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  • Matt Walker

The Creative. The Parent. The Unexpected

My commencement address to the Art Institute of Washington’s 2014 graduating class.



Recently, I finished reading Ed Catmull’s, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Here’s a little snippet from Amazon about the book:


From Ed Catmull, co-founder (with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter) of Pixar Animation Studios, the Academy Award–winning studio behind Inside Out and Toy Story, comes an incisive book about creativity in business—sure to appeal to readers of Daniel Pink, Tom Peters, and Chip and Dan Heath. Fast Company raves that Creativity, Inc. “just might be the most thoughtful management book ever.”


It was a fascinating read. And I’m sure it will be re-read. If you’re in a creative field, or you work with creative organizations, read the book and take it to heart. One prevalent theme throughout the book that I’ve taken to heart (and have for many years now) is doing whatever it takes to remove the element of fear from your creative teams. Let me rephrase that, because a bit of fear will always exist in the life of a creative: Remove external forces of fear and learn to work through internal aspects of fear. For as many processes as any creative organization may have in place, there’s no roadmap to the extraordinary. Getting there means you have to venture through uncharted territory. Sometimes that landscape will freak you out. And the only way to get through it is to work, work, and work your way to the light at the end of the tunnel.


Anyhow, reading about this in Ed’s book reassured me that I wasn’t alone on this journey. And, really not trying to compare myself to Mr. Catmull here, but, it reminded me of a commencement address I’d given to the Art Institute of Washington’s 2014 graduating class.


What follows is a portion of that address broken into two parts:


PART 1 – PARENT AND CREATIVE

PART 2 – EMBRACING FEAR


Hopefully, this will help to guide and encourage those breaking into the field, find a few heads nodding for those already in the field, and serve as an insight for those working with creative individuals and/or organizations.


Looking towards the stage before the ceremony at Constitution Hall.

PART 1 – PARENT AND CREATIVE


Creativity. The craft of being a creative professional is HARD WORK. So hard, in fact, that I liken it to the most important and challenging job I’ve ever had and ever will have … being a father. A parent.


As a parent – you will make a baby.


As a creative professional – you will think and think and think and think … you’ll think faster, and faster, and faster, then you’ll think slower … slower … sloooower … then you’ll think faster, faster, faster, faster, think some more, think some more, maybe go to sleep, get up the next morning, jump in the shower and … AHA!!! There it is. You’ve just given birth to a precious, fragile, beautiful baby idea. Congratulations.


As a parent – you will lose sleep.


As a creative professional – just forget about sleep. You’ll toss, you’ll turn, you’ll spin ideas around in your mind. You’ll rehearse pitches, see entire edits play out in your mind, see every ingredient coming together in your mind … and then … your alarm clock will go off. So much for sleep.


As a parent – you WILL get pooped on. Trust me on this one. Bring a shield.


As a creative professional – There’s always someone … who will shit on your work. And I’m not talking about constructive criticism or intelligent professional feedback, I’m talking about the junior executive so-and-so who eagerly raises their hand to say, “Oooooh, can I say what’s wrong with it? Can I? Can I shoot it down???” Simply because they don’t know any better yet, and that’s all they can contribute. It’s unfortunate. But it happens.


So, as a parent – you’ll want to protect your children with determined ferocity.

As a creative professional – you’ll want to defend your work. And you should. Not with the ferocity of an emotional parent … but with the calm demeanor, intelligence, and understanding of a true creative professional.


As a parent – you will constantly marvel at the vast and effortless imagination your children possess.


As a creative professional – don’t ever lose that. Stay light-hearted. Dream. Laugh loudly. It all helps to keep your imagination splendidly child-like. After all, that pure imagination is where the real magic comes from.


And for both parents and creative professionals alike, eventually, you’re gonna have to let that child … your idea … go. You’re going to send your baby out into the harsh realities of the daily grind. So be sure to prepare it well. Lose sleep obsessing over ways to make it stronger. Let people shit on it, because that will only help it stand taller. And invite others to encourage it, further it, and impart their wisdom upon it.


Because in the end, after all of that, it will shine brightly. But only … only … if you put in the work. And here’s the thing, it’s soooooooooooooo worth it. And in my own totally biased opinion, it’s so damn important.


