This is part of my New Leader series. I started this project to define clearly what a leader is for my team at Bridge but have gotten interest from others.
One of the things I expect from Bridge Leaders is Creativity. How can I not? Any credible company already knows that they’re not in the business of “technology” but in constantly being the best at creating and innovating meaningful customer experiences. To do this seriously (and not just say it without achieving it), Creativity must be found at all departments and levels in our company. This includes traditionally uptight departments like finance, Human Resources, and operations.
But first, let’s redefine what Creativity is. It’s more than being colourful or outlandish. It’s more than wearing weird clothes or just going against the grain. I find our caricatures of what a Creative is gets in the way of us actually developing this very necessary skill in today’s world, particularly, the business world.
A Creative is simply someone who brings things into being. This could be conceptualising the company logo, or developing a new process for faster accounting, or for coming up with ways for better work communications. It doesn’t have to be paint on a canvas, notes on a song, or moving words in a poem. Creativity, making things come alive, happens all the time. This is another reason why it’s extra important to be deliberately creative. We need to be deliberate about what we bring into being, because everything we do always comes with intended and unintended consequences. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that didn’t come with unintended results. It’s given me a healthy respect for the reality of entropy.
Now that we have simplified what a Creative is, let me tell you what a Creative is not. These people think they’re somehow credible because of their criticisms, ideas, and collectives, but they really aren’t and are very easy to identify. Here they are:
I say “can’t or won’t” because I’m not sure whether the hindrance is the ability or desire to create. I think that whole-life creativity can be achieved through constant experimentation, service, and production, and I don’t think these three things are only achievable by the most elite people. I think everyone can do them. Proof of this are kids. My 2-year old son, Elijah, still shits in his pants but boy does he experiment, does he beam when he finds ways to make his parents smile at him, and does he constantly hold-up drawings, paintings, Duplo-creations, and other “productions”.
I don’t want to fall into the trap that age kills creativity, that young people are creative and old people are not. It’s simply not true. I know a lot of highly creative “old” people, people of advanced age who are still highly experimental, continue to serve, and prolific in production. Usually, these are people who have not let fear and hurt teach them about life, but have channeled their fears and hurts into building a better life. In the same way, I know young people, who, despite being young, are already paralysed by fear and hurt, so scared of rejection, so scared of failure, so scared of pain (and a lot of blame goes to well-meaning but misguided parents), that their potential for creativity is cut early. This is tragic. It’s tragic that we have so many people, young and old, so good at criticising (as seen with all the opinions online) but won’t experiment on improving things, but will secretly (and recklessly) experiment on things that help them fit in. It’s tragic that we have commanders and leaders who like to tell people how the world should work, what’s right and wrong, but when you look at the results of their service, it’s actually quite underwhelming. They’re self-righteously irrelevant. It’s tragic that we have Crowds who are chasing the next must-have, must-see, must-eat, must-visit, and must-do but are just incredible consumers not producers. These people chase curators instead of creators, and they can’t tell the difference.
I look for people who are experimental, serve, and produce. And I want to be in teams, cultures, and organisations that foster creativity.
Let me share with you a simple framework for creativity from Genesis. While I don’t tend to believes in literal biblical cosmology, I do find the creation narrative to be very insightful.
The book, actually, the whole Bible, opens with creation:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis 1:1, ESV
(A Realization of Beauty)
As I read that verse, I thought about how interesting it is that the Bible started with God bringing something into being, in fact he brought two simultaneous things into being: heavens and earth. We tend to approach life from micro to macro. Despite many of us hoping for a “better life” we tend to live almost randomly reactive lives, unable to determine whether all these different activities will lead us to that “better life”. I love how the Bible shows us that from the beginning, creativity is a dual process of “creating heavens” and “creating earth”. For me, I like to think of “creating heavens” as “creating a vision of beauty” and “creating earth” as “creating an action of beauty”, and in this process of creativity, of vision and action simultaneously happening together, beauty is not only envisioned and acted, but realised.
Creation is the process of realising beauty through the dynamic envisioning and dynamic acting of beauty.
