In this article, we will discuss how to become a creative person.
If you’ve not heard of Yuval Noah Harari check him out – read his books.
Recently he was asked what advice he would give his younger self – “Don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they don’t understand the world.”
A Tough Teacher | Become A Creative Person
Like many, when I was going through school, I had no idea what I would be doing later in life. My first real school was pretty brutal. I was 11. It was a boarding school – military-style – built for Naval officers’ sons – to prepare them for life—6 years of hard labor. I stood out a bit. My passion, even then, was for drawing, music and being firmly against the establishment. My father was an engineer – I was in awe of his skill as a draughtsman, creating jet engines’ blueprints with nothing but a sharp pencil and ruler. This lived with me throughout my life. As the topic of careers came up, my interest and attention went down. Lists of labels. Words that I now realize classified entire industries out of existence. The language used hid any meaning behind bland terms. Words are a real trap in life. I still can’t clearly define myself. I have no label that defines me and certainly no single career or job.
Insight: Sometimes your path is right there in front of you even though it may take decades to realise it. Read on.
Insight: Ignore the label that’s stuck on a career. It means something different to everyone and anyway it’s what you make it. Whatever it’s called, make it yours.
Insight: Everything changes. What they taught me at school bore little relationship to the capabilities I needed in my life. School subjects are but raw material, but they can come in handy.
“The words you speak become the house you live in.” — Hafiz
The school (classical education) was always a challenge for me. It was mostly about science, mathematics, languages, and sport. On the other hand, I was all about art, technical drawing, and wanting to be done with it all. I look back now and see that constant challenges were simply the preparation for life.
‘Obstacles do not block the path. They are the path.’ — Zen Proverb
I was lucky to get a great education, but it was dressed up as boot camp. Fellow students were licensed to discipline us. Rules were disobeyed at your peril. The teachers were almost exclusively machines designed to drill words and images into your head. It was brutal and frightening. Going home at the end of term was literally to escape from hell.
Insight: The brain is incredible. It soaks things up without you knowing. When you least expect it, a great piece of knowledge or capability you had forgotten will reveal itself.
Insight: I hated mathematics – but now I rely on it to visualize business cases. I liked English – it enables critical conversations – especially when I’m not speaking. I came to like Physics, Geography, and Biology because I could draw in the classes, which taught me to understand stuff.
The majority of teachers didn’t really know how to inspire me. I didn’t get the sense that was their brief either. I just needed to do well to avoid punishment. I remember only one of them with affection – my art teacher. So, when the time came to leave – I went to art school in Cambridge.
Insight: Education is essential, but it’s not always what’s delivered through school. You have to get over the label. If Education turns you off, try thinking about it as an attitude to life that will change your life for the better through learning. Way beyond school.
Insight: Education is different from knowledge. Knowledge can be bad for you. It’s what’s known – which is OK if you remember that. Far more important is what’s important to know – what information you need to equip you in the now and the future.
THE SCHOOL OF ART | Become A Creative Person
Off To Cambridge
This really was the beginning of it all. I was nearly 20. Art school seemed like a good move – I spend all day doing what I loved. It wasn’t. It was a far lower standard of learning than at Naval school. The entire experience was a shock. I spent my whole grant on turntables and became a DJ. I helped create a nightclub or two and eventually gave up the nightmare of learning the art.
Insight: Art isn’t something to learn, it’s something to be. I’m certain that’s true for anyone with a passion for something. The task is to identify your passion as quickly as you can.
Even though going to art school was as close as I got to a path to a career, I declared it over. I made two attempts to shake the place up, spoke with the tutors and the principal, who agreed that it wasn’t going to teach me much! It just wasn’t set up to be inspiring. I chose to shatter my own dream. I have a motto. “May the bridges I burn light my way.” – This was one of the first ceremonial burnings.
THE DISCO YEARS
Going For A Spin
I knew nothing about anything – I just went through experience after the experience – just trying to get good at it. Learning. Whether it was being a DJ or setting up the venue with sound and lighting equipment, I wanted to know how to do it well. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was free to do what I needed because I dictated my own actions. It was on my own terms because if I didn’t do it, it didn’t get done. I loved those days.
Insight: It’s difficult to be objective about yourself. I’ve met hundreds of people who wish they were doing something else – then later realise they were better off (or freer) than they knew – right where they were.
“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” — Thomas Jefferson
It was an incredible time. A nocturnal existence. A bit of a blur. All good things come to an end, though, and I began to have responsibilities that required a regular income. I was in my mid-twenties.
The Alchemy Of Life
By running a club and a mobile ‘disco,’ I had to do my own publicity. This meant creating a buzz around the club or getting the word out that we appeared at this or that venue. I created the artwork, the typography, visited printers, did mail drops, and put posters in places we probably shouldn’t. I met a lot of people. I was known.
Insight: Nobody told me I couldn’t do this stuff. So I just tried things until something worked. They call this ‘test and learn’ these days.
Two Things Happened:
- I became interested in the technologies that drove the sound and managed the light.
