The dreaded “full creative freedom”

full-creative-freedom“Do whatever you want, you have full creative freedom!

I cringe when I hear those dreaded words. You should too. No creative ever wants full creative freedom. We need parameters, deadlines, timeline, budgets, brand identity guidelines, licensing guidelines, whatever. You might as well be clearing snow from the tarmac at Liberty International with only a toy beach shovel knowing a 747 could come barreling in from any direction at any moment with no notice. Yes, the idea is really that stress inducing.

So why do I bring this up? Because I’ve heard this probably a billion times now and I bet you have too. It’s not out of malice mind you, it’s not like your manager or the VP way up the line intended to cause you turmoil, they think it’s what you desire. To the outside world, the one thing all of us creatives desire more than anything else – more than a pay raise, recognition for our hard work or a long overdue promotion – is full creative freedom. They can’t be more off the mark.

It’s a simple fact for those not in the know: full creative freedom paralyzes us with fear and anxiety. And that leads to less than desirable execution of the job at hand. And an even less than desirable job performance flag on our annual reviews.

For everyone else in the know trying to curb this problem from damaging your ego and corrupting your portfolio, I offer you these recommendations derived from my many years of trials and tribulations:

1. Ask for parameters, i.e. deadlines, intended goals, all that stuff you need and want to know.

Demand it, set a timeframe for reviews. Confirm the intent of the creative work at hand. When they say, “whatever works for you” tell them tagging your street name on each of the south-facing cubicle walls probably won’t accomplish the goal. Fun, yes!

2. Be polite and respectful, but don’t be a doormat.

It’s easy to feel compelled to say yes to everything the boss tells you. The reality is, saying yes to everything creates two problems: 1. you take on more work than you can or should handle for the timeframe; and 2. you become the go-to-guy for doing all the garbage work because no one expects you to say no. Bottom line: learn to say no, respectfully, and for valid reasons. Most importantly, don’t be pompous about it.

3. Be honest.

Tell the boss that full creative freedom is much too broad and therefore vague. She or he should appreciate this perspective, most likely having to endure a similar matter in their own job history. Honesty goes a long way in the professional world, and is often appreciated and admired.

4. Don’t bitch and complain to your co-workers about the burden you allowed yourself to take on.

First, if you allowed it to happen, you have no one to blame but yourself. Suck it up, deal with it. Don’t complain. Secondly, if you do complain to your peers, guess what? Rumors spread, faster than that blood rush to your head during that dare to hang from the hotel balcony by your feet at Spring Break. No, I never did that, I just had to create a far-fetched scenario to make sure you’re paying attention. Point is: follow the first three steps and this fourth will not need to apply. You’re  a smart person, do the right thing.

Whether you follow my advice is your ultimate decision. I share it based on a career’s worth of successes and mistakes made in the creative field. And my goal is to help you, the reader, learn from my experiences. All I ask is that you accept or decline what I have to offer with respect and dignity. I wish you all success in your creative endeavors, and to pay it forward.

Good luck.

From the Creatively Oblivious to the Self-Aware

Never underestimate the power your mood holds over your creative work. I put mood up there with inspiration and incentive. Good moods lend themselves to producing good work, great moods for even better work. However, bad moods not only lead to poor work, but unfinished and post-deadline deliveries, and that’s why you need to take notice.

Self-awareness is a valuable attribute for anyone producing creative work. It should be part of the standard art school curriculum alongside other relevant subjects including psychological health and well-being, placed at the same level as Art History and Aesthetics. A holistic approach to a positive mindset can mean the difference between success and failure in the creative business.

Artists carry a stigma of brooding and general moodiness in American culture. An unfortunate contradiction to the celebrated and enlightened artist found in other cultures around the world. Perhaps this is because their efforts go unnoticed and under-appreciated in our society where hype is valued above integrity. Think summer blockbuster films and the huge overpriced video game releases each holiday season. The brooding artist stereotype does a wonderful disservice to creative folk of all types, as any other stereotype does. It will only change if enough artists consistently present themselves in a more positive light.

In the spirit of giving, because that’s the popular phrase to toss around at the moment, here are my suggestions on building your self-awareness to avoid becoming creatively oblivious. All actions that I have found to work well for me and I hope will benefit you too. By the way, I wasn’t intending to turn this into a touchy-feely confidence-boosting self-help thing; that would be so out of character for me.

