I admire Penelope Trunk and recommend her book, The Brazen Careerist. When I disagree, it’s usually because she’s advising readers to buck the system even more than I would dare to do.
But today she published an article, Get Creative, that seems closer to the standard career counseling advice: “It’s up to you.” She defines the qualities of the creative person: “Creative people have high standards, inherent intensity and an obsession with coming up with something new.” She says we can be creative in any job. Bosses really want new ideas, although you may have to get pretty creative to sell them.
I have to disagree. In my maverick corporate days, I believed companies were eager to innovate. I was one who rushed in to make suggestions. It wasn’t till long after I’d been far removed from corporate life that I understood why my creativity had no chance to flourish. Now I believe we make mistakes when we encourage people (especially at entry level) to anticipate creativity in any job. Here’s why:
First, creativity will actually hinder performance on some jobs.
When I hire someone to fix some code in my website or go through the steps for a teleseminar, I want them to do exactly what I ask. When my cleaning service gets creative, I can’t find anything for weeks. Airline pilots follow very specific “company” policies for landing on a windy airport runway.
Second, understand if something is broken before you rush in to fix it.
More than one web designer has advised me to remove the sign -up box on the top of my website. If I have time, I say, “Sure, that box may not be aesthetically pleasing, but that’s how I earn money so I can pay you.”
Ideally, your boss will patiently explain why s/he rejects your ideas. But if you’ve got a lot of ideas, your boss will be spending a lot of time giving you private instruction. Everybody’s got time constraints.
Third, a Big Idea most likely will require a substantial investment in equipment, real estate or even cultural change.
For example, several airlines have tried to graft Southwest Airlines culture onto a traditional hierarchy. They did better when they capitalized on their own unique virtues. If you’ve got a Big Idea, you may have to go out on your own, start from scratch and get your own funding.
Fourth, creatives pay their dues to learn what works.
Take this blog post, for example. I can write anything, can’t I? But in fact I’ve taken courses from experts like the Blog Squad Jeff Herring And I know I’ll get more readership if I follow a “5 tips” format.
One of my friends said thoughtlessly, “I bet my son would be a great website copywriter. He’s very creative.” Yet I’ve invested large amounts of time and money to learn what works and what doesn’t. Sure I get creative when I apply time-tested principles to specific client situations. But I don’t sit down with a blank piece of paper and just write.
Authors follow a surprisingly long list of rules when writing novels. Some authors grasp these principles instinctively. Others learn them successfully. Still others never “get it” and, as a result, rarely attract readers and followers.
And while artists have a wide range of options, they study and apply principles of color, composition and design. I once took a drawing course, where I was surprised how much technique is involved.
Fifth, if you are going to think out of the box, be ready to end up all alone — on a desert island or on top of the world.
Recently an author sent me a book to review. She had chosen to defy the conventions of the book world by mixing genres. Her book combined memoir and how-to. Alas, readers expect one or the other. Memoir readers expect a very different reading experience than self-help enthusiasts. And bookstores won’t know how to classify this book.
Of course, if you’re a big picture thinker, and if you have the drive and access to resource to implement your ideas, you can end up like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or the others who changed the landscape of business. But I have a hunch that before they thought out of the box, they invested a lot of time studying the inside in all four corners.
Bottom line: When employees – especially entry level – seek creativity, I suspect they really want autonomy: control over their own time.