Distilled from a recent interview on blog radio with the delightful Heidi Ehlers, founder of Camp Black Bag – “The Boot Camp for Your Career.”
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I was in the advertising business for 32 years. To yield that figure in dog years (an appropriate metric for this business), we multiply by by 7. Performing the calculation, I am not surprised to see I was in the business for 244 years.
244 long grinding years.
What makes dog years such an accurate chronometer for life in advertising is the wear-and-tear the business takes on you. Particularly your spirit. Because 100% of everything you create in this business will be second-guessed and 95% of it will die.
Not just die, but killed; murdered actually, usually bludgeoned over its head by a client wielding a chart of some kind. What’s worse is that you’ll be asked to re-solve the same problem you just solved. For 244 years I listened to people asking me, “Can you do it over?”
Often I think we should go into some profession which requires only math. At least when you’re done solving a problem in math, no one comes in and says, “I see you have 2 + 2 equaling 4 … but I’m not crazy about the number 4. Can we have it equal something else?”
It’s a rough business on the sometimes tender creative spirit. So, what are we to do?
Many years ago, I heard this piece of advice: “The first duty of the artist is to survive.” Took me a long time to see how smart that advice was.
The world is not kind to creative people, nor their creative ideas. The world in fact conspires to reject new ideas. Good ideas are usually surrounded at birth by anti-bodies that do not recognize their strange DNA and want them dead.
Given this harsh environment, it is not surprising how often we hear about creative people burning out. And I’m not talking about the piles of dead rocks stars in hotel rooms, the writers eating shotguns, the artists slicing off ears. That’s mental illness and addiction. I’m talking about regular people like you and me who just grow sick of defending their work and finally leave, usually with a parting remark like, “It’s just not as fun as it used to be.”
It seems for creative people to survive, some sort of Kevlar must be laid over the spirit.
What you do to figure out how to care for your spirit, to keep it strong and flexible, that will be up to you. All I can tell you is what helped me.
Cultivate the ability of infinite resignation. Resignation doesn’t mean resigning. It means accepting. It’s about finding a way to be in the fight, but not of the fight. It’s a hard thing to describe and the best description I ever saw was in a book I read in college.
( Looks like I’m gonna get “all deep” on everyone again, so let me just don my clip-on pony tail here and let’s do this. Oh…. and bragging points to anyone who recognizes the book.)
“A man of knowledge knows that his life will be over altogether too soon. He knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows that nothing is more important than anything else. … Under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly. Thus a man of knowledge endeavors and sweats and puffs and, if one looks at him, he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t. So when he fulfills his acts, he retreats in peace and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, it is in no way part of his concern.”
Castaneda’s words are nice. I think the solution is just love what you do. Like in any field really. It makes it all worthwhile.
May I add poem from Charles Buwoski? It’s not just about writing, even though it looks like that.
LOVE the Bukowski poem. Never seen it before. Reeeeally like it. Thx Jaap.
This is very wise, Luke. We’re dust in the wind, so we may as well enjoy the ride and ride the gusts, even if some of them take us to places we didn’t anticipate.
‘To be in the fight, not of the fight.’ So true. So true. Resilience is the ultimate form of rebellion. I have found that fighting the fight on business, not creative, turf has been the only way to do amazing work. I had a professor tell me once that undergrads are taught how to solve a problem, but Grad students are taught how to reframe a problem.
It is true that advertising creative people die a death from a thousand cuts, but it is also true that advertising is not meant to be a true creative canvass. If you live to express yourself through selling soap, beer, and automobiles then you are not really a true creative person. You might be a clever business person or a creative communicator, but you are not a true creative person. The true creative person endeavors to express their thoughts and feeling in a form that is free from outside influences. Free of group thinking. Free of committees. That’s why every ad copywriter has a novel or screenplay in their drawer. Every ad art director has a painting in their back bedroom. If you let this business, and it is a business, destroy your spirit, then you are asking too much of it. An advertising man of knowledge knows all about controlled folly. It is what endless meetings are all about. But he also knows that he must live a second life beyond the walls of the agency if he is to be truly fulfilled.
So true and my thoughts exactly. it is hard to control or blanket a creative spirit, thus some other outlet then should be generated then chased after… . Every creative genius knows this! Nice words on expressing this theory.
Yes, those side projects are for keeping you sane AS WELL AS experimenting, because you never know when something like typography composed of ordinary sugar might prove a hit with the right client.
You can make it through the crappy photoshop-wrench style jobs, and you can be successful on your own terms eventually. Like this article said…An artist’s first job is to survive. If you need a sci-fi novel or a kid’s book in the drawer to survive, you better well do that. 😀 Odds are it will help you in your REAL job as well!
Great essay, Luke. The name of the book is Journey to Ixtlan.
Wolffie nails it.
Nicely done. Burnout is something that can happen in any profession where the outcome is not set in stone. (And since human nature is good in the beating ourselves up category even math professors are likely to be prone to burnout I imagine – Still love the 2 + 2 example though). In real estate I learned early not to get attached to the outcome. It’s only when you separate yourself from the outcome that you can do your best every day and not worry when it doesn’t work out. (Easy in theory, harder in practice). I have read Castaneda, but didn’t recognize the excerpt. No bragging rights for me.
“Separating yourself from the outcome.” Yeah, I like that.
As one who worked the ad business for 7 years, the first wake up call to me was the realization that the advertising world is not about being creative; it is meetings, kissing butt, office politics, more meetings, compromise, killing of the best ideas, “that’s the way it’s always been done, more meetings and doing the same thing over and over. How many different ways can one write a Toyota is economical to drive?
So the real creative ones spend their time working at home on their real creativity: writing, drawing, painting, whatever. Get away from the group think and meetings and compromise and be creative. And survive. But start early on the doing the creative stuff or you will be too old or burned out to want to do it full-time.
hahahaha you are amazing you sat there and ruebbd the paper on the stairs!! brilliant takes me nnack to when I first started scrapbooking that’s how we dry embossed!Love your cards and thank you so much for your continued support of all the challenges at Get Creative!!hugzirini
That’s really thinking of the highest order
**Lets get spiritual*** To go even deeper, that advice actually stems from Ecclesiastes in the bible. Read it. I know. Weird huh. Anyway, love it and love this blog. Cheers Luke, (Jr. writer at S&S.)
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