You can’t change the people around you, but you can change whom you are around.

If someone else’s actions or behaviors are negatively affecting yours, do yourself a favor and remove yourself from the situation. Be respectful and respectable. Don’t pick a fight or complain. Don’t even consider trying to change the person to meet your immediate needs. If another person inquires about your removal from a situation, respond honestly about your needs with everything else in this paragraph in mind. Do not unload your frustrations unless you’re itching for a fight.

I bet you didn’t already know any of this. Right? Maybe in a different context. Or it has gone forgotten.

Recognize that you have full control over yourself.

Don’t be an ass towards others about your creative needs. Respect is key here too. Treat others no different than you expect them to treat you. This is groundbreaking advice you should have learned in kindergarten and from the people who raised you, even if wolves raised you.

Establish your creative space.

You need your quiet alone space. An environment you have complete control over where you can shut the door and not be disturbed. Where you can blast the Dropkick Murphys, Rihanna, or the Boston Pops when the mood hits. Where you can write by candlelight and an open window during a thunderstorm or paint under a full spectrum balanced floodlight rig. Whatever works. You’re full in control, and if you complain, do yourself a favor and punch yourself in the gut and stop complaining.

Pay attention to the quality of your work. Always.

Now you don’t want to enter the bad practice of editing as you create, that will stunt your flow and productivity. It’s expected that a first or rough draft is far from perfect, so let it happen, be shameless. However, as you revise and edit, take notice of how the work is shaping up. Is the quality sub-par in comparison to your usual output? If so, take a look at yourself; chances are the problem lies in your outlook. Straighten it out before you get back to work. Remember, you are in complete control. The same applies to writer’s block or other analogous scenarios in any medium.

Don’t spend your energy venting frustrations to others, use that energy for your art.

You woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? That’s nice. No one wants to hear about it at work or the coffee shop or the bar. Seriously, no one does. Don’t bother trying. Refocus that kinetic energy toward your creative work. Take that anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, whatever; fashion it into a galvanized six foot spike and drive that passion into your art so hard the room is splattered in a colorful array of your creative juices. It feels great!

Whether you choose to take my advice or run amuck with your brooding self, just remember: the quality of your work is effected by how you feel.

On writing in business: 5 Steps to avoiding tone-deaf emails

going 2 lunchSince I’ve been writing about work-related communications on this blog lately, I thought I would touch on a subject that makes my teeth hurt – tone-deaf emails. Now I know the proper usage and definition of tone-deaf, but I find its concept applicable to this subject on a multidimensional scale.

Tone-deaf emails are simply emails written with a total disregard to the tone, or emotion, the message conveys. I have received a lot of them in my professional life, I’m sure you have too. There are the gratuitously angry messages like, “you NEED to do this NOW!!!” in the subject line with a blank body. And there are the five words or less messages like “thanks – got it” or “can you do it????” They seem harmless enough, but consider receiving them several times an hour – all day every day. The sheer quantity of these simple messages adds up to piles of resentment and gnawing frustration as a complete lack of humanity grows apparent.

We all need humanity in our relationships with other people; communication, emails included, is a critical element in all relationships. But you already know this. Thing is, this applies to business relationships too, they are no less valuable than one with a spouse, child, or parent. So why treat business relationships as lesser status?

Here are five steps that should take up residence in your subconscious to avoid being tone-deaf in your work emails.

1. Mood is everything.

Think about the emails that piss you off. You feel like the sender is a nasty, ego-centric ogre who shows no gratitude or respect for your valuable time. These emails suck. They throw off your mood. Don’t be one of these tone-deaf senders. Don’t be an ogre.

The solution is actually quite easy, it just requires care and attention to detail, and an extra minute of your time for review, to avoid a tenure of acrimony. Start by maintaining professionalism. Be cheerful if appropriate, but don’t ever spew anger or frustration in an email. Simply stated, be nice and respectful. Even if it’s to communicate a negative topic. It makes the recipient more likely to cooperate rather than throw a chair at your head at the next meeting.

