How to Be Creative :: Sections 17/18

MacLeod highlights the value of authenticity and hard work, and reveals the challenges and rewards of being creative.

Read the sections from Mr. MacLeod’s manifesto on how to be creative. Then meditate on what you read and post your own, well crafted reply:


Today’s sentence starter: A conclusion that I’m drawing is …

17. Merit can be bought. Passion can’t.

The only people who can change the world are people who want to. And not everybody does.

Human beings have this thing I call the “Pissed Off Gene.” Itʼs that bit of our psyche that makes us utterly dissatisfied with our lot, no matter how kindly fortune smiles upon us.

Itʼs there for a reason. Back in our early caveman days being pissed off made us more likely to get off our butt, get out of the cave and into the tundra hunting woolly mammoth, so weʼd have something to eat for supper. Itʼs a survival mechanism. Damn useful then, damn useful now.

Itʼs this same Pissed Off Gene that makes us want to create anything in the first place—drawings, violin sonatas, meat packing companies, websites. This same gene drove us to discover how to make a fire, the wheel, the bow and arrow, indoor plumbing, the personal computer, the list is endless.

Part of understanding the creative urge is understanding that itʼs primal. Wanting to change the world is not a noble calling; itʼs a primal calling.

We think weʼre “providing a superior integrated logistic system” or “helping America to really taste freshness.” In fact weʼre just pissed off and want to get the hell out of the cave and kill the woolly mammoth.

Your business either lets you go hunt the woolly mammoth or it doesnʼt. Of course, like so many white-collar jobs these days, you might very well be offered a ton of money to sit in the corner-office cave and pretend that youʼre hunting. That is sad. Whatʼs even sadder is if you agree to take the money.

18. Avoid the Watercooler Gang.

Theyʼre a well-meaning bunch, but they get in the way eventually.

Back when I worked for a large advertising agency as a young rookie, it used to just bother me how much the “Watercooler Gang” just kvetched all the time. The “Watercooler Gang” was my term for what was still allowed to exist in the industry back then. Packs of second-rate creatives, many years passed their sell-by date, being squeezed by the Creative Directors for every last ounce of juice they had, till it came time to firing them on the cheap. Taking too many trips to the watercooler and coming back drunk from lunch far too often. Working late nights and weekends on all the boring-but-profitable accounts. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze…

Your office could be awash with Clios and One Show awards, yet your career could still be down the sinkhole.

I remember some weeks where one could easily spend half an hour a day, listening to Ted complain.

Ted used to have a window office but now had a cube ever since that one disastrous meeting with Client X. He would come visit me in my cube at least once a day and start his thing. Complain, complain, complain…about whatever… how Josh-The-Golden-Boy was a [horrible] writer and a complete phony…or how they bought Little-Miss-Hot-Pantsʼs ad instead of his, “even though mine was the best in the room and every bastard there knew it.”

Like I said, whatever.

It was endless…Yak Yak Yak… Oi vey! Ted, I love ya, youʼre a great guy, but shut the hell up….

In retrospect, it was Tedʼs example that taught me a very poignant lesson—back then I was still too young and naïve to have learned it by that point—that your office could be awash with Clios and One Show awards, yet your career could still be down the sinkhole.

Donʼt get me wrong—my career there was a complete disaster. This is not a case of one of the Alphas mocking the Betas. This is a Gamma mocking the Betas.

Iʼm having lunch with my associate, John, whoʼs about the same age as me. Cheap and cheerful Thai food, just down the road from the agency.

“The only reason they like having me around is because I’m still young and cheap. The minute I am no longer either, I’m dead meat.”

“I gotta get out of this company,” I say.

“I thought you liked your job,” says John.

“I do,” I say. “But the only reason they like having me around is because Iʼm still young and cheap. The minute I am no longer either, Iʼm dead meat.”

“Like Ted,” says John.

“Yeah…him and the rest of The Watercooler Gang.”

“The Watercoolies,” laughs John.

So we had a good chuckle about our poor, hapless elders. We werenʼt that sympathetic, frankly. Their lives might have been hell then, but they had already had their glory moments. They had won their awards, flown off to The Bahamas to shoot toilet paper ads with famous movie stars and all that. Unlike us youngʼuns. John and I had only been out of college a couple of years and had still yet to make our mark on the industry we had entered with about as much passion and hope as anybody alive.

We had sold a few newspaper ads now and then, some magazine spreads, but the TV stuff was still well beyond reach. So far, the agency we had worked for had yet to allow us to shine. Was this our fault or theirs? Maybe a little bit of both, but back then it was all “their fault, dang-it!” Of course, everything is “their fault, dang-it!” when youʼre 24.

Back then it was all “their fault, dang-it!” Of course, everything is “their fault, dang-it!”
when you’re 24.

I quit my job about a year later. John stayed on with the agency, for whatever reason, then about 5 years ago got married, with his first kid following soon after. Suddenly with a family to support he couldnʼt afford to get fired. The Creative Director knew this and started to squeeze.

“You donʼt mind working this weekend, John, do you? Good. I knew you wouldnʼt. We all know how much the team relies on you to deliver at crunch time—thatʼs why we value you so highly, John, wouldnʼt you say?”

Last time I saw John he was working at this horrible little agency for a fraction of his former salary. Turns out the big agency had tossed him out about a week after his kidʼs second birthday.

Weʼre sitting there at the Thai restaurant again, having lunch for old timeʼs sake. Weʼre having a good time, talking about the usual artsy-fartsy stuff we always do. Itʼs a great conversation, marred only by the fact that I canʼt get the word “watercooler” out of my head…