Not too long ago, I went to Lowe’s to see about lumber donations for a community service project. We were trying to build a skatepark for youth in our city. I’d turned in a letter to Lowe’s and was following up as our build date is quickly approaching. I knew it was a bad sign when only the store manager could handle this type of request.
He sent my donation letter through “corporate mail” and said it would take a week or so to hear back from headquarters. I couldn’t believe it. Here is a store manager responsible for over $1 million worth of inventory and unable to make a simple, local donation decision. It must go to “corporate.” Why did he go to college? Why does he get paid so much?
Contrast this scene with one earlier in the day. My two sons and I went to a very large construction site in town to ask for lumber donations. The site manager, an older crusty sort of fellow, looked at me and said, “you’ve got some nice boys there. Reminds me of my two grandsons. Pull you van around, and I’ll see what I can do.” He then proceeded to load about $200 worth of brand new 16 foot 2×4’s into my van himself. When I asked if he needed a donation receipt he said, “Nope. Just hope it does some good.” This same scenario was repeated later at a different construction site where a foreman donated about 300 feet of wood fencing for the skatepark on the spot. Neither one of these guys consulted anyone when giving the wood away. Didn’t even blink an eye. And neither of them were “educated” past high school.
I’m beginning to connect the dots. Our ability to think and act creatively has been blunted by years of being taught to follow orders. From day one, we’re encouraged in school to color between the lines, connect the dots in a logical sequence, stand in straight lines, stop learning when the bell rings and start again at the next bell, and on and on. College is our first opportunity to create freely, and most of us enjoy this time…if it weren’t for those darn tests, grades and professors (maybe we weren’t that free after all). Then we get thrown into the “workforce,” where once again we must not make waves or venture outside the corporate lines or bite the hand that feeds us. There are approval chains, org charts, offices with windows and small cube cells—all of which create artificial power and authority structures that value obedience and following orders over genuine creativity. This power structure has dumbed us down to new levels of sameness.
Good thing this doesn’t happen in the creative world. Ever wonder why there are titles like “senior creative director” or “senior art director”? It’s all based on the premise that people need to be managed, especially their creativity. Why? Because we’ve been dumbed down. We need to be “directed” and “supervised” in our creative activities. We can’t be trusted to be creative on our own. How many “approval” chains do we go through with our concept developments? Would we ever dare showing something to a client without our “management” okaying it?
An “Art Director” friend of mine at an agency told me how he wasn’t “invited” to be on the creative team for an interesting new project. Why? Because his creative team boss said he “wasn’t ready yet.” Instead he was stuck cranking out mundane but billable projects for clients. Hmmm. Was Charles Lindbergh ready to make the first solo trans-Atlantic flight in history at age 25 having very little flying experience? Was David, the little shepherd boy, ready to fight the seasoned killing machine Goliath? Was Bill Gates ready to start Microsoft when he couldn’t even finish college? I think you get the point. Structures like these are created and maintained to ensure a class and pay system (no, I’m not a communist), not to nurture creativity. They don’t just keep people down, they keep creativity down too.
Have you ever met two people who were alike? I haven’t. Have you ever seen two designs that are alike? Ever wonder why creative people who are all so incredibly unique can produce such a pile of bland sameness in design (I’m including my own work in the pile)? Wouldn’t it follow that if the individuals are all unique, their designs would all be unique as well? So what happened? Management. Supervision. Direction. These structures dumb us down creatively and have been doing so since we were kids in school being taught to color between the lines. Relationships. Freedom. Passion. These are the things that produce unique creative work and allow crusty construction workers to load up your car with lumber and say, “I’ve got grand kids like yours. Hope it does some good.”