Stop cheerleading, talk plainly, and get out of the office: What a marketing vagabond will tell you about leadership

This is a work-related piece that was published a while ago, and I’m reposting it in its entirety here for those interested in the subject.

Marketing is a profession that requires its practitioners to be fluid and nimble. The constant pursuit of new ideas and hot trends, and the ability to work with and adapt to various industries are essential traits. Oh sure, sometimes we marketers can get carried away by new gadgets and shiny tools. But we know that our value rests in the ability to spot behaviour patterns in any group (or demographic) and act quickly on any opportunities.

In my case, acquiring practical marketing skills meant working with businesses in a variety of industries, in the private and public sectors, here and abroad. In addition to focused professional development, this exposure to a broad spectrum of corporate cultures and business practices gave me insights into what makes entities successful.

Strong leaders do not apologize for a vision or an ideology

Reluctant leaders, or those who do not explicitly-state their raison d’être, cannot generate the passion needed to fuel their employees. Knowledge workers rely on inspiration as a source of energy to work on endeavors that may never see the light of day. This is why TED talks are so popular, and why cubeland is speckled with black and white printouts of Steve Jobs quotes. The absence of drive and charisma in a leader has real effects on productivity and morale.

Whether you’re in a position commanding five or 500 employees, it’s crucial that you communicate the ideas and feelings that make you work as hard as you do. If we can look up to someone who genuinely believes in the significance of the work they do, we are less likely to be cynical about our own output.

Poor communication buries great ideas

I have seen many interesting initiatives go belly-up because of poor communication. Objectives were unclear, goals were excessive in jargon, and calls for action were absent. Worse, I’ve seen fantastic campaigns flop almost immediately because of the seemingly impersonal and flat communication delivered from those meant to lead the charge.

It is not up for one individual or group to take the blame for poor communication, rather, we should collectively admit that over the last few years we have moved away from personable communication tactics. As a result, our sentiments are unclear, our intentions misunderstood, and our efforts wasted. It’s a bad habit, and we need to break it.

It will take some time to move away from the detached tones and passive voices, but once you learn to speak with people using any medium of your choice, you’ll start receiving exactly what you’ve asked for, and then some.

Write in the manner you want to be written to; state your intention clearly, reveal your vulnerabilities readily, and add your own personal style and tone that communicate what you stand for. Your words have the power to leave an impression that lasts long after you’ve left the building.

To have honest conversations, leave the office

Taking someone out of their comfortable space and introducing them to an external environment naturally causes them to change their behaviour. The absence of their familiar surroundings (like furniture, cubicle spaces, and such) temporarily removes the difference in rank, making the power balance less visible. In a coffee shop, for example, you are both paying customers who are equal in the eyes of everyone else around

This little time away from the office will lead — with time — to an exchange of direct feedback and valuable insights that could make a difference for your business.

Sometimes, the best way to let progress happen is to step aside

A friend once remarked that a leader’s role is not that of a cheerleader for change and innovation. They’re too busy and expensive for this. Instead, a leader’s duty is to consciously avoid becoming a barrier.

In large enough organizations, there is a surplus of fresh ideas and approaches that could make the business more efficient, decrease costs, or improve morale. Take a step back and observe the clusters that have the motivation and willingness to try new ideas and generate change and innovation naturally. Provide your insights on how to best align these endeavours with business goals or objectives, and share the risks and hesitations you may have openly before too much work has gone into any one initiative, then pull back.

This is also important: don’t try to get everyone else in the organization on all these new experiments and outbursts of creativity. Laggards will arrive eventually, and naysayers may be entirely out of reach. Which brings me to …

Some people just don’t care, and there ain’t nothing you can do about that

People accept employment offers for a large number of reasons. Some want to change the world, others want a steady paycheque and a good dental plan.

Any group is guaranteed to have employees who are invested in the 9 to 5 stretch only. Their ideas, hopes, aspirations and passions lay elsewhere, and that’s absolutely fine. These are the steady doers who can be relied upon to deliver constantly, without any drama. If you chase after them to join every new initiative in the organization, you may lose them entirely. Or, you could generate a wave of dislike and negativity that will hurt your efforts in the long run. This group keeps operations going while the ideologists are busy creating new work streams.

