A bison, a duck, and a drowning man. Learning from other people’s stories about us.

This Thanksgiving was also my dad’s 80th birthday. In between turkey and two kinds of pie we marked the occasion with a game-show style quiz about key moments of his life with questions gathered from extended family members.

My brothers and I knew what animal once shat on the rug in his office (bison), what unusual pet he had as a child (duck), and which presidents he met as a newspaper editor (Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton).

His brother submitted the last question, and it stumped all of us.

What did my dad pull up from the bottom of Long Lake that brought him local fame?

When my brothers and I were kids sharing key moments of our lives was an evening ritual. Seated at the dinner table with my dad as moderator, we would answer the question: “What is your headline of the day?”

I credit this quotidian exercise with being one of the reasons I became a creative director.

I had seconds to pull my headline together before my dad called on me. I wanted it to be buzz worthy but not boastful and relatable yet exceptional to stand out against my two brothers’ answers. Sometimes if the headline was compelling we were asked for details. So I also wanted the substance of a good story to back it up.

Decent prep for concept development, headline writing, and pitching.

When my brothers and I were kids sharing key moments of our lives was an evening ritual. Seated at the dinner table with my dad as moderator, we would answer the question: “What is your headline of the day?”

So what was at the bottom of the lake? A drowning man.

Stunned silence followed.

Somehow this headline and the story behind it had never come up at dinner or anytime else.

This is what we learned:

In the 1950s my dad, a gangly teenager, and his father were sitting with the rest of the family on the patio of their summer home overlooking Long Lake in northern Illinois. It was early evening.

My grandfather, an alert outdoorsman, heard a splash. He looked out at a swimming raft and saw ripples on the surface of the water. He told my dad they should see if someone needed help.

They ran down to the dock, jumped into their speed boat, and zoomed toward the spot where my grandfather had seen the ripples.

As they approached the raft, he slowed down and told my dad to jump in the murky water. Near the raft was a small boat. No one was in it.

My dad leaped in and shot down to the bottom. His feet landed on something big and soft. He reached down and grabbed it. Struggling with the weight, he pulled it up to the surface. It was a man, much bigger than my dad. He was unconscious or maybe dead.

They got the man up on the raft and stretched him out on his stomach. With a steady rhythm, my dad pressed down on the man’s back and lifted his arms by the elbows.

The man coughed and sputtered and started to breathe again.

Amazingly, he lived.

After he was released from the hospital, the man came to thank my dad. He said that he had gone fishing by himself, jumped from his boat to the raft, fell, and hit his head on the raft. He told my dad that he remembered crawling around on the muddy bottom before losing consciousness. And then he started crying.

Struggling with the weight, he pulled it up to the surface. It was a man, much bigger than my dad. He was unconscious or maybe dead.

Hearing this tale of saving a drowning man got me thinking about brands and their unknown, untold stories.

It’s all the rage to connect with new customers, new trends, introduce new product lines and new logos, and disrupt the marketplace. And there is a lot that’s good about all of that, at least when done well. It certainly keeps us all on our toes.

There’s also increasing buzz around telling brand stories. There are many knowledgeable experts writing how tos, which also are often great. And it’s critical to tell compelling stories about who you are and what you believe.

But the stories people tell about us when we don’t even know it are our brand stories too.

Brands, like people, also should look outward to the people who know and love us the most to hear what we may have been missing about ourselves. Hopefully, it’s good stuff that’s waiting to be discovered and shared. But, if not, you want to know that too.

But the stories people tell about us when we don’t even know it are our brand stories too.

When I was at Mount Sinai we tried our best to gather as many patient stories as possible both as research and as content to share.

It is a ton of work and requires an army of people to find the storytellers, gather their stories, write, vet, and publish them. And sometimes those stories don’t neatly fit the broader brand narrative. But they’re priceless nonetheless. All of them help you learn more about who you are as a brand and how you could or should evolve into the future.

For example, to promote a new children’s heart center, we gathered happy stories of infants who had life-saving pediatric cardiology surgery and were now thriving toddlers with ideal outcomes. But we also heard a more nuanced story about the gratitude a teenage patient and her parents felt for the continuing kindness of the physicians and staff in spite of their inability to reverse her deteriorating health.

