Peculiar is good, don’t let anyone tell you anything different. Having a skewed take on the world isn’t what you always want or need, but it is important to have free thinkers, dreamers, and mad geniuses in the company mix if you want to break though the play-it-safe realities of most businesses.
Back in the day David Ogilvy wrote a memo to his managers spelling out the characteristics he believed were central for the ideal candidate. “The person is ambitious. The person works harder than their peers—and enjoys it. The person has a brilliant brain—inventive and unorthodox. The person has an engaging personality. The person demonstrates respect for the creative function.” In other words, David Ogilvy was asking for someone dynamic, smart, and creative. Well who isn’t? But to me, the key words here are “unorthodox” and “engaging”. And whether you’re in advertising, product development, or probably any field for that matter, these two words set the stage for meaningful innovation.
The reason I say this is because take together they suggest an ability, and deep-seated need to break through boundaries and look at the world in an unexpected way. In an Ad Week article that appeared this week (and inspired my thinking), the authored phrased it this way: The person is confidently peculiar. And while I love and embrace this idea, it warrants a little deeper examination.
Regardless of the industry, but especially in advertising, lip service is given to the idea that collective thinking should be “inventive and unorthodox,” but it’s not always the case. Indeed, it rarely is. It’s a given, we assume, that people’s diverse points of view, training, interests, histories, and cultures result in original work. But sometimes that work needs to be influenced by peculiarity due to fear.
When we’re faced with the need to live in the question, most people, creators included, experience anything from unease to abject fear and paralyzing anxiety. From a purely biological perspective, acting in the face of uncertainty stimulates a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is a primary seat of fear and anxiety. That sends a surge of chemicals through our bodies that makes us want to run. So when we start really letting the creative juices flow, we shut down or limit ourselves to staying within psychological and social parameters that are safe.
Additionally, we’re trained to be risk averse. Frequently, the people with power are in power because they are good at process. It’s their job to mitigate risk. And innovative thinking is the definition of risk. What that means is that when you really push the boundaries, you run the risk of being wrong (at least in the eyes of the people who often control your fate). Being wrong and the fear it creates stops us from embracing those strange ways of thinking that help us believe we can break boundaries, invent the next light bulb, and change the world. The result of all this discomfort and fear is that we often exclude the most inventive from the conversation and fall back on what we already know.
Which brings us back to the two words I mentioned at the beginning: “unorthodox” and “engaging”. By unorthodox I mean will to break with tradition, with social norms, with standard practices. These are the people who frequently drive PMs and Account people batty, but they’re necessary to challenge the status quo. Partly it’s to help break through the noise in the moment, but the unorthodox, the half mad, create a liminal state. When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony. Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. The result of turning the world on its head for a brief time is to create a “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. The unorthodox position creates a challenge to one’s self and sets the stage for more creative thinking.
Engaging means more than fearlessness and confidence. It means being able to captivate. Without a sense of security in their weirdness, these personalities would suppress the very thing that makes them interesting. But given the chance and space to embrace and even enhance their oddity, these characters are able to inject it into any particular creative pursuit of their choosing. This is what makes the story sing and gives life to the unorthodox approach to solving the problem at hand. Engaging doesn’t just mean entertaining, it means convincing, transformational, and true.
Put together, these two characteristics lead to re-envisioning the world. Because people like this stand somewhat outside the norm, they serve as catalysts and gateways to a creative space we’re often afraid to go. Keep the peculiar, the weird, the unrelenting close at hand. You may not see their value in a clear-cut way but the pay off can be seismic.