Archive for the ‘ psychology ’ Category

Good and Bad Autopilot

One of the reasons I moved to London was to slow down time.

Your teens and twenties are full of first-times, new experiences, surprising occurrences. We have a memory peak around that time called the reminiscence bump, because it’s such a unique period in our lives. Once you settle into adult-hood however, you start forming regular routines of work, leisure and socializing. And this repetition means the days and months and years can start to blur into one. The experience of being fifteen years old was a lifetime away from my experiences as a seventeen year old. In contrast, was life at 29 really so different from 27? If you’re not careful, it can quickly start to feel very same-ish.

So I’d read somewhere, that moving to a new place makes everything fresh again. You have to figure out a new routine, a new workplace, a new culture. You can’t slip into autopilot. The logistical challenges force you to be aware. And it’s this awareness of the present, that slows down the passage of time.  And it’s true. London has added a new and interesting chapter to my life. But that only lasts for so long, before the autopilot mentality comes creeping back in.

The wonderful words of David Foster Wallace are finding a new lease of life online at the moment, thanks to these guys. And in his speech one of the things he talks about is the evils of autopilot. The dangers of sludging through life in a numb, self-centered cocoon. It’s so easy to do.

Bad autopilot is letting life pass you by, because you live for the end of work at five o’clock, and you live for Friday evening when you can escape the office, and you live for your two week holiday when you can escape your regular life.

What Wallace is encouraging is a conscious awareness of your surroundings and your daily life. It’s the same practice of mindfulness that’s rooted in Buddhism and encouraged by psychologists as a way of increasing happiness. It’s something I have to constantly remind myself to do.

But there’s another kind of autopilot that’s the polar opposite of the type described by Wallace. It goes by many names and descriptions: “being in the zone”, “hitting your A game” or just “flow”. Flow is when you’re unconsciously engaged in an activity at that perfect balance of challenge and mastery. You get so absorbed in a task that it’s effortless and yet you’re completely motivated throughout.

Modern life can make achieving flow really difficult. Our noisy open-plan offices, our always-on phones and our “multi-tasking” conspire against us, and rob us of the opportunity to get into a flow state at work. And after such an exhausting day, it’s no wonder that in the evenings, all we want to do is choose passive activities like watching TV, over more effortful hobbies like playing sport or music or reading or gardening or painting, even though they would bring us more satisfaction.

Yet understanding these two versions of autopilot is so important for happiness. We need to break the mindless version of autopilot described in the video above. We need to slow down the passage of time by becoming aware of what’s happening in the present moment, avoiding the zombie life at all costs. But alongside this we need to pursue the positive, enriching autopilot state of flow, where we sometimes lose all track of time because we are so enjoyably engaged in what we are doing. Because in the end, it doesn’t really matter how much time we have, what matters is whether it was time well spent.


The Holiday Mindset

Islington in sunshine

Islington in the sunshine is one of my all time favourite places to be and I always feel lucky to live here every time the sun peeks out and the streets flood with people in shades and sandals and strappy tops, regardless of whether it’s actually warm enough to brave bare arms.

This weekend was one of those gorgeous sunny gifts.

And no matter how many times I see it happen, I’m always struck by how powerfully this good weather can affect people’s mood. They might have started out the week feeling busy and stressed and completely preoccupied by work and life, but if the sun comes out, all of those concerns are temporarily shelved. Suddenly, everyone switches into a holiday mindset.

Which makes the simplest things like taking an early morning walk down by the canal or sitting on some grass beside a busy road drinking coffee with friends, feel luxuriously pleasant. We savour every moment. We abandon the schedule and let time just pass us by.

And that’s really odd when you think about it, since the canal and the coffee are always there, all year round and cost next to nothing to enjoy. There’s no reason we couldn’t live this carefree lifestyle far more often, if we allowed ourselves to. But it takes the rarity of a sunny day in a country that can’t count on having a summer, to force us into letting go.

Leo Babauta from Zen Habits wrote a great post recently about cultivating a vacation mindset at work.  It seems like a crazy paradox on the surface, but actually you can see the productivity benefits immediately. Working without anxiety, fully immersed in the present, thinking about the big picture rather than sweating the small stuff and letting go of our clock watching obsession. Those behaviours are the recipe for flow, and high performance work.

But actually I would go one further. Not only could we all do with a bit more holiday mindset at work, I think many of us could use some more holiday mindset in our leisure time too. I know I have a terrible habit of turning my weekends into the same busy, self- pressured affairs as my working days. Feeling guilty if I waste away a precious day on nothing (even if excused by a hangover). Or else packing my weekend full of socializing and errands but watching the clock tick by until Sunday evening comes around again.

