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.

The five ingredients of effective collaboration: What jury duty and creativity have in common

Yesterday my 10 year-old son got a jury summons. I know, ridiculous. And that was my first reaction too. But, my second reaction was wistful nostalgia.

Back in 1996 I got a jury summons too. I was living in Brooklyn, working as a graphic designer, and although well over 10, I wasn’t clever enough to get out of it. I ended up being selected.

There was a lot about jury duty that I didn’t like, especially that someone was badly hurt as a result of the crime and I had to help decide the accused’s fate.

But what I did like was working shoulder to shoulder with people who were very different than me toward a common goal. In spite of not knowing each other, the law, nor any of the information regarding the case beforehand, we had to work together, gently guided by the judge, to figure it all out and come to a consensus.  I know many times juries don’t work as smoothly. But, in this case it did, and we did, and that stuck with me.

I wondered why.

As different as they seem, both the jury experience and the painting project were lessons in the five most important ingredients of a successful collaboration.

Then, when that aspiring 10 year-old juror was 3, he helped paint a triptych that hangs prominently in our living room.

We had just bought a house (mid-century modern!) with lots of empty white walls. After sinking all of our money into those clean lines and open spaces, we needed some big, impactful art that was not expensive and not crappy.

I decided that by defining the process and the materials plus providing some guidance and encouragement we could make that art ourselves.

A few tubes of white, black, and silver acrylic paint, three canvases, and four family members later, we were awe-struck by our creation. The rules had been simple: squirt the paint on the canvases, use whatever you find in the yard to “paint” including sticks, leaves, berries, and even yourself, and encourage each other along the way. But the paintings came out amazing, with the sweet memory made tangible by my son’s small handprint discretely in the corner. Even now, when we have new friends over, we are often asked where we bought them.

At the time, it seemed like a miracle that they came out so well.

As different as they seem, both the jury experience and the painting project were lessons in the five most important ingredients of a successful collaboration. They both had a clearly stated problem, a shared understanding of process, a pressing deadline, an encouraging yet focused guide to keep everyone on track, and a safe space to surface, debate, and refine ideas.

Having been a creative director for all the years since the painting project, I am constantly humbled by the power of the collaborative process. And I’m continuously on a quest to even more effectively unleash that collective energy to solve a problem or create an experience. It’s hard enough, and immensely gratifying when it works well, within a well-oiled creative team. But, like the jury and the family art project, the Holy Grail is to include the so-called “non creatives”, i.e. everyone else, for a more diverse perspective and, ultimately, an even better result.

I believe it’s one of my most important missions as a creative director to put these ingredients into practice. So I’m always testing techniques, refining the details, and when I have something that seems to work, codifying and evangelizing both within and beyond the creative department. And, when the ingredients come together, the results truly blow my mind — resulting in new product ideas, new campaign ideas, awesome pitches, and, even more importantly, both an individual sense of pride and a collective sense of goodwill leading to a deep, lasting impact on overall organizational culture.

But, like the jury and the family art project, the Holy Grail is to include the so-called “non creatives”, i.e. everyone else, for a more diverse perspective and, ultimately, an even better result.

Admittedly, once was enough for me when it comes to jury duty. And I seem to get dismissed usually now anyway. However, I wish I could say that my family has made more collaborative artwork to grace our walls. But, in these tween years, soccer, skateboarding, school and the siren song of the iPhone have taken their toll. I have a few years before they go off to college to pass the tube, promote my kids to guide status, and collaborate with them one more time to capture our hopes and dreams in paint, sticks, and berries.

I will gladly accept that assignment, should I be summoned.

Limit me! Why creatives need limits even in the age of disruption.

I marvel at what my 11 year-old son can do with a sharpie and the letters B.O.E.

You’d think those are his initials, but they’re not. In fact, none of those letters are in any of his three names.

A couple of years ago, he just decided he liked how they looked together and started drawing them in hundreds of different designs. All with black sharpie. And almost all on post-it notes or similarly sized small pieces of paper. Sometimes a talking banana is standing in front of them, as if it’s a casual snapshot of a graffiti tag on a wall in a city of mischievous animated fruit.

“Do you want to use any other colors?”, the pushy mother in me used to ask. Or sometimes I augmented with “letters”, “paper”, “markers”, “paint”, “fruits”, “Photoshop,” “Instagram.”

“No”, he’d invariably say, without further explanation.

As a creative director, I understood.

When I was in college, I fancied myself an artist. For my senior thesis, I could request the part of the university gallery space I wanted for my exhibit. It was a lottery, but I got my first choice. I learned later, because no one else wanted it. In a way, it was the hardest – a square, spare cement space separate from the regular long, well-lit gallery walls. I literally chose to box myself in.

Oblivious to the extraordinary amount of pre-baccalaureate pretension, I made a shrine to my destiny spirit. It made sense at the time – I had just returned from studying abroad in Nigeria where I learned about how young people on the cusp of adulthood placate their destiny spirit to ensure a successful future. For my materials, I also wanted to limit myself. Charcoal drawings. Grass and hay in plexiglass boxes. Two figurative sculptures from paper pulp and cheesecloth on the boxes. And, a tree hanging from the ceiling. The irony was that I felt the only way to tackle the tremendous scale of the idea was to limit the materials and manner in which I could express it.

“You’re a designer, not at artist,” my professor said at my final review, seemingly knocking me off my plexiglass pedestal.

Today, as a creative director, I know he was right.

I get off on the limitations. And, almost sadistically, ask for more.

Letterpress, pre-tables HTML, mobile display ads, pharmaceutical marketing. Bring it on!

No budget. No resources. Pitch meeting in 2 weeks. Bring it on!

Inferior offering. Declining market share. No awareness. Bring it on!

Even in the Moore’s Law era of exponentially increasing numbers of channels, publishers, assets, daily technology innovations, and terabytes of data, limits are, perhaps counter-intuitively, more important than ever.

I definitely can’t speak for fine artists. But, after 20 years in marketing, I can probably speak for many professional creatives in saying those limitations are the challenge that we crave, the definition that we need to do the right thing, and the vehicle to express our most creative ideas.

“I didn’t want to limit you”, says an account director to me at their own peril.

Yes, not having enough resources is something I don’t usually recommend or desire. But, on the other hand, I do believe in small, focused teams.

But, most critically, I definitely want to know the edges of the box — all the things we can’t do, and the very few things we can do — so that I can fill that box with awesomeness. And one of these days, maybe even find room for a black and white talking banana.

So, yes, please give us a very specific ask, with a very specific objective, for a very specific target, with a very specific insight into their very specific need.

And we will come up with a very big idea that reveals the limitless potential within those limitations.

Pondering an empty cardboard box, and using his own brilliant yet mysterious logic, my son recently asked me, “If space is infinite, isn’t the space inside this box infinite too?”

Yes, in fact, it is.


This article originally appeared in MediaPost on September 5, 2017.