Category: ideas

Faking It

So I stumbled on to a really terrific podcast: 2Bobs. It hits my sweet spot for creative yet practical business advice and thinking. This morning on the way to the office, I was listening to the August 23rd show about the X-Factor, the qualities that set exceptional people apart from the pack. The discussion was quite good. The “Bobs” made good points made about what they believe qualifies as being/having an X-Factor, but that is not the point of this post. You can listen to the podcast to get their thoughts.

They discussed the idea of confidence being one of the predominant characteristics of a person’s X-Factor, and unfortunately you either have it or you don’t. That is not to say that you cannot develop confidence or have it become a bigger part of your character. But one comment during the discussion on confidence really hit me.

In a good way.

There is a common misconception that you can, or should, “fake it til you feel it.” Or the other variation, “fake it til you make it”. This got me to thinking about my own lack of confidence growing up, and how I have always attributed any successes in life to my ability to just keep on faking it. In retrospect, that is the farthest thing from the truth. In fact, this revelation has now given me a new mantra, an important one to share with students and young creative professionals:

As a creative person, the best way to become more confident in your abilities to produce good work is to push yourself. Plain and simple – work at it. Put in the time. Put in the extra effort when necessary. Do whatever you must, but continue to create. Make lots of stuff. All the time, in all aspects of your life.

I firmly believe that the more you make, the better you will get, Period. But if you don’t improve, you should consider a different line of work. Not to be mean here, just being practical.

Make it til you make it is about getting to the place where you will know you can solve the problem. You might not have the answers, but you know what questions to ask and what it takes to find the solution. You’ll have confidence in yourself and your abilities.

I suppose this is a reinterpretation of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, which says it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something to get good at it. I have been a believer. My only knock on that rule is it is time based, and no creative activity should ever be bound by such rigid structure. It should be more about the quality of time spent. I know plenty of designers who have put in well over 10,000 hours and their work is not much to speak of. (Maybe they should reconsider what they’re doing…)

I always thought the 10,000 hours rule was true because I noticed that after about 5 years in the business, you finally get it. You can competently maneuver through your work day and actually be productive. You might even do something really great by then. But until you have 10,000 hours under your belt, you’re still an apprentice in my eyes.

But I suppose the difference with the Make it til you Make it philosophy, you’re not bound by time. You’re only constraint is yourself. Are you getting better at your craft? Are you becoming thoughtful about your work? Are you becoming confident in your abilities to link disparate ideas?

There are lots of fancy ways to articulate this idea, and I like this one that popped into my head this morning while sitting in traffic. I am confident that this is a great idea.

I think it might make a good t-shirt.

Back Pocket Ideas

Have you ever had a project where ideas poured freely and easily out of that big ol’ brain of yours? The flood gates of your imagination opened and you have more great solutions than you’ll possibly need.

What should you do? Pitch them all?

Absolutely not.

No matter the volume of your great concepts, refrain from showing all your cards.

A CD I worked for years ago implicitly instructed us to always hold back. He said to keep some “back pocket ideas”. Here’s why:

Use this opportunity to cull down the concepts to only the very best, to take a second look and be highly critical of yourself.

Choose to present only the strongest ideas you want to see come to life – the things you want for your book, or more importantly, that you feel certain the client will buy. Choose the ones that you think will not just be clever in the moment, but also stand the test of time.

Back pocket ideas are also useful if all the concepts you initially pitch die. It’s happened to all of us, and when it does it usually means a quick scramble back to the drawing board. Having some good stuff in reserve might just help alleviate the impending all-nighter.

Another some subtle reason for holding onto back pocket ideas is that you never want your job to look easy. If you start tossing around ideas like they are a cheap commodity that anyone can make, then that is exactly how they will be treated.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Much has been made of the ad on the left. Over the course of the past week, it has popped up multiple times on both my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds with people lauding its originality.

The ad on the right was an ad I wrote and designed in 1998 when the writer I was working with jumped ship for another agency.

 

 

About two weeks before my ad broke in the Houston Chronicle, we had run a standard 3-column ad listing all the qualities and requisite skills we needed for a new writer in a rather bland run-of-the-mill ad. The old cobbler’s children syndrome. We got almost no response, and any resumes I did receive from that posting were not in the least what I was looking for. We needed to take drastic, creative action.

I thought a lot about what attracted me to JWT in the first place. I had responded to an ad written by the guy I was looking to replace. Being a clever writer, he wrote an ad talking about things that go great together. “I’m looking for the peanut butter to my jelly…” (Something like that, although I can’t quite remember exactly.) Apparently I was one of the few people who responded with a cover letter that opened with “Dear Tom” and closed with “Your friend, Jerry”. We instantly hit it off and have been friends ever since.

