The creative process: work ethic vs. inspiration

“I don’t want to write, it’s too hard,” says practically every American child sitting at the kitchen table with homework spread out past bedtime.

That was the first thought I had when considering the value of a hard work ethic versus inspiration in the life of the creative for this blog. I know, I just used creative as a noun, that’s what us creative people in the professional world are typically called. If we were creating art for art’s sake we would be known as artists. Regardless, creativity requires a lot of hard work no matter the medium, discipline, and audience; it all comes from the same place. Some days it flows, everything is happy and the end result is clearly in sight. Other days you’re punching holes into the walls, dropping your head in your hands and, on occasion, throwing your whole body through walls. A book I recently read by Blaine Hogan, Untitled: Thoughts on the Creative Process, captures this struggle:

This is the creative process. For the most part it’s just plain old, unsexy work. It is slogging in front of the computer, canvas, or blank piece of paper, hammering out words and images in hopes of better days. And then, all of a sudden, a flash of brilliance. A phrase comes to mind and your heart is full. (Hogan, Locations 878-880)

We all hope it’s a flash of brilliance that strikes, and I don’t mean that to sound pessimistic. The simple fact is that it’s a subjective thought that I’m spending my words on right now. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m procrastinating as I think this topic through and type it. I had a vision to tackle the polarizing topic that’s eating everyone’s brains and I’m falling flat on execution. I know, hyperbole and superfluous. Pushing myself back on topic now.

Vision is easy. Ideas are even easier. It’s execution that separates the amateurs from the pros. (Hogan, Location 111)

Okay, okay, I’m not an amateur. Pulling myself together now.

So creativity is hard work and I’m all over the place tonight in conveying this. If you know a creative person, maybe you are one, you are no doubt aware of stories about a great project that looked like it would fly by because the energy and excitement was all there. Only it didn’t. It dragged on, ten times longer than planned, sometimes one hundred times longer. The project was over budget, understaffed, late to press, drives crashed, feelings hurt, frustrations vented, enemies made, supplies snapped in half and thrown out the studio windows … yes this happens to all of us. This is what hard work looks like to a creative, driven by passion and fueled by caffeine. A volatile condition, yet effective, usually.

“But what about inspiration?” you ask.

Inspiration is fleeting. It appears, it disappears. Some of it sticks, some of it slithers down your back and drops to the floor never to be heard from again. That is its nature. Accept it and move forward. When it strikes, be ready to record it with the understanding that its execution is never going to occur quickly and without pain.

Pain is the essence of hard work, ask your grandparents if you don’t believe me. Back breaking hard work was once a thing, it still is for some, and in the creative world, it’s more psychological than physical. It’s a daytime nightmare you cannot wake from. It’s also a daydream you can lose yourself in. Inspiration will do that to you, though, take you to another world. Which is great, because we all need great ideas, but we need grounding too – a hard work ethic.

Artists by nature are never satisfied. I heard that once while in art school and took it as gospel, so I continue to tell everyone that without citing studies. Not quite. It does, however, describe myself and every other creative I know. That level of dissatisfaction translates to self-editing, scrapping work and starting over, and other laborious steps backwards amidst a slow motion tumble forward. Hours, if not days or weeks, are lost to this tragic phase called revision. All of that lost time equates to lost creative labor that may never see the light outside of a garbage can. The creative, or artist, drags boulders up icy mountainsides to achieve the goal, spraining ankles and breaking bones along the way. And when he or she reaches the peak, spirit-breaking mental exhaustion gives way to bigger and better things.

And then inspiration kicks you in the face and you are so wired you can’t sit still. You type or paint or sculpt or whatever frenetically, making mistakes along the way without caring. Editing/revising/modifying doesn’t matter, love your first draft, the only draft, it’s perfect in every way! You keep going and going and going till you burn out. You crash harder than a thousand foot free fall on the ocean surface. But you have it, your first draft, your only draft, your gift of the gods enlightening the world through your voice. Don’t dare alter it, it is perfect in every way, that first draft. Except it’s not.

Hard work returns quickly with ferocity. The revision or whatever you do is critical if you are serious about creating not just good, but great art. It’s a vicious cycle, eventually finding a conclusion due to external forces like client deadlines or collecting a paycheck before your bills are due.

It’s chaos, it’s struggle, it’s enlightenment through mental anguish. When it’s all done and you gaze at your work, it will have separated itself from you. Unrecognizable, it’s an extension of who you were during those moments of creation and what you do. But it’s not you, it is its own holistic being. Your creation. You immediately forget the pain and embrace it. And then you deal with client revisions and approvals and finally collect a check sixty days later.