From adult heart patients we heard stories about how much they valued the expertise and compassion of our doctors. But we also heard how even minor annoyances with the front desk or billing clouded their overall perception of their experience. And, importantly, we heard non-patients repeat similar stories they had heard second hand.

So, the question for all of us shouldn’t only be what’s your headline of the day, or the week, or even the year.

We should also ask what headlines the people we care about would write about us. And what stories are behind them.

It could be that untold story may tell more about us one, two, or even sixty years later than the ones we regularly tell about ourselves.

_________________________

Thank you to my father, Paul Janensch, for allowing me to share his story and editing my copy. You can read about Paul’s encounter with Bush 41 in his recent column.

Under a spreading chestnut tree, this creative director wanders around

It seemed like a simple assignment: determine how the village is spatially organized.

But I already felt stumped, plus jetlagged and a bit carsick.

It was day two of my semester abroad in Nigeria. About an hour had passed since another student and I had arrived after a harrowing journey at this village on the outskirts of Lagos. Our mini-bus had hurled us in between clogged lanes of traffic, dodged cattle, and launched airborne over potholes.

Now we were rambling through a maze of circuitous paths between buildings made of cement, wood and mud. But their purpose and the logic behind their organization was still a mystery to us. So we asked two local men for help.

Could they tell us why these buildings are here and those there?

They didn’t know.

Maybe, like a New England green, we could discover the town’s most important spatial relationships by starting at the center and working our way out. “Where is the middle of the village?” I asked.

Like a directional sign post they pointed to opposite destinations. “There.” “There.”

A map might help. Could they draw one for us?

Warily, they nodded.

I produced paper and pen.

They stepped back and consulted with each other. Then one man carefully drew two intersecting straight lines and handed me back my implements.

He had drawn the two main roads, their junction, and where they went. But he left the town off the map.

The mini-bus horn honked. It was time to go.

Later that night we wrote up what the assignment as best we could, but acknowledged we failed.

Hoping for leniency, I included a footnote. I wrote that while we didn’t learn how the town was spatially organized, we did come to realize that the relationship of the town to the broader context of its surroundings seemed more important. And that the importance of spaces within the town seemed relative to the individual. We wished we had come up with better, perhaps less leading, questions. When we got our paper back we saw that our professor wrote in effect, “that was the point”.

This was over 20 years ago. But recently this story came back to me when I was out walking in a local Connecticut park.

I had walked these paths hundreds of times, usually on a weekend afternoon and in the same direction and sequence. But this time I went on a weekday morning. I walk fast and look straight ahead at the view of the trees ringing the saltwater marsh or across the Sound to the blurry blue smudge of Long Island or the faint grey Manhattan skyline.

But now I stared at a collection of elderly people pacing in circles in the middle of a field looking down at their shuffling feet as they kicked the leaves.

At first I thought it was Tai-chi or something like it. But then I noticed that they weren’t moving in synch.

I stepped off the path and timidly asked one of them what he was doing. “Chestnuts!” he exclaimed. Then he walked over and handed me a little brown nut, warm after being squeezed tightly in his palm.

Counting out a few more chestnuts into my hand, he told me in a thick Italian accent how dozens of people came every day for weeks often early in the morning before the park opens and from as far away as New York City. Chestnuts are hard to find since many decades prior a blight wiped out most of the trees. And then he showed me how to use my feet to spread open the spikey exterior casing and expose the nuts inside.

For a couple of weeks I had been kicking these spikey bundles out of my way on my brisk walks, never looking down to see what peeked out from between the broken husks.

The next weekend my kids and husband joined me in the grove of chestnut trees, incredulous that we would find anything. In the brisk fall air we shook the branches, kicked the leaves, pricked our fingers on the spiky skins, and deposited a bounty of shiny brown nuts in a big plastic bag, handles stretched taut by the weight.

We didn’t go down to the beach or walk the paths. We didn’t kick the soccer ball or go fishing. Our familiar experience of the park was changed and broadened. By seeing the park through others’ eyes, it was like being in a new place entirely. In the car ride home we all vowed to look more closely at all the familiar places we went because maybe they too had new experiences to offer.

We shouldn’t have been so surprised. We already knew that Long Island Sound is home to a natural bounty that many don’t realize is there. When my husband goes fishing on the nearby jetty and hauls up a big striped bass or even a humble porgy, inevitably a walker, jogger, or someone sitting nearby will exclaim, “there are fish in there?” Admittedly, I didn’t realize the variety and size of fish until he started reeling them up a few years ago. But, really?

