In the Beginning
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:
- Critics who can’t or won’t experiment
- Commanders who can’t or won’t serve
- Crowds who can’t or won’t produce
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
Start with Creation
(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.
Start with Heavens
(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.
Start with Earth
(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.
Conclusion: Just Do It
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.