When best practice makes you feel wrong

And how to deal with it.

Back in 2009, a lifetime ago, business books became my Bible. I’ve never been a religious man, but learning about the best practices of others quickly became my version of the Ten Commandments. If today I believe that you don’t need to be the ‘walking Wikipedia’ in the room to thrive, I once (and until fairly recently) revered the very idea of being that person. Knowledge is power, and with sufficient knowledge I thought I could be closer to God.

Except life doesn’t work that way. And while reading loads is obviously beneficial for anyone who works in a knowledge industry, there are caveats we should consider.

The first is that business books provide us with statistical anomalies, in which we look at all the successes and fail to acknowledge that they are exceptions — ones we should aspire to, yes, but which required a great deal of variables to align before they could actually come to life.

The second, a direct result of this, is that this creates a feeling of intellectual inadequacy — that dreaded moment when we realise that by the time we reached 28, we didn’t achieve as much as Larry Page nor Jon Steel and that whatever we did achieve wasn’t as smooth nor impactful as the stories that their legacy suggests. By definition, the fact that we didn’t live up to our idols’ achievements means that we are a failure. It’s a binary way of looking at success — a very Westernised view of the world.

Instead, I’m becoming increasingly interested in knowing of — and often sharing — the stories that pay tribute to the Japanese concept of wabi sabi. That is, stories that celebrate imperfection, impermanence, and the inherent beauty of things not being as smooth and symmetrical as we’d like them to.

So instead of the perfect narratives of a strategy paper or the apparently linear process that went into the development of a campaign or business, I prefer to find learnings — and indeed, some sense of consolation — when I am told that it’s ok for pre-defined plans to change. That planners don’t get the brief right at first. That creatives don’t achieve a stroke of genius but instead tweak and tinker and find despair before the answer comes and finds them. That focus groups are oftentimes an exercise of due diligence instead of the sign posts of a transformational moment. That before you end up with a killer insight you draft a lot of pretentious and often preposterous things.

When I speak with junior planners or creatives (and indeed more experienced ones), I find that framing the conversation around reassurance rather than just education helps both of us. It’s great to recommend books, techniques and philosophies for a perfect world, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of anecdotal evidence that the job is messy, that we don’t get it right all the time, that it’s ok to not have a ‘Got Milk?’ moment in your curriculum by the time you’re old enough to be a mom or dad. And it is ok because we are better at dealing with this job when we realise that perfect days, perfect briefs, perfectly worded insights and perfect campaigns, 9 times out of 10, are an illusion.

To celebrate our idols is, of course, a noble thing. We should aspire for more, we should aim to perfect our craft in the same way that huge tech companies perfect their business model or senior planners perfect their presentation skills. But to respect their position and take bits of learning from them is one thing; to aim to completely emulate their achievements instead of framing what achievement truly means for us is quite another.

While best practices help us understand where our professional accomplishments could be in the future, a subtle feeling of reassurance keeps our mind grounded in the present moment. And while, to misquote Richard Huntington, anxiety does maketh the planner, I wonder if that can be balanced by a calm sense of realisation that it’s ok if your path is different from that of your heroes, because after all part of our jobs as creative professionals is to create our own realities.

For our clients, no doubt, but first and foremost for ourselves.

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