So, inspired by the kick in the ass this good weather has given me, I’ve decided to start practicing my holiday mindset. I’ll certainly give it a go at work, but most importantly I’m going to reclaim my evenings and weekends. And I’ll try to make the most of that lovely canal and coffee, whether or not the sun is shining.

How Creative Agencies Can Become More Creative

Beethoven Mind Map

Advertising agencies talk a lot about their culture. They’ve rightly identified that getting the culture right is half the battle when it comes to getting the work right. The tricky part is that it’s so damn elusive. And often our attempts to influence this sensitive eco-system have the same results as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 

One of my favourite London organisations, the innovative School of Life, are running an interesting sounding seminar on “living with a creative mind” and they’ve identified five principles for getting the best out of creative people. It makes for an interesting checklist when assessing how well your agency is set up:

 1.   Affirmation

Apparently creative people need a lot of encouragement. Because they may appear confident but are also plagued with insecurities. I would say this rings true, but is also true of pretty much every human being – some people are just better at hiding their self-doubt. Affirmation (real, genuine, positive comments rather than false flattery of course), is the easiest and cheapest way to motivate your staff. And yet so many managers haven’t mastered it yet.

 2.   Permission to Fail

I imagine this varies quite a bit from agency to agency depending on their appetite for risk and glory. For an agency like Wieden & Kennedy, embracing failure is part of their DNA. Whereas the established safe pair of hands BBDO, may have more to lose from a wild departure from best practice. At a more micro-level, agencies need to watch out for blame culture. The best managers protect their teams. This gives people the security to fully focus on the win, instead of obsessively guarding against minor losses.

 3.   Freedom from Fear

Linked to number 2. Fear and anxiety cause the brain to narrow in on the immediate threat. That’s convergent thinking, rather than the expansive divergent thinking that’s required for creativity. In other words, when our backs are up against it, survival is the only thing we can focus on. That doesn’t leave much brain space for connecting random interesting thoughts. So if you want to increase creativity, look at the daily interactions of your teams. If they are tense, anxious or defensive, the resultant work will be shit. It’s also another reason why “talent doesn’t excuse temperament”. Regardless of technical ability, if there’s someone who’s a negative influence on others, they’re dragging your overall creative output down.

 4.   Room to Explore

This is a principle most agencies seem to be quite aware of – in theory, if not in practice. Creative people need both time and often physical space to explore random ideas and stimulus so that they can make new connections. It’s why we’re all allowed to watch Youtube and pop out to a coffee shop for a meeting every so often. But it’s also the first thing to fall by the wayside when people get busy. Given that creative thinking is part of what we’re paid for, this should be a mandatory requirement and way of working, not a luxury.

 5.   Sticking with their Tribe

Now this one has implications for agency layout. A number of people I’ve spoken to recently have mentioned the benefits of putting the creative department back together. And arguably the planning department too. There are clearly benefits from sitting in account teams, but I suspect they err on the side of efficiency rather than creativity. Putting like with like, raises everyone’s game within their discipline. Both through comparative competition and more innocuously through casual chats and sharing inspiration. The downside of course is finding other ways to encourage good working relationships across departments and avoid ghettos. But as the advertising process becomes more collaborative and iterative, hopefully this will follow naturally – from necessity if nothing else!

Learning from Everyone


It’s funny how it’s usually the meetings where you’re completely lost and haven’t a clue what’s being talked about, that you’re most reticent to ask a question. A stupid question will just expose your ignorance. Better to stay quiet and be thought a fool, than speak and remove all doubt.

And the more senior you are, the harder it is to reveal a lack of understanding or expertise in front of colleagues. Part of this is because our cultural image of great leaders is about being in control, all knowing. We’re programmed to think that asking for advice or asking for help, is an admission of weakness, instead of strength.

In the real world though, the greatest leaders are those who show humility and often vulnerability too. You can’t inspire people if you don’t connect with them. And it’s hard to connect with superhumans. They’re just too different from the rest of us.

That’s why one of the biggest things holding back leaders today is that pressure to maintain an unflappable public face. It creates distance between management and staff. It creates barriers to open conversations. And it’s an out-dated approach from a different time. A time when companies were run on top-down authoritarian leadership. Where employees did what they were told, stayed in their boxes, clocked in and out, left their soul at the door every morning to be picked up again at 5PM.

Now we live in a different world. It’s a world where education and access to information are no longer the preserve of the powerful few, but are increasingly democratised. Which means the person at the top may no longer know best. It means more people will be questioning authority and the status quo. It makes it likely that people won’t be content to keep their head down and climb the progress ladder step by step. After all, that’s what happens in the kingdom when the peasants learn to read…

And rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, the best companies are evolving to gain the benefit of a workforce with higher expectations for their jobs.

