The Creative Benefits Of Exploring The Uncomfortable

How one agency’s enforced No-Meeting Zone made one creative think outside her comfort zone.

At Grey New York, someone had the radical idea that to be creative, you need time to think creatively and not be at the mercy of relentless calendar invites. Our boss, Tor Myhren, agreed and instituted the Thursday Morning No-Meeting Zone from 9 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. This is officially sanctioned time for us to expand our minds and devote time to ideas that kept getting pushed to the side, using whatever methods worked for us. And not just for the writers and art directors. This was a never-before-seen, agency-wide missive. I thought it sounded great. But I had no idea that the mental expansion plan I dreamed up would turn out to be so painful.

My plan was to Force Myself to Learn About Something I Am Not Interested In. I figured instead of just diving deeper into my comfort zone, I’d head to a foreign place and try to find meaning and create connections. If I could look at areas that I had zero interest in with fresh eyes, maybe I would see other areas with fresher eyes. As a writer, this is always a good thing. I would be an explorer. It would be fun.

I was wrong. Going outside your comfort zone is—and this should have been obvious--uncomfortable. Even painful.

I’m no neurologist but I am now certain that the synapses in your brain like the familiar path. It’s fast and easy. Diverting hurts. While I consider myself an open-minded person, apparently I’m not as open as I thought. That’s like finding out you have a bad habit that you didn’t know you had. Great!

Finding topics that you can’t work up any interest in is not as easy as you’d think. But I was on a mission. A mission that led to mental stretching with subjects like:

Rick Santorum
I don’t like politics. I really, really don’t like the level of political discourse in this country. I’m also not a big fan of the sweater vest. So Rick was perfect for me.

It took about 3.2 seconds on YouTube to realize that when it comes to Rick, my synapses were set on insta-dismiss mode. A few lines of an article had the same effect. I had to concentrate to try and truly hear him. Start over again and every time I failed. Finally, I found a way to understand a little where he was coming from.

I found it in loss. His son Gabriel was born at 20 weeks and died at 2 hours old. Then they took the baby’s body home so the children could meet their brother. Okay, that’s unusual. But the part that makes sense to me is this: He wanted to make sure that the baby counted. That’s a feeling I understood. I miscarried three. And you don’t start loving your child when it’s born. You start daydreaming and caring the minute you find out you’re pregnant. The loss is real and should be acknowledged in some way.

Then suddenly this sense of wanting to count or matter gave new meaning to his viewpoint that people of faith were unwelcome in the Public Square. Everyone deserves to be heard. To count. Whatever your beliefs are. The Faithful should not be silenced. Although I think some of them are a little intolerant of others in the Public Square, but that’s another story.

The point is, forcing myself to try to find a connection made me find one. This led me to see to Mr. Santorum as a person I disagree with versus a political cartoon. I think his motivation is sincere even if I would never vote for him. With that simple courtesy, that small amount of respect, I technically improved the level of political discourse in this country by 1 /313,000,000th.

And I had forced my headstrong synapses off their usual path, I made them get lost so they had to find or create a new path.

The Secret Life of Plankton
I came across this short documentary and the subject matter just wasn’t my thing. So that meant I had to watch it. I hate to break the news to plankton, but I don’t find much of their lives secret-worthy. Lots of aimless swarming. I had to fight the urge to hit stop. My impatient synapses almost made me miss the species that inspired a sci-fi alien design. As well as the ones that can light up like Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu. Art is everywhere.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York
I didn’t think Fed tours would be hard to get into but, like many aspects of this project, I was busy being wrong. However, I did score the self-guided coin exhibit. Where amongst the drachmas and doubloons, I also found:

1. The bullion box, an old wooden crate that four men would carry with poles. It made me think of Raiders of the Lost Ark and a smaller, plainer ark. I imagined four men carrying it slowly (those gold bricks are heavy), and that visual looked like the worship of money.

2. I was alone until a group of teenaged boys arrived, I assumed from an all-boys high school. After a while, I decided to leave and hit the ladies’ room on my way out. That’s where I found the high school girls. I wanted to say, “Get out there and kick some Monetary System butt!” But I didn’t want to be the Crazy Lady in the Federal Reserve Bathroom they met on their visit to the Big City.

