I loathe physical discomfort in any form: pop socks pulled into the toe of my shoes; jersey sleeves bunched up into my armpits from a too-snug winter coat; scratchy shirt collars or labels; basically, anything that rides or slips or pulls or constricts makes me disproportionately grumpy. So it was disheartening to discover that discomfort goes hand-in-hand with innovative thinking. In order to come up with new ideas, your mind has to be wearing the mental equivalent of an itchy woollen hat. Your achievements, accomplishments and known abilities are like those flannel pyjamas you wore all Christmas – they might be comfortable and comforting, but you’ll never bring anything new into the world if your brain is contentedly sitting on the sofa, eating too much cheese and watching Poldark.
More than once during my Churchill trip to the US, the people I interviewed spoke about the unease that comes with new ways of working. It might be a new partnership, a new programme format, or a new audience, but without prior experience to fall back on, they have to feel their way ahead, and this produces some anxiety. Of course, the payoff comes when the partnership is established, the programme is delivered and the audience is developed – that knowledge is hard-won and should be acknowledged. It’s satisfying to know something now that you didn’t know before, but then what? Back on with the itchy woollen hat I’m afraid.
This realisation has changed how I think about my own accumulation of experiences. When I was in my first gallery job, I couldn’t learn fast enough; I was desperate to know ‘the way’ (wax on, wax off) as quickly as possible. With a few more years under my belt, I got quite cocky and thought I had it sorted. I had run enough projects, worked with enough artists, and delivered enough talks to know what I was doing, thank you very much. I thought I had mastered ‘the way’ and was now in a position to show others. I didn’t know it at the time, but by luxuriating in this sense of my own expertise, I was putting on those flannel pyjamas. What has become clear to me from my Churchill trip is that the work is never done, ‘the way’ must be constantly questioned and reformed, and satisfaction always has to lie slightly beyond reach. This is one of those annoying truths that they don’t tell you about as a kid.
I was watching David Bowie: The Last Five Years a couple of weeks ago, and he said pretty much the same thing, albeit classier: If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting. (c.52 mins)
So if we know where the good ideas live, why don’t we go there more often? I suspect it’s because self-doubt and fear of failure live there too (which would make for an interesting sitcom). Because we’re social animals, it’s uncomfortable to be separated from the pack and to vouch for an untested idea – What if it’s rubbish? What if it doesn’t work? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I’m humiliated? Self-defeating thoughts and vulnerability keep us from true innovation. David Jones would have stayed within his depth; David Bowie didn’t.
It’s useful to conduct a career health-check from time to time on one’s comfort levels. The areas of practice that feel most safe and assured are probably also the ones most in need of disruption. Fortunately, the pros of discomfort far outweigh the cons. Doing new things is mentally stimulating and exciting, and tackling fears will ultimately lead to increased confidence. My Churchill Fellowship has been one enormous itchy woollen hat. It was daunting enough to dive into twitter and blog my thoughts, let alone cross the Atlantic to interview strangers, but this experience has changed me, and for the better.
In conclusion: – be more Bowie and stay away from flannel pyjamas.