On Taking It Personally: The Real Risk of Creativity

“This isn’t a personal matter; it’s about business.”

“You really shouldn’t take it personally.”

“Don’t get personally involved.”

Ever since I began my advertising journey (now 16 years ago), I’ve heard the above statements and all manner of variations on this theme.

Once, after pitching a marketing group at Dell, I received a report that was forwarded to me by an agency account representative. “They felt intimidated by your presentation because you obviously cared too much about the ideas,” he told me.

I immediately began reflecting on the presentation. Had I openly wept? Had I hit my fist or my shoe on the podium? Had I challenged one of the marketing communications folks to a best-of-three Greco-Roman wrestling match? Was there blood in my eyes? Did anyone take it seriously when I proposed that we play a brisk round of “Spin the Broadsword”?

At one point in my career (which has been more like a series of happy accidents than anything else), I took this “don’t take it personally” counsel seriously. I purposed to remove myself from my work. I used as my model the popular image of the scientist: I would be the very picture of white-coated dispassion.

But it just didn’t work. The ideas lacked their normal “fit,” that almost magical sense of appropriateness to the project at hand. One client noticed my new tack. She didn’t like it, either.

Ever since then, little by little, I’ve been granted a “horizontal” revelation. Not a vertical one that pops into your head one midnight on a rainy highway or in the middle of a bland, dusty, deadening Tuesday afternoon. Not words spoken within the whirling funnel of a personal crisis. Not something right out of the blue like Zeus’s thunderbolt. Nothing like that. Something much slower and longer in the uncovering.

I’ve realized that work is woven into the blood and sinew and breath of my life. And that the best of my work is a kind of fierce advocacy.

I have further realized that dispassion is a comforting – and often deadening – insulation against commitment.

And, finally, as I noted briefly in another column, I’ve now come to believe that the best ideas and insights are reserved only for those who put themselves into their work.

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that you wear your heart on your sleeve or unsheathe a broadsword at the outset of your next pitch. That would be putting melodrama ahead of ideas.

But I do believe that the better clients can sense when something matters. And that the best clients can tell when what matters is bound up with the success of their own company’s efforts or is enmeshed with lesser issues of ego.

And, recently, my horizontal revelation has shown me just a bit more: that the effort is all.

Did you see this year’s Super Bowl? Did you see the play before the final play? After a grueling game, the Titans quarterback, Steve MacNair, was dodging rushers (who were convinced they had him trapped), doing a bit of amazing gymnastics to keep his balance and throw a pass to move the chains.

And then, the final play: the Titans receiver, arm outstretched, straining to extend the ball as far forward as possible, trying to break the plane. A few feet short of the goal.

Yes, and one second later, it dawned on us all that there was a victor and there was the vanquished. But, to me, that was an almost useless abstraction. The truth was in the trying.

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