With my writing partner gone, I had to take matters into my own hands. Having blown off most of my English classes all throughout school, I lacked confidence in my writing. So I wrote an ad from the perspective of how I felt. And Phil Hartman’s Saturday Night Live character Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer was probably in the back of my mind.

What happened next was crazy. Resumes were faxed so fast that our office admin kept feeding the machine paper all day. This went on for several more days. In total I received more than 200 resumes from a little local print ad, including one handprinted on leather delivered by hand. I ended up hiring a terrific writer who is now off shooting movies in Dallas.

What struck me as funny about the ad LA county did is that it got a ton of notoriety, but it is hardly original. Which begs the question, how much creative work is original? I think it’s a great ad, same way I thought my ad was great 20 years ago.

I looked online for another story about originality that has been stuck in my mind for years, but cannot find it. Might be sitting on my bookshelf. The story was about a speech Bill Bernbach gave an ad club back in the late 1950s or early 1960s, while the Creative Revolution was in full swing. He plainly stated that there was nothing new under the sun. What’s great about Bernbach making that grand proclamation, is that he ripped it off. He was quoting Ecclesiastes 1:9:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.

Inadvertently, I stumbled into another example years later. I was working up concepts with the Executive Director of the Houston Chamber Choirs’ for their annual program. While looking for inspiration, I was excavating quotes about music, trying to find something original and nuanced to hang my hat on that would resonate with the Choirs’ patrons. When I landed on a quote from one of my favorite musicians ever, Thelonious Monk, I found my concept:

It’s not about the notes, it’s about the space between the notes.

Man, that’s what makes jazz cool.

Except he ripped that saying off from Miles Davis who ripped it off from Claude Debussy, who said the same thing a couple of decades prior.

In the end, some ideas just seem to work. Over and over again. Maybe it’s not about the ideas, but how you use them.

The man in the avocado colored jacket

In the summer term leading up to my senior year in college, I took a sociology course as prescribed by the Design Comm syllabus. Class was held in a small lecture hall seating less than a 100 students.

For the life of me, I cannot remember my professor’s name, but I do remember lots of things about him. He was in his early 60s and had been tenured more than a decade, maybe two. He wore a jacket and tie straight out of the 1970s every day, even though we were in the heat of the summer. And, he was completely out of touch with the times and his students.

One of my fellow students who sat near me on the front row was a big smart ass. He always had an inappropriate question for every topic, most of which the professor did his best to answer authoritatively, but often times missed the mark. The boy did served up constant jabs to get laughs out of the girls sitting around him.

One day we were discussing matters of a sexual nature that I will not delve into here out of respect for gentle readers. The boy on the front row posed some questions that were clearly out of line, but the professor trudged on. He tried to answer intelligently, maturely and with some dignity. But the boy pressed on him new levels of absurdity.

Truthfully, I did not learn much in that class. But I did learn one lesson that day that has stuck with me and I will try my best to relay it here.

On that day, I watched the professor closely as he was being grilled. I looked into his face, into his eyes. I saw fear. His confidence was gone. His authority had been undermined. I watched him being torn down and witnessed him fall apart. It was truly horrible.

I think about that professor when I publicly post these ramblings I scrawl together. I hope that I am not out of touch like him and that I have something of value to offer — a word of encouragement, a worthwhile opinion or a fresh idea.

Much like my sociology professor, I take great pleasure in sharing my knowledge, but in our society today, where it is so easy to instantly offer up a backhanded remark, it makes me nervous to step out on the limb for fear of being attacked or ridiculed. The lack of civil discourse today perhaps is a post for another time.

I also think about my professor when I am presenting — actually getting up in front of a group of people and sharing my knowledge or selling a new idea. For me, I’ve found it’s harder to get up in front of people I know rather than a group of strangers. If you know the audience, there is an inherent bias one way or another towards you. Everyone has this bias in them as we spend time with and get to know people. This makes presenting hard at times because I work with people who can resemble the boy from the front row of my sociology class. I really start thinking about the look I saw in my professor’s eyes and pray I do not have the same look of dread.

It’s hard to get in front of people – online or in person – and share yourself, but this is the single most important thing we can do. Not we as creative people, but we as humans. If we make like a clam and hide away in our shells, we will never make progress on pushing humanity forward. As designers, as writers, as producers or developers, isn’t that the crux of what we are here to do?

The lesson I learned that summer day all those years ago was about courage. The day after that horrific incident where the professor had been shredded in front of his class, he showed up again, dressed in one of his vintage 1970s avocado colored jackets with an equally ugly wide tie, and conducted class.