Everyone experiences space differently, noticing what has meaning for them but not the rest. And even though those other experiences are as deep and rich as your own, they don’t exist for you until and unless you are compelled to look and, with an open mind, choose to step over the threshold to learn about them from their perspective.

When it comes to creating experiences in real or virtual space as a Creative Director, I think Design Thinking can be pretty great for breaking through these barriers and incorporating diverse perspectives. Being grounded in empathy, Design Thinking mandates that practitioners consider other people’s perspectives when solving problems. But in response to building criticism that it may not be sufficiently inclusive of all voices, Michael Hendrix of IDEO recently acknowledged the limits of the methodology his firm popularized.

In my practice of Design Thinking, including diverse voices from outside of the creative team as co-participants, especially the end user, is the explicitly acknowledged ideal. But, in spite of the potential for rich insights, the reality is that ideal isn’t practiced as much as it should be. Time and money are the typical excuses. Instead, what passes for “empathy” can be two or three degrees of separation away summarized in a PowerPoint deck of qualitative research findings. And the “creative” still has the power to determine what solution should or should not be more fully developed and how it should be revised based on feedback.

Anything that can increase our capacity for — and practice of — empathy, curiosity, and humility is most welcome. Because in order to design real or virtual experiences that include people different from ourselves, it’s clear that we must understand their perspective as well as the limitations, assumptions, and prejudices of our own.

So I am excited to learn more from John Maeda, Kat Holmes, Bruce Nussbaum, Natasha Iskander, and others who propose helpful revisions to Design Thinking or alternate methodologies that seek to be more inclusive, ask better questions, inspire more innovative solutions, and/or produce better results.

Hopefully, we can all discover some chestnuts.

Waterfalls, cows, and farms. Are there lessons in design from the other side of the world?

Even before we bought the waterfall, I knew we were on to something.

Over the summer we visited the homestay we built in West Sumatra for the first time since its two-storied wood-framed house was completed. The house is perched over a fishpond and overlooks a patchwork of rice paddies and grassy terraces that slope downward to a clear, meandering river.

We bought the land and my husband’s brother built the house partly for our infrequent visits to see our family nearby but, mostly, as an income stream for him and later, hopefully, us. We call it extreme diversification. And the homestay was the third investment and third business model that we’ve tried.

The craftsmanship of the house is outstanding and the view is stunning. But even more impressive is the community of people contributing to the success of the enterprise. Led by my brother-in-law, three generations of men do the backbreaking labor of clearing rocks from the land and digging new irrigation ditches. Women clean the house and cook the meals for guests, serving rice and spicy fish curry on banana leaves spread on a flat patch of grass under a banyan tree. In town, news of the homestay spreads through word of mouth by a network of guides and friends, resulting in it being booked nearly every day since before the house was finished.

We bought the land and my husband’s brother built the house partly for our infrequent visits to see our family nearby but, mostly, as an income stream for him and later, hopefully, us. We call it extreme diversification. And the homestay was the third investment and third business model that we’ve tried.

The waterfall is a recent addition to the homestay. We bought it since coming home to Connecticut, so I’ve only seen photos. It’s not adjoining, but a short hike away. Just beyond up the hill are “The 1000 Caves” that the canyon valley is know for, and cliffs for a range of rock climbing abilities. Down the road is the small town that has a café owned by the family of the women who do the cleaning and cooking for us. You can also hire them to teach you how to cook their local dishes, including fried coffee leaves, which are delicious by the way. Their brother also teaches traditional music, the “saluang”, a bamboo flute, and “gamelan”, a small orchestra of gongs. Our homestay is literally at the center of this network of personalized, authentic, semi-adventurous, local experiences.

It recently struck me – our homestay is a success because it strives to provide customer-first service design.

Our extreme diversification started with cows.

In West Sumatra buying cows is a traditional form of retirement investment. When you have some extra cash, you buy a female cow and board it with a local farmer to care for and breed. When a calf is born, you split the ownership of the calf with the farmer fifty-fifty. If the calf is female, the farmer raises her to adulthood, breeds her, and then owns this third generation and beyond. If the first generation calf is male, it is usually sold to the local butcher for cash for profit or to buy a female cow.

Cows are a relatively predictable and stable investment. But it’s definitely a long game.