And now…
Forcing myself to learn about things I’m not interested in has taken patience. But I truly appreciate what it has given me. The awareness that connections can take time. The realization that the unlikely direction has value. So now at work I approach things in more ways than I did before. I go down the uncomfortable path. I try to do one thing differently each time in my thought process. And I keep pain reliever at my desk.

Practically speaking, do I spend three hours every Thursday expanding my mind? No. Some Thursdays work is too busy and I skip it, or it’s just 30 minutes. But the Comfort Zone Off-Ramp is on my calendar every week. My standing reminder to increase synaptic flexibility. Even though that can hurt, I think it’s worth it. I believe it can leave you open to bigger and better zones of possibility. Creatively, and elsewhere.

Gina Sclafani is a Creative Director at Grey New York. She has worked on major brands such as Downy, Pringles, Kraft, Seagram’s, Mars, Hasbro, and Panadol as well as the Ad Council.

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37 Comments

  • Justin

    Amazing! The things we think we have figured out... Thank you for sharing your journey through this. It will be a part of my week from now on.

    1st on the list- "Why do I always ask why?" lol 

  • Lewis LaLanne - NoteTakingNerd

    Hey Gina,

    I salute you for venturing where the majority won't - outside of what feels like home.

    One of favorite quotes relative to your journey is . . .

    "Wisdom comes from having multiple perspectives." Gregory Bateson

    Finding the kernel of truth in each perspective is important. 99% of the info that we come across is irrelevant to us but when you take the 1% and gather it and seek synthesis, you have knowledge.

    Knowledge is organized information. Knowledge just sits in your head. To really grow, we need experiences. The more experiences you have, the more perspectives you have. Experiences turn knowledge into understanding. And knowledge + experience = understanding.

    And of course, the growth inducing experiences come from stepping outside of comfort zone.

    So many times we only consider our perspective as being the only one and this when other people with a different perspective that has a kernel of truth in it find us annoying because we can't see past our narrow tunnel vision.

    One viewpoint I'm fond of is that of there being no right or wrong. There is only perspective and at best we can only have a partial perspective. Or as Spinoza put it, "There are always two sides no matter how thin you slice it."

    This is why when going into explaining ourselves it helps to start by saying, "From where I stand," "The way I see it," "From my perspective," "The way it appears to me is," or "Here's how it's seeming,"

    I honor you Gina for embarking on this journey of starting from the perspective of, "I tried on your perspective and this is what I'm feeling..." I think if more people would do this, we'd have ton less drama to endure.

  • Pena Nov

    I'm really impressed by the article. it is amazing and creative because person herself experiences it!

  • jane stadermann

     

    What was Gina really thinking when she wrote this article?
    Induced discomfort or forced learning? Are the two symbiotic? She covered a
    whole-world perspective by taking on political man, nature and money. She took
    the topics and re-aligned their  standpoint
    to make the information more palatable.

     

    Here is what I believe forms the core of all interests: what
    we are, what makes us that way and how we can change things. In other words
    [and Gina's]: man, nature, money. How we present these things is another
    matter.

     

    I know for a fact that if I am going to watch a session of
    in-house parliament, rarely am I going to be sifting through the meaning behind
    the speaker's words. The words will only be white noise as I scope out their
    presentation, their reaction to hisses from opponents, the ribbon of news which
    parades rudely along the bottom of my television screen. If, however, the
    speaker decides to do something beyond the expected, like strip naked, or take
    off his jacket and pull a hoodie over his head, then I am all eyes and ears.

     

    Basically there is too much to learn in this world. Way too
    much. And so there has to be a way for our humble brains to deal with this and
    that is through their natural selection of relevance. Gina bonds with Rick's
    family story, appreciates the visual impact of plankton, wants to give the
    girls some advice while forcing herself to open her mind to new information. Gina
    creates her own relevance in all three experiences.

     

    What I would like to know is what is Grey New York's underlying motive for the three hours of mind
    expansion? If it were me, it wouldn't be time to concentrate on how to fish out
    disregarded concepts flailing around in the slush pile...it would be time given
    to peripheral thinking. By this I mean having the employees delve into areas
    which may trigger another perspective in which to approach old [and maybe
    initiate new] concepts. This may entail an excursion to the Federal Bank: we
    all know the impact scale of mula regularly slides from inspiration to despair
    and back again. Or it may entail simple isolation: I know my best ideas can
    crop up driving the car or as I pour the milk over my cereal in the morning.

