As founder of the Middle Aged Crazy movement, I sometimes hit resistance in what we like to call the “real world.” As you might know, in my day job I am an investment guy and, as an investor, I have found that going against the crowd, rejecting common wisdom, and being a skeptic is usually profitable. The trouble is: I don’t do so well at turning off the contrarianism when it comes to other parts of my day. So, in my office yesterday, I was talking to a supplier, a guy who provides financial planning software to advisors all over the country and he asked me to get him a “Headshot” for a webpage he was working on for me (it comes with his software) so I could benefit from his marketing brilliance. He wanted something professional, with me in a business suit and tie. I got the feeling that this guy, who didn’t know me from Adam, was trying to fit me into that square hole I have never been able to wedge myself into and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I had to let him know, right away, that I was not the BMW driving, suspender wearing, corner office seeking, Up WIth People loving, white bread eating, suburbanite he was use to dealing with. (Or maybe I have some issues to work out).
“No, I don’t think you’ll get a headshot from me, that’s not going to happen.” He was aghast, how dare I go against his common marketing wisdom? “You don’t understand,” I said, “we do everything we can to avoid looking like securities sales people, we are the anti-Wall Street firm.” He laughed, almost crossing the line to mocking me, so I took the bait, “In fact, I am wearing an Occupy Wall Street tee shirt today.” If disgust were an odor, I would have had to leave the room, so palpable was his reaction. Well drum me out of the Young Republicans, I guess I disturbed him. But after 30 successful years in business, I wasn’t about to let him (or anyone else) stick a label on me.
I like to think of myself as the George Carlin of financial guys, if you remember, when the comic got his first break he wore suits and a crew cut, he was someone middle America could be very comfortable with, the darling of the Mike Douglas show. But George wasn’t comfortable as a member of the silent majority and reinvented himself as this counter culture curmudgeon who found humor in disturbing others. Doing it his way made him, arguably, the most successful stand up comic of his time, and he did it by breaking the mold. He questioned our words, our politics, and our most commonly held beliefs, he was an artist and a hugely successful one. He died five years ago this month and I would love to hear him rant about our government looking at all of our phone records or about the cult of Justin Bieber and other quasi celebrities. I didn’t always agree with Carlin, in fact I often did not, but I knew what he was doing: he was holding up a mirror to society and pointing out our zits and nose hair. Artists do that and George Carlin is missed.
Being a gadfly has its pitfalls and being true to yourself is not the same as striving to be someone who annoys people. There has to be authenticity or your act won’t get to Broadway, there has to be a consistency too, you can’t just be an artist when it suits you. Being an artist in my professional life means that I try to look at everything with fresh eyes, that I don’t automatically accept everything because everyone else is doing it, in fact, I get suspicious when everyone else is doing something. An old timer once told me to be very accommodating as an investor, when everyone wants to sell: buy from them. When everyone wants to buy, sell to them. Whenever I find myself on the side of the majority, I begin to doubt myself and it is that artist’s sensibility that keeps me in that place where driving against traffic is more interesting than just going with the flow.
Some of us have jobs where conformity is expected (or even required) but its possible to look like Drew Carey on the outside while being George Carlin on the inside. Bringing your Creative Beast to work helps to avoid becoming a dullard. Anyone can put numbers on a spreadsheet, its the creative person who can see the trends in them, who can give those numbers significance and meaning. Being creative means you don’t willingly let your mind go numb, that you fight boredom with inspiration and a unique approach to the mundane. You fight conformity with questions and hope. You are armed with the artistic belief that you can make things better.
Successful artists are more than renegades, they are skilled, disciplined, and driven. George Carlin was more than a grumpy guy insulting people at the end of his driveway, he was a master of timing, his words were carefully chosen (even if they were chosen to offend), and he was professional. He rose to the very top of his field. Bringing an artistic attitude to your day job should make you better at it: enthusiasm, inspiration, and honesty, when combined with technical ability, are a tough combination to beat.
Now, can I tell you the seven words you can’t say on this blog…