On clichés as a springboard for creativity
When you think of a 99 cent store, what comes to mind?
Low-quality products? Knockoff brands? Poverty? Last-minute gifts for a friend you don’t much care about? Some heavy condemnation of the hubristic wastefulness of our consumerist society?
Any of these schemas would be fair to carry when an image of this sort of store enters your head. For a long time, I associated the 99 cent store with most of those things, too – perhaps in addition to ideas like ruthless utilitarianism and acquisitions that will soon be forgotten. Suffice it to say that for me (and probably for most of us,) the 99 cent store was never evocative of much “soulfulness” – just its unapologetic pragmatism.
But a few years ago, I read a poem that changed that.
It’s a poem called “Owed to the 99 Cent Store” by Josh Bennett. In the poem, Bennett reminisces on the often-besmirched institution by narrativizing the joy it was uniquely capable of bringing him as a child. He calls it “God’s garage;” a land of misfit knick knacks that could take a gangly dollar bill and transform it into the stuff of a kid’s dreams: candy bars and Swedish Fish at an age where those things were the only high we knew or could afford.
For Bennett, the 99 cent store didn’t represent the predictable tropes I listed above. It represented freedom, possibility, and unrestrained adolescent joy. And listen, I don’t care who says different: there is no way on earth that any person could get to the end of this poem without having a little more love for their local Dollar General.
I love the way poems like these that take common clichés and assumptions about things we all encounter in the real world and flip them on their head in a way that’s unexpected but totally sincere and relatable.
What poems like this remind are that these biases limit our ability to be in touch with the heart, happiness, and meaning waiting to be discovered in all manner of things we encounter in our daily lives.
Wherever there is an idea, a gaggle of assumptions about what that idea must be come silently with it.
For this reason, I implore you to consider how taking a leaf from the poet’s book on this matter could push you to see the opportunity for expansiveness and transformation in your own work. Everything you think you know about anything work-related – from the nature of your annual goals to the processes you’ve relied on for years down to your own “professional persona” – is loaded with assumptions that you’ve held for so long that you’ve stopped forgotten their presence and have likely fallen somewhat out of touch with your ability to reconsider ways for those things to exist.
So consider picking an item from one of those three buckets and listing 10 assumptions you have about it; things that would come to mind without effort if someone were to ask you to tell them the most important elements about what those things are, or aren’t, or do, or don’t do.
Then, challenge yourself to prove one of those assumptions wrong.
The objective here isn’t necessarily to take the subversion you discover and use it to overhaul your entire onboarding process just because you’ve realized that you don’t have to send a welcome email to make a new employee feel welcome. The goal is to realize that there’s likely more possibility in how the parts of our work that we interact with on a regular basis show up than we actively realize.
And hopefully, that means that the next time you’re caught in a quagmire that applying traditional tools and assumptions to won’t solve, you’ll be ever-so-slightly more likely to consider exploring some of those other possibilities.
And, I mean… how awesome would that be, right?