A partnership between owner and farmer, cow breeding takes singular focus and commitment and the ability to adapt and recover after unforeseen surprises, like infertility or illness. The farmer provides labor and resources like food, water and shelter. The owner provides capital investment, bulls for breeding, and access to the marketplace for selling the offspring.

Unlike the homestay, the cow business requires a product design mindset that relies on a roadmap for development and versioning, but also is responsive to fluctuating market dynamics.

Our third investment is a small family farm.

The land stood mostly fallow until my sister-in-law and her husband, who we call “Uncle”, retired. Then they came to us with an idea. They would plant fruit trees and vegetables and raise chickens and ducks. Several years later it is a beautiful, shady, fragrant oasis that rivals any botanical garden I’ve seen. The land is teeming with avocados, dragon fruit, water apples, mangoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, chili peppers, and about a dozen other plants that I don’t know the English names for.

Unlike the homestay, the cow business is a product business that follows a roadmap for development and versioning, but also is responsive to fluctuating market dynamics.

Uncle is the true genius behind the farm’s success. All along I assumed he must have grown up on a farm. But, during this past visit, I learned that his horticultural expertise is recently acquired from the Internet! In the evenings he reads about plants and their cultivation and during the day he puts his learning into practice. He tests and learns, iterates and refines. One of his early innovations was to weigh down fruit tree branches with boulders tied to long ropes. The boulders sit on the ground and gently pull the branches downward so the tree grows wide and full, making the fruit easier to reach.

Uncle is the designer of a living platform that houses a constantly evolving range of sweet, delicious content.

Indonesia is a booming, modern economy with innovative digital experiences that reach both large, sophisticated urban centers as well as smaller rural villages. For good or ill, you can see the glow of smart phones emanating from the windows of even the most modest house. But up until now I thought there was deep divide between our more traditional businesses and my work at agencies and technology companies.

Homestay, cows, and farm. Service design, product design, and a content platform. The parallels are surprising, and intriguing.

Perhaps I no longer have to be a New York creative director by day and a West Sumatran businesswoman by night. Now these two parts of myself can both beat within one heart and start to cross-fertilize in my rational mind. Maybe they have more in common than I thought.

I suspect, and kind of hope, there is still much that does not translate, and can’t be transferred, across those nearly 10,000 miles. Crispy fried coffee leaves, the warm, curly-haired head of a new calf, and the sweet, fuchsia juice of a fresh dragon fruit are just beautiful and perfect in what and where they are.

But someday it might be nice to tap on the screen to feel the spray from our cold, crystal-clear waterfall on my face.

The seduction of the second worst

I’m currently hooked on Forged in Fire and The Great British Baking Show.

Forged in Fire is a quick fix. With one person crowned champion in each episode, suspense only has to be maintained for 42 minutes. And midway there’s the spin-chilling promise of Doug Marcaida sliding a blade though a translucent, gelatinous, life-sized torso and pronouncing through lips pulled taut over bared teeth that it “will kill”.

On the other hand, The Great British Baking Show takes some fortitude to get through batter week and bread week, pudding week and patisserie week, and a lot of weird, unfamiliar British baked goods, to see the winner loft their etched glass platter above their head at the end of episode 10.

Short format or long, the formula is the same. Terrified, semi-regular people who are driven to pursue and perfect obscure art forms for which they are unflinchingly passionate are put through grueling, time-starved trials of their skill. Sweating in front of ovens, forges, and glaring judges, they craft, agonize over, and finally present their creations to be mercilessly critiqued.

Sound familiar to any of you?

Sweating in front of ovens, forges, and glaring judges, they craft, agonize over, and finally present their creations to be mercilessly critiqued.

There are many details to marvel at and wonder about, including the petty. How does her lipstick stay so perfect through hours of sweaty baking in a tent without AC? Or, I hope that sweet looking teenage boy forging a samurai sword in his backyard isn’t an outcast with a revenge list.

But what I marvel at most is the participants poise and grace when their creations are torn apart figuratively and often literally by the judges. Someone will be kicked off the show. And I feel (briefly) horribly for them. But I’m most inspired by our glimpse into the humbling power of relief and redemption felt by those who fall second to last.

“I really thought that was it for me.”

“Thank God I get another chance!”

“I’m even more motivated to be the best blacksmith/baker that I can be.”

And then their tenacious climb back from the brink.