Looking out from the stage before the ceremony at Constitution Hall.

PART 2 – EMBRACING FEAR


Yeah … ok … there are other professions that do important things. Brain surgeons. Heart surgeons. Educators. Engineers. Their work is important.


But for most professions not in the creative fields, I’d say that while a surprise may arise from time to time, they typically deal with fairly expected outcomes. Or at the very least, they deal with and work with expected circumstances and surroundings.


And that’s why YOU, you as creative professionals, that’s why your job is so important. Because you have to deliver … the unexpected.


The fusion of ingredients that seemingly would never work and then your customer takes a bite and suddenly they’re having an orgasmic mouth party, or the campaign that doesn’t just make a profit for your client it makes people laugh so hard they pee just a little bit.


Whatever it is, an important part of your job as a creative professional will be to take people on unexpected journeys. To make them feel things that they weren’t expecting to feel at that given moment. Now granted, it won’t always pan out that way. Things don’t always go as planned. The good news is, unlike our friend the heart surgeon, when things don’t go the way you intended … no one’s going to die. But when everything comes together just the way you’d envisioned, and you get to see people delight in your work, you’ll be firmly reminded of how important your job is.


Yes, delivering unexpected delight to the masses is crucial and joyful. Working within the unexpected, however, can at times be stressful and terrifying.


Before giving this speech, I popped open my browser and checked out several commencement addresses all given by people who are much smarter, wealthier, and better looking than me. Such is life.


I did this because – always do your homework – and again, because I was terrified of royally screwing this up. Having said that, I came across a common theme … screwing up. Or rather: It’s ok to fail. Embrace failure. Don’t be afraid of failure.


I have a slightly different take.


First, it’s absolutely ok to fail. Chances are, if you DON’T fail from time-to-time, then you’re not trying hard enough, you’re not pushing the envelope, you’re not being … original … says the guy talking about not fearing failure during a graduation speech.


Well look, the fact is, not every job or assignment you come across will provide you the opportunity to truly push things in the direction you want. But when those opportunities DO come along, and you’ll know it because your pulse will quicken, your mind will race, ideas will just flow … when those opportunities come … seize them and pour everything you have into them.


Embrace failure.

I would say … embrace fear.


Again, one of the most vital and enjoyable parts of being a creative professional is delivering that unexpected moment. But that also means you won’t always have the comfort of terra firma that other professions enjoy. And that can be scary:


The deadline’s coming up. I don’t have an idea. Nothing original. Where is it? What is it? Can’t do that it’s already been done. What if they hate it? What if it doesn’t work? What am I going to do???


Stop. Take a couple deep breaths. Go on a walk. Simply acknowledge the fact that you’re afraid of not knowing what’s next. And that it’s totally understandable. When you take the time to really acknowledge it, to just accept it, you’ll be much better prepared to move past it.


And finally, don’t be afraid of failure, but do everything you can to avoid it. Why? Because it’s no fun. And for passionate, driven creative like you … it stings. It stings like that third degree sunburn kind of sting when you have to take your first torturous sunburn shower and when you go to turn on the water, hornets come streaming out of the shower head.


Failure stings. Yes, it can teach us profound things about our resiliency and our craft, but let’s be honest, success feels much better.


So when you come across that opportunity to push the envelope – be prepared. Do your homework. Know your audience. Understand your client. Answer the subjective with the rational. The point is, when you aim to push that envelope, when you go out on a limb and you want others to follow, really know why you’re going out there in the first place … then just explain it clearly and plainly.


And when things don’t work out the way you wanted, it is having the ability, and taking the time to accept that things didn’t work … and then to understand why. That part’s not easy. But it is that acceptance and understanding that ultimately shapes us, strengthens us, and can transform us in surprising and magnificent ways.


BONUS PART 3 – WORDS OF WISDOM


I know, I said two parts. But that was just for the commencement address. And hey, all journeys have unexpected twists. Even simple blog posts. Regardless, I opened by talking about a book. Thought I should close with a few words from it. Words from Mr. Ed Catmull. Words to live by.


“While the allure of safety and predictability is strong, achieving true balance means engaging in activities whose outcomes and payoffs are not yet apparent. The most creative people are willing to work in the shadow of uncertainty.” 


“I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.” 


“Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new” 

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