Gabberissue #2: Insecurity
You’re stuck. There’s a brief in front of you demanding answers, but the only thing you can conjure up is panic. Answers flit past your conscious but they’re not the ones you’re looking for: pulling the fire alarm, feigning pneumonia, falling and knocking yourself unconscious to create a diversion from the fact that you’re about to be found out.
But it’s not the fire alarm you should be worried about, it’s your own alarm—that voice inside your head that keeps telling you ‘I’m not good enough’.
Self-doubt makes you block up as quickly as aeroplane food—and when ideas are your currency, that’s a problem.
Ah, the advertising industry. Featuring its own unique blend of rejection and adulation plus an awards system designed to separate the rock stars from the plebs, it’s ripe for bringing out the insecurity in the best of us. But wait, there’s more! Also featuring an arduous approval process—who else spends half their life seeking approval from their peers, bosses, clients, industry, the public, not to mention their mums. It’s no wonder we doubt ourselves.
A quick search of the industry networking app Fishbowl shows a swag of posts on insecurity. One, reading “I’m really struggling atm. Feeling like I’m just not good enough and I think I am literally getting worse at my job” has over 30 responses from a mix of advertising types. They are all empathetic, and the respondents seem to find some solace in their peers’ fellow pain. They comment back: “That feeling you’re having is a feeling everyone is having. I have that feeling daily” says one. Another: “I’m in the same headspace” and another “Last week I Googled ‘I feel worthless’... this thread is much more comforting”.
There is solidarity in numbers. But while acknowledging that most of us have insecurities, it’s important to assess just how much those feelings are affecting your life, and your creative output.
If they are getting the worst of you, your performance can suffer. Alex*, a senior creative, talked to me about one such period in her life.
“I was working in a dysfunctional team. My partner was going behind my back, basically saying that I was useless. (In retrospect, I can see he was doing this to cover his own arse). Everyone believed him and started looking at me differently, like if we had an idea they’d just assume it was his. At first that wasn’t the case, but after a while the whole thing became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was so stressed and anxious that I stopped being able to think clearly. I stopped having ideas and was made redundant. Not a good time."
Some agencies have awesome cultures, some have shit ones. Some people are great, some people are mean. And when ideas are your currency, anything that’s getting in the way of you having them is going to have a detrimental effect on your career.
They say you haven’t made it in advertising until you’ve been made redundant three times.
I remember meeting up with a group of friends a couple of years out of the RMIT Creative Advertising degree. All still juniors, and out of a group of six, all but one of us had already been made redundant. We were a bit despondent—but recruiter Esther Clerehan would count us lucky. She knows a lot about people losing jobs, because she’s one of the first to get a phone call after it happens.
“I think getting fired or retrenched early in your career is actually really good for you. Losing your job and knowing that better things happen—it builds that security in for later in life when quite possibly it’s going to happen again… you’ll be like, I’m going to be ok, I’ve been here before.
Because if (you’re retrenched) for the first time when you’re 40—let alone 50— you don’t have that skill set to go I can bounce back from this.
And you’ve probably been a bit of a snob about it. This is a problem some people have, they assume that only people who are shit lose their jobs, and it’s not true.”
Redundancies happen for any number of reasons: the loss of a client, new management, a restructure, financial issues, and of course, performance issues. When it happens to you it’s easy to focus on the latter. But if being made redundant early in your career can be helpful to your resilience in the long term, it also ensures you understand too well that the chopping block is always within reach. And this, it would seem, is bad for creativity.
A number of studies have looked into the correlation between job insecurity and creativity in the workplace. The ones I came across all come to the same conclusion. One, published earlier this year in the Scandinavian Journal of Work and Organisational Psychology, tested a sample of 1,420 supervisors from a large Belgian organisation. Like other studies it found job insecurity to impact negatively on creativity and innovation, and the authors concluded: “Organisations that want to stimulate idea generation should make sure to maintain the job security of their workforce. The more secure employees feel about their job, the more likely they are to generate new ideas.”
Job insecurity breeds personal insecurity, which in turn reduces creativity.
In an industry whose lifeblood is its creative output, are we missing out on maximising just that, and instead creating a bunch of stressed-out employees? Creativity needs confidence to flourish. Tortured artists have their place, but they’re hardly going to be able to sell luxury plane travel, let alone toilet paper that makes your bum feel happy. What hope have we got?
At least a shred, if we’re to listen to Professor Adam Grant, organizational psychology expert and author of "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World". He argues that doubt, if used the right way, can be an important part of the creative process, because it encourages further investigation. He elaborates on this in his TED talk: when you doubt an idea, you won’t rest on the first thought that pops into your head—you’ll keep chasing for more, and it is upon this exploration that truly creative ideas can surface. Still, “idea-doubt”, as Professor Grant puts it, is not to be confused with self-doubt. “Self-doubt is paralysing” he says. “It leads you to freeze. But idea doubt is energising.”
Having apparently looked into my brain to see the exact thought process I go through when I come up with an idea, Grant visualised the creative process like so:
This is awesome.
This is tricky.
This is crap.
I am crap.
This might be OK.
This is awesome.
The trick to success, he says, is simply to skip over step 4—to acknowledge that any first draft is crap, and to keep things moving. But how do you pull yourself out of the "Step-4-I-am-crap" phase if you can’t skip it?
You could start by taking some of the weight off your emotions and realise that they’re a natural human response, not a true representation of reality. There’s some solace in the fact that most of us go through the same thing at one time or another, but if you’re stuck there and can’t see a way out, it helps to talk about it—if you can’t find someone in your workspace, reach out to a mentor. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and ignore the ones who don’t. Have your own little victory: make an idea that doesn’t need fifty rounds of approval and millions of dollars to get off the ground.
Then brush yourself off, stop staring at the fire alarm, and realise no one’s buying your fake cough. Get back to work. You’re awesome.
*Alex isn't really called Alex.