On creativity

We need to dispose of the notion that divides people into those who are born creative and those who are not.

Creativity, like beauty, is subjective. It is not a profession, or a personality trait found among one group. It is also a duplicitous concept, seeking to flatter originality while cautioning against unorthodoxy.

No industry has the monopoly on creativity. I know this first-hand, having worked with a wide variety of people: be it artists, researchers, musicians, exporters, importers, art directors, diplomats, bureaucrats, scientists, cooks, accountants, tech founders, educators, sheep herders, writers, actors, economists, mixologists, professors, chocolatiers, farmers, code developers, policy wonks, lawyers, surgeons, or tailors. All were deeply creative, yet many were reluctant to describe their work as such, instead relegating that adjective to select professions – like mine (marketing). But a skilled butcher is just as fascinating to watch as an orchestra conductor, a traffic warden, a teacher in a classroom, or a nurse at work.

We are all born creative; we create when we translate our thoughts from internal monologues and feelings to ideas or expressions that can be detected by those around us. A string of running code can have a profound impact on the viewer, as could a kaleidoscope of pigmented oil strewn across a canvas, a hypothesis proposed, or a complex ledger that beautifully concludes with a single number. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

If you’re curious, my experiences tell me the least creative individuals are those who parrot stereotypes, and believe an industry, sector, geographic region, office layout, or attire is indicative of the flow of creativity that can be expected.

The point is: You are creative – regardless of what you do, where you live, how you dress, or what you say. You greatly enrich the human condition with anything you do, even if you don’t see that yet.  Don’t follow a painfully limiting way of defining creativity, it does damage to yourself as well as the future of many professions. Plus, it’s more than likely that an advertiser was responsible for that definition in the first place.

From and Towards: A Matter of Perspective

There are moments in life when we find ourselves running away from something or someone as a solution to an undesirable situation. We take new jobs to replace horrible bosses, orchestrate dates with the next available distraction, occupy ourselves by being in a constant state of “busy.” That way, we don’t have to stand up and face the ugliness that is disappointment, heartbreak, frustration, rejection…

On the one hand, to run away from the disagreeable or uncomfortable is to surrender control over your life choices, to open the door to regret and disenchantment. It solves nothing, merely delays the inevitable but necessary pain of dealing with the unpleasant.

On the other, running towards an idea, a job, a person, a calling, a dream… is an entirely different matter. It’s a leap forward that is driven by hope, excitement, and passion. It’s the sensation of your heart skipping a beat, the tingling feeling of butterflies in your stomach, the energy you feel when all you see before you is a world full of saturated colours and delicious scents.

Don’t wait for things to get bad before you decide to leave. Don’t run away from your own life when parts of it feel broken or scattered. Stand tall and look towards the future, your future. One minute from now, five months, a year. Think about where you want to be. And then go forward, towards.

The Case for Win Walls

A while ago in a dark and windowless office, I printed off a few emails and collected post-it notes containing words of gratitude that clients had sent my way when I worked on their projects. I stuck the collection to the back of my door and called it a “win wall.”

Little by little, these post-its multiplied, the print-outs stacked on top of one another, and passersby began to ask questions about this colourful wall of paper. With time, my colleagues started adding their own win-filled notes until our win wall could no longer be contained to my door. It moved into the hallway and continued to take off from there from there.

More than a wall: it’s a state of mind

I’ve started several win walls since then, and have observed similar behaviours happening each time. Win walls became central gathering points for a team, sparking positive conversations and lifting overall morale. They acted as a barometer for an office’s emotional well being, helping both managers and employees see tangible indicators of how people were feeling week to week.

These win walls were the unofficial cheerleader of the office: they helped us emphasize the positive things in life and build a sense of momentum, an effect that was especially valuable when project deadlines seemed impossible, tempers flew high or motivation was low. Seeing the wins on the wall helped decrease the sense of powerlessness and frustration one might have felt on a particularly challenging day.