2. Timing is everything too.

You have full control over the time when composing an email. There is no prize for clicking that send button quickly. Save a draft for later if you’re in a hurry. Review, revise, and edit what you wrote, you can avoid mistakes that would otherwise lead to several back-and-forth question and answer sessions clarifying what you originally wrote – how annoying is that? I’ve seen it happen to people I work with, it becomes stressful on both ends.

3. Be decisive.

It’s incredibly unnecessary to include your thought and decision-making processes. No one wants or needs to read, “hmmmmmm … let me think about this … maybe … not sure … well, okay …… yeah … let’s go with it.” Be decisive and direct, leave out the garbage.

4. Brevity counts, but only if it’s clear.

Like my examples in the introduction, those five words or less messages can lead to many questions wasting a lot of time. “That project from a few weeks back – status?” does not accomplish clarity, especially when considering the average person has several concurrent projects at any given time. Going back to mood, it’s easy to be ambiguous. What you may consider a good-natured message may come across as negative to a recipient who is having a bad day.

Keeping it short is fine, generally a good thing, but be specific in message and mood. Humanity matters here.

5. Good grammar and punctuation shows you care.

Just like good manners at the dinner table, good grammar and proper use of punctuation show you care about what you do, that you care about others, and how you want to be perceived. Sadly, I see a serious decline in all forms of online and digital communication. I cringe at ninety percent of the content I see on Twitter and Facebook.

There are thousands of articles on this topic available online, so all I will say is this: think about how you want others to see yourself before sending a message like: “Hey, r u going 2 lunch at 1??? Ill prolly b late.”

Take a minute to look at what you wrote before hitting send.

It’s the difference between being a good communicator or a tone-deaf pejorative you don’t want people calling you behind your back.

Don’t overthink, just write

blah blah blah In my usual efforts to avoid the work I really need to do – write my book – I find myself reading all sorts of articles related to writing. All offering positive advice with the best intentions appearing on blogs, and educational and professional writing sites. I like to see what’s out there hoping I might learn something new. And I’ve come to a conclusion: there are a lot of overthinkers out there offering superfluous advice to aspiring writers. In turn, these nascent writers are online seeking quick solutions to their questions and hurdles allowing them to become passive about their art. Not good.

Overthinker on opposite gender writing.

One overthinker’s piece snagged me with its barbed hook; I needed to read it. His article was built around the idea that male writers need to be in touch with and comprehend feminism in order to write female characters. But it has to be right kind of feminism, otherwise it means some entirely different vague thing that was never clearly described.

Look, I’m paraphrasing here, and I’m intentionally not linking the article in question as I’m not looking for a fight. There are hundreds more like it, if you don’t believe me I challenge you to see this Google search. This is a genuine link to Google and will not show anything bad. It’s safe for work, it’s even safe for preschool. I promise.

The article was overwrought with justifications for the apparent complexity of the female character issue, playing off the idea that male writers just can’t write female characters. Rather, they write about their ideals of what women should be or their disdain for women. Essentially creating archetypes, not characters, or more likely stereotypes. Male writers spend all of their time describing male characters by carefully not making them female because they can’t overtly give male and female characters certain anatomical parts to define their genders. And it went on and on and on. I wondered if Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates would agree with this guy’s perspective.

I stopped halfway. My brain produced an agonizing scream as it processed this convoluted mess. I’ve underestimated its vocalization capabilities all these years. It was brutal. I hope it never happens again. Ever.

So, here’s the deal, my advice to you.

Ignore that overthought stuff, it’s not helping you. If you’re male and you need to write a female character – do it. Don’t overthink it, don’t make assumptions, just write what feels right. Write what you know, what you don’t know, what makes sense for the story, what makes it a great story. Reality will reveal itself. The female character will come across just as authentic as your male character. It doesn’t hurt to make sure one of your readers is female. There are those little societal gender cues that are easy to miss. For example, you’ll rarely ever hear a woman say, “I gotta go take a piss.”

This advice is multidisciplinary and cross-functional. And universal!

