A few months ago, I had my heart broken. Ripped right out of my body. By my very best friend, my love, the one I had admired so much. I’m aware this might not sound much different than any other cliché Hollywood movie, but my heart might disagree with you. It was hurt in a way it had never experienced before. Everything in its way had to make room for indisputable pain. All I did, all I thought about, all I felt, was hurt. It all got swallowed by a big black hole, that place where I once had my heart. Every person, every presentation, every client became a little black hole too, and made me feel worthless to the bone.
My mind transformed each sunset into the irrepressible ache of missing someone; each couple I saw, into a confrontation with the failing of my own relationship; each joke I heard, into a useless pastime until I could go home and cry. Even though great things happened, my mind transformed everything into pure misery. Every strategy I wrote was clouded and troubled by my hurting mind. Every bit of research I went through seemed dull and unnecessary. Every presentation I made lacked ambition, was hustled off and not carefully taken the time for.
Suddenly something dawned on me. My mind was blocking my ability to do strategy. It was so damaged by its negative spiral of thoughts that deep thinking wasn’t possible at all. I started reading more about this and found researchers Alice Isen and Kimberly Daubman confirming my suspicion, that having a positive affect and mindset will increase your likeliness to solve problems faster and more creatively.
I realised that our mind is the biggest transformational power we will ever possess. It is the place where existing ideas are connected to other ideas, where problems are solved and where big leaps of imagination are taken. Transformation requires imagination. Big problems need big imagination.
The mind is indissolubly connected with how transformation happens. The big shifts in brand strategy, the ones that we see as true transformative thinking, from This Girl Can to Banco Popular, all originate from a human mind. Probably inspired by others, by research, and by the world, but in the end, every great strategy can be brought back to the mind that imagined it.
It is unbelievable how little attention our profession has for our minds. It seems as if we do everything in our power to treat them as poorly as possible. First, our personal lives are not separate from our professional lives, as work and life are becoming more intertwined than ever. People don’t walk in the office door and leave their problems at the doorstep. They come with us and affect the clarity of mind at any minute of the day. But there is little attention for our mental state in how work gets planned and done. Next to this, our usual way of working is built in such a way that the mind has no space and time to operate in its best way. We have 3-hour-long meetings, we write strategies as if we work at an assembly line, and we aren’t taught how to step back and just watch the busy traffic highway that is an agency in full force passing by.
Thirdly, there isn’t an agency that has no issues and conflicts between employees. There isn’t an agency that is always applauded by the client for everything they do. These interpersonal matters ask the mind to be extremely resilient to be able to get back the desired focus and imagination. Finally, we are living in a world where distraction is increasingly abundant. Research shows that even an interruption of 3 seconds can double the error rate in work. Young planners who grew up with messages pinging on every device, an unstoppable urge to constantly check Facebook or other sources, and constantly spinning minds seldom do any true deep work.
There are even times when we forget about that true power of the mind. We forget the part of writing strategy where the magic happens, that transforms the brand’s strategy into something that will truly bring new commercial growth in an unexpected way and that answers big questions. Instead, we rely purely on research, numbers, data and growth-hacking techniques and think that strategy automatically emerges from these numbers. I must say, I’ve never seen a true data insight – only amazing insights originated from data but interpreted by a human mind. Great research still needs someone to interpret it in the right way and, hopefully, also in an interesting way. If one constantly follows the tracks that data, tools or frameworks lay out (even if they’re new and shiny and flashy), one will never achieve true transformation. You’ll keep on playing in the same league as competitors and never rise to a higher level in people’s perception. That goes for both planners and brands.
As a profession, we lack attention for the mind and lack education on how the mind should be treated to deliver top-notch transformative strategy. As strategists, we perform “deep work,” as described by professor Cal Newport. We should be able to create mindful spaces where we use our brain, stir creativity and deliver real value to the world. Deep work will more and more be our superpower in this world ― eat that, robots and AI!
Kenichi Ohmae once wrote that there are planners who attempt to control every detail but that this does not make for strategic success. Strategy is always and everywhere the product of an attitude and a way of thinking, not of an analysis or a set of facts. Great strategists are like great artists.
A while ago, Ben Jones, Creative Director at Google, told me the great quote, “The challenge of the future is imagination, not technology.” Google has reached the incredible level where they can build any technological product they would like. The world’s real challenge is having the imagination to invent the technologies that are relevant and have a true added value. The mind is the only force that allows us to do so. For example, Google search ads are usually used as a tactical traffic-generating touchpoint. An imaginative mind might ask: “Why don’t we use these ads as research tools, to find out if people like our product or not?” It’s up to your mind to use imagination to go beyond the trodden paths. Genius happens in your mind.
I think it is key that all strategists, especially young ones, be taught to control their mind. To get better in owning the mind. To truly commit to keeping it healthy and, maybe most importantly, to make this a topic we all talk about more. I believe we’re shifting to a society where our mind and its power becomes our greatest good.
Meditation, or as I like to call it, “gym for my mind,” has helped me a great deal with learning to control my mind. It teaches you two important things as a strategist. First, how to take a distance from the day-to-day traffic in the agency and the thought traffic in your mind. It also taught me how to stay focused on what really matters, instead of losing myself in all my thoughts and worries, or getting caught up in discussions and irritations. Not by suppressing these thoughts, but by being able to see them as white noise. Meditation has been proven to increase your self-regulation, problem solving and adaptability.
It took me a while to accept myself being alone and hurt. It took me even longer to accept myself thinking that I’ll never find another boyfriend or any other crazy thought. It took me the longest to kick ass at work again, while still accepting and having these thoughts. Being able to control and accept the mind in such a way that any given context doesn’t affect my imaginative power has changed me as a person and even more as a strategist.
We have so many strategic tools that guide and give structure to how we work and how we tackle a problem. I believe that a tool that gets your mind in the right imaginative and transformative state should also be part of this toolkit.
Transformative thinking starts and ends in your mind. It is up to you to find your imaginative power, your transformation engine. Controlling what and how things affect your mind can help a great deal with this. This might be a disappointing and less intriguing finding than transformative thinking would set you up for, but how soothing this will sound for any young and starting planner. It’s already in there ― you just need to find ways to control it and make it happen.
Eline Goethals is Strategic Planner at FCB Global & Happiness Brussels