The post-it notes with words of gratitude and positivity served as a physical way to remind us to try to keep perspective and put effort into recognizing and sharing these daily positive moments. Overall, the presence of the win walls helped us remember that even on the toughest day the office is not necessarily as dire a place as it can sometimes seem.

The ripple effect of wins and positive thoughts 

So, could something as simple as a win wall help people feel better about their workplace, experience less stress, think more positively, and perhaps even live longer?

It’s not a farfetched hypothesis. Positivity has a physiological effect on our minds and bodies. These “wins” capture a memorable moment for someone; something so memorable that they took the time to intentionally put it out into the world. The contributors did not stop at the simple act of thinking about a positive moment: they decided to take visible action by physically committing the memory to a piece of paper and posting it on the wall. Given that there are studies that show taking a positive action (as opposed to thinking alone) can improve one’s outlook and subsequently behaviour, it’s no wonder that I’ve found win walls to have such a positive impact in a workplace.

Here is the best part: it’s very easy and inexpensive to try out your very own win wall for next few months and examine the effects yourself. Would you like to see how a few post-its can build a happy work environment?

Ready to make your own win wall? Here’s how

  1. Find some big paper and put it up
    Find tracing or drafting paper, or use jumbo sketch pad sheets to create the base for your wall. I usually buy 18 x 24” sketch pads (newspaper grade that usually come in 50 or 100 sheets) at the local art store that cost about $4. Tack it onto a cubicle wall or tape it to the wall (read on for tips on selecting the perfect wall).
  2. Optional but recommended: Write a short description and decorate
    Your colleagues may need some help understanding the purpose behind the wall and some encouragement for them to participate. I’ve included a sample of the text I use at the very bottom of this page.
  3. Make it stand out: Add colours, arrows, drawings, or anything else that you think will draw attention to the wall.
  4. Place supplies within reach: Make it as easy as possible for anyone to contribute by having markers and post-it notes available as close to the win wall as possible. Most of the notes I’ve seen posted were spur-of-the-moment additions contributed on-the-go as people walked by and saw the wall, since they didn’t need to walk back to their desks for something to write on or forget their win before having a chance to add it to the wall.
  5. Promote the wall: Spread the word about your win wall to encourage participation for those around you. Talk about the win wall at your next team meeting, explaining its use and benefits to your colleagues. There may be a few odd looks around the table, but with time the effects of the win wall will become clear to those who may have doubted it. Even if you don’t feel comfortable promoting it with your whole team, try telling one or two close colleagues about it.

Tips for a winning win wall

Having started a few walls in various office environments, I’ve found the following points to be key factors in how successful and active a win wall can be.

  • Location is key: Place your win wall in a high-traffic area where lots of colleagues will pass by at least once per day. Entrances to main areas and those around the kitchen or near the printer tend to get more traffic from what I’ve observed.
  • Make it difficult to miss: Use colours, photos, or any other visual element that will help attract attention to the win wall. You want people to notice it, stop for a moment to take in what others have contributed, and ideally add their own wins, helping the wall grow beyond a one-person initiative.
  • Anonymity is perfect: Don’t discourage anonymous notes. Each person has a certain level of comfort when it comes to sharing emotions in the workplace. The point of the wall is to elevate morale, and if some feel the need to be anonymous to be honest, so be it.
  • Physical win walls win: I have tried to replicate win walls online with my virtual colleagues without much luck. I suspect that it has to do with the physical sense of community that builds around physical walls. If you’ve had more success on this front, I would love to hear about it!
  • Life wins and work wins: Successful win walls tend to be a mix of professional and personal wins. I suggest pointing this out to those adding wins to the wall so people don’t necessarily fixate on work-related wins. This is particularly important for longer-term projects that may not have daily milestones.
    The glass is half full, with post-its

Ranting and putting out negativity into the world after a hard day at the office is easy. However, by investing a few dollars and minutes into setting up a win wall, you can make sharing positive moments and building a healthier work environment even easier than defaulting to rants when looking for collegial support.