Creative work is rewarding on a level separate from anything monetary, but it’s not for the thinned-skin. As you might have determined by now after reading this offbeat meditation, there is no winner. Inspiration and  work ethic compliment each other, they improve each other’s capabilities and well-being. To be successful, you need both.

Social Media for Small Business & Writers: Organic and Human

Norwalk River, Spring 2013One thing I’ve encountered countless times while working for a marketing and advertising agency in the mid-2000s was that small businesses, non-profits, and self-employed individuals had a lack of knowledge when it came to self-promotion. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into a new client situation and view a history of bad advertisements, low-grade television spots, malfunctioning websites, and other underperforming efforts, usually self-produced by a family member with an interest in computers mid-way through their first year of college.

I understand the desire to save money, particularly for these small-scale entities and sole proprietors. Covering overhead month-to-month is critical. You do what you have to do. And I respect the DIY attitude – Do It Yourself for those who don’t know – as a hyperactive DIY streak courses through my circulatory system. I do know how to recognize, however, when I need the help of a pro, especially when it becomes an investment in the business. Chances are, the work a professional produces will outperform any low budget attempt and earn back the expenses at an exponential. The key is to continue the endeavor: a marketing campaign is only effective for as long as it lasts.

This is where social media comes in to play, as an affordable (free) DIY undertaking. Guidance by a professional marketer or advertiser will help if the funds are there to support it, but any small business or organization has full access to this broad medium.

Twitter was born during my final year at the agency. At that time, it wasn’t even a consideration as a marketing tool. If the term social media was coined by then, I don’t recall anyone ever using it. It certainly wasn’t part of the discussion at work beyond a colleague once telling me, “you haven’t heard about Twitter? You have to check it out!” Facebook was not available to the public yet, MySpace was enjoying its short-lived heyday, and LinkedIn was an up-and-coming professional networking tool. For the purposes of our clients, however, there didn’t appear to be anything in this realm worth investigating.

Fast forward six years, and I’ve spent that time working in a corporate position, managing corporate communication, and more recently transitioning to ecommerce. Social media has become a crucial medium in both disciplines. Even though I work in a corporate setting now, I still keep the small business mentality in perspective, it’s where I come from, after all, and I always want to see them succeed. And the first step in using social media to do this is to use it.

Whether we are talking about a two-person design agency, a local non-profit providing care for AIDS patients, or a freelance writer, building awareness is critical to developing new business. A web presence is standard for any business or organization that wants to be found. Not a yellow pages listing, not a classified ad in the local weekly paper, and definitely not an illegible paper sign taped to a lamppost at a busy intersection; an easy to find web presence is the norm. That’s how consumers look for services they require now, how they conduct competitive research, read first-hand customer reviews, and compare prices without leaving the couch. Consumers aren’t necessarily customers; they can be potential patients and students. And to use this to your advantage, you need to be easy to find.

Easy to find means having proliferated your web presence in various social media channels sharing interesting and insightful information relative to the services offered. More importantly, is your development of thought leadership, achieved over time and by example, through sharing knowledge and insightful information on blog posts, articles and other web media that establish a level of confidence and trust in the researching consumer. You want that potential customer to read or watch your content and feel they found exactly what they were looking for, and more.

Small organizations have a unique advantage in the realm of social media over larger corporate entities. Being small, the human factor is always prevalent. The individuals behind the business are not separated from the customer by automated phone services and faceless product websites. As a result, they are able to capitalize on their individual uniqueness made up of the services and the humans involved in providing them, not to mention local community involvement and level of volunteer commitment for the non-profits. These intrinsic human assets provide the strength and empathy required to build relationships with others who hold shared interests – as a provider or recipient – critical in developing a following to spread awareness and grow the business.

Regardless of what type of small entity I’m talking to, the rules are the same in social media. After a thorough presence has been established – an uncluttered website emphasizing your prowess, which can be achieved through a blog if you’d prefer – the second major step is relationship building. That is what social networking is all about, building relationships. There are several ways to do this; here are some I recommend based on my own experiences and successes:

  1. Join conversations. When you see a discussion topic on a social network, blog, or forum, join it. Offer your perspective rooted in your area of expertise. Be wary of offering opinions or statements you cannot back up, however, particularly in discussions with high emotions and sensitivity. Your goal is to win friends and influence others, to borrow from Dale Carnegie, not fall into arguments. Overall, maintain professionalism. And use your true identity with links back to your web presence. You’ll build credibility and potentially earn a few new followers.
  2. Share relevant and interesting information. Occasionally you will stumble across a current event that relates to your area of expertise – share it on all of your social networks. You will be surprised at how many in your audience (potential customers) appreciate reading articles they might not have otherwise encountered. This puts you in the know, you become a centralized resource for aggregating this information with a human touch, not an automated script sitting on someone’s web server delivering stories that match keywords.
  3. Insert yourself in the story. Take a page from marketing and public relations guru David Meerman Scott. In his eBook Newsjacking, Scott describes a marketing niche of inserting your perspective into a current news story. That is, you release an article, a blog post, or other communication that answers the situation at-hand in the current event, such as offering a free service to help the subject in need, or to immediately position yourself as the authority on the topic. Two important details cannot be overlooked: authenticity is a must, and timeliness is everything. The longer you wait – we’re talking minutes, maybe an hour – the sooner another will grab the opportunity before you can. It’s aggressive, but it can yield a ton of free publicity in the form of syndication by other blogs and the mainstream media, including follow-up interviews from reporters covering the event. As long as you are confident in handling what surprises come your way, newsjacking can open some major doors through social media at no cost.
  4. Be yourself. You are human. Your audience is human; they can detect the difference between authenticity and nonsense without much more than a gut feeling. Developing credibility in social media is a necessity in growing your business. Therefore, be honest and sincere, don’t exaggerate facts, and don’t speak in hyperbole. And don’t put on airs.
  5. Consistent activity is key. Setting a cadence in publishing content to your social networks and blog helps develop reader loyalty. Readers come to know your rhythm quickly, such as expecting to see a new blog every Sunday morning. There are automated tools that can help you maintain a publishing schedule, though I prefer to do it manually because it feels natural to allow some variance in the hour of day I publish. And that lets readers know I am actually performing the task, not automated software.
    You cannot forget the operative word activity in this matter; there is nothing worse to a loyal audience than a social media account or blog that has unexpectedly become dormant for a long period of time. It implies you’ve lost interest, have nothing more to say, you’re out of business, or other more tragic matters. Should a business closure occur, keep your social media presence alive, continue building your reputation, and make sure your loyal audience knows where to find you after the business closes. And if you’ve decided to discontinue your blog, give your audience the courtesy of knowing.
  6. Silence is the worst kind of response. Since social media makes businesses directly accessible to customers, feedback is bound to occur. Whether positive or negative, you need to respond in a relatively short time. Sometimes a simple message of gratitude is all that’s necessary to let your customer know you are listening and care. The same applies when a customer voices a negative response – offer to help that customer resolve the situation by replacing the product or whatever remedy is most appropriate. An unhappy customer who receives argumentative or apathetic responses is likely to share that negative experience with his or her own network. And negativity has a tendency to spread much faster on the web than positivity, an unfortunate truth.

No matter what your profession is, the size of your business, or the role you play in it, all of these guidelines are applicable. Building and maintaining relationships with your potential and existing customers is now the standard method of doing business. Once you begin this endeavor it becomes a commitment, and a valuable piece of your business growth.

Lastly, have fun with it. The best kind of work is produced when you enjoy doing it. Post content you like to write about or read. Help others by answering questions and offering suggestions. The concepts of karma apply here, through basic humanity and goodwill. Social media is an organic process; it is as human as you make it.

Surviving the increased workload epidemic

While at work some time ago you lost your raison d’être. You feel beaten down, uninspired … splintered and scattered and torn. Your job is no longer the job you were hired for, it’s an amalgamation of three other jobs, none of which you have professional experience in.

“Where did everyone go,” you wonder, looking around the once densely populated office space at several desks now used for temporary storage of file boxes and empty binders. “Thats right – one position was eliminated and you now handle it, another was offered an early retirement package to quickly reduce the headcount, and the last person left for a new job where she was offered a higher level position. “No chance of growing here,” she told you on her way to the exit interview, “get out as soon as you can!”

This pattern appears throughout the mid-sized company, each department dwindling as the CEO talks about the need to cut costs and scale-down budgets at town hall meetings. “Why did this happen?” you want to ask when the CEO opens to room for questions, but you don’t out of fear of retaliation. No one asks any questions. The CEO concludes the meeting after a minute of uncomfortable silence. On the way out you whisper to your friend from demand planning, “why am I doing all this work alone? Doesn’t he see what he’s doing?”

Finding dollars to save here and there, it looks great when summed up on a spreadsheet. Why pay multiple salaries when one person can carry all of the weight? Eliminate a few seemingly unnecessary responsibilities, like most of the internal communication role and half of the web team responsible for social media and e-commerce. “Those web things practically run themselves,” proclaimed the EVP of Operations. He doesn’t appear to be carrying additional weight when he leaves early each afternoon the weather is nice to play nine holes.