     

    On that note, perhaps I should invite Gina over for a bowl
    of Cheerios next Thursday....

  • Almost anonymous

    "If it were me...  it would be time given to peripheral thinking. By this I mean having the employees delve into areas which may trigger another perspective in which to approach old [and maybe initiate new] concepts."

    Um, hello?  Exactly what she was doing!

    I think the nay-sayers wish they had the chance to have their article published and retweeted and shared on facebook over 800 times for each.

    Great article Gina.
    Interesting, clever, insightful and enjoyable to read.  I didn't have to force myself to pay attention to it at all!  lol

  • Scott Ham

    Love reading this perspective in a forum like this.

    Putting yourself outside you own comfort zone can only broaden your perspective. It forces you to be objective about the subjects you are discovering which strengthens your approach to your comfort zone.

    If more people took the time to explore what they don't understand, we would all understand each other a little better. Well done.

  • Kimberley McClain

    I really enjoyed reading this and as an avid "article skimmer" I forced myself to do what I usually don't.. slow down and read the whole thing word for word. There is really something wonderful about pushing yourself into reasonably uncomfortable situations.

  • JW

    Well said all around. Would like to add that sometimes it's not the organization that devalues "inspiration breaks" or whatever...some days it feels like there are so many reasons to stay put at the desk and "get something done"....haha. The fallacy -- and irony -- of that is so obvious.

    One never does know how, where or when the creative nudge will occur...but it's unlikely to be found whilst buried in a spreadsheet. Just saying.

  • Danwrit

    This article is an involuntary but, IMHO, perfect explanation of why many true artists--who live day to day, minute by minute, in that world the author had to make such an effort to delve into--absolutely despise advertising "creatives."

  • Shilpi

    I also recommend the book "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel Pink.  It's an incredibly insightful book on right-brain thinking.  He names the aforementioned ideas in this article and more!  I'll probably be writing a blog post about him later.

  • Lauri Aloi

    Really nice piece. A wise man, one Guy Barnett of the Brooklyn Bros. in NYC, once gave me some great feedback on a writing project. He said, 'Lauri, the harder it is for you to write it, the more uncomfortable it makes you feel, the more interesting it will be to other people who are reading it.' I think he's right and so is Gina ... creatively and in life, make a conscious effort to try the route outside your comfort zone. LA

  • JT

    One way I've found to be helpful in discourse is to refrain from using any adjectives that describe a person. Idiot. Brain-dead. Christard. Fag. Socialist. Moron. Bigot. When these words are eliminated from the discussion, it helps to focus the conversation on topic, not on the individual.

  • jheuristic

    This works well in other areas. Take fitness for example. Too many have the same boring, ineffective gym regime. For optimal outcomes, try different stuff. It will be painful and might hurt a little. Use different machines, take a class, swim, etc. Just remember to focus on the three keys: strength, flexibility and cardio.  

    Sadly, your scornful, snide remark of 'The Faithful' being intolerant is dumb, counter-productive and not factual. Your dopey Manhattan bias ruins your otherwise fine article. 

    Sorry, Gina, the fact is the largest populations of the hyper-intolerant inhabit the left-wing, progressive precincts. 

    By in large, in the West, 'The Faithful' are tolerant by definition, by faith, and by spirituality. (There are grave exceptions, particularly w/Islam.) The angry, militant left detest religious morality, beliefs and culture WITHOUT any understanding or even attempts at understanding.

    Quite frankly, the left and progressives should take your advice and engage Faith communities to 'explore the uncomfortable.' In short, "Doctor, heal thyself."      

  • Duh

     Its okay, soon religious fervor will be illegal and we can finally lynch the rest of you bastards. Ah Peace at last.

  • JW

     Talk about reading in(to) between the lines. Hmm..seems there is some dopey, Western (?) bias ruining your points. I'm not seeing an overwhelming thread of bias in Ms. Sclafani's piece. And which data-points back up your "fact" about "the largest populations of hyper-intolerant"? IMHO both left and right can use some healing.

  • EducatedNYC

    May I recommend a liberal arts education? It's wonderful. Teaches you how to live with an open mind for your entire life—not just from 9am–Noon Thursdays! #theperilsofartsschooleducation

  • Nadine B. Hack

    So great.  I regularly advise clients - and also executive education participants now that I'm Executive-in-Residence at IMD Business School - to schedule time for themselves just to reflect.