Seven Rules for Creative People

There’s an article at the Harvard Business Review titled “Seven Rules for Managing Creative People;” It’s one of the more insulting and condescending dispatches from Corporate America, but creative people need to read it. It will, if you can get past the arrogant and dismissive tone, teach you exactly what the bean-counters and button-sorters think of you.

The article, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, demonstrates a cheerful obliviousness and contempt for creative people; he suggests that we are children, have emotional issues, are needy and egocentric, can’t cooperate with others, and need to be manipulated in order to benefit the bottom line, and that paying us poorly is the only rational approach.

It’s only right, then, that we offer our Seven Rules for Putting up with Management.

1. Remember they are blind. Always remember that most managers are oblivious to how creative people work or what they can do. They may grudgingly admit that our work is important, but they don’t get it. They say things like “if you know it will work, it isn’t creative.” They really think we’re just randomly experimenting, we have no methodology, and, most significantly, we don’t know what works. They think this because they have no instincts. This is why they say nonsense like “let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.” They have to do market testing and conduct focus groups because they really can’t tell if something is good or not; they can’t do what we can, and they don’t believe we can do it either. You have to be patient with them.

2. Accept that they don’t get us. The office drones have no clue how we work, and more importantly, how we work with each other. They think that if you put a bunch of creative people together, they will “compete for ideas, brainstorm eternally, or simply ignore each other”; they don’t understand that creative people energize and inspire each other. In their dull, tiny, dark world, everyone has to jealously guard their few ideas, because they don’t realize that ideas are a dime a dozen; what matters is what you do with them and execution is everything. They don’t understand that Walt Disney was such a success because he put his “Nine Old Men” in a room together and got out of their way, letting them inspire each other to greater heights.

They also don’t get how we work with the non-creatives. They think we “would not understand them.” They don’t recognize that we’ve been dealing with “conventional people” all our lives. We’re related to them. We went to school with them. We know perfectly well how to work with uncreative people; it mostly involves listening patiently to their bad ideas and trying to find some way to make something that won’t be terrible out of them. So when they prattle on about needing to surround us with “semi-boring people,” remember that they are trying to convince themselves that they aren’t in fact totally boring themselves.

3. Focus on the work. Remember that the management types not only don’t understand what we do, they don’t understand what they do. They think that some of the work being done at their company is “trivial, mindless, and meaningless,” and yet they pay people to do it anyway. They focus so much on the procedures that they overlook the point, and as a result they can’t understand that we take pride in our work, even if parts of it are tedious, repetitive and dull. We care about doing a good job, because we are artists. They are goal-oriented, we are process-oriented; how we do things is at least as important as why we do them.

We understand that there is no such thing as “meaningless work” unless the managers are running things badly. I’m reminded of the story of the janitor at NASA who took incredible pride in his work; when asked why he was so proud of sweeping the floors, he explained, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

Creative people do not “perform well only when inspired;” we perform well when we see that what we are doing is noticed and considered important. If management thinks we are temperamental, bi-polar children making messes, we’re probably not going to put forth our best efforts, unless we’re focused on taking pride in our work.

4. Humor their need for obedience to arbitrary rules. The Suits think we’re all scatterbrained free spirits who can’t abide rules. They utter absurdities like “if you like structure, order and predictability, you are probably not creative.” They don’t realize that as artists and creative people, our primary function is to bring structure and order to chaos; we take their piles of scribbled notes and doodles and transform them into something logical and beautiful that even middle management can follow and understand. We have no problem with structure and order, but we have a real problem with it being arbitrarily imposed for no good reason in areas that don’t need it. If we go to lunch at 12:27 instead of 12:00, it’s not going to shut down the assembly line, because we’re not on the assembly line. It’s not going to affect anyone at all, because we’re going to go to lunch when we’re between tasks, when we hit a natural stopping point. Going to lunch at some arbitrary time just because the boss has decided that this is lunchtime interrupts the flow and disrupts our workday, but if you have to go along with it, do the best you can.

