Thursday, May 15, 2014

Business Suits and Horsing Around

Businessmen have something in common with my artist friends: In the left-brain business world, as in the right-brain artistic world, we prize creativity. Partly because in business people are always searching for an edge—there will always be new trends and fashions for managing a company, and also for individuals wanting to get ahead. (I remember when “mentoring” was new) Having a competitive edge isn’t easy, as information travels at the speed-of-light. Companies end up looking as alike as cars.

Perhaps that is why the trend, of late, is towards encouraging a successful business “culture.” A cool culture may take longer to achieve than the latest hot management fad, but the effort gives a greater return on investment: A culture is harder for the competition to copy, and may steadily give results over a long term. And so we get the things like “don’t be evil” (Google) and “have insanely great design” (Apple) and express humor (Southwest Airlines).

At the intersection of corporate and individual, business and art, I have come to believe in creativity through “horsing around.” An obvious concept, of course, involving ideas already in the air such as brainstorm, don’t be uptight, and “in a good culture, managers lead to ensure a zone of safety for innovation.” Obvious, yes, but not the default.

Even middle-aged guys, including me, still need reminders of the obvious—and we always will. It was as a young college graduate that I was impressed with the value of horsing around. The government had come up with grant for summer employment for college students in theater: Probably it was to give them work experience immediately following graduation, I don’t remember. Their employer-leaders were the three founding members, and the only members, of Arete Comedy Troupe. These are the fellows I wrote about in my essay Arete Means Excellence (archived February 2014) Very excellent, very serious, very professional: You wouldn’t find better leaders.

As I’ve noted before, “acting” means performance, with a script, but “drama” is something else: it’s like engaging in finger scales, in the freedom of brainstorming, in the freedom through improvisation that develops “Concentration” and “Energy.” As my drama teacher Joyce Grey put it, if the curtain opens to show you sitting motionless on the floor of the stage with your back to the audience, people will know whether you are merely sitting, or sitting with Energy for what you are doing.

I wasn’t a performer myself. Half way through that summer; perhaps as a bystander, perhaps as a news reporter; I chatted with one of the serious leaders. He told me how the young people were getting anxious. The actors were being encouraged in horsing around, in drama, improvising all sorts of skits that summer, but soon the students began worrying, “When are we going to write the script?” They didn’t realize—or they lacked the faith—that all the improvised silly skits had a purpose; things would all come together: They would make a script using some of those skits. The resulting show, Streetlights, was so good that it would come back (revised) to be shown to the world as part of the Olympic Arts Festival for the Games of 1988, Calgary.

That day, knowing that I would have been one of the anxious young actors, I tried to internalize the older man’s culture by calling it “horsing around.” Sounds flippant, but I needed a strong term to keep me from sliding back into my naturally conservative mode. More comforting terms, pulled from the air, might be “Make lots of prototypes” or “Take extra pictures, then edit” or “Best be creative on your own, because you can’t trust focus groups” or “Get playful.” It’s obvious, yes; but no, it’s not the unconscious default. Not for me, not for most businessmen.

It’s been decades since I was in college. Last weekend, I was reminded of the value of creatively horsing around.

To improve my prose, I took a two-day course in poetry. Not in the mechanics of, say, using rhymes and harsh consonants, but in the Zen of composing. Our course was called Breathing Life Into Poetry, under the guidance of the formidable Sheri-D Wilson. (If you are reading this a year from now, you may find her on Youtube doing a Tedtalk) Physically, on Saturday, we merely spent the day sitting at a table at the Alexandra Writers Centre, but mentally—wow. That day we all went home tired. Absorbing new concepts is never easy. Being tired I wrote what I could, and went to crash out. I would try again in the morning.

On Sunday, refreshed, up at my usual early writing time, I reverted to my professional hat, my reliable journalist mode, where I always do my work on time and under word-budget. I crafted a nice, polished, pretty little poem. Embarrassed by last night’s effort, I took my new structured poem to the class. As it happened, I was seated beside Betty. She went first, and the poem Betty read aloud, so human and authentic, was so very long, and Sherri-D Wilson’s Zen-wise feedback so very extensive, that I thought, “Oops!” I told my peers I had better include my poem from last night, as my two poems added together would be only a fraction of the length of Betty’s poem.