For some, the sunrise can be the first win of the day; for others, it may be the sunset marking the end of a long troublesome one. Both of these things, as well as a million others both big and small each day, are wins worth celebrating. Why not post them and let the rest of us in on your wins so we can all benefit from a little positive thinking?

If you start a win wall, I’d love to hear about your experience!

Have a few minutes? Watch the videos below on the effect that expressing gratitude has on us and those around us.

The Science of Happiness – An Experiment in Gratitude

The Science of Happiness – Look on the Bright Side

On self-worth: Pulitzers, yardsticks, and underreporting the value of you

In the pursuit of understanding one’s purpose in life, we often assign meaning and value to our work based on popularized and widely accepted definitions of worth and success. As a result, goals often end up being things like eradicating hunger, disease and injustice, being recognized as the best in our field, or earning a top-figure income.

Measures of success like those send a message: our work needs to have a big, significant, and visible impact to matter. Otherwise, we’re underdeveloped and haven’t reached our potential – we set the bar too low. The message is that when we fall short of those goals, we must keep going forward and (hopefully) upward.

Or does it?

Maybe what we need to do instead is acknowledge that our actions, every day, have a ripple effect not only on those immediately around us, but on our communities, cities, and environments. When we chase absolute successes (like getting bought out by Facebook or winning a Pulitzer), we define our purpose in life by scales that fail to value the small-but-mighty micro-influences we can and do have.

You don’t need to wait for accolades from your idols to feel proud of your work, or for overt acts of gratitude to feel valuable. We’re too often blind to the true positive impact we have on those we interact with for one minute, one year, one lifetime. Our lofty goals left unachieved, we underreport our value to ourselves and those around us because we missed the mark on the yardstick – never mind the progress we made.

Maybe that’s what we need to change.

To begin fully understanding our true value to ourselves and those around us, we need to reflect on the moments, however grand or little, that were meaningful to us each day. We should also share these reflections with those who helped create such moments with or for us, because what is more powerful than hearing that your presence has made a difference for someone?

Power, business, and the female lottery

Today is International Women’s Day.

As my business grows and I meet new people, I get asked about the role gender plays in running a business, and the difficulties and obstacles I face as a woman in the workplace.

The answer I usually offer is that when it comes to business, I don’t want to define my entire work philosophy around my being a woman. I focus on my work as an individual who gets compared to peers regardless of sex. That said, my gender has a profound effect on how and why I make decisions, personally and professionally – specifically in terms of luck and power.


I won the female lottery

I was born into an environment that raised individuals, not girls. I grew up around ideas of equality, financial independence, and freedom of choice. I was surrounded by strong female role models in my family: business owners, professionals, and war heroines. I knew women were capable of doing absolutely anything by watching my mom raise two children in foreign countries on her own.
nelly and lilo
By virtue of travel, good education, and exposure to unusual childhood experiences, I knew very well that I was among the privileged group of women who possessed an education, had access to proper health care, and consequently the chance of having a prosperous future.

That was luck.


Competence is power

I like to believe that the professional workplace is where meritocracy comes to full effect. You may say that’s naive or negligent of the statistics that prove gender equality is largely a myth. And I would be in agreement with you.

Personally, I have never been in a position where the caliber of my work was questioned because it was provided by a woman. In my opinion, competence levels the professional playing field – which is why I don’t feel intimidated or unequal when I walk into any business situation. That’s where I think my professional power – if we call it that – comes from.


In the wee hours of the night

Recently I attended a networking event that provided new business opportunities. At one point, I looked at the time and realized I had to start making my way home. I had a long commute ahead of me, which required walking through isolated parking lots and along poorly-lit pathways. There are alternatives that would take any worry out of the situation, but that added sense of vulnerability had a real effect on my business. I delivered the line about turning into a pumpkin at midnight, and made my exit earlier than I might have because of a small paranoid voice in my head that has me in a constant state of readiness.

I know the statistical likelihood of getting attacked by a stranger, particularly in a developed country with historically low crime rates, is extremely low. That said, I’ve been in situations where I experienced cruelty for no other reason than being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unlucky is the only way to describe it. Vulnerability is not tied with a location, time of day, physical strength, state of mind, or manner of dress. It has everything to do with power*, and the perceived loss of it.

