Words are powerful, and none more so than YES and NO. Are you using them powerfully in your life? In your work, friendships and relationships, what are you saying YES and NO to?
There was a point late in Barack Obama’s book Dreams from my Father where he lost my admiration and raised doubts in my mind about his authenticity. Suddenly, the impressive, logical, impassioned, dedicated, truthful, heart-felt, intelligent and undoubtedly courageous journey of his life took a turn that seemed completely out of character, and didn’t appear to fit with the man that I thought I had come to know a little. He found Christianity. Suddenly, all the qualities of clarity of observation, forensic reasoning and a deep understanding of human nature that he had exhibited throughout the previous pages evaporated as he went all gooey and emotional in the face of an undefined and vaguely recognized ‘greater power’. It was only partly the religious epiphany that disturbed me; it was the change in him that set me adrift, and caused me to doubt him. Was this a calculated move? Was he going for the ‘god vote’ that is such a big factor in American politics? A man who spent his formative years in Indonesia would surely have been more likely to become a Muslim. But that wouldn’t have worked, especially in a country where, just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, 21% of Americans believed that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were one and the same, and the name ‘Obama’ is disturbingly close to ‘Osama’. So that point in the book, as far as I was concerned, began his inexorable decline into party politics, power-plays and the presidency.
Tony Blair did something similar – but after the event. When he left office, he remarkably declared that he had become a Catholic. Why he had to make his personal ‘faith’ public in the first place is a mystery, although it did help galvanize a friendship with the incoming American President, among other things. His authenticity had, of course, been called into question while he was in office, and his lack of it had eventually led to his downfall. Even so, he kept his bigger ‘faith’ – political spin – intact right through the recent parliamentary investigation into the Iraq debacle, insisting that he had done the right thing. I can only imagine that the pressures of political life had eventually got to him, and while he felt he needed to maintain a righteous public face, it was only in the privacy of the confessional that he could unburden himself of his errors without risking a roasting in the press, or worse.
Why am I mentioning all this, and how does it relate to normal business life? Well, the behaviour of those who are elected to serve us as leaders often trickles down into how we behave in business. Look at the Thatcher years, for example, and how money became god and survival of the fittest became the ruthless mantra of that era. However, political spin to achieve short-term gains through influencing public behaviour and manipulating beliefs is never sustainable. While the Bush/Rumsfeld team was laying waste to the American economy as well as Iraq and Afghanistan – with the majority support of its people – Ireland was having a boom time and everyone was happy to be on board, spurred on by a government seemingly on speed. What a shock, when it all came crashing down.
The point is that we cannot keep deferring to the apparent authenticity of others to guide our own lives. We have to build our own. Personal empowerment is the only way forward in an ever-more transparent and interconnected world. A good reputation is only won through authenticity. It can take a long time to achieve it and it can be lost in an instant if we choose to compromise. It is clear that our ‘leaders’ don’t have autonomy. To gain a following and the votes to put them in power, they choose to allow their authenticity to be chipped away; and, to hold on to power, they do deals that may fly in the face of the values that they preach and the very reasons that caused them to seek to serve.
In business, the environment is changing. Much of the change is due to a growing awareness of these issues, and that a higher level of personal autonomy is increasingly within reach for more and more people. Many choose not to embrace it as it comes with responsibility and risk of exposure should authenticity be breached. Some will choose to embrace it for exactly the same reasons.
It is crucial to the success of a business that the nature of the emerging environment be understood. Directors and managers can no longer wield power just to serve their egos or the interests of their backers. The ‘boardroom boys club’ is becoming less and less relevant. Employees have diminishing value if they simply follow orders and routines. The innovators of the business are now as likely to come from rank-and-file on the shop floor as from experts, directors and financiers.
Ultimately, this appears to be a call to all of us to ‘get real’. If we don’t know what that means in terms of who we are and what we do, then maybe it’s a call to do that first, and to re-align ourselves with where we are meant to be and where we want to go – based on our true identities, values and abilities. The sooner we do this the better because, as we go through life, we embed more and more useless stuff in our psyche simply because we have no real direction and we mistakenly think it may be useful some day. The need for clarity takes us on a search that inevitably increases our confusion, and we are increasingly likely to be swayed and influenced in ways that don’t serve us. So even if we have declared our intentions, we are undermining our ability to stick with them.
You may not agree with my take on Obama (and, for the record, I still feel he is the best president that America has had in years) or Blair but, in your life, do you struggle with compromised authenticity and a lack of personal autonomy? Is any sort of atonement a real option for the odd slip or intentional wrong-doing? Do you see a way forward other than by going inside to find real answers that will reveal the real (and best!) you?