- I became fascinated by attracting audiences and applying marketing, although they weren’t the words I used.
A Technology Fix
I found myself working with people who were creating new technologies. In those days, Clive Sinclair defined a phenomenon – he was an inventor and famous in Cambridge. He gave birth to ’miniaturization’ – the handheld calculator, digital wristwatches, handheld televisions, audio systems, and a crazy car—the C5.
Insight: I saw how this ‘innovation’ stuff turned people on. It was simply described and well packaged, the products looked great, this was different so it caused interest and desire. The fact that the technology didn’t always work was forgiven because the intention of it was welcome.
I got involved in fixing the kit – what didn’t work – and, as a result, helping run a business that knew about technologies by solving failures. I became responsible for a lot in that company, including marketing. I realized you had to know how the business worked and what it did before you could market it. And then you needed creativity, some determination, and plenty of bluffs.
MAKING THE ART WORK
Publish And Be Damned
Insight: I had no idea. I liked that I had no idea because I could ask dumb questions to find out what I needed to know. I realized that nobody else knew either. I learned so much about how businesses didn’t work.
Somewhere within this period, I had a couple of years in a publishing company. This was right at the start of digital typesetting and the computerization of publishing. I learned so much in such a short time. They made corporate brochures for massive companies and (I felt bizarre) the recruitment brochures to attract the best graduates. This was Cambridge, after all.
Insight: I realized how much I enjoyed the power of being creative and visual. Hands-on. But critically, how everyone in the business completely underestimated this powerful mojo. Somehow I realized how critical it was to the eventual success (or failure).
This entire period was a blur. Looking back, this experience was fundamental to who I became. It happened so fast I had no choice but to dive in. It was a crash course in how businesses work, how technology has to be demystified, and how communications and creativity were essential to both. Most of the time, I winged it. I just had to appear up to it in the absence of any alternative. I needed to stay ahead of the curve to give others around me the confidence that we had a path. In truth, I made it up as I went along.
Insight: When everything is new everyone is making it up as they go along. And nowadays more than ever. Every minute of every day everything is new.
Insight: Language is an essential part of staying ahead. If you can use better phrasing than others you can make major leaps and bring others along.
A DESIGN CRASH COURSE
The Graphic Design Period
At the end of a period of ‘alchemy,’ I went to work for the leading graphic design company – also in Cambridge. I found them through a need to develop more sophisticated creative materials in the publishing company. They wanted me to join them because they saw I could articulate the mix of creativity and business required – and why it was valuable. A similar thing happened. I felt the business could achieve more. I suggested we could find bigger and better business. I got the job to do that but (sadly) stopped being a creative person and started developing and leading the business.
Insight: You don’t stop being a creative person just because you become a leader. When you are a leader you need your creativity more than ever.
Insight: Leadership is not something that lives at the ‘top’ of a business. It’s not a job title, it’s a state of mind.
Insight: Be careful what you wish for. The situation/opportunity that evolves will always call for you to step outside your comfort zone.
Insight: How you define yourself (creative) must never limit you (leadership).
“It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.” – Randy Pausch
Circumstances dictated my choices almost all the time. I made few actual choices – my path was to avoid doing what was least interesting to me. I certainly didn’t think of life through the lens of a career.
TIME TO REALLY FROW UP FAST
A Real Job
One day – towards the end of all this, my biggest client offered me a major opportunity. They were friends. They had won a major deal. To design, develop and market the BBC Microcomputer. This was to change the nature of everything.
My first job was to launch the thing. It was no small thing. It called for a step-change in everything I had learned and a major challenge on every front. Technology, Marketing, Strategy, and Operations were concepts that had started to become familiar to me. And now these big concepts came with a big dose of Culture, Manufacturing, Research & Development, and politics. These were big new areas that I needed to learn – quickly. It was four years of attending the best university ever. The business went from a couple of dozen to over four hundred as the business became wildly successful. On paper, we were all rich beyond our wildest dreams. It never featured in those days. Only later did I find the paper. Thankfully money was never the thing that drove me.
“There are people who have money and there are people who are rich.” – Coco Chanel
Insight: Money is never a good metric of success. It’s a helpful by-product of doing something really well.
My job was to promote the product. That meant understanding everything. It involved countless meetings. Meetings are about having conversations, but nobody trains us to have the right conversations. It called on every part of my body and mind to stay calm, to find ways to get people to speak, to unravel the different definitions behind the same words. Eventually, I had to literally draw pictures to get everyone to open up and understand what they were (or were not) saying.
“Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.” – Anon
Insight: Curiosity always wins. Stay in touch with everything possible, articles, subscriptions, read books, watch and listen to people you admire, write a journal, publish a blog.
Insight: Writing is a critical tool. Always practice writing. Use it. It will improve every part of you and your life.
Insight: Being forced to pay attention to areas beyond your existing expertise pays massive dividends.
Insight: You probably know more than you think but never accept what you know is enough.
Insight: Knowledge is dangerous and only valuable when it’s filtered through practical experience. What is known is of no value compared to what is still needed to be known.
