Getting Cosy with Creativity – with Aran Rees

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Last week, while drowsy and sad on Wednesday morning I wrote a short piece for this website entitled “Trump won. What else are you wrong about?” (It’s here in case you missed it – Ed.)

By our best estimates my Trump article has been viewed by upwards of a thousand people. For a fledgling site such as this, still finding its audience, that’s a big number. It’s also a big number for me. Which neatly leads me to another teachable moment.

A little success is a dangerous thing.

Success, however you measure it, is a heavy burden.

Writing the words that you’re reading now has been a gruelling slog. My Trump piece took all of 30 minutes to write. If that. It came from a place of freedom and invention. But knowing that it had become a fairly big hit, that many people read it and seeing a lot of positive feedback, has been a millstone around my neck.

Success, however you measure it, is a heavy burden. If you run a team or manage a business that has had any measure of recent success you will probably feel pretty good. Sorry to say, I’m here to ruin that for you.

There are two distinct ways that success leads to failure.

The need to best yourself

Many moons ago I worked for one summer as an on street charity fundraiser for Concern Worldwide. It was a job that I was relatively good at. I usually came back with a decent number of recruits to the cause and I felt good about what I was doing, despite the fact that what I was doing was very annoying to a lot of people.

As I said, my numbers were decent, but not extraordinary. This never bothered me much but then, one day, all the stars aligned. I signed up 12 new members in a single day, breaking the company record. It felt great. What didn’t feel great was what happened next.

In the following weeks I hit my worst patch since joining the team. For whatever reason, nothing was working. I’d gone from my best day to my worst month. Looking back now it’s clear that I was suffering from the need to best myself.

I was suffering from the need to best myself.

Up until that point my successes had been small and evenly spaced. I didn’t feel the need to live up to anything too notable. But, having done something extraordinary, what was good enough before seemed to no longer cut he mustard. I put myself under pressure and, in some ways, probably sabotaged my own success. If I couldn’t beat my past self then what was the point in even trying?

This article is unlikely to generate the same traffic that my piece about Trump achieved last week. Until I accepted that, writing it was near impossible.

The tendency to fight the last war

 

“… one’s victories in battle cannot be repeated—they take their form in response to inexhaustibly changing circumstances.”
Sun-tzu (fourth century B.C.)

Success is like a massive object in your personal solar system. The gravitational pull of that object can keep you in its orbit until you make a deliberate effort to get away. The bigger a success, the longer it has lasted, the harder it is to let go.

The bigger a success, the longer it has lasted, the harder it is to let go.

Historically we see this best in the theatre of war. When Napoleon defeated the Prussians he did so not only because he was a great general but because the Prussians, complacent as they were after generations of dominance, continued to rely on strategies of the past.

While writing this week’s column I spent a lot of time thinking about last week and trying, in one way or another, to figure out what was so good about it. It took me a good while to realise that the exact situation, the circumstances that gave rise to it, will not repeat again. There are very few lessons to be learned from my prior success. It can only tell me about the past.

Find your inner Bowie

People will argue endlessly about which is the best David Bowie album. What it seems to come down to is which particular David Bowie you preferred.

Bowie constantly reinvented himself, always attuned to the culture of the moment. Arguably therefore it is as silly to compare one Bowie album with another as it is to ask which is better, a fish or the moon.

Artists, like entrepreneurs and businesses, must learn to be consistently inconsistent. Because this is the only way I have ever found that enables people to recover from success. You cannot and will never be able to repeat the success of the past. If you intend, therefore, to make progress, you need to let go of not only what you did but who you were when you did it.

Artists, like entrepreneurs and businesses, must learn to be consistently inconsistentClick To Tweet

Buddhists call this concept beginner mind. To accept that at any moment you are a complete novice and that each step you take is like your first.

This is a classically hard, not complicated challenge. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Change the game: each year the rules of Formula One Grand Prix change. New rules about the specifications of cars, pit stops, qualifying and the like are introduced. So each year teams must reconsider their approach to optimise for a new normal. This is a great way to avoid fighting the last war and let go of past success.
  • Measure different things: if you want to let go of a past success, why not set different measurement criteria? Instead of page views I could think about shares or comments. I might even decide to set an entirely personal metric like getting inside a set word count (ha!) or having each paragraph contain at least one Hitchhikers Guide reference. Famously Dr Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham when challenged by his publisher to write a book using only 50 words.
  • Create a crisis: circumstances colour all things. Chances are your team found great success under ideal circumstances and waiting for another perfect day could lead to a loss in motivation. As a leader it is your job to make your team’s life harder in very specific ways – create a crisis that allows them to let go of their normal expectations.

The ideal situation, of course, is to create an organisational relationship with creativity that creates a state of constant change. Just as a rolling stone gathers no moss, a team with an eye on what’s next will rarely get caught up in the past.

Finding the creativity in your team will lead you to great successes. Just make sure that they aren’t also the seeds of your defeat.

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Getting Cosy with Creativity – with Aran Rees Last week, while drowsy and sad on Wednesday morning I wrote a short piece for this website entitled 'Trump won. What else are you wrong about?' (It's here in case you missed it - Ed.) By our best estimates my Trump article has...
Aran Rees
Founder and Coach at Sabre Tooth Panda
Aran is a creativity coach, facilitator and communicator, founder of Sabre Tooth Panda and creator of No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical quiz. He believes that expressing creativity is all about how you and those around you relate to creativity both at an emotional and intellectual level. He helps his clients to get cosy with creativity to solve big problems and have more fun.