Last week I emailed a remarkable [in my view anyway] piece of strategic work to a client in the UK. Unfortunately there was a typo on page 5 – the sort of typo spell check doesn’t pick up.
Two days later I got a reply email from him. And all he could say to me was, “Richard, you’re missing an r in the second paragraph – it should read ‘your’, not ‘you’.”
Oh wow! In that moment he had abandoned his humanity and appetite for awesomeness in favour of becoming a spell checker. Here I am fighting mediocrity and numbness in my work, as I strive to deliver thinking and work that is epic, remarkable, and will make a difference to their business. And the mind-set of the senior leader that received me and my work was compliance over inspiration; obedience over boldness; being right over being awesome.
Not that I was really that surprised. I can recall making many bold, amazing strategic and creative presentations, and then sitting back for the BIG reaction, only to hear, “Ah, our logo really shouldn’t be on the left hand side of that page”. That’s it?! That’s your response to our collective, champion, creative piece of thinking and work?! You point out a technical glitch?!
I reckon this happens because the mindset that dominates in big business today is industralisation. Yep, the industrial age, with its rules, ways and standards, still dominates our schooling [what’s your ATAR?], our workday [start at 9, end at 5], our economy [GDP], and our expectations [a 7/10 is good enough as long as it’s “right”].
And sitting right at the core of industralisation is standardisation i.e. conforming to standards of correctness and averageness. After all, standardisation in the industrial age wasn’t a choice; it was impossible to industrialise without it. And even though much of our work has moved from the blue-collar factory to the white-collar office environment, standardisation continues to dominate business thinking and people’s attitudes today.
The [normal distribution] Bell Curve that defined the mass market, the mass workplace, and shows where optimal efficiency lies, is commonly used by every HR Department to plot their “people + performance”, and is sure to reject people and thinking that deviates too far from the acceptable norm. Hey, that’s what spell check was designed for; to make sure your presentation is professional, not to help it be remarkable.
The way I see it, we have all been domesticated and reduced to accepting the grinding banality of sameness. Unwritten rules surround us and hang above our heads like the sword of Damocles. Don’t make trouble. Obey your leader. Fit in even if you don’t. Settle down. And don’t make typos.
And so we obediently sit in our little open-plan office cubicles spell checking our emails and presentations, swallowing our pride in meetings, and churning out stuff that’s “okay” but not remarkable. We call this work, and we’ve been told to suck it up because it’s our job, and it’s what the system expects of us.
And while we do sometimes applaud the outliers in this world – David Bowie, Nigel Kennedy, Tom Peters – the understanding is that they are not you, and while you can join their fan club you have no chance of ever becoming them.
So here’s my invitation to all people who think and feel they don’t “fit” the normal distribution curve. Stand up, speak out, do epic shit, and tell those spell checkers at work to get a fucking life.