5. Remember that money is everything to them. The managers have a nasty habit of reading research studies and reaching exactly the wrong conclusion. If a study tells them that creative people are more motivated by intrinsic rewards (like job satisfaction and the sense that one’s work matters) than by extrinsic (money), they will misunderstand; they will say things like “when tasks are inherently meaningful, external rewards diminish engagement,” and will erroneously and insultingly conclude that underpaying creative employees causes them to be more productive. They really don’t get it that it’s not the extrinsic reward that’s the problem; it’s the disregard for the intrinsic reward. They don’t understand that telling us that our paycheck is our only reward is saying that the things we love about our work don’t matter. They think their paycheck is a reward, not a transaction, and they forget that even though we aren’t motivated by money, we’re not stupid, and we will leave if we get a better offer.

Here’s a simple principle: in my experience, employers who value me and my work, who make me feel like an important part of the team and act like what I do is valuable, have no complaints about paying me. “The better they treat you, the better they pay you.”

Your paycheck is a handy way to measure your employer’s opinion of your value. You may not be motivated by money, but the boss is; demand top dollar, not just because you’re worth it, but because if he’s paying you more, he will treat you better in the ways that matter.

6. Don’t let them trivialize you. These dull-witted automatons think we “are prewired to seek constant change, even when it’s counterproductive.” They think we create chaos to amuse ourselves, they say things like “creatives love complexity and enjoy making simple things complex rather than vice-versa.”They don’t understand that the essence of good art, good design, good anything is elegant simplicity. We don’t make things needlessly complex, and we don’t go looking for “a million answers or a million problems.”We’re just a whole lot better than they are at seeing potential problems further off, and trying to solve them before they become problems.

They really think we thrive on chaos and deliberately create it around us “to make our lives less predictable.” They honestly can’t recognize that it isn’t chaos, it’s the creative process in mid-stride.

They really don’t understand what we do, but they know that they need us to do it because they can’t. Here’s your warning sign: the word “just.” Any time this word emerges from the mouth of a non-creative, prepare to be confronted with an absurd request. “Can you just rotate the image a little?” “Can’t we just put up a new web page?” “Why don’t we just tear it down and start over?” If a sentence has the word “just” in it, the speaker is telling you that he has absolutely no understanding of the process or difficulty, and more importantly, he doesn’t care. He knows only that he is the boss and you are not. It is vitally important at that point that you explain to him, clearly and in little words, exactly why you can’t “just” do whatever two-day job he thinks you can dash off in five minutes.

7. Make them feel important. As T.S. Eliot noted, “most of the trouble in this world is caused by people wanting to be important”. Non-creative people want desperately to be creative, but they want to do it in rigidly defined and overly structured ways, and they want to be told they are doing it right. They want validation. If you manage to use one of their stupid suggestions as a jumping-off point to come up with something good, let them have a little of the credit. If they feel like part of the creative process, they might get off your back a little.

A final suggestion: learn to speak “managerese”; use empty jargon and buzzwords, and position yourself as an “asset creator” rather than an artist. As we’ve seen, they have contempt for anyone who isn’t focused on money and the bottom line, isn’t jockeying for position and climbing the ladder, and does not consider economic success to be the only standard to go by. If you can learn to parrot their doublespeak, you’ll impress them in meetings and get the reputation for not being “a typical creative.” They might even stop trying to motivate you by paying you less.

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Why Facebook isn’t Working for You

We posted an article a while back about Digital Sharecropping. The term refers to the idea that if you’re putting your content up on somebody else’s site, they are reaping the majority of the benefits while you’re at their mercy; they can change their terms, claim ownership or other rights to your work, hold your work hostage, or any number of undesirable scenarios.

Here’s another one; they can suddenly impede your distribution, then offer to let you pay to get back what they took away. Case in point, Facebook’s new “sponsored post” program; if you have a page on Facebook for your business or organization, you can pay them a fee per post to make sure that everybody who has “liked” the page will see it. That seems fair, right? It would if not for the fact that as soon as they announced the program, they changed the settings on your page so that only 15% of your followers will see your updates if you don’t pay up. The good folks at Dangerous Minds explain it all for you.