Like having reverse mentorship schemes where management buddy up with junior staff, not to appease them, or pretend to be listening, but to genuinely learn new skills and new ways of thinking.

Like abolishing performance reviews (which if we’re really honest, are more about keeping salary costs down than genuine staff development – they tend to be quite rubbish at that), and even replacing them with bottom up staff appraisals of how the company is performing and what could be improved.

There’s a lot to learn from everyone if we’re open and interested enough to want to listen. None of us is smarter than all of us – the collective knowledge of all staff will only help businesses do better. And it comes with the happy side effect of happier staff too. Motivated workers and shared responsibility for success.

The only wonder is that in 2013, this is still relatively rare practice. So there’s definitely a first mover advantage up for grabs – the best leaders will take it.

Would we be happier with no goals?

I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions. Partly because January strikes me as a particularly depressing month to try and lose weight/stop drinking/give up dairy etc. And partly because I’ve never been able to shake the back to school feeling of September, making autumn like the real new year to me, turning January into a bit of a fraud.

I suspect there’s also another reason though. Which is that I don’t really like putting myself under the pressure of achieving  – or more likely failing to achieve – a big daunting goal.

Now I’ve always believed, probably like you, that goals are supposed to be good for us. They spur us into action, push us to push ourselves, give focus to what we do today so that we can reach our ambitions tomorrow. And I’ve been taught, just as vehemently, that people without goals are destined (if Hollywood is anything to go by) to become aimless wasters. Living a life full of regret because they failed reached their full potential.

Except I wonder whether this is actually true.

Leo Babauta has a healthy debate on his ZenHabits blog with 4 Hour entrepreneur Tim Ferris, on whether or not goals suck. And I think there is some intuitive truth in the idea that successful people are not succeeding because they are planning ten steps ahead. They’re doing their utmost today, and they’ll keep doing that tomorrow. Cumulatively it all adds up. But an orchestrated long-term strategy is just a guise. As the old adage says that “man makes plans and God laughs”.

More insidiously though, I wonder whether this guise of goals actually gets in the way of our happiness. I’ve talked before about the idea that happiness is often measured as a combination of two things – how happy we are with our lives when we reflect on it (our remembering self) and how happy we are in the moment (our experiencing self).  Goals can piss off both selves.

Our remembering self will judge how happy we feel based on whether we have achieved the many goals we have set for ourselves. And it takes zero heed of whether those goals, our most heartfelt ambitions, were in the slightest bit realistic (see Jim’s video above for a razor sharp observation on this). The higher we aim, the more inevitable it is that at some stage, we will fall short. And rest assured, whatever achievements we do rack up, there will always be a new burning ambition to fill it’s place. We’re built with an insatiable appetite for more.

And worse, while we’re chasing after these goals, we lose track of the moment. Which means our contentment with right now, is always playing second fiddle to our pursuit of whatever prize we think lies in the future. And will the prize be worth it when we wake up at sixty and wonder at how readily we wished our days away to get to that point? Because life isn’t supposed to be a journey with a destination. We’re just supposed to dance while the music is playing.

So my Christmas gift to myself this year is to start out 2013 with even fewer goals than last year. I’m going to throw away the mental picture of what the next year might have in store, and just see where my aimless wandering can take me. Which is quite refreshing really.

Happy Christmas everyone – and think no further ahead for today!

Everyone wants to be engaging

Left brain, Right brain

One of my most rational and left brained clients has been asking recently about how we can switch from a persuasion model of communication to an engagement model. “Engagement” seems to be the buzzword doing the rounds in the marketing industry at the moment. Everyone from the marketing director to the CEO has bought into the idea that communication needs to be more emotional and less didactic. Which should be great news. It’s not new news, mind you, from an agency perspective – we’ve always known that we were selling the sizzle not the sausage. It tended to be clients who were preoccupied with hammering home their USPs (for washing powders, for razors, for cheese or cereal) leading to an arms race of meaningless improvements to products, which normal people could not have been less interested in.

The tricky part in these discussions is the gap in some people’s understanding of the differences between a persuasion and engagement model.  Many clients seem to want the results of engaging communication, but not the type of work, or the way of working, which would lead to it. There also seems to be confusion between advertising which reaches people emotionally (which can be down to executional elements like music or visuals, as much as the story being told) and advertising which tries to own an emotional benefit in some way (“we stand for confidence!”). And there seems to be a lot of confusion around communication vs. channels, with engagement for many people equaling “digital” or “social”.

