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Taoist Farmers And The Creative Process

What happens if we lose? What if the answer to all of those questions and many more was... “maybe”. 

As I write this white paper, I’m sitting in a conference room, on a Monday morning, with 9 people from my agency. We’re in the final stages of preparing our creative vision for a large piece of new business. Traditionally these moments are simultaneously filled with excitement and worry. I’m eager to share the work, but will they like it? What happens if we win? What happens if we lose? What if the answer to all of those questions and many more was... “maybe”.

That’s a nearly impossible answer to accept for most people, and if you’re like me, you probably wouldn’t consider it an option when in the throws of any sort of stressful situation, but for some reason, today, sitting in this meeting, I was reminded of the Taoist Farmer story. The story goes something like this. 

An old farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

So today, as the final deck is being prepared, I think about what the concept of “maybe” really means in a modern day creative agency. Now before I proceed any further, I want to promise you this isn’t a “Five ways to... “ or “10 Keys to…” type of LinkedIn white paper. This is genuinely about the beauty and power of “maybe” and how it relates to being creatively present.

Stick with me here. 

Now stop for a moment and think about the decisions made regarding that project in how it was completed. 

This is where the power of “maybe” can create a discernible difference in creative decision making and leadership.

On a perfunctory level, this allows you to make decisions related to a creative project that remain faithful to the purest tenants of the assignment. It’s a chance to look at strategic and creative decisions in the absence of any other factors beyond what you know is inherently right in your gut, and what you know based on the most analytical review of the objectives from the assignment. Without a desired outcome, does the work still make you happy? Are you manipulating fundamental truths of the brief in order to support a theory that justifies a strategic or creative decision that you need to be right, but may not exist when the assignment isn’t about “winning”? Would you be proud of the thinking you are developing if, all of a sudden, your creative idol walked in the room and asked to see what you were working on? 

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To be clear, I’m not suggesting a new form of creative Taoism. The end goal for almost all agencies is to win business and produce great work. But what I think is often lacking is a mid-flight introspection of how you came to the decisions you made. Ideally, suspending outcomes during the creative process should allow teams to closely examine “why” they are making certain creative decisions, which in turn, should ultimately produce more creatively honest work. What I’m suggesting is a careful introspection on the motives of our decisions during the creative process. This might win business, this might lose business, but ultimately it allows for a creative company to find deeper meaning in the decisions they make.

While the aforementioned are just some of the obvious business implications, the broader and more important lesson “maybe” can provide every person in a creative agency is to find meaning in the process. It has taken me far longer than I would like to admit, but I finally feel like I am at the point in my career when the process is just as rewarding as the prize. I don’t take for granted the absolute power of creative, collaborative thinking, and the problems it can solve. I also don’t take for granted the magically fluid atmosphere that can be created when people creatively play off each other when developing work. It breeds a culture and temperament in a company that can’t be matched by personal accolades or client victories. Don’t get me wrong, presentation day is always an exhilarating moment, but I think what is arguably more powerful are internal meetings when team members allow themselves to be completely vulnerable and share what they sincerely believe is the right creative direction for a project. Or sitting with a group of developers as they show me how they’ve figured out what a particular client can do with Amazon’s Alexa.

What I hope to accomplish by writing this is nothing more than to call attention to the beauty of being a part of the creative process. Creative agency business often requires acknowledging you are absolutely not in control of the final destiny of the work you create.

But what is overlooked is the intellectual satisfaction that occurs when a group of people are handed a creative brief, and in the period of just a few short weeks turn it into something that has strategic and creative meaning, solves problems, is beautiful to look at, sells products, changes opinions, and so on.

So as this meeting wraps up and we get ready for the presentation, I look around the room at the laughter and excitement, the pride and joy, the hope that exists in all of us, and I come back to the power of “maybe”. I have no idea of the outcome of this project or 10 more ahead of it, but what I unequivocally know, is that today, at this moment, I want “maybe” to last just a little while longer. 

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