But I’m most inspired by our glimpse into the humbling power of relief and redemption felt by those who fall second to last.

The second worst and all of the remaining participants reliably come back for the next challenge, knowing full well the pain and agony that is likely awaiting them at some point in the near future – after all there is only one winner. But they don’t give up and, what’s more, the best, having just looked over the cliff into the oblivion, still stubbornly refuse to play it safe and charge ahead knowing whether it’s now or later, the best go big or end up going home.

It’s the same reason that I always root for the underdog in sports, as long as they show the same persistence and drive.

Now meet the ground hog in my backyard.

My favorite work-at-home spot is on a couch looking through the sliding glass doors to my back patio.

Each afternoon during the warmer months, her golden, loaf-shaped body emerges from under the stump of what used to be a towering 50-foot pine tree. She stares at me through the glass, frozen for a few seconds. But she never is deterred by my furtive glances from her to the swooping hawks that criss-cross over her head and back again. She climbs to her perch on the boulder next to the stump, cleans her head and tail with her paws, and stands in the sun for hours.

I think her baby was taken by one of the hawks a few weeks ago. One day it was there. The next it wasn’t. I’m hoping it just grew up quickly and moved out. But, I’ve seen how those hawks chase down and snatch chipmunks and squirrels with their talons from the lawn. The baby ground hog was only slightly bigger. But her mom still keeps climbing to the top of the rock, tempting her own fate.

I feel a kinship as many of you in creative professions likely do.

In spite of coming out of my burrow time and again to receive an unexpected challenge to my skills, intellect, and instinct, and facing relentless criticism with only the smallest, miracle-sized chance of success, I gladly scramble up the side of my boulder looking for the sun.

Being creative is an inherently optimistic act.

In spite of coming out of my burrow time and again to receive an unexpected challenge to my skills, intellect, and instinct, and facing relentless criticism with only the smallest, miracle-sized chance of success, I gladly scramble up the side of my boulder looking for the sun.

Yes, you constantly see problems that need to be fixed. But you also believe you can fix them, in spite of consistently overwhelming odds. After all, those problems usually have been intractable for some time, hence they now are so unavoidable as to require intervention by a paid expert.

The terror of the blank page is a real thing, but it’s also a thrill like no other.

Launching work into the unknown is harrowing. The metrics are notoriously unsympathetic to your ego.

Losing a pitch after pouring your soul into the work in a series of all nighters is crushing. But when you do win, it feels cumulatively greater than all of the previous loses put together.

The ground hog still went outside the day after her baby was no longer there with her. But, to be honest, I’m not sure how much rational thought is going on in her furry head.

Losing a pitch after pouring your soul into the work in a series of all nighters is crushing. But when you do win, it feels cumulatively greater than all of the previous loses put together.

I am sure when the cameras aren’t rolling the bakers and blacksmiths release at least a few expletives, question the judges’ sanity, and struggle with the crushing weight of their own self-doubt.

And I’m equally sure that no matter when and why the bakers and blacksmiths go home, they face their ovens and forges determined to create something even better the next time. At least that’s what I would do.

Cut away to find space

I squinted to peer through the gap between the locked doors of the gallery for a glimpse of the serene, apse-like space that held my senior thesis art exhibition two decades earlier.

Although now empty, the grey, windowless room seemed to impossibly glow from within, lit by the sunlight piercing the oculus in the ceiling. It was a cathartic moment after an emotional yet celebratory memorial service for David Schorr, my college senior thesis advisor.

The remnants of the knotted ball of nerves I felt during my final crit with him still faintly twisted in the pit of my stomach. David was a printmaker, painter, illustrator, and graphic designer, but also a passionate lover of words— just the right words chosen for maximum emotional, or often comic, effect.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

At first the words stung. But, then they settled and started to make sense. Although my installation had the trappings of fine art with drawings, sculpture, and even a tree suspended over a rectangle of grass, the best part of it was the process and purpose behind it — how I rallied a team of local craftsmen and generous friends to help me make an installation of objects that told my story. In that simple yet profound observation, he both cut away who I was trying to be but wasn’t and found space for a future that could leverage my true talents.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

One of the hardest things to teach a budding, young soccer player is to run away from the ball when your teammate has it. Invariably they run toward the ball like iron filings drawn to a magnet. It seems counter intuitive. Don’t you want to run toward the action to add your two feet to the mix?

