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Industry POV

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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