Home-schooling taught me an important lesson about creativity

My daughter sat sobbing on her bed, distraught. Knowing full well what had happened and in full-on stupid dad mode, I asked: “What happened?” Through her frustrated and upset tears, she spat back: “YOU HAPPENED!”  I didn’t know whether to cry with sadness or laughter. I can’t lie – it hurt. It also felt brilliantly funny coming from her fine-porcelain, nine-year-old face.   

While she phoned her mum for some proper parental care, I ruminated on what I’d done to drive her to this. 

In the midst of Lockdown Part III, the kids (11 and nine) and I are home alone for three days a week. They attempt to conquer the National Curriculum and I attempt to lead an advertising agency. We have breakfast together. We knuckle down to work. We make lunch. We do a bit more work. We walk the dogs. We work some mo… BOLLOCKS WE DO… it’s carnage.  

I have the best intentions at heart but what I’m doing is pushing my children to work at speed, because I’m fitting them in around gaps in my schedule. I’m condensing their time and pressuring them by being impatient and pushing them to be correct all the time. 

So, understandably, they’re frustrated and angry. Which means they make more mistakes, they give up quicker and their work suffers.  

Truth is I spend much of my day at work fighting for the very same things that I’m not giving my children. Because whether you’re home-schooling or in an advertising agency, trying to do everything too fast and under intense pressure means you lose your creative spark.   

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The need to deliver brilliant ideas faster puts massive pressure on all of us. I think it’s exemplified best by the implications on what I consider to be the most important meeting in an agency: the first creative review. It’s a delicate thing. In it we’re mining for gems and one false move or careless word could kill a potential diamond. 

Getting an idea quicker doesn’t make it a better idea. Malcom Gladwell talks about people as hares and tortoises: both essential, both brilliant and there’s a time and a place for each. But speed too often gets confused as being the better one.

Another popular misconception is that you should always try to be right the first time. In a first creative review, we don’t need the answer (yet). Demanding it just ramps up the pressure. 

Sir Ken Robinson spoke about stigmatising mistakes. He proposed that if we’re not prepared to be wrong, we’ll never come up with something original. Sometimes getting it wrong is how we get somewhere better. And if something really does go wrong, it’s better to nurture and be helpful than panic. 

During the early stages of creative development the last thing we need to be is overburdened with too much practical, functional and logical thinking. The imagination needs to roam free. We’re looking for nuggets of genius and they’re not likely to be fully formed. We need to inspire, direct, chat more, think deeper and nurture. The answer will be clear in good time. 

It’s the same with my kids. I’ve found when I’m more rational and practical, like with telling them how we used to do a certain thing in the old days, it works far less well than finding a more enjoyable and relatable way to do it. 

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My children don’t need to be hurried along, rushed and pressured. Being correct, complete and on time really isn’t what’s important for them right now. What they really need is time to make mistakes in order to learn and get better.    

Truth is, no-one ever bothers to teach us how to raise a child or an idea. In an industry that’s suffering because it’s lost its faith in the power of being different, we can start to get it back by setting a good tempo and temper in the meetings that are the epicentre of our world.   

This isn’t revelatory stuff, but we need this reminder now more than ever. Our lives have changed dramatically. It’s busy, it’s stressful and it’s easy to forget the stuff we need to make great work. I hadn’t taught my kids anything, but I had taught myself a lesson. 

Like my children, without the space to be wrong and the time to let our imaginations run we’ll never be able to be at our brilliant creative best. 

Andy Jex is the chief creative officer of TBWALondon.


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