No, you want to cut away from the other players to find space, then open up to receive the ball. Only then can you deploy your best foot skills to drive the ball toward the goal. And there lies much of the beauty in the game.

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

My senior thesis project also involved literally cutting away to find space.

The most important elements of the installation were three large drawings suspended from the ceiling. To make them I adopted a drawing technique in which I held the eraser in my left hand and the charcoal in my right. I would draw and erase, erase and draw, until ghostly forms emerged from the background. A light gray shading lingered on the edges of the erased spaces, giving the forms both depth and a vibrating energy that was much more interesting than if I drew them directly.

I’ve found that cutting away to find space is a useful technique for creative thinking overall.

For me, a long walk in the wide expanse of nature results in more aha moments than a shower. But the same principle applies — absorb lots of information, then cut it from your conscious mind as you silently process it in the background. Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

When I’m helping my team evaluate ideas, I sit huddled with them holding a small pad of paper and a pen. I look at all of the comps, hear all of the explanations, and consider all of the cool innovations and clever extensions. But I only write down a keyword or phrase that sums up the core of the idea, stripping away the usually very well thought out, but at best supportive and at worst extraneous detail.

Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

After we cut away to expose the true essence of the idea, the team and I then evaluate it and, if it has promise, open our minds to find its possibilities and build it up again, bringing back some of those great supporting ideas and adding more.

As a kid, the farthest I got in soccer was the first grade town team. I was always lost in the pack, usually behind the ball, chasing it fruitlessly. I wish my coach taught me to cut away from the crowd, find space, and open up so I could unlock the beauty of the game.

But as I peered through the sliver between the doors, blinking from the bright sunlight, I felt tremendous gratitude for the lesson I learned from David. While standing together beneath the oculus in the same luminous room he encouraged me to cut away what wasn’t truly me and find my space in the wide open field of design.

I’m still working on it, David. But I’ve never looked back.


David Schorr, professor of art at Wesleyan University, died on June 16, 2018 at the age of 71.

The art of listening to hear

My husband is the Michelangelo of pet grooming.

To see him wield a clipper and scissor and artfully reveal the true essence of a dog from under a mound of matted, knotted hair is to witness a natural talent. He’s self-taught, having unofficially apprenticed with the resident dog groomer in the kennel where he worked years ago. He watched her carefully and purposefully while sweeping up the bundles that fell to the floor sometimes more delicate than snowflakes and other times all at once like a discarded coat, depending on the degree of neglect from its owner. She gradually taught him what she knew and, one day, quit to move to another state, leaving all of her clients to him, if he wanted them. And he did.

He is a natural craftsman, for like woodworking or stone carving, that’s what grooming most resembles. But, it’s also more than that.

What’s different, for one, is that the dog is a living, breathing thing with its own innate reactions to the appearance of a strange man with a sharp object next to its flesh. But the teeth and claws are mild compared to the demands of some of the owners.  He often gets sketches, photos, and conflicting direction from family members, and specific instruction on what tools to use and not use and how much where. I thought my advertising clients were tough, but his often are bickering, disagreeable spouses; detail-obsessed cheapskates; and/or dotting, obsessive parents to their furry surrogate children.

He’s also the Oprah of pet grooming.

What my husband can do that I find most inspiring, and instructive, is he can both listen to what his clients want, but also hear what they really need. And by that I mean he listens patiently and then filters through his own experience and intuition to create a result that is always better than what the client asked for, while also managing to put both the nervous or difficult owner and his or her dog at ease.

“Make my [bichpoo, schnoodle, cockapoo] look like this picture from the Westminster Dog Show, and by the way, she bites.”

“OK, I’ll try.”

What my husband can do that I find most inspiring, and instructive, is he can both listen to what his clients want, but also hear what they really need.

Then with some comforting words for the dog and its owner, a graceful sweep of the clipper, and a strong grip on back of the neck, the dog is returned both beautiful and calm as the owner exclaims with joy and surprise something like, “wow, how did you do that?” The previously skeptical customer becomes a loyal, repeat client who then always asks him to just do what he thinks is best.

It’s an art.

I draw inspiration from my husband in my own work as a creative director. I strive to both listen to and hear my client’s and the end customer’s wants and needs. To empathize and then interpret to achieve a result that exceeds their expectations by touching them emotionally in ways and to a degree that they didn’t expect.

