Book Break: Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Today I finished another of my boss’s books, recommended to me by our research assistant, Ben, who was responsible for sorting the boss’s library as we moved from Morrill Hall to the Humphrey. I’d seen the book before, and it looked like a gimmicky, gifty book someone would use to decorate a shelf or display as light bathroom reading. It featured multiple styles of fonts, “handwriting,” and illustration, and bore the oddball title, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.

“I think you should take a look at this,” Ben said, when I raised a skeptical eyebrow upon seeing it again, in his hand. “It’s actually pretty good.”

I took it, exhaled, skimmed the opening poem by Rumi, glanced at the whimsically illustrated table of contents and a two-page spread that looked like a grade-school painting, and started to read. And read, and read, and read.

The author, Gordon MacKenzie, worked 30 years at Hallmark, and this book is his attempt to show adults how to recollect their creative genius; to flush (or even remove) their PC, company-line filters and begin to really innovate and invent again…like when they were kids. For 30 years, he worked for a great “hairball” of a corporation, and for much of that time, he managed to orbit the hairball, close enough for mutual benefit, far enough to never be sucked into the mess and stifled. The book is, at times, a little New Age-y, but it’s inspiring, nonetheless. Here’s a guy who tends to say the things we wish we said, who pushes the envelope of acceptable behavior, gives the wrong answers, writes his own rules…and time and again, shows that it pays, both in terms of profit and personal fulfillment.

I’ve been that guy only once that I recall — when I applied for my former job at a Minneapolis marketing firm. The job posting was quirky and creative (somewhat moreso than the job, as it turned out); I wrote a solid but straightforward cover letter to accompany my resume. I was trying to stretch my experience a bit to cover the position described, and a friend read my cover letter and said, “This isn’t going to do it.” She told me that, since I didn’t have the qualifications they were looking for, I should show that I could market myself in the same way they were selling themselves in their ad. I went home and thought, “What do I know about branding?” Immediately I thought about my rancher friend Jinglebob, and wrote a completely different letter, excerpted here:

You aren’t looking for me. The anthropology degree is all wrong—I studied people, not business. My work history skews journalistic, with infrequent forays into student recruitment and fundraising. Where I come from, branding involves a flame, a red-hot iron and singed hair. It’s difficult work, and it scars.

That said, it’s not so different from what [COMPANY] does. Your clients want what every rancher seeks—a brand that leaves an indelible mark that the world will recognize and associate with its owner. It’s hard work, sure, so you do what any good foreman would: hire the best hands and stoke the fire.

My friend read the new letter and grinned. “This. Is. It.” she said. “They may love it; they may hate it, but they will definitely remember it.”

I had abandoned the way you apply for a job and had done something new. It paid off — both the HR manager and the hiring manager called me, stumbling over each other to set up a flight and an interview. I had successfully re-written the rules, and “The Hairball” had given me the benefit of the doubt, and a shot. That never happened, before or since.

I’ve tried the revise that letter in applying for other jobs, but it doesn’t work. I’ve tried to build writing routines and exercises to spark consistent writing that moves me as much as, for example, last year’s Holiday Letter, but everything sounds forced and derivative. It’s frustrating…and then, as I neared the end of MacKenzie’s book, one of his main points struck me like a ball-peen to the forehead — rang my head like the ginormous bell that it is: Once creativity is routine, it is not creativity. You cannot do something completely different, over and over again.

The cover letter accomplished its intended purpose; I can ask no more of it. Should I need another, I must again give birth. Which is hard work. But worth it.

Blogger’s Note to His Bride: You’ve noticed I’ve been goofier lately. It’s the fumes from the rocket fuel, keeping me just clear of the Hairball.

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