My Soul is Planning an IPO
A friend recently asked me - "what's it like being a creative person working in a corporate environment?" I didn't really have an answer at the time (just a nauseous feeling), so I thought about it for awhile.
The best description I can think of is that it's like the show "Locked Up Abroad". Imagine visiting a foreign country and having someone put something in your ass, saying "If you make a mistake, you're dead." Then, you're detained trying to get back to your homeland by ill-tempered and humorless customs agents who lock you away in a place where roaches won't even live and where you're beaten intermittently by swarthy female prison guards while you scream out "I swear I didn't do it" in between sobs. Not exactly like that, but so close it's frightening.
In all honesty, I'm really good at my job, and it isn't quite as bad as a Peruvian prison. At least I have a job, which is the mantra I repeat to myself every morning as I leave for the office. It's just that the corporate world isn't really set up to take full advantage of creative types. I guess there are some that do it better than others, but there is something about bureaucracy, HR regulations, egos and, of course, cubicles that doesn't scream Bohemian ecstasy. I honestly blame fraternities, sororities and shareholders for the problem - not just for the difficulties creatives like me face, but for the lack of open-mindedness in corporate culture as a whole.
Let's start with the brotherhoods and sisterhoods of Beta Kappa Me Me Me. I don't disdain fraternities and sororities as a whole - I know a lot of really nice people who have emerged from them and led very satisfied lives. But by default, they're set up to discriminate. To gain access to one, you must be accepted as a pledge (where the first analysis of your worth as a human begins), then go through rigorous embarrassment and torture until you're "accepted" as worthy of being one of the chosen. It's basically like a little shoebox diorama of real life, because this process happens consciously and subconsciously every day in our societies. We look, analyze, torture and choose who we deem worthy of our company. And, once we've been accepted into our group of choice, we are fiercely loyal to it. Unfortunately, this attitude seeps into our politics and our workplaces where a "club" of the elite exists to swap favors and give preferential treatment to one another as they move as a group to the top of the organization. Politicians make deals with friends and their lobbyist pals, creating powerful compacts that force the ideas and interests of a few onto the masses. Corporate executives promote their buddies and support the ideas of those who are their loyal "brothers" and "sisters" in the quest to more power and money. Unfortunately for creative types, we're generally the ones who have been shunned from these groups since childhood because of our strange ideas and ways of being. We became loners or traveled in small packs of misfit toys and continue to make our way through life with that mentality and survival instinct. It does wonders for supporting our creative urges, but little to support our advancement in modern society. When we need the support of the higher-ups, or a promotion, we don't have a loyal fraternal order to stand behind us.
Why? Because money rules the world and therefore risk is frowned upon - and we creatives thrive on pushing boundaries and risk taking. When we create for ourselves as a hobby or start our own businesses, we thrive, because no one is telling us "I don't think that will be well received by our customers/executives" or "that's just weird" or "I've never heard of that before...it can't be good." A good example of how this works is in the car industry. Auto shows feature concept cars that were created as pieces of art, with the design teams having free reign and no penny pinchers stepping in to ruin the fun. We salivate over these designs, because they speak of the future and what we as humans are capable of creating out of the base elements that make up our world. Then, when the car actually gets approved for production, the money people step in and take all the risk, the fluidity and the emotion out of the end product and we're left with squared-off and unimaginative designs that allow the company to cut costs, feed their shareholders more dividends and sell their products to those of us that are afraid of making a statement in the world. The same goes for many organizations - they say "We want to be a leader!" or "we need to differentiate ourselves from the competition!" But when faced with ideas that would truly separate them from the rest, they balk because they're afraid to rock the boat -- they don't want to risk doing something that will bring attention to them as "individuals", just as they didn't want to be loners when they were younger. They want the safety of the group. And so, compromises are made and the impact that they could have achieved is negated. I can't tell you how many ideas and projects I've developed that are still just sitting on my hard drive because someone said..."too different!" before they even got a chance to be shown to a larger audience.
There are some companies, however - Apple being the prime example - that have had the nerve to shirk this mentality and let the creatives rule...and if you've seen Apple's balance sheet lately, they're worth more than the entire economy of Poland. Poland, yes, but an ENTIRE COUNTRY nonetheless. The company went from near bankruptcy to become one of the highest valued companies in the world in just over a decade, led by the force of unbridled creativity and risk taking. They eliminated the floppy drive when everyone was still using one - and we all followed their lead. So, it seems that there's nothing to be afraid of in taking risks.
I see this problem coming to an end, just as I see bigotry and conservatism facing a long, slow death in our political system. As the older retire or die, the younger will take their place - a generation typically more attuned to the fast-paced, diverse and innovative "Apple" society that they've grown up in. I just pray that we don't repeat the same mistakes that our predecessors have. I mean, imagine if every American business adopted the mentality of an Apple or a Google? How rich would we be as a society, both monetarily and culturally? Our strength as Americans is our independent thinking and our ingenuity. If we push that aside to crunch pennies in order to compete with cheaper foreign competitors, then we will lose. It's time for the creatives to rule.
And, it's not to say that there is no use for the non-creatives in the workplace - oh absolutely there is! Creatives are not generally great with numbers, so someone has to learn how to use Excel (and it's not going to be me). But, they really shouldn't be the ones running the business and making decisions about what is the "next big thing." They should leave that to us, and then support us in making it happen. The same goes for shareholders. Rather than criticize a company for taking risks, for fear of diminished returns, they should support those risks wholeheartedly, because they are the only thing that will create wealth through investment.
So why do I stay in a corporate environment? I'd love to say that I'm trying to impact change from the inside, but it's not really that altruistic. I live in a middle ground of trying to feed my creative side while paying the bills, affording healthcare, gas, groceries and having some fun in this incredible world of ours. But one day, I will take the risks I need to break free from my cell in the Andes and use my potential to its fullest. And when I do, I will help liberate others like me who got caught up as corporate "mules", forced to smuggle boring ideas around in their rectums.
Until then, I will continue to work in secret, writing blogs like this and imagining what life would be like now, had I invested in Apple back in 1996 when it's stock price was at $9. If I had, I would be living on a private island right now, painting and inviting my fellow weirdos out for a BBQ. It will happen. Expect your invitation at any time.