I had learned more than I knew but fundamentally these three things:
- I had learned how external agencies, consultants, and solution providers could interpret the client’s requirements through a very self-serving lens. This didn’t create value for me – the client.
- I realized this was our own fault as a client. We couldn’t articulate the brief well enough or completely enough to avoid an external firm from solving the wrong problem really well.
- By being visual and facilitative, I could radically change the outcome and value of everything.
Victims Of Our Own Success
Demand for the product outstripped supply. The supply chain missed deliveries of silicon chips at the critical Xmas period. The media created a storm that the business was unable to recover from. It was a complete disaster. A major Italian conglomerate bought the business, and despite the offer of a further contract to stay, I decided to move my life to London and benefit from what I had learned.
Insight: The big shocks are there for a reason. Nobody planned them. They seemed awful at the time. They become what you make of them. You will find them invaluable.
Insight: There was both natural disappointment that the business was beyond repair but a diabolical thrill shoving me off the edge of the cliff.
The move to London was a big deal. I created a hybrid consulting, creative and strategic service for clients. There wasn’t a name for that. There still isn’t a name for that. I made a fundamental mistake.
“Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.” — Bruce Lee
The way I positioned it made it look more like a creative agency than a strategic one. This meant I attracted media challenges, marketing and communications solutions for brands. It was far less likely that they would entertain meaningful strategic input.
Insight: Think about how you package yourself. Even as an individual you owe it to yourself to show up properly – well packaged – consider your personal brand.
I enjoyed these years, though. I took brand challenges and made them business solutions. I realized I could use language to alter the importance of the things we did. I could make sure that a campaign was as measurable as it was creative and award-winning.
Insight: Business leaders make siloed decisions. Creating expectations is paramount and looks can be deceptive so pay attention to how you look.
These were the years of building relationships that last today. My network grew by the week. I realized how each connection I made may not be important now – but one day. It was never about sales for me. It was about finding those with who I could partner to create mutual value. As clients came, we made friends, and they brought others. As we did better work together, more trust was developed – our projects became bigger. This doesn’t need much explanation – we went overboard to make sure our clients loved what we did for them. We thought beyond what was obvious and showed the value in ways they hadn’t imagined. I knew the limits of their subjectivity. I had been in their shoes. We could help and shine the light.
Because we had now built bigger clients, we needed to scale accordingly. Unfortunately, the scale wasn’t in my heart. I could see that clients needed to expand beyond our capability and need global representation, but this wasn’t where I had the appetite or passion for going. I needed to make some changes. I sold the business to WPP Group plc. A global media agency. I helped my clients to get their global needs met. Given these successes, I attempted to create a higher tier of consulting advice for more clients. I learned how it was hard to alter perception. With a big brand wrapped around me, I was positioned as part of a global media business, not a global strategic business—time to depart as friends.
“It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy” – Steve Jobs
Right Here. Right Now
I added everything up and founded Group Partners. Two decades ago now. It’s the hybrid solution I dreamed of when I left Cambridge but still a constant work in progress. It’s a category all of its own. It’s deliberately hard to define because client challenges don’t neatly fall into convenient pots.
“Let’s avoid solving the wrong problems really well.” – Group Partners
My job is part advice, part strategic thinking, part innovation and ideation, part communication strategy, part facilitation, part media, part visualizer, part cultural, part futurist, part operational modeler, part instigator, part shoulder to lean on. This is the real world. Solving client’s challenges requires general expertise. It has many parts.
“People who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives increasingly thrive.” – David Epstein (Author of ‘Range’ – How Generalist Triumph In A Specialised World
Insight: I am now where I am. All the small things added up to right now. The journey, challenges and blockers are what makes you.
Insight: Looking back, I realize I’ve never had a job interview. I took my chances through conversations with people who gave me work to do. That’s still what happens.
Insight: There’s little consciousness to the choices you make sometimes. But there is gut feel and instinct.
Insight: Don’t duck what’s difficult.
Insight: Have the humility to realise your fallibilities. Be careful not to lead with your ego.
Insight: Make the smartest mistakes you can. Learn from them. Don’t just say you are learning from them.
I clearly remember the few moments when I made actual choices.
- I chose not to go into the Navy and take a creative path into Art.
- I chose to leave art school and follow my passion for music and difference by becoming a DJ.
- Those moments when I felt I was becoming too comfortable, I decided to move on.
- When I felt I wasn’t really learning or making a difference, I moved on.
- When I felt I was compromising, I moved on.
‘Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.’―Paulo Coelho
Further Tips And Suggestions
- Write a bio before you write the CV. You will find it massively improves it.
- Read all of Yuval Noah Harari’s books.
- Read Kevin Kelly’s Inevitable.
- Subscribe to Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View newsletter – or find equivalent passion areas and seek out those who arm and inspire you.
- Collect great quotes and really think about them.
- As well as looking for jobs, create your own brand so that jobs look for you. Find out what a personal brand looks like.
- Maintain your contacts and build a network of friends and partners.
- Stay broad in your expertise as long as possible – even when studying a specialism.