Get your magic back

Dave Birss, writer, speaker, advisor

14 December 2018

This article originally appeared in the Yule 2018 issue of Edge Magazine. They changed the original headline from ‘Terrifying Thoughts:
How fear conditions us to be uncreative’ because it was possibly too dark for them. You can see what it looked like on page 56 of the magazine right here.

Many years ago my career was nearly destroyed by a colleague. I was working as a copywriter in an advertising agency and had just teamed up with a new art director. Traditionally advertising creatives work in pairs to come up with the ideas before they separate to work on the words and pictures. On the very first day we started working together, I realised I’d made a mistake. I should never have chosen to work with this guy.

He rejected every idea I came up with. Every time I suggested something, he told me it was rubbish and that I needed to try harder. It continued like this every single day. I felt physically sick each morning as I travelled to work. Eventually, my brain shut down and I couldn’t come up with any ideas. I’d sit there in silence while he goaded me to think harder. But nothing came. My well was dry.

So I was fired.

I wasn’t doing my job, after all.

That same afternoon, I went to see the creative director of another ad agency. He liked my work and decided to set me a test. He gave me an hour to come up with ideas for two briefs. This guy believed in me. My mental block was cleared and the ideas came tumbling out onto the page. He couldn’t believe how much I’d done in an hour. And, most importantly, he loved my ideas. He hired me on the spot for twice as much as I was earning in my previous job.

He removed my fears and put his trust in me. And that liberated my mind.

Many years later, when I was running a creative department in London, my old nemesis sent me his CV. I filed it away neatly in the recycling bin. I’d never have someone that toxic in my department.

The fear starts early

If you ask some 5-year olds to draw their dream vehicle, they’ll happily set to work with their crayons. You’ll get contraptions with no wheels, with lots of wheels, powered by rockets, pulled by dinosaurs, made out of cake. The drawings they’ll produce are unlikely to demonstrate much artistic ability but they will demonstrate a heap of untamed imagination.

If you set some 8-year olds the same task, you’ll be inundated with questions and complaints. “I don’t know what to draw.” “I’m not any good at drawing.” The insecurities and fears have started to take hold. The drawings they produce are more likely to look like things that already exist – cars, buses, aeroplanes and boats. On the whole, they’ll demonstrate slightly more artistic ability but a lot less imagination.

Because by that age the education system has taught them there’s a right answer and a wrong answer for everything. They’re worried about looking foolish, being laughed at by their classmates or reprimanded by their teacher.

I think anyone who utters the phrase “your schooldays are the best days of your life” is utterly deluded.

The fear continues

The traditional workplace picks up where school left off.

If you follow the corporate processes properly, you’ll get to the right answer. The system is set up to encourage you to do rather than think.

The hierarchical system of an organisation is a structure that’s built on layers of fear. Each manager is concerned about what the person above them will think. All the way up to the CEO who’s concerned about keeping the shareholders happy and avoiding bad publicity.

Fear drives people to conform. It drives them to simply do what everyone else is doing. It drives them to shut off their minds to new ideas.

In short, fear prevents original thinking.

And that’s pretty disastrous these days when original thoughts are exactly what an organisation needs if it wants to adapt, survive and even thrive in our changing world

Liberating your thinking

One of our most crippling fears is the fear of the unknown. We tend to shy away from things we’ve not experienced before. But these new experiences are massively valuable to anyone who wants to come up with good ideas. They give us more knowledge to draw on and they broaden our perspectives, allowing us to see problems in different ways.

So, let’s start pushing into the unknown.

Order a coffee you don’t normally drink
Let’s start small. This is about getting you used to breaking out of your habitual ruts. If you don’t drink coffee, have a different kind of tea or soft drink or cocktail. In itself, this won’t do much to change your ideas but it will change the way you feel about stepping into the unknown.

Read a different newspaper
Your newspaper says something about you. And it shapes the way you think about the world. So mix things up by regularly reading a different newspaper. Or, if you’re not the kind of person who consumes printed news, visit a different website. Or buy a different magazine. The different perspectives this exercise gives you can help you come up with a wider spectrum of ideas.

Talk to strangers
I know you were told not to do this as a child but you’re an adult now. Talk to people to find out their opinions and understandings. Focus on asking questions rather than giving answers. Make an effort not to disagree but to listen and understand. As well as giving you different knowledge and perspectives, this is helping you practice how to deal with ideas. Because being open to other possibilities is vital if you want to access truly valuable thinking.

Managing for great ideas

Being a great thinker undoubtedly makes you more valuable in today’s business climate. But the next stage is for an organisation to create an environment where ideas can flourish. Again, that’s all about how they handle fear.

Most organisations are piling on more pressure and trying to encourage their employees to be more efficient. The drive to higher and higher utilisation rates is having a toxic effect on employees and their ability to have ideas.

There are lots of things companies need to do to become more welcoming environments for creative thinking. But that deserves an article in itself. And I’m not afraid to write it.