The One Talent All Great Creatives (and people) Work to Develop

Faktory is the second agency we’ve owned. The first was a huge success, but not in the way most people define it. (By most measures, it might be defined as exactly the opposite of success.) We failed a lot more than we succeeded. Many of our decisions were questionable. We didn’t lead the company as we should have. But we learned, and that learning has helped Faktory fit into the more standard definition of success.

One personal failure I distinctly remember happened with a certain employee (I won’t use her name). She was an excellent designer; talented, hard-working, drama-free, etc. She was a valuable part of our company. At the time, we were struggling. The dot-com bust had just happened and, like many agencies, we were strapped.

With the financial stresses weighing heavily on my mind, one evening while working late I walked to the printer to retrieve something. There, sitting on our expensive large format printer was a number of freelance projects by this designer (who was also working late). She arrived as I stared at her projects and looked at me sheepishly, knowing she hadn’t gotten permission to use company assets for personal work. I don’t remember our conversation, but I do remember I chastised her quite harshly. I felt justified. We were watching every penny and she was using our printer for her personal projects, costing us money. Probably not coincidentally, she quit about a month later.

I’m sure I’ve had many less-than-stellar moments like that in my life. But this specific encounter has stuck with me because I later found out she was dealing with some hard things at home that made the personal projects (and her need for a way to print those projects) make sense.

I sat down to write about empathy being the one talent all great creative people work to develop. And I believe that. Effective, exceptional creative contains truths people relate to, and only empathy can help a writer or art director find those truths. But as I wrote, it felt too narrow. Empathy is a talent all great people work to develop, not just great ad people. Had I been seeking for the talent of empathy while standing at that printer, I would have handled the situation differently.

Empathy is what lets us step outside of our narrow, self-focused world and understand others. It helps us assume the best about people rather than the worst. Empathy allows our minds to be softened a little by our hearts. It makes us better humans.

The people I most respect in my life — both professionally and personally — work to obtain the gift of empathy. They don’t practice it perfectly, but they strive for it. They attempt to put themselves in others’ Vans, Tom’s or Nikes. It’s a talent that makes creatives better at their jobs, and all people better at life.