Reflections on creativity, or Why I’m sick of having a split personality

I’ve been thinking about creativity.

I’m a project manager. I plan stuff. I organise stuff. I anticipate risks, juggle resources, manage budgets, work to deadlines, document everything for the benefit of auditors and posterity. I’m good at my job.

I’m also a creative person. At home, I plant gorgeous plants and delight in living surrounded by a tangle of beautiful growing things. I make things – a quilt, a batch of marmalade, a collage or painting or sketch. I play my ukelele and sing my heart out. I raise children.

As a kid, I saw no conflict between these aspects of who I am. I loved art and pure mathematics. I was fascinated by indexing and classification and equally by making my own wacky clothes. I taught myself code so I could write computer programs that did nothing but make pretty coloured patterns on the screen. I was a studious square who dyed my hair purple and orange.

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Me at 17. No, that’s not fake tan, that’s the skin of a teenager in Darwin back when coconut oil was the sun cream of choice.

I think I was already trying to figure out how I was going to fit into the working world. At 15 I was very taken with Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Jumping Jack Flash: a brilliant computer programmer who gets away with a high degree of eccentricity and a desk covered with colourful junk in a sea of corporate beige.

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I also related to Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist.

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I had no idea what I wanted to do “when I grew up”. It took me a long time to realise that just being able to organise things was kind of special and something you could get paid for. But I’ve often felt like I was travelling incognito, wearing my “corporate ninja” clothes (black and grey) and working in a world of structure and procedure and compliance.

It has taken me even longer to realise that being organised and creative is even more special, and way more fun.

I’m happiest when I’m creative at work. I love talking to people, exploring ideas for new projects, and finding ways to make them happen. I love the energy of working with a diverse group of people. Not everything I work on is overtly creative, and that’s fine – every project has its own issues to be approached creatively.

But I hit the jackpot when I can work on something that allows me to be genuinely creative, and, even better, encourages other people to express their own creativity. Like the giant Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where guests come dressed as their favourite book character, listen to storytellers, sing, and eat funny literary-themed food.

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Silky, the Saucepan Man, Moonface, Barn Owl and Dame Washalot from The Magic Faraway Tree – love it! Photo from the State Library of Victoria.

Or a writing competition where adults and children write (or draw, paint, collage…) a story on a postcard, inspired by a beautiful original illustration.

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The illustration is by Belinda Suzette.

I’ve just read a wonderful and quirky book called ‘Orbiting the Hairball’ by Gordon MacKenzie about his 30 years working at Hallmark Cards.

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The ‘hairball’ is the tangle of corporate rules, policies, precedent and cultural norms that accumulate over the years. The challenge is to remain connected to the organisation’s ideals and objectives, but to avoid becoming tangled in the hairball where it’s impossible to try anything new or different. To do this, you need to ‘orbit’ the hairball. MacKenzie tells lots of great stories about his road to becoming the organisation’s Creative Paradox (that was his final job title).

I’m a big believer in serendipity and the right thing coming your way when you need it. This book was put into my hands when I was feeling oppressed by the big old hairball of my workplace, and disjointed by years of keeping my organised and creative “sides” in different boxes. It’s a dispiriting and inauthentic way to live.

I’m still happy working in an organisation. I just don’t want to split myself in half to do it.

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