When times are hard and money is tight, I hear this often. The belt-tightening process seems to automatically result in ditching the creative. It’s ironic, because when anyone starts a new business, it surely springs from a creative inspiration. So, why is it that the very thing that inspired the whole thing is seen as expendable?
I think it all stems from one simple fact that we really need to change if we are to move forward, pull ourselves out of recession and achieve a stable and abundant state: it’s simply that we are taught what to think, not how to think.
Consider any belief that you have, and you can usually trace it back to someone you trust telling you that this is a fact. It starts with our parents, and we continue this way of learning, often throughout our lives. Very little information we have is information we have originated ourselves. Politics, religion and education reinforce this way of learning to the point where we exclude creative notions as a matter of course – unless, by a process of repeated exposure and our own evidence-building processes (we want to believe certain things, so we find evidence that they are true for us), we start to believe them ourselves. Once we start buying into a belief, we tend to guard it, argue on its behalf and blank out counter beliefs. After all, we may have taken some convincing, and our self-esteem would be damaged if we think afterwards that we have taken on a wrong belief. You can see this happening in all areas of life, from the personal to the international.
We are not taught to be creative. A cynic might say that this is intentional. It helps maintain control and order if common beliefs are developed that serve the purposes of those dishing them out. Common beliefs are convenient, and they help things run smoothly. This is true in business as well, of course. This is what corporate culture, corporate image and identity, advertising and PR are all about, and it can help a company become successful.
So it is to be expected, then, that we often have an uneasy relationship with creativity. Faced with a creative person, business executives sometimes don’t know how to deal with this uneasiness and may criticize or put down creative ideas without appreciating their potential or seriously considering them at all. I call this Fear Undermining Creative Knowledge syndrome, the acronym of which accurately expresses the frustration that is so often felt when a businessman and a creative person try to work together. Two ships passing in a pea-souper at night, foghorns blasting to ensure a safe distance, but each desperately wanting to appreciate the existence of the other. Left brain meets right brain in a tortured dance to find an acceptable middle ground.
Or not. I was listening to Michael O’Leary (Ryanair) on the radio, saying with some pride that he doesn’t use creative consultants, and anyone with a pony tail won’t even get through his door. He has young staff, and they produce all the advertising ideas themselves in-house, so he has created a mix of control and creativity that works for him. Not many companies have that much confidence and such a charismatic leader to make that work well. Often, a weakness of an owner manager is that he or she cannot determine when it is best to seek creative expertise. Many have an ego that serves them well in the good times but can be disastrous in bad times or when the company needs to take a significant step up in order to continue to grow.
All this means that whether the creative process is carried out internally or externally, it often gets a bad rap, and it’s easy to convince board members that it isn’t important for survival. But they are missing one important point in thinking like this. They need creativity in order to move forward, and it’s rarely the creative input that causes the kind of disasters we have seen in recent times, that all combined to create the financial crisis. As we know, it was primarily dodgy financial practices that caused the problems, fuelled by collective unthinking and a lack of creativity to create the tools and mechanisms to avoid it. Once we pull ourselves through the mess, will anything in the financial world change? There are already signs of a repeat performance.
What, then, is the message we are not hearing? Maybe we all have some fresh learning to do about creativity and what it contributes to our lives. Maybe, as Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently urged in his famous TED talk, admired by over 4 million viewers, we need to radically re-think our educational system.
I was told once that in the west, when we see an abstract work of art we assess it, judge it and criticize it. In the East, they observe it, and see what they gain from it. To me, that rather sounds as if our culture blocks it out and maintains a distance from something we inherently don’t understand, and the other lets it in, and learns to appreciate what ever it is offering. Which way is the way of progress?
Is it all really, I mean, really helpful? Or is it just another way to put off the inevitable –working things out for ourselves?
These days, every time I have to think, rather than just sitting down and brainstorming, my automatic port of call is the internet – that wonderful repository of tidbits, advice, checklists, gizmos, inspirational quotes, secrets revealed, magic answers, attractive distractions and so on. I don’t even think about it. I am hard-wired and programmed to grab the mouse and start clicking.
No wonder, then, that it is such a painful process, at times, to get into my studio and do some art. Upon entering, it’s frightening, because to enter means leaving that world of seeming support and entering a world of self-reliance where there are no rules, no guidelines, no advice, no help, and nothing is forbidden. You might think that that sounds like freedom, but try it, and you’ll see just how daunting it is. Yet, despite all the pressure to be dependent on all that other stuff, if I stay with it, I can get back to the real me, the unique me and the creative, powerful me.
Then, when I go back to the internet, I can sift through the information that had previously seemed overwhelming (oh, I should know that, I must get that, I must print that out as a reference etc.) and actually use the computer as a tool that serves me. Let’s face it: most of the information on the internet is not much use to us. Even the good stuff is repeated ad infinitum in different guises – especially now we are all madly linking everything through various social media tools.