It’s really happening.

Go back to the opening paragraph, those descriptive words following that fancy French phrase that means reason for existence. This is an existential crisis for any employee enduring a company experiencing downsizing and reorganization. It’s a frustrating situation to be in, feeling tied down, unable to escape because the job market is ultra-competitive with others in your same circumstance also looking for a way out. Meanwhile, the workload is so overbearing your nights and weekends are rarely your own time.

When you question your multiplying position, consider: has your salary multiplied to compensate for the extra workload and additional responsibilities? Maybe a 1.75% merit increase for good behavior, not enough to cancel out the spike in next year’s healthcare cost. Has your title changed and position elevated to reflect the new work earning you a place at the decision-making table giving credence to the vast business knowledge you had to acquire to handle these jobs? Are you respected any more than you were when first hired?

From the employee’s perspective, this is an impossible situation to perpetuate any longer than you must. I’ve been through this, as well as several other good people I’ve known, some bearing the weight while others escaping at first chance. It kills morale; the corporate culture becomes heavily pessimistic and resentful. When staff is under-performing and feeling negative, and turn-over is high, where do you think the company is headed?

The right way to handle this.

I’m now addressing those with the decision-making power: don’t set this downward spiral in motion. Fight it at every step in your senior leadership and steering committee meetings. The answer to declining sales is rarely found by eliminating internal resources, it is found by examining the marketplace and reassessing your products.

Are you truly producing what people want? Or are your products a shallow reflection of what the marketplace demands? What new innovations are you introducing? Cutting supply chain and manufacturing costs by removing features your customers have grown to appreciate and expect won’t solve anything either. If anything, it will turn your customers off breaking their loyalty. Instead of producing a pale imitation of Apple’s latest iPhone, create a new cutting edge device that will blow it away.

I know it’s not as a simple as that. Money needs to be invested on research and technological development for starters, it’s a huge process. I get it. But it’s worthwhile in the end when your new product outsells the competition in a landslide if you’re willing to make the investment.

The answer lies in proactive creativity and innovation.

The answer is not in eliminating your staff and resources, and overburdening those who remain. A proactive creative approach to solving the business problems at-hand will permeate the business culture. Offering the staff the ability to participate in improving the business appeals to their intrinsic needs to be a part of something bigger, to do good. An employee body working together is far stronger than a few at the top making the decisions and putting the burden on those below.

Some advice for everyone stuck in an overburdened situation:

  1. Find it in yourself to remain optimistic. You can’t affect positive change feeling angry and resentful, even if you are in the right.
  2. Look for every opportunity no matter how small to contribute toward a better solution. Make recommendations to leaders who will listen.
  3. Influence your peers with optimism, encourage them to work with you toward improving the environment.

This is a complex matter that requires action on several fronts to resolve. You can only do your best within the confines of your role. Therefore, start with yourself, improve what you can around you, and encourage it to spread. If you find yourself leaving for a new opportunity, don’t lose the positive focus.

On writing: what good comes from fiction?

Since the early 1990s, I have occasionally stumbled across the notion that reading fiction is a waste of time. I remember seeing a hair metal rocker in an MTV interview back then proclaiming this frivolous statement. You would think this concept was profound by the attention it was given during the “news” segment. I can’t even recall who the musician was, guess it wasn’t all that big a deal.

More recently, however, Noel Gallagher of Oasis echoed a similar time-wasting sentiment in an interview for GQ’s Icon of the Year. You can see an article about this in The Guardian here. Is it trendy for some celebrities to make this unnecessarily stupid statement? I have yet to see a legitimate reason to defend this point. At best, it promotes his pompous arrogance. It begs the question why GQ deemed Gallagher worthy of such a prestigious title; he’s certainly on track to become a Nobel Laureate.

I understand some people prefer reading nonfiction over fiction just as others prefer the inverse – I get that. I don’t argue personal preference and I don’t pass judgment either way. I enjoy reading both and writing both. So be it. But the public proclamation of fiction as a waste of time sucks the marrow from my bones as a giant mosquito would if given the opportunity. It’s far more than just stating a personal preference when delivered to a mass media outlet.

For those who don’t see the point of fiction, I offer you these groundbreaking thoughts. And yes, they are opinions, rooted in observations, professional experience, and most importantly, common knowledge. Only a narcissist would be oblivious.

Fiction provides escape. 