(A Vision of Beauty)
I like to use add the word “dynamic” to my definition of envisioning because I wanted to capture the idea of constant change in not just the acting part of the creative process but also in determining the finished output. Let me give you an example, if someone told you that it was his big goal to someday see what another country looks like, you might be completely unimpressed, knowing how this is incredibly doable either physically (through advancements in transportations) or virtually (through the World Wide Web). But not very long ago, both transportation and communications abilities were very limited, so our idea of a big goal was greatly influenced by what was possible. So someone wanting to achieve this goal during the time of Moses was a real dreamer, which is one example why the story of Exodus is so remarkable. All of this to say, not only should we be envisioning beauty, we need to be refining, updating, and adapting our vision of beauty. We can’t be creative if we’re not doing this. It’s possible that was once a highly creative vision is now mundane and no longer of value. This doesn’t mean our initial small visions of beauty are wrong, on the contrary, we all start with limited ideas. This simply means our visions should’t stay small.
While there’s much to be said on the topic of Vision, I want to touch on one of the most draining people to interact with, a person of narrow vision. Narrow vision people tend to have a view that is more informed by fear, rejection, insecurity, and pain than purpose, community, opportunity, and transcendence. These people have been taught that risk-mitigation is right way to live life and run companies. These people, though well-meaning, assure that their companies won’t create the most meaningful customer experiences. You can’t generate love from fear.
Here’s what I like to do. I like to get away, and usually to do that, I simply go away. I sit somewhere, anywhere, by myself, and I ask myself, “What would the different areas of my life look like if they were at their best?” I don’t think about how possible things are, about how much I can afford, about how far I am from these ideals, or about anything else. I just think about what “heaven” would look like for these areas. I picture them, I write them down, I digest them, and I use them for the next part of the creative process, An Action of Beauty.
(An Action of Beauty)
With my vivid picture of “heaven”, a picture that constantly changes as I said above, I prepare my days. I look at how I can use my time and energy, as well as other resources I may or may not have (for this I look at how I can obtain them), to “reach heaven”. I sometimes determine “heaven” by how my “earth” is currently arranged, as well as arrange “earth” independent of my vision of “heaven”, and this always turns out to be a mistake. Being realistically cynical and negative only makes your worst options real. These are self-fulfilling things.
I love painting. I love the picture in my head that I’m trying to achieve, but I also love the process of choosing colours, mixing colours, making drafts, applying layer after layer of paint (even the ones no one sees in the end), and, lately, I’ve been enjoying the act of applying single strokes and seeing a single line of paint applied. This isn’t weird. Many painters will confess to the same joy in going through the mundane of their art. This reminds me that part of the Action of the creative process is just as beautiful as the Vision and the Realization. They’re all beautiful in themselves and beautiful together. The business planning is beautiful, the crafting of a Vision Statement is beautiful, but so is the retrenching, so is the fighting for bills to pay, so is the tension of opinions, so are the debates, so are the critics to prove wrong, and so is the many times dark times great journeys all go through. These are not things to be avoided nor disdained. They are part of realising the beauty of a vision, even more, when seen with creative eyes, can be viewed as the necessary contrast all great images have.
Earlier I talked about the ultimate creativity killers: Critics who won’t experiment, Commanders who won’t serve, and Crowds who won’t produce. After explaining the process of Creativity as a simultaneous and dynamic envisioning and acting of beauty, you can see how people who don’t experiment, don’t serve, and don’t produce will kill the creativity of our organisation. So what should we do now? Should we segregate ourselves between creatives and non-creatives? Should we have creativity programs? Should HR launch yet another effort to improve creativity? (These hardly ever work – especially, when actually measured).
No. No need. All we need to do is to adopt Nike’s famous slogan: Just do it. Just experiment. Try things. Fail. Learn. Try again. Just Serve. When I say that, I mean serve people. Understand pains and problems, and find solutions not scapegoats. Just produce. Make it a point to ship things out. Make stuff. Write stuff. Draw on white boards, erase them, redraw and redraw. Learn to write not just read. Lean to code not just surf. Learn to process not just manage. Learn to sell not just account. Learn to produce not just consume.
Just do it. Just create.
It’s amazing how the many different parts of our lives parallel each other. Anyone who has worked with me in our teams, or has been reading my blog posts, will know that many of my management insights have come from areas like art, physics, psychology, sports, religion, and nature, among other bodies of knowledge. It’s important to not just collect information in our heads but to be able to make connections and combinations with these pieces of information in order to come up with better applications. Having a posture that’s constantly curios, constantly inquiring, that is hopeful for answers, and does not settle for anything less than understanding will help a person in every area of their life.