No subject escapes the death grip of overthinking. Overthinkers are another manifestation of what we know as red tape in government and multiple layers of bureaucratic management in a corporation. I’m still searching for the source of these unnecessary convolutions, my current theory is that they are rooted in human nature. The fact that everyone feels a need to have control, to have a say in how things are done. To be armchair philosophers and basement dwelling anthropologists exploring the human condition with nothing more than the tool that gives you access to all things, the Internet. Laziness combined with ego. A dreadful combination.

I mock and joke. But in reality, ninety-eight percent* of the time I ignore that stuff when I write. And so should you.

Don’t overthink, just write.

* That other two percent is used for locating source material for blog entries like this. Time well spent.

On writing in business: Stop overdoing it!

I read a book recently that went to great lengths to describe a point. I’m talking several long paragraphs to convey what should have taken a few sentences, maybe a few more. And this exhaustive technique occurred repeatedly throughout each section in chapter. My patience withered as my attention span changed channels; I had to stop. I skimmed the remaining six chapters as I was able to pick up the points from the first few pages of each. Why the author chose this route is anyone’s guess. Unfortunate because it held a lot of great advice.

Have you ever receive work emails in the same vein? I’m talking about lengthy, dense texts with way too many superfluous words laced with jargon to sound impressive: “In an effort to better optimize our production levels and synergize our teams….” I bet we share a similar disdain for openers like that.

For those of you who struggle with brevity and clarity in your work emails and other similar communications, I’m here to offer my help. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and lost at seas when trying to compose a simple message containing a lot of important information.

1. Keep it simple and concise.

That’s fairly straightforward, I think. Remove extra words that don’t relay the message. For example, no one needs to read your thought process in an email as portrayed by the trivial “hmmmmmmm…..” It’s an email, not a live conversation. You have time to make decisions, to research your thoughts, to edit and re-edit before you hit Send. Use that time wisely. You have complete power over what your email will say.

2. Avoid jargon and buzzwords.

A recent article I found on Ragan’s PR Daily, “13 responses to ‘dumbing-down’ writing” was probably written with the same attitude as this blog entry. Author Clare Lynch brings to light an important point I wish everyone I’ve ever worked with understood – “use jargon, and 74 percent of people will think you don’t understand your own words.” I jokingly used jargon in my above email opener sample because it has become so ubiquitous. And that is the sad part. I see words like leverage heavily misused along with redundant phrases like circle back.

My point is this: use simple English – or any other language you speak – to communicate your messge. Choose your own words, the words that reflect what you are thinking and feeling about the topic at hand. That is how you will communicate most effectively. Honest simplicity. Not the meaningless jargon everyone in the office has copied to death.

3. Proofread and revise.

I know, proofing and revising was such a pain in high school. It was annoying extra work, especially for lovers of the first draft – another blog topic entirely. As annoying as it was to slave away at revisions under your whip-yielding English teacher’s direction, that was a lifelong critical skill for improving your abilities to interact with others, assuming you live in a society among other humans.

As I stated earlier in point number one – you have complete control over your communication. There really is no excuse to send an email filled with errors or a wrong message. You have full control over when you release that message, so take the extra few minutes to read it over; correct grammar and punctuation, confirm your statements are accurate, and remove anything that will get you in trouble. What’s it take – an extra two minutes? It can save you hours or weeks of problems at work.

4. Watch your tone.

Email, memos, and other similar communication methods are emotionless by nature. You are in control with how your message comes across based on your word choices. It’s easy for a joke to come across as an insult, so avoid that altogether. I have often received emails in which the sender seemed angry and accusatory without any reason for it. Yet, that same person on the phone was pleasant and easy to work with.

Words always matter. Read what you wrote aloud. Remove words that sound harsh or sleazy. If you’re not sure, replace it. Ideally, you want to come across as confident, succinct, and likable. Those qualities will help improve working relationships with your colleagues.

5. Be direct.

Last point of this blog for tonight. Don’t talk in circles, don’t overload your message with superfluous information, don’t offer asides and personal anecdotes. If the backstory you started to write has nothing to do with the reason you are sending this message, delete it. If you have included extra details that may confuse the recipient, kill them.

Directness is terribly important, yet I see it overlooked far too often. Try it. You’ll feel better about emailing your colleagues. Remember, good manners matter.

 

I know there are plenty of other recommendations from communication pros out there. Feel free to share them in the comments below. It would be great to hear from you.