When I find myself in an unpredictable environment, unlike the workplace, I shift from a confident and powerful individual to one who is subject to the basic instinct of self-preservation. I don’t like admitting that, but to claim otherwise is disingenuous.


One day that voice may go away…

Today we celebrate women, worldwide. What do we do tomorrow? How do we have a future where luck plays no role in determining a woman’s quality of life? How do we shift power from a mechanism that exploits the uneducated, disadvantaged, and vulnerable to one that allows everyone to be the best person they can be?

I strongly believe that education is and has always been the key to end social injustice.

Teach women maths and sciences as well as their reproductive choices, encourage the exploration of their sexuality and allow them to deliver on their full potential. At the same time, teach everyone alike to respect the choices that women make with their minds and what they do with their bodies, and learn to see the value of what they produce as individual free-thinkers.

Maybe then the voice would go away, and there will be no more questions about the role gender plays in and outside of business contexts.

*Susan Brownmiller’s Against our Will explores the relationship between power and vulnerability as it affects women everywhere. I strongly recommend this book for both men and women.

– – –

Pistols, protagonists and commandeering an army of one

leafy nelly

Several weeks ago, a friend was having a hard time following some personal and professional letdowns. She asked a very simple and poignant question: “How come no one fights for us?”

I had no answer for her, and a defeatist sentiment permeated my skin and sat heavy on my heart for weeks. The haunting possibility that she was right kept me awake for some nights. I started looking closely at everyone around me to see if any of them could be my “great defender” – a coworker siding vocally with my opinion, a friend arguing most vehemently on my behalf, an inamorato who won’t let me just happen. I felt despair at the absence of pistols being drawn at a moment’s notice in my honour.

So absorbed was I by the idea that the world was largely indifferent, that I didn’t think of asking an important question: why should anyone fight for us?

Without an answer in mind, I reconciled myself to the fact that we would have to do our own fighting for all the days to come. I was going to share this realization with my friend; tell her that she’d need to commandeer her army of one and fight for herself, because that’s just the way things are.

As I was writing this response to her, it dawned on me that our situation is actually great.

We grow stronger when we embrace the liberation that comes with having control and mastery over our lives, and stop worrying about finding someone to pick up our banners. If we can’t convincingly play the protagonist in our own scenario, how can we expect anyone to take note of our role?

When you stand convinced of your own actions and value, the number of people who join your ranks expands tenfold. But you have to take the first step so others can see you moving. And trust that if you stumble, they will come out of the woodwork and catch you.

The world fights for us when we fight for ourselves first. No one wants to side with a downcast individual.

Truthfully, I am a little embarrassed it took me this long to see that the broadest shoulders I lean on belong to the quiet ones, those who do not display grandiose or theatrical gestures of heroism – they simply take action and support me when and how they can.

Rather amazing things, humans.

Seeking Sancho: Conviction, Chivalry, and Common Sense


The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is Cervantes’ powerful story about an unrealistic idealist. The main character, Quixote, is mostly well-intentioned but often misguided when trying to rescue the world from itself. He is also at times a disturber of the peace who unwittingly (and only occasionally) manages to do some good. One of the ideas behind the book is that morality, tradition, and courage are not universal in their definition. The story also warns those who take up causes in the name of virtue about the damage they could be involuntarily inflicting along their righteous path, often creating miserable circumstances for those around them.

I don’t see myself as a quixotic person, but I do “fight” regularly for what I believe in – both in personal and subjective realms like arts and culture, as well as in more fact-based professional disagreements. I feel particularly strongly about championing my ideas, I suppose in no small part because of the highly scrutinized and questioning environment and industry I work in.

The idea of how much fighting we do as individuals has been circling in my mind for a while now. And a small matter that unfolded at work today brought into light the questions I’ve been having about the interplay between conviction and common sense.

I was being challenged over a word that would have, in my professional opinion, greatly improved the overall quality of a product I was working on. But, upon reflection, it seemed very stupid to retaliate and ready my lance because of one word. Kicking a fuss over this minute detail would be the definition of quixotic. The opportunity cost here was too high, considering the fairly minor impact of this particular product on the bigger picture.