An example of this truth, that we can pick-up lessons from one area of our life that are useful to the other areas, came to me after a discouraging week of work. I run a social impact tech startup called Bridge, that provides a range of human resource (HR) solutions to companies in the Philippines (including payroll and staffing) that is layered with our Fintech platform (Access) that allows us to refinance the expensive loans of employees and help them save what they used to pay in interest. Our goal is help employees work towards “security” not “stuff”. While our mission is noble (you’ll be shocked at how horrible the usury is in the Philippines), it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to face the growth pains of a startup, especially one that is disrupting both the HR and lending spaces at the same time. With thousands of users on our platforms, over ninety full-time employees, and big goals, every single day is full of action.
One Saturday, while not working (Saturdays are supposed to be my Sabbath), while changing Elijah’s diaper (which I rarely do), my mind was full of different Bridge concerns and opportunities. My son, Elijah, has somehow figured that wiping his poop on his dad’s hands is funny to him, as it brings out my grossed-out anger. How this boy learns to be cheeky is beyond me, but he just knows how to push my buttons. I scolded him, “Elijah, stop it!” Which he doesn’t do, and continues to attempt to grab more poop to wipe on me, all the while giggling with his adorable giggle. Somehow, I managed to finish changing his diaper anyway, wash my hands a billion times, and get him dressed. This is why I let his mother and nanny do the changing. They’re better at it. They’re more efficient. I like efficiency. And I hate getting poop on my hands. I thought to myself, “Already so much trouble, this little shitter.”
The next morning, I watched as my son slept, already so long and so big, and I kept thinking about how lucky I am to have such an amazing son. I remember my instinctive thought the day before, right after getting poop on my hands. In that reactive moment, Elijah, my favourite boy in the world, was a “Little Shitter”. In the morning, seeing him in another light, all I saw was how lucky I was to have such an amazing son. I kept thinking about his future potential, about the dreams I have for him, and about my next steps to prepare for his college, to train him, and to make sure he’s as healthy as possible.
I thought about my other “baby”, Bridge, another young one that has captured my heart and is full of potential. There are some moments where my reaction thinks that there’s so much trouble and inconvenience. But every single time I step back, and look at Bridge, not for the latest concern, but for its qualities, its amazing team, its growing customer base, its beautiful mission, and the potential to bring about sustainable and scalable impact, my mind is refocused on the right things.
The point of this post is simple: When you see the different areas of your life as “little shitters”, you will fail to treat them as they should be: as beautiful potential waiting to be realized. Every day, Elijah continues to shit without warning, and he continues to require help to clean himself up, but he’s more than a little shitter. He’s my little giant who is showing incredible physicality and an indomitable will. He’s excitingly developing associations and is learning how to show his affection, especially to his mother. He can recognise tens of animals and dinosaurs, and can tumble of our bed. And he’s only 20 months. What more at 24 months? What more at 36 months? What more in a decade? What more in 50 years? What more will he accomplish?
I now feel this way for all the areas of my life. What can my health look like if I daily just do the necessary things to stay healthy over time? What could Bridge look like? What could Stealth look like? What could my family look like? Instead of putting so much emphasis on the wrong things that happen, and there’s a lot, I use my attention and energy on realign potential not reaffirming negativity.
From my private collection
“The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.
Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.
What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily?”
We are all dying daily. Time is truly the most finite -and most valuable- of our resources. I won’t speak of those who don’t believe this. I am not one of them. For myself, I used to think that since time is running out, one must be as busy as possible. I know better now. I know that busyness does not equal valuable use of time. And busyness isn’t simply about work.
One of the misconceptions we have today is that the more work we have the more busy we are. It is also possible to be busy with leisure, busy with hobbies, busy with social interactions, and busy with thoughts. Busy means being continually preoccupied. Work is not the only thing that can preoccupy us.
And busyness isn’t simply about work.
So what must I do with my time? Do I pack it in? Do I keep it light? Do I seek balance? Do I seek activity? As for me, I seek to carefully select the activities that lead to compounding benefits on time spent. A minute with Yasmin and Elijah is a more valuable minute. A minute spent for them is valuable too. A minute waiting in line for today’s must-enjoy is very low on the value-compounding scale. A minute worrying, though it makes us feel concerned, is a minute wasted, when that minute can be used on removing obstacles. A minute on my goals, my life’s mission is precious.
Work is not the only thing that can preoccupy us.
The question isn’t so much whether what we are using our time on is “right” or “wrong”, but whether the moment, this moment, will grow in more value, at least to us, over time.
Will this moment grow in more value over time?