“Why are you setting my work on fire?” was the only thought that echoed through my terrified mind years ago in my intro to copywriting class.
With a cigarette lighter in hand, a sweaty, bearded man sporting a photographer’s vest held my homework assignment aloft in front of everyone. A non-stop stream of profanity aimed at my assignment spewed forth from the bearded man’s mouth. His contorted face became more and more beet-like with each four-letter word he sputtered. The disposable lighter’s flame danced ever closer to my pristine marker-drawn ads. A mere two minutes prior, I was mentally marveling at how awesomely clever I thought my work was, now impending fiery doom.
With a flash, the paper ignited and within seconds a week’s work was nothing more than ash in a classroom trash can and a plume of acrid smoke. My ego properly deflated, I stewed in my seat as the professor moved on to the next poor victim.
I was recently reminded of this episode when speaking to other creatives on the team about advertising class experience. When the subject of professorial ad mutilation came up, no one knew what I was talking about. Asking around, it seems the practice is now a relic of a bygone era. Perhaps too many complaints from parents paying far too much to have faculty drop f-bomb tirades on their children week in and week out.
So why the theatrics? Why was there a need to make a show out of creative work being crumpled up, torn into literal pieces, spat on, have nasal cavities emptied upon it, the ground under the heel of motorcycle boots, thrown out a window, and used as toilet paper in a simulated fashion (I hope, I never dared to check)? Strangely enough, the theatrics were for everyone’s benefit. In part, the shock value was a wake-up call to those whose notion of the advertising/marketing world was shaped by the image of the profession projected by laugh track-filled television sitcoms. However, the more important lesson was to have a healthy disassociation with your creative output. That you and your work must remain as two entirely separate entities for your own mental wellness.
Being on the creative side of things is as much about coming up with dozens upon dozens of ideas for each and every assignment, as it is about dealing with the death of those ideas. Death on a scale of meteors meeting dinosaurs. At the end of the day, there are few survivors, sometimes none. Ideas get rejected by yourself, rejected by your coworkers, rejected by your manager, rejected by your clients, rejected by your client’s kid’s dog walker. With that amount of rejection, it’s helpful to not equate the dislike of the work to a dislike of you as a person. Though this notion sounds simple, it is much harder in practice to emotionally separate yourself from your work when actual mean, horrible people are involved. That is the true test to see if you have mastered this skill. In the end, learning this lesson won’t make you a better creative, but at the very least you’ll sleep better, not snap at loved ones or put holes in drywall and that will make you a better human being.