For some it’s a journey into another world. For others, it’s the opportunity to live out a fantasy while ignoring the day’s real life stress. There’s no magic here, it should be obvious even to the most cynical bastard.

Fiction is ubiquitous.

I wonder if the people claiming fiction is a waste enjoy TV dramas, art galleries, blockbuster movies, or even stand-up comedy. Even when based on facts there are elements of fiction throughout these media. How many Civil War documentaries feature audio clips of Abraham Lincoln’s words of wisdom? Voiced by actors, of course. As for the gaps between recorded events, writers have to surmise what probably had occurred to connect the dots – fiction based on fact.

 Fiction excites the mind. 

An amazing side affect of reading fiction is that it inspires. It can invoke creativity. Especially for children. Concepts in science fiction haves opened the way to real life inventiveness, bringing to the world submarines and helicopters. Check out this Smithsonian.com article if you don’t believe me. Star Trek fans relish in this fact considering the number of inventions the original TV show inspired.

Fiction is the livelihood for many people.

Whether we are talking about novelists, publishers, or filmmakers, fiction is at the root of many Americans’ livelihood. It’s an industry no less legitimate than music.

Fiction is this or that….

Anyone can spend a few minutes on this topic and come up with a list. My point is this: don’t berate fiction because it’s not your cup of tea, even if your cup of tea contains sulfuric acid and bleach. No one enjoys hearing of their life’s passion proclaimed a waste of time. Not even formerly celebrated musicians.

The boss scare factor

Skull and crossbonesBack on the creativity versus fear topic. It’s Halloween time, of course. Not that I have to write a scary Halloween-themed blog. That would be out of character for me to follow a seasonal impetus.

Scare Factory

Consider your workplace. Do you feel confident in your ability to speak honestly with your boss or coworkers? Are you forced to walk barefoot on a wide plank wood floor covered in eggshells without making a sound? Because, if your boss should hear the slightest crunch you will be sentenced to hard time in his sweatshop dungeon churning out handmade plastic jewelry to sell to vending machine distributors.

An open coal-fired furnace occupies half the room, providing both intense heat and the only light source. No indoor plumbing so you’re forced to use a five gallon pail. You have no choice but to endure your boss’s martini-soaked screams and rants whenever he feels the need to release a little stress, which is all the time, because he has to stick around after work hours to babysit you. At 3:00AM you’re finally permitted to surface for fresh air, covered in soot and hot glue gun burns, able to go home to bed only to return five hours later.

Yes, this really happened because you had the mind to speak up and share an honest thought. And crush an eggshell.

Unjustifiable Fear

Welcome to the wonderful world of irrational fear. It comes in all shapes and forms, hindering our abilities to do what’s right and doing things well. It controls us for as much as we allow it. It can destroy our careers if not kept in check. Letting your imagination run amuck with all that could go wrong for the simplest task – see overwrought example above – can be taxing on your well-being and mental condition. I know many of us deal with varying levels of anxiety, which tends to fuel these irrational responses, I get that. But you need to know that fear cannot rule you.

I’m getting off my pedestal now.

I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist. I am a novice student of these disciplines when it comes to my professional life. I know from plenty of years of experience that fear is both pervasive and detrimental in the workplace and I have ideas rooted in my experience and observations on how to address it.

In reality, what’s the worst that can happen when you approach a senior level executive with a suggestion? Your fears will tell you everything can go wrong, anything from immediate termination to indentured servitude. Rational thinking should tell you the executive will thank you, maybe ask to learn more, set up a meeting to discuss. Or a simple no thanks. You’re not working for a Sith Lord, just another human being who’s accomplished a few more things to achieve that job level. Always remember they are humans too.

That thought reminded me of the many times I’ve witnessed employees in various workplaces revere the senior management as untouchable gods. I’ve never wrapped my head around that. We don’t live in a feudalistic society, so why does this innate sense of fear-based reverence exist in our culture? Perhaps it was passed down in families with harsh rules on children speaking only when spoken to followed by punishment if breeched. Whatever the cause, it’s up to each individual to take control, to annihilate those irrational fears. The critical first step is to be assertive, not pompous, assertive. There is a difference.

If I cannot communicate openly with a senior manager about a project I’m working on, or share thoughts from my expertise on how something can be improved, I’m not doing my job well. There are nuances within this statement of course, but it’s a clean generalization. Consider adopting a similar mentality in what you do, one that allows you to feel comfortable and speak freely without fear of retaliation. Push fear aside, reserve it for real problems like active war zones, category five hurricanes, and zombie infestations.

More to come on this topic. Your suggestions and comments are welcome.