I used to talk about ‘making things fast’ and the great power that comes with the ability to generate masses of ideas. It doesn’t matter if they’re rubbish, I said, just make them anyway. Make bits of things. Make things that don’t work. It’s all part of the process that will, eventually, with luck, make you better at stuff, lead to opportunities, new skills and exciting experiences and potential creative success.
I was wrong. Wrong to focus so much on ideas and to focus on the delights of undirected making for the sake of it.
There is a sort of utopian lie propagated by wealthy, successful people that everything will fall into place if you have the right business idea. Where anything seems too good to be true, I ask who’s making the claim and do the ‘opposite test’ and, well I’m increasingly convinced the exact opposite is true – in business, creative ideas don’t matter very much. Ideas aren’t just cheap, they’re free and neverending. In *your* life, of course, have creative thoughts and make things all day long, it’s great. But for work? For generating things in the service of other humans? Stop trying to be clever. Get over yourself. It turns out, it’s not about you.
There are alarm bells everywhere you look. Why would the wealthy and successful tell us the truth when they can sell us something that appeals so perfectly to our vanity? How many serial entrepreneurs got where they are by reading self-help business books? Our desire to believe things that feel good is quite terrifyingly powerful. The truth is that successful business isn’t about ‘thinking outside of the box’ or ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’. It’s not about thinking or feeling anything exciting. The very fact it’s always described like that is the warning sign that should trigger the ‘opposite test’. The more vibrant the story, the more pedestrian the truth. It’s a phenomenal con.
I’ve come to realise that what you have to do, if you’re the sort of person who likes to feel brave and excited and creative, is switch off that part of your mind and knuckle down. You have to learn to be a sales person before all else. You have to shut yourself up, with all your passions and drives and intuitions, and get into the cold, hard, number crunching part of your brain. You have to do the best for your charts, not for your pleasure centres. To be at the top, in business, I suspect your brain has to be at the bottom: miniature assembly line workers driving everything else, non-stop, an internal factory of numbskulls.
All of this is already obvious to a lot of people, I suppose. But there’s a definitely category of hopefuls, like me, and an incredibly influential (and lucrative) system in place to keep up the illusions around this stuff. People see through the ‘con’ of the anti-ageing industry, for example, but the extraordinary pervasiveness of the ‘ideas myth’ goes unchecked. My feeling is that it’s far bigger and far further-reaching than we imagine. Actually, in the age of blogging and linkedin, this self-serving mythology is pretty close to being the entire culture of modern business.
So where do we go from here? I think the options are:
1) You keep going because this is where you find your happiness. Keep making things fast, keep firing out ideas, but don’t associate their number or quality with any chance of financial success because money plays a totally different game. But also: if you must make, try to make to help others. That’s important.
2) You knock off the creativity, get out there and learn the things you need to know to help you to make the money which you need to live, and to support the things you believe are important. It will be harder because we’ve spent a lifetime telling ourselves (and being told) that we’re to ‘that guy’. And it’s starting from scratch again in many, many ways.
I say ‘you’ but I think we all know I mean ‘me’, too. Not just me – I see others torn in similar ways everywhere I look. But mine is a particularly stupid story because I’ve ended up snookering myself. I’ve pursued a lot of creative ideas over the course of my career, usually because I was profoundly compelled to do these things (write musicals, start magazines, create books and podcasts etc) and believed in them, but no one with any sense would pay me properly to do them. I should’ve listened to *those* warning signs years ago. I regret not listening to the public vote on my stuff. I regret that I am now in middle age with nothing to show for it in terms of reputation, wisdom, resources, or valuable experience – and no serious sellable skills.
I’m sure I could’ve played it better and there are others who’ve taken similar risks and come out well. But it’s hard for me, right now, to see risk-taking as a positive. If you know you have the talent, do it. But if you’re not sure whether you do have the talent, please: don’t find out the hard way like I did. Don’t follow the ideas compulsion and end up in the situation that I’m in.