By Mark Simmonds is a creativity, insight and innovation expert and the founder of GENIUS YOU
This is an extract from the opening pages of my book, Breakdown and Repair.
“10pm on Wednesday evening and almost time for bed. I’m confronted by the army of usual suspects: the anti-depressants, the anti-anxiety pills, the sleeping tablets, and the new kids on the block – the anti-psychotics. The bathroom cabinet resembles a pharmacy and there seems to be a pill for almost every part of my life.
Extreme stress at work had brought on the panic attacks, which were soon followed by a mental breakdown and the onset of severe agitated depression. During this time, there was one aborted return to work, followed by just under four months’ sick leave.
I’ve now seen six mental health specialists, including a counsellor, a hypnotherapist, an expensive Harley Street psychiatrist, and at the suggestion of my mother-in-law, a retired faith healer. I’ve attended separate “coping with depression” and “coping with anxiety” courses and have been a whisker away from being admitted into a local mental health unit in Aylesbury as an in-patient.
The following morning, I go cycling on my own down a country road. My brain feels like a jumble of spaghetti when I collide head-on with a 10-ton truck.
It appears that I have tried to take my own life. It is fair to say that it had not exactly been a vintage summer.”
So, what went wrong? It’s quite simple really. I was a square peg in a round hole.
Almost a year and half before that fateful bike ride, I had just gone into business with two very gifted individuals and we had set up a small agency called Brand Learning. From the word go, we needed to agree who did what as far as the running and management of the company was concerned. Who would look after the administration and the back office? Who would manage the finances? Who would sort out the legal stuff? Who would establish human resource policies? Which of us was best qualified to drive the development of the website and the marketing collateral?
Fishing in the wrong ponds…
In a moment of madness, I offered to take on the job of working alongside our professional advisers to manage our accounts and look after our legal affairs as Company Secretary. In hindsight, this was a big mistake. A big, big mistake. Although I was comfortable with the theory of the balance sheet, cash flow and profit and loss statement, the responsibility of overseeing the finances for the fast-growing business would prove to be one of the straws that broke this camel’s back. And the legal stuff was not much better. Memorandum and Articles of Association, Service Agreements, Event of Default, Option Period, Transfer Terms. All alien terms to me.
No doubt about it, I was fishing in two of the wrong ponds. I was a concepts and clouds type, much more into the touchy feely, the warm and cuddly, the creative and carefree. Here I was volunteering to get involved in two aspects of business that were the polar opposite, the crunchy and concrete, the clinical and analytical.
And what put me under even more pressure was that my two business partners seemed to be coping effortlessly with their respective workloads. They were positively devouring their daily ‘to do’ lists. Productive machines at work.
I hated what I was doing.
For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Prison or paradise…
Fast forward to November 2020. How have things changed:
- The Ocean’s Eleven model. I now run my own creative capability agency, called GENIUS YOU. In a huge twist of irony, my business partner is my marital partner. We complement one another perfectly. Mel adores the detail, the nitty gritty, getting stuck into the weeds. I am still into the concepts and clouds. Our business runs on the ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ model. In other words, we work with other extremely talented independents, each with their own unique skills, on a ‘heist by heist’ basis. And even though this arrangement is loose by design, everybody is always very committed to the cause. It’s also extremely energising and refreshing, being constantly exposed to different perspectives.
- My home is a paradise not a prison. There has been much debate about the merits of working at home versus working in the office during Covid times. Senior figures like Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist and Professor Jonathan Haskel, an external member of the Bank’s monetary policy committee have both been very vociferous in the public domain recently, claiming that the shift towards home working has had a negative impact on both productivity and creativity. I disagree. I have been a ‘home worker’ for the majority of my working career and like JK Rowling and Barack Obama, I am also an introvert by nature. I can honestly say that the one place where I am at my most productive and most creative is my home office. Surrounded by colour, photographs of loved ones, potted plants on window sills, and within spitting distance of our very own ‘Costa Kitchen’ where I enjoy casual and creative chit chats with other family members. Working at home in Lockdown may be prison to some but it is paradise to others, me included.
- Inefficiency boosts creativity. This summer, GENIUS YOU published a Creativity Study. In between 2015 and 2020, over 2000 surveys had been completed by individuals from 17 major international organisations across 10 different sectors. The survey helped people understand their creative strengths. It also contained one open-ended question which asked respondents to comment on the state of creativity and innovation in their own company. A number of key themes emerged that represented obstacles to a creative workplace. “Time
poverty” and the “burden of process overload” accounted for 23% of all responses. One response sums things up nicely: “Our biggest downfall within the business is not giving enough time to creative thinking. We need to put importance on thinking as much as doing. The team are constantly executing projects but spend little time crafting new ideas.” I maintain that the modern day workplace may well be cut out for productivity – getting things done, tasks accomplished. But it is not conducive to the creative process which demands to-ing and fro-ing, iteration, stopping and starting. On the face of it, this smacks of inefficiency but this is the very essence of the creative process. And this is why I love the freedom of working from home, unfettered, in an Ocean’s Eleven way.
A letter to employers and employees
Never has creativity been more important than it is today, and it must count as one of your top three competencies. But please do not confuse productivity with creativity. The latter requires time and space, inspiring surroundings, a ‘can do’ rather than ‘can’t because’ corporate mentality, trial and error, celebration of success and failure, recruiting all types and a fervent belief that everybody, yes everybody, has a creative bone in their body.
Work out as quickly as possible in your careers what ‘floats your boat”. Are you into the concrete and crunchy or concepts and clouds? Analytical or creative? Introvert or extrovert? Structured or loose working environment. The 7.42am from Guildford to Waterloo or the Costa Kitchen at home? And once you have discovered your preferences, search far and wide for the job that ticks all the boxes. Don’t stop until you have found it.
Creatives and Productives are two different animals, requiring different habitats. If they spend too long living in the wrong kind of habitat, it’s not just their levels of creativity and productivity that will suffer as a result. But something far more important.