For the longest time I thought about the word creative as an adjective, as in, “she’s so creative.” Creative described people who liked to think a lot, look at different perspectives, come up with innovative ideas. Creative people see things a bit different from everyone else and are fun to be around. Off the wall ideas are more likely to be described as creative.
Creative was an adjective that described the person or the idea. And it was totally subjective.
But lately I have been struck that this is not really the nature of creativity. Don’t get me wrong; novel ideas are definitely important for the creative process. But I had the wrong part of speech when I thought of creative as an adjective.
Creative doesn't describe the person or the idea, it describes what they do. (don't get all grammatical on me)
A creative person creates things. Painters, writers, musicians, filmmakers, designers, architects, developers, marketers, are easy to imagine, but creative can exist in every job, or not. Or completely outside their job. The measure of creativity is the creation of something new, not the imagining of it.
The thinking, the imagining is just a means to an end.
I work for a creative marketing agency, and the other day I was in our storeroom and found myself looking around at all the artifacts on the shelves. The company started as a video production shop and there are literally hundreds maybe thousands of tapes of various formats that are a window into the history of the organization. I walked around and read the names off one tape after another and tried to imagine the story behind each. Some of these tapes go back 21 years.
As I read the various titles and dates I had a profound sense of what it means to be creative.
To commit yourself to create something that didn’t exist before. To actually make it happen. And then to put it on the shelf, to move on and create something else.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Forever.
Creative doesn't describe what a person is, it describes what a person does.
So I ask all of you reading this who consider yourselves creative.
Are you happy with what are you creating? What's on your shelf?
I measure all paid software and web based solutions against my experiences using Turbo Tax. I measure all breakfast restaurants against Walker Bros. I measure free web services against Gmail. I measure hotel beds against the Westin Heavenly Bed. I measure the way an airline treats me against my experience as an Executive Platinum member of American. I measure commercials against the Mac vs PC ads these days and the older Bud Light commercials, both of which make me laugh. I measure TV shows against Seinfeld, 30 Rock and The Office (which also make me laugh.) And I measure consumer electronics against TiVo and the iPod.
These are the standards against which you will be judged if you want to feed me breakfast, sell me a gadget, or get me to watch your TV show.
It doesn't matter to me one bit if you consider yourself in a different "space" than Gmail, TiVo or Turbo Tax. You will be judged by the standard they set because I said so.
I'm not being difficult, I just know what is possible based on my experiences with my favorites and I will hold you responsible every time you fail to meet my expectations.
It's tempting to "mange expectations." But be careful, if you manage expectations too low, I will just avoid you. If you manage expectations too high, you better stack up against the best. It's a catch 22, it's completely out of your control, and it's the cost of getting my business. Get over it.
Microsoft spends billions developing and improving it's core software
product Microsoft Office and sells it for around $300 retail. Or you
can get a 100% compatible suite of software from Open Office for free.
I used to buy shoes at Nordstrom's, but now I use Zappos because it has
a better selection and is a better use of my time. Two hugely
recognizable brands with long histories of being the best at what they
do, swept aside because my expectations changed. Don't get me started on books, music and movies...
And if you think that this only applies to businesses, think again. I'd bet that every one of you can name a person that does a really good job at something that's important to you. Whether they work for you, with you, or as a customer or contractor you know who they are. They set the standard for how you will judge other people you come in contact with.
When you take a new job, how will you most likely be introduced? "This is Tom, he is the 'new Steve.'"
How much of your acceptance in your new job will be based on who you are and what you bring, and how much will be based on how you stack up against Steve? Fair? Doesn't matter.
There are simply too many options available to us consumers to think that anyone can get away with being "below expectations" for longer than it takes me to find an alternative and switch. And you don't even have to be bad at what you do to find yourself on the wrong end of expectations. Sometimes a new concept comes along and totally changes expectations (Zappos). Or circumstances outside your control change how people view you (kinda wish you bought a Prius last year instead of an SUV?)
So you can be the best at what you do, or be so different that you create a whole new expectation.
At the very least make sure you are obsessed with understanding the expectations against which you are being judged.
What an amazing post from Seth Godin today, and a terrific tribute to his Mom. It can't be lost on any regular reader of Seth's blog where he got his contrarian, "question everything" nature when you read that his Mom was not a fan of Mother's day and for such logical reasons. Way to go Seth's Mom!
I myself have a confession to make. This year, for no good reason at all, I forgot to call my Mom on Mother's day. Sure I could say it was because I was busy pampering my wife, and we went shopping for a new dishwasher cause the old one is dead, and then I got distracted with things around the house...but it's really just BS. Somehow or another I just plain forgot to call my Mom. My bad.
To her credit, she did not seem particularly disturbed about this when I realized my oversight and called her first thing Monday morning. I am guessing this is some combination of me being a relatively good son the rest of the year and having given her some nice clay pencil holders for Mother's day back when I was in grade school. In any case Mom, thanks for not making me feel worse than I already did.
