Creativity should be a first - not a last - resort
The most common response I get when I tell people I use poetry to help businesses become something closer to all that they’re capable of is usually a pair of eyebrows raised hairline-high – like, you know that expression ya get when someone thinks the thing you just said is so absurd that they’re maybe slightly worried for you and are trying to figure out what how best to entertain what they see as your kinda tragic delusion?
Or maybe it’s just me who’s experienced that before? Anyway, uh…
I think when I tell people what I do, their first assumption is that I go to conferences and I make people write sonnets about their P&L’s and OKRs while making grandiose promises that doing so will make them cry and see trees differently that those things will somehow make them smash through their revenue goals. That, or they think that I tell marketing teams how to use alliteration to write better copy for their out-of-home activations.
And while both of those scenarios are fun to envision – while it’s always a wonderful surprise when an audience member messages me after an event sharing that the keynote inspired them to start or resume writing poetry – that’s not actually what my goal is when I step on stage, nor does that outcome encapsulate why I believe the art of poetry contains lessons within it that businesses who want to be the best they can should try to learn from. Let me try to explain it like this:
We all want to be excellent at what we do. “Excellence” looks different from person to person and from business to business – for some of us, it means building a team culture in which trust thrives. For others, it means delivering a service that our customers love. And for others still, excellence means nurturing steel-strong bonds in our intimate relationships. But whoever we are, we know we want to be great at the things we care about.
So the way most of us pursue excellence is by finding some short-term tactic that gives us a taste of what we assume it should feel like to be excellent. We launch a feature that gets rave reviews from our customers. We host a team bonding exercise that brings our colleagues closer together. We serenade our significant other-to-be with a mediocre but endearing acoustic rendition of Wonderwall on our first date with them and watch their eyes grow fat with the future. Whatever the tactic is, when we discover that it works, we know it feels right – it feels like excellence – so we seek to replicate that feeling.
But there’s a problem.
Human beings love comfort. We love routine. So when these heroic bursts of momentary creativity have the intended effect on our end users, we cling to the tactics that brought us there, and we seek to repeat those tactics by systematizing the living hell out of them. In other words, when we find something that works, we return to it over and over hoping to end up with the same results. But of course, that’s not what happens. Over time, the thing that made our once-creative ideas special ceases to give them that special edge they once had. In fact, eventually, the results we got from those special ideas can quite quickly start to look less like going above and beyond and more like the requirement for our work to be “just good enough.”
But we cling and cling until one day, something happens to us that exposes our weaknesses: a civil uprising makes us realize that we haven’t built a culture of belonging. A recession makes us realize that we haven’t been taking the right bets. A pandemic makes us realize that we haven’t built enough flexibility into how our team is able to get work done. And when this disruption happens, we frantically look for new creative tactics to keep us afloat and give us another spike of excellence not realizing that as long as we only ever innovate in times of crisis, we’re simply walking into the same trap that led us to the point we’re currently trying to escape.
And that… kinda sucks.
Ok, I know that was a long preamble, but the punchline is this: we treat creativity like a life raft we frantically search for when we’re drowning when it should be the bridge we should be spending our time building over the water before things get dire. We treat it like the rain we pray for in a drought when it should be the well we build long before we get thirsty.
Poetry teaches us how to build that well.
Poetry is everyday innovation with language. Poets could wake up every day to write “roses are red” style verses, but if that’s what we did, the art would be long dead by now. The only reason poetry still exists today is because poets make an active effort to sit down at their desks and, for no other reason than that they can, ask themselves: what can I do today with language that I’ve never done with it before?
It’s this thinking that have given birth to robust and unimagined styles of writing throughout the history of language, and it’s the same style of thinking that enables businesses to operate with excellence not in a fleeting, ephemeral way, but in a sustained manner that changes the trajectory of our success and brings us closer to the excellence we prize on a daily basis.
There’s more to be said here and this is a kind of awkward place to leave this post, but since this is already a pretty long one and I’m getting hungry I’m gonna call it here and build on this for next week.
Suffice it to say this: our goal is to move from treating creativity like a substitute for the work to treating it like the work.
Because that’s exactly what it is.