The research about inspiration is, generally, that it improves our wellbeing but we cannot control when it comes to us. That said, opening ourselves to new experiences makes inspiration more likely. And surrounding ourselves with inspired people makes us more likely to feel inspired ourselves.
We constantly look for work that inspires us, but I have found in my career that often the jobs that were most inspiring to me were not necessarily at companies doing inspiring work. One example of this is a job I had at CyberMedia.
You can’t Google CyberMedia because it was purchased by McAfee. But before it was purchased by McAfee, it was a scrappy startup full of mostly Indian men who were of the age when they should be getting married, but were, instead, building a software company, so they would go home to India for a few days, get married, and come back to work.
As they got close to their first ship date, they had to hire non-developers to make a site for launch. I was one of those people they hired.
CyberMedia was the first company to offer a product that automatically updated itself via the Internet. I know that because it was our big selling point.
A few things happened at CyberMedia that were especially memorable. The first thing is that work hours simply never ended. There were about 50 employees, and for all of us, work was around the clock. The management team promised the product would ship, the product had to ship or the company would have no money. It didn’t really bother me. I was fascinated by the workplace culture. And it’s actually pretty fun to be the only woman in a round-the-clock coding environment, even if they all were betrothed to parent-selected brides.
Then one day, during one meeting, I said, “I can’t work this weekend.” I realized that I should have said it earlier, to my boss, but I didn’t realize we’d be talking about it then, in a meeting with ten people.
He said, “You have to. We have a code lockdown on Monday.”
“I can’t. I’m not working this weekend. I can’t.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m having an abortion.”
Then a flurry to reschedule code lockdown for Tuesday so I could write copy on Monday.
That was all. There was no other discussion. It should have been really difficult. But it wasn’t, which I think made me much more brave about being myself as my career moved on. I realized that people just want to get the work done. They don’t care very much about my personal life beyond how it relates to work.
Here’s another thing that happened at that company. We had an IPO. It was 1996, when IPOs were not a household term. In fact, as I am looking for info on the IPO now, I’m realizing that CyberMedia was actually an Indian holding company. Which, in hindsight makes sense since two pieces of software would not be enough for an IPO, even in 1996. But I didn’t know that at the time.
But more than about the windfall, I want to tell you about the web team I managed. The team was amazing, maybe just by accident, because it was always clear to us that no one in the company could have made an educated hiring decision about something like online content management or design.
I am a magnet for a power vacuum, so I quickly took over the whole web site. I felt like God’s gift to online marketing because I was doing five simultaneous product launches in five different countries.
I was bored by the financial details and felt that no cost was too high to make my launches run smoothly. I was fascinated by the design details that reflected cultural differences.
The company made software utilities to make computers run smoothly. I can still see so vividly the British version of a site with a tidy PC wrapped in a red first-aid cross. Juxtaposed with the Japanese version that has what looks like a kamikaze induced explosion over a PC with motherboard pieces flying everywhere. To advertise the same software.
That was fun. The designer was Mark Fearing, who, to this day, is the most talented artist I’ve ever worked with. (That’s an illustration of his, at the top of this post.)
But you know how I always tell you that it’s better to work with someone who is nice and easy to get along with than someone who is especially talented? Well, Mark proves this point.
Every design, every illustration, every font treatment was gorgeous. It was fun just to come into work each morning and see what Mark had done the night before. But once a week, Mark quit the job.
He did it quietly, in private, with me. It was a quitting dance: I’d tell him I promise the marketing department won’t talk to him directly anymore. He’d tell me the Berlin Wall could not keep them out of his cube. I’d tell him he can’t quit because he has to pay rent. He’d tell me he’d rather be homeless. He would indulge his fantasy of homelessness and then he’d go back to his cube to work, largely unscathed.
Then one day the head of marketing came to Mark’s cube to tell him, more blue. “It’s a nice color,” she said. “It looks good online. Can you use more of it?”
Mark stared at the design. Then he looked at her. Then he screamed: “Blue? Blue? You want more blue? That is the worst, most ineffective piece of art direction you can give. It’s stupid. Why blue? Did your mom like blue? Is it because the sky is blue? You know what? I like yellow. Let’s do more yellow. We need yellow! No. Let’s do both. Then we can have green! Do you like green?”
Heads poked up from cubes to watch Mark do his tirade.
Then he started packing up his desk while he screamed, “Marketing at this company is stupid because of you! You have no idea what you want! You have no vision! You bring us all down with you! You can find someone else to do your design changes all day long! I’m done!”
And he stormed out.
It was great to see. Everyone hated the head of marketing.
People who feel inspired do better work. The problem is, how do you get inspired? The writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who was, of course, inspired enough to write a bestseller, gave a TED talk about how we shouldn’t pressure ourselves to find inspiration. It just comes. Which is, I think, why I look at my life at CyberMedia so fondly: the people were inspired.
Tsun-yan Hsieh, from McKinsey, writes that while we cannot control our encounters with inspiration, we are more likely to get inspiration by constantly evolving. Our level of inspiration is commensurate with our levels to be true to ourselves.
So back to Mark: Since those days at CyberMedia, he has done animation and video and television game shows, becoming more and more notorious for making a scene when he quits. Until he started working for himself.
And that’s when things really bloomed for him. He married a developer, moved to Portland, and had a daughter. And just this week, five billion illustrations later, the New York Times reviewed his new book, Earthling! and called it “an exhilirating hoot”.
To watch Mark go from drawing computers exploding for unreasonable marketing managers to drawing characters in his own graphic novel is really inspiring. And I’m so happy to be able to tell you all to buy the book. And think about Mark’s path: quitting job after job, taking risk after risk to figure out his right place – finding inspiration by being true to yourself.