The secret powers of the subconscious.

And the benefits of staring out the window.

“I know my people are working. I can see them staring out the window.” - I can’t remember.

I’m probably absolutely butchering this opening quote, because I can’t remember exactly what it was and who said it. But you get the general gist of it.

Last weekend, my youngest daughter, 6, wanted to go rollerblading. Her older sister has just started to master being able to skate around on her own, which spurred her to give it ago.

It was like an octopus strapped to a windmill. Limbs akimbo. Body parts slipping and sliding and flailing all over the place. She had a real good go at it, but you could tell she was incredibly intimidated by the learning curve. It wasn’t until the very last stretch of skating back home from the car park we were practicing in that she got the slightest semblance of control. (Before dramatically crashing all over the road again like Bambi on a freshly olive-oiled ice rink.)

To my surprise, the next morning, she wanted to go again. “The more I practice, the better I’ll get”, she said. An inspired attitude. Incredibly, this time, she was totally different. Still very slow and erratic, but on her feet. An unexplainable confidence based on no prior material experience. She shuffled the whole way to the car park, and back and forth between poles (with me trailing behind ready to catch an epic stack) without falling over once.

This is the power of the subconscious mind. It’s still working away when you’re not. It’s still figuring things out when you’re asleep. It’s still radding out in the car park like a mad dog in the background.

Have you ever been playing a video game, and you just cannot beat this one fucking boss, this goddamn bastard that has killed you 100 times no matter what you do - so you turn if off. Then the next day, you pick up the controller, and bang - first try, you kill’ em dead. It’s a bizarre phenomenon. There’s no explaining it, other than your subconscious was still battling away even though your conscious mind rage quit and gave up.

This is also how the creative mind works. We take inputs from all kinds of sources. The creative brief, strategy docs, research etc… but also from other ads, film, music, books, art, and then our brain starts throwing things together to conjure an idea to answer the brief. And while many middle managers and bean counters might imagine it so, this doesn’t only happen via the overly glorified practice of ‘sit at desk and stare at screen’. Or trawling through PDFs. Or in ‘brainstorm sessions’. Or some other activity that has an assigned timesheet code. Sometimes the idea just appears out of nowhere while you’re sitting on the couch watching Top Boy. (But we haven’t learnt how to bill that to clients have we?)

And this is why MAKING SPACE for the subconscious to work is so important. Creatives need time away from staring at the screen to let their subconscious do its thing. I’ve had way more breakthrough ideas pop up out of nowhere than when I’ve been banging my head against the wall of a dimly lit open plan office at 10pm. Companies might think they’re providing inspiring environments, but let me tell you, they ain’t more inspiring than immersing yourself in an art gallery, or Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, or Baldur’s Gate 3, or other places creatives can subconsciously absorb worlds around them.

“The possibilities of creative effort connected with the subconscious mind are stupendous and imponderable.” - Napoleon Hill

It’s why many creatives prefer working on multiple things/projects/brands at once. And always have side projects. Because when you switch between different problems to solve, it’s like a palate cleanser for the brain. It allows space and time for your subconscious to solve problems while you consciously attend to others. I’d wager a guess that it also plays a part in internal creative departments struggling to retain staff. Because forcing creative people to stare at the same thing forever is a difficult ask. (Conversely, I applaud those who do do it well.)

“The mind is like an iceberg. It floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.” - Sigmund Freud

In a strange way, we’re always ‘working’. It just doesn’t always look how some people think it does. And while it’s our responsibility as creatives to trust our subconscious, it’s also that of the people that manage others.

‘Productivity’ is a word used ad nauseam by modern business leaders. But I almost only ever see them talk about it in the sense of how many hours they can force their subordinates to stare at a screen under their watchful eye. It’s a lazy, fake kind of productivity.

‘Productivity’ is not a measure of small secular inputs. It’s a measure of a collective output. It’s the quality of your work, however that might most effectively come about. And that isn’t always going to look the same for every single person.

As a creative, you need to trust your subconscious. You need to give it what it needs in terms of inputs, but also the time and space to make the connections. And managers/business leaders reading this, you need to be the ones to help give them that time and space and trust. Even when you can’t see it on the spreadsheet. It’s good for your people to leave at 6 to see a movie. Or do yoga. Or play with their kids. Or even keep working at home in a different environment if they so choose. Our brains don’t turn into dormant cinder blocks once we step out the door. (And while I’m talking about creatives, because that’s the business I’m in, having worked for a big bank in my early 20’s, organisations like that could sure as hell use a dose of this thinking as well.)

The concept of ‘rethinking work’ has been all the rage post-pandemic, but it’s mostly being discussed in the sense of ‘stare at screen at work vs. stare at screen at home’.

I think we can be more ambitious.

Humans can do incredible things, but only when we let them be human.


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