Although metrics are the true measure, I know we’ve succeeded when we’ve made the client cry.

I remember one pitch presentation in particular. We had to come up with the launch and engagement campaign for a new, innovative product. Like many, but perhaps even more than most, the RFP was a bit convoluted, asking us what talents, methods, tools, and resources we would use to answer various challenging questions about how to find and engage with their core audiences at key moments in their journeys. Their fear of failure was palpable. As was, frankly, their hubris. Our labradoodle is unique and needs a special touch that you probably don’t have, but let’s see what you can do anyway.

I strive to both listen to and hear my client’s and the end customer’s wants and needs. To empathize and then interpret to achieve a result that exceeds their expectations by touching them emotionally in ways and to a degree that they didn’t expect.

We did all that hard work. Figuring out the answers to all of the questions, providing the required backup, and trying to instill confidence that we knew what we were doing. For the creative strategy, we learned the functional benefits of this new product were astounding – it truly was a better mousetrap that could kill an existing product category, alleviate a major burden, and provide peace-of-mind where there previously had been none. Maybe that was all we had to say, but in a clever, memorable way?

If we had just listened, that would have been enough.

But I like to think we did more than that. We heard what lay beyond those impressive benefits. We heard the emotional pain caused by missed opportunities, unfulfilled dreams, and frustrating vicious circles of negativity. Convenience and peace-of-mind were great, but not enough to truly capture the transformative power of this product.

So we stopped in our tracks and did another round of research, asking people more about the alternative universe that would open up should this current burden be lifted. We asked them to imagine in detail what life would be like without it. We interviewed carefully screened strangers, but also loved ones and friends and recorded their descriptions of aspirational, imaginary worlds. By lifting this burden, this product not only created peace-of-mind, it allowed people to unlock their hidden potential and achieve dreams they never even considered possible because they were so outside of their reach.

These stories of unlocking hidden potential became the inspiration for the creative and flowed through the work in content, experiences, and look and feel.

Then, recognizing the power of the stories we heard, we wrote down short excerpts, one per index card, and locked the stack in a jewelry box.

By lifting this burden, this product not only created peace-of-mind, it allowed people to unlock their hidden potential and achieve dreams they never even considered possible because they were so outside of their reach.

At the end of the presentation, after answering the questions in the RFP and showing dozens of boards and slides of creative work, exhausted yet exhilarated, I took the small jewelry box from the table where it had been sitting silently waiting and handed it to the SVP seated at the head of the table.

Surprised, he opened it, taking out one card, and then another, reading and smiling, and reading another. Finally, the silence was broken as he started to read the stories aloud, punctuated by thoughtful sighs and bursts of laughter from the room.

Perhaps saying he was crying is an exaggeration, but eyes filled with tears and a hitch in his voice made it clear that the stories deeply touched him.

We were in a cab to the airport when he called to tell us we had won the business.

Scared, overwhelmed, unsure? Make a list.

I married the first man I met in Bukittinggi, Sumatra. Not right away, of course. First, I rode on the back of his motorbike where I got to know and trust him. I met his kind and welcoming family, we learned more of each other’s languages, and we traveled to other islands where he protected me from land pirates and the impossibly tiny bones in my small fried fish. Then, almost a year to the day after I asked him a question on a street corner, we were kneeling next to each other on an elaborate green carpet hearing our vows echo in the vast open space of the local mosque.

When I tell the longer version of this story, people invariably tell me how brave I am. How I must have so much courage to not only travel by myself to the other side of the world, but to commit to spend my life with someone I met there. But, from sitting on that green carpet through every day since, it has always seemed like the most rational and natural decision I could have made. And I attribute that at least in part to the power of lists.

Lists helped get me to Indonesia to begin with.

It was 1999 and I had been thinking of going to India and Southeast Asia for ten years, originally inspired by a freshman seminar on Asian architecture. The first challenge was money. It took me a long time to save up. But once I did, the remaining obstacles were harder to define and, therefore, overcome, as were the steps I should take to actually go.

But, from sitting on that green carpet through every day since, it has always seemed like the most rational and natural decision I could have made. And I attribute that at least in part to the power of lists.

Ultimately, I realized that fear was the biggest factor. Fear of what might happen to me there and what I might miss from my life here, fear of loneliness, fear of what my family would say, and fear about the logistics of how to pull it off.