“What are you complaining about, Facebook is a free service!” I hear you cry. Well, no, it’s really not. You pay for it every time you use it. When you signed up with them, you agreed to let them store and distribute a lot of personal information about you–who you are, where you live, what you buy, what you like, and all the other details you post on their site. That information is worth a lot of money. Do you have one of those savings club cards from your grocery store? The one that gives you a lower price on things you buy if you swipe the card or put in your phone number? I used to design ads for the company that ran those programs back in the days when the Web was new and modems were 14.4k. The way they work is you let them track your shopping and in return they give you a discount; in other words they pay you for your information. They take that information and build a frighteningly accurate portfolio of you, one that can predict what you buy and what will make you switch brands, and they sell it to manufacturers who then target you with customized offers; coupons at the register, bundles of offers in the mail, personalized catalogs, all that stuff. They are so good at it they can tell you’re pregnant before your family knows. The New York Times ran a lengthy article explaining how retailers and manufacturers use the demographic information they pay handsomely to acquire about you.Facebook gets all the same information and more and they get you to give it to them for free.

Facebook is brilliantly designed to not only collect all this information and more, it actually encourages you to freely offer up more information than they could ask for. Ever take one of those fun personality tests? Facebook has it. Ever answer one of those “35 things about me” quizzes that your friend sent you? Facebook has it. Even if you gave them a fake name and location, they know who you are and where to find you through your cookies and IP address, and now that there are “log in with your Facebook ID” buttons on thousands of other websites, they can collect a whole lot more information about you, and all of it is gold to them.

Up until recently, the deal was that you paid for your “free” Facebook account with your personal history and profile; you got to play Farmville and they got to track what you looked at, what you liked, what you bought, and who you followed. That was the deal. Fair is fair.

But then Facebook went public. Suddenly their business model changed. Whenever a company goes public, their business changes. Here’s how:

Let’s say you sell frammistats. You make the best frammistats, and your customers love them. To keep up with demand, you become a publicly-traded company. Instantly, you are no longer in the frammistat business. No, your business now is selling stock. Your customers are on Wall Street, and the most important thing in the world is keeping your stock price up. You can do that by selling a great product at a good price, but if you do that, your profit margin will be too low, your company will be labeled “underperforming” and you will be ripe for a hostile takeover or leveraged buyout. All of a sudden, your product and its buyers are merely cogs in the machinery, and their only purpose is to keep the stock price up. Your employees only exist to keep the stock price up, and if sending their jobs to Outsourcistan will improve your bottom line and bump up the stock, so be it. If reducing all your employees to part-time status so you can deny them benefits, or replacing half of them with interns, or switching to freelancers or independent contractors will do it, that’s how it goes. If making lousy frammistats from lower-quality materials will improve your margin and raise the stock price, you do what needs to be done, because Wall Street wants what it wants.

And so it is with Facebook. They are now in the stock business. The old model of getting you to eagerly hand over all your personal data and then selling it for top dollar isn’t enough anymore. They need to monetize every possible revenue stream. For now, they will charge you to reach more than 15% of your audience. Later they will charge you for other things. Eventually you’ll be paying to play Farmville and sitting through commercials with every link you click. You may even end up paying for the ability to block people.

Except Facebook forgot one thing: we don’t have to use it. There is no law that says people have to check in on Facebook every day. Remember MySpace? It used to be a thing. Before that it was Xanga. Before that, LiveJournal. Go back even further and you’re in an AOL Chatroom, and before that, if you were online at all, it was a Wildcat BBS system. Time marches on. Technology changes. What’s in today will be out tomorrow. If you think about it, you can come up with dozens of formerly indispensable goods and services that once dominated their markets and now no longer exist.

When Fox/Newscorp bought MySpace and turned it into one long nonstop ad for Fox movies, TV and music, people left in droves. Before that, when AOL began devoting all its resources to soliciting new customers and failed to serve the existing ones, people switched to other ISPs. It’s only a matter of time before somebody builds a better Facebook, one that offers what Facebook used to without the exploitation and intrusion that is rapidly becoming the norm.

Here are 7 Social Networking Apps for when Facebook Jumps the Shark. And then there’s the Diaspora Project. There are certainly others, and new ones joining the field every day. One of them will topple Facebook, and it will be because of Facebook’s arrogance and contempt for their users.

Be ready to switch. Meanwhile, your social media campaign needs to include a whole lot more than just Facebook; it’s time to get up to speed on Twitter, Foursquare, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and whatever the next hot app will be, because Facebook has foolishly chosen to make itself 85% less useful to you in a shortsighted grab for your wallet at the expense of your loyalty.

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