Moving from a persuasion model to an engagement model is really just about understanding how humans ACTUALLY respond to communication in the real world. It also means leaving behind a number of assumptions, many of which are deeply held on the client side (and sometimes the agency side too!) The iconic Health & Feldwick paper explains it well:

The Persuasion model assumes:

  1. …that advertising works more effectively through top-down goal driven processing
  2. …that the main role of emotion in advertising is to gain attention for the message
  3. …that advertising which based on emotional cues is weaker and less effective
  4. …that advertising which does not get high attention is weaker and less effective, and only works when repeated frequently
  5. ..that prior exposure to advertising eventually leads to a fall in attention, and therefore a fall in effectiveness (ie. diminishing returns)

In contrast, the Engagement model suggests:

  1. …that visuals, sounds, symbols, music, gestures, context, experience are all a central part of the communication and can be as persuasive as the message itself
  2. …that people can be powerfully influenced by  communication that is processed with low attention, and of which they have no conscious recall
  3. …that decision-making is always rooted in emotions and is often influenced below the level of consciousness
  4. …that human communication is as much based on associations/ connotations within the Ad, than the apparent content of the communication
  5. …that implicit communication is as important and influential as the explicit content.

In a nutshell, developing more engaging communication means switching into right brain thinking (holistic, emotional, visual, symbolic).

So clients who would like to make more “engaging” creative have two paths:

1)   Hone their creative and right brain thinking skills so they are better equipped to judge advertising which works in this implicit and emotional way


2)   Empower their agency to make those judgments on their behalf, and take a softer guidance role during the creative process

I know which path I think is the best bet – thoughts from anyone else?

What Makes Us Creative

Tommy McHugh spent most of his life beating the living shit out of people, injecting heroin and spending time in jail. At age 51 he had a stroke causing two small haemorrhages on both sides of his brain, which doctors managed to repair using a metal clip and coil.

When Tommy returned home from hospital he couldn’t walk. He couldn’t eat. He didn’t recognize his ex-wife who was looking after him. He spoke in an odd rhyming stream of words. His ex-wife recognized that this was his way of trying to communicate, so she gave him a pad and paper to express himself in writing. Tommy started writing poetry and then sketching, painting and sculpting. As he regained his memory and physical functions, a dramatically different personality revealed itself. Gone was the dark aggressive character he had been for half a century. Instead there was a calm, sensitive and thoughtful man. He had also retained this intense compulsion to create art.

No one knows exactly what happened from a medical perspective. All the neuropsychologist could suggest was that the brain damage had disinhibited the neural pathways which were blocking Tommy’s sensitive side and creative tendencies from coming to the fore.

Tommy has said poignantly:

“It’s opened me up to the person I feel I should have been 40 years ago”

As someone who works in the creative industries, I’ve always had a strong belief that creativity is something which can be nurtured, developed and stretched. Cases like Tommy’s inevitably raise the question, how much of creativity is biologically determined?

We know that particular people are born with a greater tendency towards creativity. Openness is an innate personality trait often highly correlated with creativity in both the arts and sciences. There’s also a mixed association with low conscientiousness. Creativity is also linked with higher levels of general intelligence, which has a large genetic component.

But we also know that context (am I in a creative mindset) and physical environment can play a big role in stimulating creativity. And we know that mood can substantially influence creativity. When we are happy, more cognitive processes become available, our attention broadens and our cognitive flexibility increases, so we can associate more elements together which is conducive to creative thinking. Workplace studies have shown that the more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking they evidence that day, and the creative bump carries over into the next day—even if the mood doesn’t last until then.

McHugh has clearly reflected a lot on what has happened to him and why:

“I fight alone to understand the person I am now, the artist that you see, the human being that you see.  It’s a learning lesson for me every day of my life. And it’s valuable.

It’s just difficult for me to get understanding from any other people, to motivate a neural psychologist somewhere, to motivate a man who wants to interpret the clip and the coil in the brain here, to understand that it’s not just me who’s got this. We’ve all got it. In 20 or 30 years time they’ll come out with a mental thinking cap. They’ll plug it on your brain, you’ll be able to be an artist. Or a kook. Or a ballet dancer. Or a rock and roll singer”

Maybe the stroke fundamentally altered Tommy’s brain, or maybe as the psychologist suggested, this creative side was dormant but ready to be released when the brain pathways were damaged.  But perhaps it didn’t have to be physical damage that triggered this release.

Maybe if Tommy had been reached at a younger age. If he had been taught how to control his aggression and given strategies to manage his impulses. If he had grown up in an encouraging home environment or a more open school. If he had lived a happier and more stable life. Tommy’s right when he says “we’ve all got it”. But I don’t believe the answer is a metal thinking cap. Instead of trying to alter people, we need to alter the conditions. And there are  lots of ways we can start to do that. It’s not easy but it is possible. Especially if you believe that everyone has talent which can flourish in the right environment.

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