Almost as soon as I made the decision to “let go” and relent, a very unsettling feeling washed over me: is perspective, the big picture, undermining the strength of my conviction?

It was disturbing to see just how quickly and easily I set aside my own valid views in favour of a quick and easy resolution. Could this mark the beginning of indifference? Does the absence of a fighting spirit signify a lack of passion? Will dropping this one relatively tiny issue be the loose thread that, when gently pulled, unravels and disintegrates a complex tapestry of personal beliefs and convictions?

Or was the discomfort I felt a result of realizing that the fight is not outwards with a client or coworker, it’s my way of coming to terms with the full spectrum of the issue. It seems we are all at war with ourselves each and every day, with two sides called up for battle. One fights for beliefs, convictions and ideologies, while the other defends perspective and a well-balanced examination of the true costs and benefits behind each cause.

Whether or not Ideology and perspective exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, a balance of both is essential. Perhaps, like Quixote, I have been seeing things in black and white, right and wrong, when I should also consider the hues in between – assigning value to conflict in terms of significance or transience, worthy of fight or flight.

Annotations on music, feelings, and choice

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” – Victor Hugo

There is no authority in the universe that truly has the ability to impose upon us what we must feel about anything or anyone. Despite this fact, we grow up with rules and traditions designed to help us navigate through life in ways that have worked for others; sometimes a few others, or sometimes thousands, millions or billions of people. Well-intentioned as they may be, these rules can become stifling restrictions, turning what should bring us joy and pleasure into a source of frustration and displeasure, as piano quickly became for me when my desire to lead with my heart began to overrule the desire to follow my head.

The many years of formal music education I received focused entirely on faithful recitation of original works. We were taught the right way to play and were required to do away with personal whims and fancy.

Those in charge did exactly what was expected of them: they taught hundreds of students the proper tried and tested techniques and pieces for the purposes of either passing the Royal Conservatory’s examinations or performing at concerts. Music, we were told, is the highest form of art. Talented pianists were supposed to perform flawlessly, meticulously recite the work, and strive to evoke strong reactions from the audience. 

Within the walls of the school, being a great teacher meant creating and maintaining an environment that kept personal interpretations and creative outbursts in check. The works of classical composers were treated as museum-like objects: admired, but not touched. For students, the formula for success was simple: all you had to do was exactly what everyone else was doing.

Teachers placed heavy emphasis on communicating the “feeling” behind the music… but only within the confines of the composer’s annotations. It didn’t matter if the piece spoke to the player of delight, love or affection – if the markings declared it a cry of war, then the player’s fingers had best be marching along. And while many students had no issue adapting and thriving within this structure, some of us had trouble reconciling the dissonance we felt as we progressed through the years. There was no harmony between what we felt and how we were told to feel it. 

Privately, I practiced the pieces taught in class in the way that I chose to interpret and feel the work. I discarded the annotations that didn’t fit in with what I perceived the story to be. I changed the tempo to suit my particular mood. “Swan Lake”? Not always. Sometimes, it was full of hippos, thunder and speed. On occasion, my rendition of the “Moonlight Sonata” was accompanied by a hail of meteorites, sharp heavy punches on the piano (much to the horror of my parents). But back in class, I had to revert back to exactly what was written before me on the music sheets lest I face a barrage of criticism from well-intentioned but myopic and staid teachers.

With time, the need to play what I wanted to play in my own personal style became far more important to me than receiving positive feedback from the instructors or participating in any concert. My parents and teachers began to wonder if I would ever be the performer they hoped I would be. They rationalized it away, like it was some mildly unhealthy habit: I was a stubborn teen; I got bored with the instrument; I kept bad company; I was influenced by ridiculous modern music. 

They could attempt to reason it away all they liked, the reality was that there was no way to please everyone. And no reason to do so. 

