAVE looked and thought change was needed or growth or creativity and they have taken the plunge. Maybe it didn’t work out (I had a little trouble with what I consider the great COKE Classic debacle). But at least they avoided stagnation. Change for no good reason is not good either. But neither is staying the same for the same reason. Maybe.

  4. Reading this prompted me to write a short post on the topic. I’ll repost it here, just to keep the comments together. :)

    The routine of the safe, the tried and tested. Joshua mentioned, that the purist in his story noted Hancock had lost his ‘jazz roots’. If ever there was a fallacious argument, this is it. The purist needs to understand that at one point those roots never existed. At one point, Jazz never existed. But somewhere along the way seeds were planted that grew into roots. I’ve always felt that purists don’t believe in their ideology as much as they are afraid of the failure which occasionally comes with change. Cowardly at best.

    But it goes beyond the subjective views of a fan. Adaptation and change is a part of life, everything we know is in a state of flux. The sooner you embrace that, the better for everyone. I can think of very few ideas or concepts that are infinite.

    In closing, thank you for the reminder. Ideology can easily jade the innovation we strive for on a daily basis. We need to scrap, and scrap often.

  5. I am glad you are my friend.

  6. Another perspective is that if he hadn’t changed in years, the complaint would be that he’s not grown as an artist and was stagnant creatively.

    I think of artists and bands that have tried to “recreate” themselves–typically to try and gain a new audience or revitalize their careers–and most of the times, it feels disingenuous because it is. A few times, though, there are artists that have pressed through, beyond their felt limitations and created better things than even though may have thought possible.

    Someone will always want to project their desires onto you or your art (even God deals with that :)), but you have a vision, a story to tell, something to create that is uniquely yours and it uniquely wonderful. To let the naysayers who can do nothing but negative dictate how we should create is not only a waste of time, but it’s toxic to the soul.

    I say all that as a reformed purist.

    I remember a conversation from about 8 years ago where I caught myself tearing someone apart over something that did not even remotely matter all because of my purist views. I realized what I was doing and apologized, but had probably already sullied my reputation with that person for life. I chose that day to stop being so damn toxic and judgmental cause it was no good for anyone.

    Life is much better when you chose to create something positive for others in your words and attitude.

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