Find a way to poke your own bear.

And how commercial creativity is a competitive sport.

In 1993, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played back-to-back games against the Washington Bullets. A young, unproven, LaBradford Smith was to guard the man who would one day become the greatest player to ever live. And he had a night out, scoring 37 points on MJ. As the two players walked past each other in the locker room hallway, LaBradford quipped ‘Nice game, Mike’. Bad idea. This wasn’t kicking the hornet’s nest, it was sticking your entire head inside it. The next night, Jordan went out and spent every minute burning Smith to an absolute crisp - ending with 47 points, and some argue, Smith’s career. (He was out of the league not long after.)

As it turns out, Smith never actually said anything. Jordan made up the story in his own head to give himself an endless supply of angry fuel for the next night. Now, this is an especially psycho example, but it’s a segue into something I believe is absolutely critical to being an enduring creative - self-motivation.

I liken what we do to sport for a few reasons, and from my own experiences. On the surface level, vastly different disciplines, but what we do have in common is the fact that we play in a layered competitive arena. Not only do we pitch against other agencies for business, but we compete internally with other creative teams in the same way players, who might also be friends, fight for spots on a roster. There’s both unfriendly and friendly competition baked into what we do. So you need a healthy competitive streak to survive.

Growing up, I played sport at a reasonable level. I played multiple sports, Australian football, soccer, basketball, but my main sport was hockey, which I won a state championship medal for when I was around 16. I used to get what athletes describe as ‘white line fever’. When I walked across that white line, I moved into a completely different state. My peripheral vision widened. Sounds became clearer. My brain could think two steps ahead. Call it determination, call it focus, call it flow state, I don’t really have a word for it, but I remember the feeling. It’s a transcendence that I would even compare to meditation. I was a playmaker, so would always get ‘tagged’. As soon as I spotted the poor guy who was going to mark me, I would hone in on them like Arnie’s T-800 Terminator vision and aim to make the next 90 minutes of their life a living hell. I would outrun them, outposition them, play mind games, beat them from every angle imaginable, I’d tell them what I was going to do and then still do it, and then after the final whistle - shake hands, have a laugh, say well done, give them credit for the moments they beat me. (And this is why I say ‘healthy competitive streak’, because you need to be able to switch on and off depending on the situation.)

This experience helped me move fast once I landed in a creative department. If I got the slightest look in at a brief, the door was getting kicked down. I would scan the room as a junior and see all the senior creatives in the meeting and make it my mission to take them down. In a positive way, though. I really want to make that bit clear. These people were my friends and mentors and helped me immensely. Without their guidance, I also wouldn’t be where I am today. They were teammates. But, there’s only one spot on the roster, and to be them I had to beat them. Only one team can get the idea up. And it was going to be me.

Within a year or two I was beating out multiple senior teams on briefs by just relentlessly going after that one idea to win the pitch/brief. And, again, I’ll clarify that I’m not saying any of this from a position of ego, or insinuating I was any more talented than anyone else, but that I dug deep into the competitive beast we all have inside of us. I also want to stress how true I believe that to be as well, because evolution would’ve snuffed out all of our lineages long ago if we didn’t have that instinct in there somewhere. Like MJ in the hallway, you just have to find the way to poke your own bear.

Another reason I believe this to be important is that you don’t want to be a creative that needs to be kicked into gear, or yelled at, or constantly pushed. I don’t want to be that CD either. I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at anyone, to be honest. I try to find ways to provoke something inside people. Carrot, not stick. But the best creatives are the ones that find ways to fire themselves up. The best creatives tap into the workplace version of ‘white line fever’. They see an opportunity, or challenge, or opponent, and focus in on it. When a CD, or client, kills their ideas, they don’t throw their toys out of the pram, they think ‘Ok, fine, I’m coming back with something better. I’m still gonna win.’ (Ok, maybe they throw their toys out first, but 20 minutes later they go into Terminator mode. Ok, maybe sometimes 45 minutes. And a pint at the local. Ok, two pints. Fine, three.)

If you’re not into sport, this analogy might fall flat. But I still think inner competitiveness and self-motivation is an essence worth exploring and tapping into in order to get the creative juices pumping.

If sport doesn’t resonate, find what does motivate you.

Find your ‘Nice game, Mike.’

Join the conversation

or to participate.