I belonged to a group of outsiders who chose to act on impulse and create genuine experiences for themselves above anyone else. We performed with our hearts. We sought to retell the stories written by composers long dead and gone as seen through our own eyes and painted by our fingertips. We didn’t care if there was an audience of one listener, fifty, or two hundred. We had to let the music out of our heads, through our fingertips and into the auditorium that echoed back our strokes, reaffirming what we felt, how we felt it, and how real and legitimate it was. 

On the other side of the spectrum were our colleagues, the traditionalist piano students, who performed with their heads. They had the makings of the type of technical virtuosos revered and admired by many, both within and beyond the walls of the music school. By following the instructions, annotations, and traditions of performing according to a set of arbitrary but established and agreed-upon standards, they followed the guaranteed path to “success.” And I can’t be sure if they’ve ever stopped practicing long enough to hear if what they played was an extension of their character, or a mere parroting of their teachers’ values and expectations. 

What the microcosm that is music school really taught us was the need to make a seemingly simple but deceivingly important choice that had implications far beyond examination rooms and concert halls. Choose your head, or choose your heart. And know that you have a choice to make. Even though sometimes the choice may feel like it’s already been made for you, or it’s impossible, or not worth the struggle or the shame that comes from breaking time-honoured traditions – know that you can, and should, actively choose. And know that it’s okay to change your mind once you’ve done so, too.



Thinking “in Rothko”: Verbiage, Vision and Silence

Rothko no. 10
Rothko no. 10

I’ve been thinking “in Rothko” lately.

“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing; no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden time, for then we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, and consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where they can root and grow. We must all hope that they find them.”

This was part of a speech Mark Rothko gave in 1969. He was talking about art; specifically, art in a world that was moving from the shocking and often morose modern expressionist phase (following World War II) into the colourful embrace of pop art, mass advertising, and sensationalist consumerism.

I find myself stuck on Rothko’s “pockets of silence” idea, though less in the context of art and more in terms of the information-abundant and creatively productive world many of us choose to live in – a world that somehow manages to be inspiring, challenging, patience-testing, ego-knocking, beautiful, excessive, self-congratulating, self-deprecating, exaggerated, humble, vulnerable, disingenuous, and gut-wrenchingly sincere, all at once. It’s a world that is often moving too quickly to find the value in those “pockets of silence”; in steady, rooted growth over rapid expansion and production for the sake of production.

Despite the attraction many of us feel toward that world, one largely built on “verbiage, activity, and consumption,” I often wonder if we are creating and championing genuine visions that are of true value and utility to those around us, like a hanging canvas, or something more transient and superficial, more akin to a throwaway magazine.

I’m inclined to believe that we all worry sometimes about our contributions to this world – I know I do. I fear the day my work becomes associated with irrelevant verbiage, or for taking up space for the sake of making my mark, or for adding only style with no substance. I think about the moments where my behaviour resembles Rothko’s intentional fogs and blurry shapes, when the lines that define me as an individual blur and shift to accommodate the observer. These happen when I get caught up in the frenzy of creating for the sake of creating; when I step out of the shadows, whether of my own volition or propelled by outside forces, to take my place in the limelight.

I wonder if perhaps part of the solution to these worries lies in attempting to consciously exist in the space Rothko described: living as though there is nothing to lose, only visions to gain; channeling our energies toward allowing ourselves to “root and grow” rather than add one more chirp to the chorus.

Maybe we ought to think seriously about finding our own pockets of silence, and using them as opportunities to pause and reflect on the quality of what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it. I suspect that these breaks in production and consumption can encourage and fuel the visions Rothko’s so fondly talked about throughout his life. Me? I seek out my own sacred silences – places that enchant my spirit; actions that restore my balance; people who bring about vision by virtue of their coexistence with others.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of considering “which condition is better for the world at large,” whether you’re more inclined to seek those pockets of silence or identify more with the hyperkinetic world of verbiage and consumption, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise for each of us step back, reflect and consider the nature of our contributions to this world.

Are you drawing the bold strokes and defining lines that separate colour blocks, adding depth and clarity, and clearing the fog of abstraction? Or is your input best viewed from afar, as part of the whole – well intentioned, but not improved upon closer inspection?


My huge thanks to MH for input & edits to this post!