Monday, November 03, 2008

The Creative Kick to the Solar Plexus

I had one of those weeks last week that we all know is just part of our job, part of the process, part of life. It was one of those weeks that they don't tell you about in engineering school, so the first time it happens you are completely godsmacked. And each time it happens thereafter- it still is like a kick to the solar plexus.

You spend weeks preparing something. You throw heart and soul into it, you run into road blocks that you overcome in creative ways. The final push is tough, but good tough. Like a morning run in the fall sunshine or paddling a canoe through rapids. Then- the event happens. It's a public hearing, a client meeting, or an agency review.

When you get the the meeting, you find that your design is rejected. Perhaps it's because you really weren't listening to what they wanted, and you need to regroup. Or you were talking to the wrong person and the actual decision maker looked at you standing there, sweating in the projector lamplight- exposed and vulnerable- and laughed (or worse). Perhaps its because the law just changed, or new councilmen were just elected. Perhaps something happened beyond your control- a fight amongst heirs, the discovery of dinosaur bones on the site or the collapse of the housing market in that area.

Whatever the reason, you leave the meeting with a feeling of waste. That the time and energy spent creating this particular set of plans would have been better spent with your kids, or cleaning the gutters or listening to the generic jazzy tunes piped into the hazy beige aura of Starbucks.

But that is not the case.

These false starts make us better. They keep us creative, they keep us sharp. The lessons learned in putting things together make us better for next time. We can sharpen our strategies and tell the same story again in a different context. In some ways, this is how I treat blogging. It gives me a chance to get my thoughts together in a rough, but still somewhat formal way, so that in the future I have an arsenal of ideas that can be refined to meet a new need.

A great example in my life is the river class I taught at AU 2006. While many who attended seemed to think it was decent, the reviews were a mixed bag and in my head it didn't go nearly as well as I had hoped. But slowly and surely over the past few years that story has been refined. My techniques have improved- both technically and with documentation. I wrote more blog posts, did more experiments, even a webcast (Alternative Uses for Corridor Models: Channels, Streams, and Ponds). Some firms took the idea and ran with it creating their own success stories surrounding river restorations. And now, here I sit, still referring to those original ideas as I shape the environmental story for Civil 3D.

I remember wishing with all of my heart as I crept out of the classroom that I had never submitted that class. It was frustrating to put together, I had never taught before- why did I have to pick something so hard to put together? I'd never written anything longer than a blog post- and I still cringe when I look through my paper.

But the truth is that if I had never gone through that process for something "real", I never would have been able to build on it.

So whenever I am faced with the situation where I am standing outside a board room door holding a milk crate full of visual aids and wearing a suit that I pressed at 4AM while rehearsing to my timed powerpoint and someone sticks their head out and says "You know what? We really don't need to see your stuff, we're headed a different direction", I can resist the urge to beat them over the head with a TIS.

If you need some more reminders of why you are here, check out some of the videos at ://