My morning poem was, said Sheri-D, a “complete” poem. And we spent no time on it. None. But my human effort of the night before? One of my peers said she had to close her eyes as I read it aloud because the images were so beautiful. Well. I guess I learned something; I was reminded that innovation does not, initially, look like the polished things I am familiar with; there is a special value to horsing around.

In my tired evening I had written under the spell of Sheri-D Wilson from that day. She had sent us off with instructions to do a “sketch” or an image rather than a poem: I think she meant we probably wouldn’t have time to do a complete poem. I knew what a sketch was: My favorite web essayist, computer nerd millionaire Paul Graham, often writes that doing software, or essays, or drawings, require sketches.

Sheri-D’s advice included, “assume your own intelligence; don’t try to be smart; write without self judgment; have no outside voices…” In different words, that’s about what managers say when it’s time for their team to be creative.

In business, we know the value of growing a good culture, “here’s to the crazy ones,” (Apple) of nurturing the creative ones among us. Call it management 101. But can we do what we know? Can we walk the walk? Not always—For example, everyone in the business world can quickly learn how to have staff meetings that are efficient, effective and empowering. But then we just can’t bring ourselves to act on our new knowledge: Too many meetings are dysfunctional, too many people say they hate meetings. Obviously, we all need reminders for obvious things.

So let’s remind ourselves, and our teams, to set a safe place for creativity; let’s never try to be all starched and polished during the stages of brainstorming and creation. Let’s remember that innovations, like my night poem, can look too different at first.

…In my grandfather’s day, during the Great War, (“Great” as in Great Depression) Winston Churchill, frustrated, had to pull teeth trying to get the Royal Navy to do something creative, something obvious to us now: switch to using convoys. A few years ago, in the stairwell at the Lieutenant-Governor’s house (in Edmonton) I noticed an excellent oil painting—painted by Sir Winston. No doubt he must have found some comfort in periodically getting away from attempting to change navy culture and just being right-brain creative on his own.

I think I’ll take up poetry, for its own sake.

Sean Crawford
Province of Alberta
(Every night will be above freezing this week! A few trees have budded; Spring cometh!)

~Regarding meetings, I replaced someone as chairman of the board of directors of a for-profit and then our meetings continued as good as ever: I had been taught how to run meetings in my two-year community college. (Mount Royal) I get annoyed when people with four-year degrees in business or engineering can’t lead efficient meetings. Judging from the Internet, I think their problem is too much ego, rather than too little training.

~Darn, I can’t find where I explained drama. Well, a related piece is one on Creative Movement, archived February 2014

~Arete went through two names, for the longest time they were Arete Mime Troupe, then they were Arete Physical Comedy. I’ve combined both terms…. I wonder if any of my readers remember?   


  1. I was looking into Arete Mime Troupe just now. They were Arete Mime Troupe from 1976 until at least March 25 1983, based on an ad for a performance at U of Waterloo, 30 March 1983. There are some archived images available with detailed descriptions, e.g. and a search for Arete gave the mime troupe name for 1973 - 1984, with "Arete - A Physical Comedy Company" 1985 - 1992 (picture dated 1986) and another page with the same dates referring to an "Arete Production".

    Thanks for remembering them too.


  2. You're welcome. It was while taking a mime program out east, maybe at Waterloo, that the founders decided to stay together as a three-man troupe. I think what helped them succeed was their ferocious work ethic.

    I learned about their ethic after one of them, (Kevin?), taught our creative movement class for theatre majors (which I was not) while our teacher was off across Canada auditioning students for her summer class at the Banff school. Incidentally, we were better at rhythm, and the easterners were better at stretching.

    My fellow students at first complained at how hard he worked us, for warming up and stretching, but they got used to it. He would start on the dot and lock the door. Show up on time or stay away.

    He went on to direct major stage-plays, be an artistic director, and once ran the Shakespeare summers.

    I have yet to master a comparable work ethic for my writing.

  3. You got me looking.
    I see where I said the above, at greater nicer length, in my nostalgic college essay "Arete Means Excellence" during the Sochi Winter Olympics, posted in February of 2014.