After stewing about this for months, I decided to tackle it like I would a work-related problem. I got a flip chart and started writing two lists – the problems I had to solve and the aspirational goals I wanted to achieve – and stuck the pages on my bedroom wall.

Both the problems and goals were overwhelming at the beginning. But next to each I slowly started finding answers. For example, on the problem sheet – what if I get lonely? Take a solo test trip to see. So I went hiking in Southern Utah and loved it. On the goals sheet – how can I make this purposeful self-development and not an extended vacation? Stay engaged in my field. So I got a gig teaching web design in India for the first month and put together a list of web design start-ups and their founders to go visit and interview afterwards. Then one by one, that dense fog of undefined fears became discrete problems with solutions or goals with steps to achieve them.

A couple of months later, I was on the plane to Delhi.

The beauty of lists is two-fold – first, they allow you to solve the rational, get it out of the way, and make space for the emotional to crystalize and flourish, for there lays the hardest and most interesting stuff. And second, lists can be combined, contrasted, overlapped, and intersected to produce infinitely interesting, unexpected, and inspiring results.

Lists are regularly my saviors for overcoming tough work-related challenges. Listing problems and goals, prioritizing them, and looking for the intersections and gaps between is a successful tool for solving most creative problems — I especially love starting with the “opportunities”and “threats”from a good SWOT analysis. Often to kickoff concepting I distill a creative brief into two lists, pulling out the most important words that summarize the problems and goals for the customer and the brand, then explore the space between them.

The beauty of lists is two-fold – first, they allow you to solve the rational, get it out of the way, and make space for the emotional to crystalize and flourish, for there lays the hardest and most interesting stuff. And second, lists can be combined, contrasted, overlapped, and intersected to produce infinitely interesting, unexpected, and inspiring results.

In writing too lists are my first step. For this article, as well as the ones that have come before and are yet to be written, I use lists to capture divergent thoughts. Lists of memories, experiences, beliefs, and questions. Lists of structural arrangements and stylistic techniques. Magically, lists both focus my swirling thoughts and, in their juxtapositions and gaps, converge to unleash new ideas and areas of inquiry.

In fact, one of my favorite brainstorming techniques for any type of creative pursuit is to combine divergent lists across multiple axes – steps along a customer journey, customers’emotional and functional needs, cultural and social influences, brand attributes, product benefits, different points of view, revealing quotes from qualitative research, interesting data points from quantitative research – and see what interesting, unexpected surprise might appear at the intersections. I’ve done this in large group sessions on a white board and sitting alone with a black sharpie and copier paper on my kitchen counter.

Lists can both help distill what is most essential and provide the inspiration to confidently progress forward.

When I called my parents from Bukittinggi to tell them that I was getting married, I felt sick to my stomach. I wasn’t just fearful about their possible reaction. I also felt sick in face of the magnitude of all of the other challenges before us. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried about my parents – they told me they loved me, trusted me, and asked when they should come.

But they also asked us to make a list.

They wanted us to list all of the important aspects of life — work, children, family, religion, money, old age, and anything else we identified as important to us, and then write down what we thought about each of them to make sure we were on the same page. I rolled my eyes, but thought this work was the least we could do to assuage their fears.

Lists can both help distill what is most essential and provide the inspiration to confidently progress forward.

Later, we sat up nearly all night, discussed, debated, clarified, and documented. We carefully read over what we wrote in the morning, translated, tweaked, edited, and refined. Then I confidently pressed “send” to email our masterpiece thinking, “Boom! Take that.”

In the days that followed, however, I slowly came to understand the true value of this exercise. Creating this list was less about making the case to my parents that we knew what we are doing — it was more about making it to ourselves, allowing us to enter into the marriage with even more clarity and confidence than before.

With so much more consequential content to ponder, neither my parents nor I thought to ask my soon-to-be husband if he liked making lists too. Jumping right to simultaneous wedding and immigration planning, I quickly learned that he doesn’t. I make the lists for groceries, after school activities, vacation planning, savings goals, errands, home repairs, you name it. (I would cease functioning if it wasn’t for my Notes app.) Then I send him whatever excerpts he needs to know. And, in a true partnership, he excels at getting things done.

Plus, 17 years, two children, and life’s many ups and downs later, we still always agree on every detail of that first list we wrote together in Sumatra.