Over the years I have told a number of stories about my Mom, usually to illustrate the challenge of designing high usability solutions on the web. For a number of years when I was running an e-business department my challenge to the design team was not to build a web-site that they could use, but to build a web-site my Mom could use. And every designer knew exactly what that meant, not because they knew how my Mom used the web, but because they could picture their own parents trying to figure out complex applications.
Thus was created the Tom's Mom standard for usability. Thanks Mom for helping me see things through the eyes of my customers and giving me the vocabulary and stories that resonated with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
Not in a million years, nor with a billion dollar budget could an ad agency come up with our "right-click" story. (On the phone one evening trying to help her edit a document I kept telling my Mom to highlight text and then "right-click" and she thought I meant to write "c-l-i-c-k" - you can imagine how little my "help" actually helped with her document.)
It was through these joint troubleshooting adventures as the help desk to you and Dad that I truly came to appreciate the language barriers and faulty assumptions that all too frequently lead to bad technology and bad customer service experiences.
You told me once that you loved that I told people the "right-click" story because you felt like even after all these years you were still helping me with my career. Mom, you have no idea...
Think back on your career. How did you learn the most important lessons, the things that stick with you and make you a better person, a better employee? In my case it has always involved a mistake or mis-step. I never learned anything from the things I did right the first time.
In my performance review at the end of my first year after graduating college, my boss told me that he was still not sure about me. I asked why, since I had accomplished quite a bit in that year and was feeling really good. He told me that I had not had a major screw-up yet. I said, "that's a negative? I thought that would be a positive mark..??" His reply, which I will never forget, was, "you never really know an employee until you see how they handle a major screw-up." Luckily he didn't have to wait long...
But it doesn't take big screw-ups, just about any mistake that creates an unintended outcome puts your brain in "remember this" mode. Think about it, do you have any sage wisdom that doesn't come directly from a bad personal experience?
So good judgment is a highly desirable trait and good judgment comes from experience and experience is learning from mistakes and mistakes come from bad judgment
So why don't we celebrate mistakes? Is it because if we acknowledged that a mistake was actually good for us, then we might not burn the lesson into our brain?
For the first 20 years of my career, I worked at a large health insurance company (17,000 employees). Now I work in a small creative/marketing agency (40 employees). The differences in my work life are too numerous to document here, but one of the more interesting questions I find myself debating is the basic career choice of being a generalist vs a specialist.
During my years in the large organization, I felt sure that the best career approach (at least for me) was to be a generalist. Moving around every 4-5 years, seeking out jobs that were quite different from my previous experience, working hard not to be niched in any one particular area. I reveled in my generalist career strategy, and it served me quite well.
Now in a much smaller firm, I find myself much more drawn to being very good at a few things. Maybe even seen as an "expert" in a field, or industry, or type of work. In fact, being a generalist at what I do today is a path to commoditization, both for me and for my firm. If you need a generalist, you find the cheapest one you can get. But if you need an expert, you are willing to pay big bucks to get their advice.
This is exactly the opposite of what I expected to experience since the conventional wisdom is that in a big firm everyone does one or two things, but in a small firm you are called on to do a bit of everything.
What is your career strategy? Be really good at something, or be decent at a whole bunch of things?
And are you ready if it turns out your original career strategy doesn't work for you anymore?
I was having lunch with two young (early twenties) employees the other day and was giving them suggestions on what they should be thinking about as they begin their careers.
I told them that I had two pieces of advice, that I believe apply to any career.
First, become comfortable speaking in public. It's not easy, and it takes consistent effort over time. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. And given that 95% of people are more afraid of speaking in public than anything else (including death), it is a natural differentiator no matter what your chosen profession is.
Second, become comfortable with change. More than comfortable, find a way to get off on change. To the point where you become uncomfortable when there isn't enough change in your life. If your job doesn't regularly force you to accept, create or manage new ways of doing things, you find a way to force it to do so. When you get to a place where comfort=discomfort and vice versa, then you know that you are there.
If you make those two things a priority in your life, I believe that you will differentiate yourself amongst nearly all of your colleagues, no matter what you do for a living.
What do you tell young folks they should be working on?
My favorite blogger and one of my favorite authors is Seth Godin. Earlier this week he had a great post that I shared with many of my friends and fellow change agents.
“There's a myth that all you need to do is outline your vision and prove it's right—then, quite suddenly, people will line up and support you.
In fact, the opposite is true. Remarkable visions and genuine insight are always met with resistance. And when you start to make progress, your efforts are met with even more resistance. Products, services, career paths... whatever it is, the forces for mediocrity will align to stop you, forgiving no errors and never backing down until it's over.
If it were any other way, it would be easy. And if it were any other way, everyone would do it and your work would ultimately be devalued. The yin and yang are clear: without people pushing against your quest to do something worth talking about, it's unlikely it would be worth the journey. Persist.”
Boy does that one hit home! Nice work Seth.
If you don’t read Seth Godin every day, you should. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/