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Clean Your Way To “Aha” Moments

Need to solve a creative problem with your business? Grab a broom, says entrepreneur Curvel Baptiste.

Clean Your Way To “Aha” Moments
[Stoop Sweep: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

In the Virgin Islands, where the entrepreneur Curvel Baptiste grew up, there was a less firm distinction between outside and in. “Everyone had a porch, or a huge backyard,” he says. And often, the outside made its way in: dirt and dust, blown in from the street. Baptiste’s most common chore was to sweep the porch. The stakes were high: if he didn’t get the chore done in time, he said, “you were gonna get the belt.”

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It’s surprising, then, that in adulthood, sweeping had become the activity Baptiste turns to when he needs a refuge, a respite, or a new creative idea for his business. “It’s where I’ve found freedom,” he says.

Baptiste began visiting New York often in his teenage years, traveling for tennis tournaments; by the ’90s he’d settled in the city more or less permanently. He lived for a while with an aunt in Rockland county; she, too, remains a broom fanatic, swearing by them above vacuums. “Traditions carry over,” says Baptiste. “To them”—islanders—”sweeping is almost faster than vacuuming. ‘Oh, you have to pull the vacuum out, plug it in, roll it around . . . But the broom is right next to the refrigerator!’”

So. even as he moved to the States, land of modern electric cleaning appliances, the sweeping habit stuck. But it wasn’t until about eight years ago that Baptiste realized that, much like for Harry Potter, a kind of magic happened whenever he picked up a broom.

He remembers it well: he had been walking down Broadway vaguely riffing with a friend about a footwear brand idea, but “there was nothing there,” he says. He went home, and set to sweeping . . . and suddenly the ideas kept flooding him. “A lightbulb lit up. I was like, oh my god. I got the name, I know who we should target . . .” Soon after, he launched Milkshake Footwear, a sneaker brand aimed at women who were fond of men’s shoes, but found them too wide.

At first, Baptiste didn’t make too much of the coincidence between his creative burst and the broom. But as the months went by, soon his friends and collaborators began to notice a pattern. He’d be working with his business partner out of his living room, would set to solve a problem—and would only have his breakthrough while leaning over a broom. “It happened a few times, and he’d tell me, ‘Hey! You just did that while you were sweeping!’”

Soon, he made a more formalized ritual of it. “Some of my best ideas came when I was sweeping,” he recalls. The creativity flows “when it’s just me and that broom, with no noise, no clutter.” When Milkshake grew enough to need office space, Baptiste insisted there be no carpets, only wooden floors, the better for sweeping. “At lunch time, when people left, I would sweep,” he says.

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What is it about sweeping? A number of things, he says. “It’s the stroke of the broom. It’s like being a drummer with drumsticks in your hand. You feel totally in control. You’re creating that moment with every brush you do with the broom. It’s my force, my energy.” It also gets the heart rate up. “It’s great exercise. You sweat a lot,” he says.

He has certain rituals and preferences: he always sweeps with a fine broom, never a scratchy straw one. (“When I use a broom that’s soft and fine, it’s like I’m doing the motion, it’s doing the work, and we’re in sync.”) He always keeps the broom on his right-hand side, with an almost superstitious insistence. And at the end of a sweeping session, he’ll spin the broom on its head, letting it clang to the floor.

Where most people think of looking upward for inspiration (think of the term “blue-sky session”), Baptiste instead looks down. It’s a sense of rootedness, of groundedness, that gives him his best ideas. He doesn’t bother with a notepad until the sweeping session is done. “When I’m sweeping, the ideas that come to me, they never leave my head. Never.” When he wants an idea for a name, or for a story or video series for his publishing venture, William & Park—he sweeps.

In the last few years, his friends and colleagues have made a running gag of Baptiste’s creativity hack. One friend offered to buy him a new broom for Christmas. Another needed help with some ideas for her own business. “Can I bring you a broom?” she asked. “Hey, why don’t you come over and sweep?” asked another.

Over the years, Baptiste did wind up with a vacuum cleaner. He was moving offices, and someone didn’t reclaim a vacuum, and it wound up at his place. “I probably used it three times in five years,” he says. He recently put it in a storage unit.

“When you turn on a vacuum, you hear a bunch of noise. I don’t hear any noise when I’m sweeping,” he says. “It blocks out all the noise, all the clutter. I’m so peaceful when I’m sweeping. It’s like stroking a brush on a canvas.”

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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