What concerns me is that much of the media we are exposed to in our daily lives is sliding into a predictable same-ness, a grey, comfortable blandosphere of mediocrity. That is especially apparent with television. No one can doubt that, technologically, the media machine is very impressive and its accelerating development is going through a creative explosion, but (dare I say) spiritually, it seems to me to be dull. I don’t think we can afford to be that way, especially in business. If we go down that road, we end up with companies, products and services that are technologically and intellectually brilliant, but somehow lacking character or interest. In the search for safety and security, we risk sacrificing spirit and creative innovation; and in communicating in this way, we risk losing inspiration and exploration of our higher potential. We become boring.
When I tell people that I am a marketing communications consultant as well as an artist, it can confuse. To me, they are equally important facets of my life. They are interdependent, but the art definitely benefits the marketing communications more than the other way around. The creative process is the essential key to everything I do, as I believe it is for any business. For me, it has to be real and not virtual. ‘Press the flesh’, interact authentically, challenge myself with some ideas for a painting and dare to experiment without judgment. Everyone has their own way, I’m sure, but it’s only when you truly engage in the creative process that you are bringing new value into what you do, that you can find new and unique qualities that every business craves, and that you become more independent and powerful, as a result – on both a personal and a company level.
Because our creativity is like a muscle that we don’t flex very often, it can get a bit flabby. To truly think outside the box is a very liberating, although sometimes disturbing, experience. But we need to be disturbed! Otherwise we keep going through the same cycles and routines and we miss out on a whole chunk of life. We also need to discover our own uniqueness in order to find fulfillment. When we do that, we emanate those qualities and attract the relationships, money and success that we want.
So, if you feel like responding to this blog, try flexing that muscle. Don’t just say how much you like or dislike it, or that I have raised some interesting points. Be daring, surprise yourself – and the rest of us – and let’s really get out of the blandosphere!
This is my answer in response to this post by Aainaaa-Ridtz ArRashid’s note on Facebook.
Wonderful idea! However, why do I have a sinking feeling when I read your proposal? You have twenty people on this note at the moment, so you could get at least twenty very intelligent, clever and passionate ideas, carefully formulated into convincing papers, as to how we deal with these global problems.
Just 20. Out of millions of people who also have brilliant ideas. Each coming from their own background, their own set of circumstances, their own hearts. Each one as perfectly valid as the next, because they relate, is some appropriate way, to their perception of the problems based on their knowledge, experience and how they have received and processed the information that has been made available to them.
In other words, each of us reacts to our circumstances. In matters such as these posed in this note, we all think ‘oh, this is so overwhelming but we must find a way to fix it’, and we revert to the seemingly impossible task of dealing with these circumstances. But the circumstances are huge and our influence is small. And we perceive that there are huge forces – governments, money, armies, nature and so on – that we have to find some way to overcome and change.
How can we do that in any way that is coherent and powerful, and really likely to have an effect? Especially when we realize that we are creating those circumstances and are an integral part of the problem, because we are simply reacting to circumstances. So we are, in fact, sustaining it as well, because incoherent protestations from within the problem are never going to change those circumstances.
Change comes with us first realizing that we create our own circumstances. Therefore we can change them. But if we live reactively, we are not going to change anything. Change starts with the knowledge that we are empowered to create new circumstances, and that true power resides not with politicians and ‘world leaders’, but with each of us. Yes, we’ve heard it all before. But that is also part of the problem. We can so easily revert to well-worn phrases, or say ‘well, I did my bit’ after the heavy wheels of circumstance have nullified our efforts, or bask in the admiration of those who admired our valiant efforts.
But this is a story that has been running since time began, for this planet, at least. And yet it is only as long as the individual lives of each one of us. It’s our personal journeys that make the world. Each one of us. There is no magic formula. Incredible and as chaotic as it may be, we are each of us learning as we go, so who are we to tell others how to do it? And how relevant is anything we may perceive to be an answer when it comes from such a narrow perspective of our individual mind? Isn’t this process going to perpetuate the situation because it is just another way to try to convince people of one perceived route over another? Vote for me, my idea is best! Which eventually turns into, do it my way, or you are wrong. And so it goes on.
So, it’s inside that we need to turn, not outside. That’s where we will truly connect. But we all have practical work to do to change our limiting beliefs, our negative subconscious programming, our circumstances. ‘We have to take action now! We have to be practical! This is urgent!’ Yes, but we have to be in the right place inside before we take action. Otherwise, look what happens. Then the proverbial light can shine and the butterfly effect moves to the positive.