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Lacking Creativity? Try Flying

By: Henry Ehrlich

Henry Ehrlich is a professional speechwriter whose clients include some of the world's foremost financial, manufacturing, and entertainment companies. He is also editor of The Wiley Book of Business Quotations and an author.

There is 25 percent less oxygen on board an airplane than on the ground and the most sensitive organ to lack of oxygen is the brain....I advise people to relax or do something creative, such as preparing a speech...It is in that stage between consciousness and sleeping that we can be at our most inspired.
   --Farrol Kahn, director of the British Aviation Health Institute.*
If you have a problem coming up with fresh ideas for getting across tired messages, air travel may be the answer to your prayers. It’s not a solution for everyone.  In these times of tight corporate T&E budgets, expense accounts for most of us haven’t kept up with the high cost of air travel.  “What was the purpose of this trip to Paris?”  “Inspiration for the chairman’s annual meeting remarks.”  “What about the five nights at Georges Cinq and dinners at La Tour d’argent?”  “Pure hell, but the company doctor told me I had to eat and sleep between flights.”

Unless your employer is very generous, you may have to fall back on a much cheaper alternative to achieve the requisite degree of oxygen starvation--tying your necktie too tight.  Looking back on my years on corporate payrolls, that may have been the key to my extraordinary output.

Of course, anyone who has read the undergraduate poetry of the 1960s can attest that excessive reliance on bio-chemical means to induce creativity has its limitations.  As Lily Tomlin once said, “I’m afraid that drugs have made us more creative than we really are.”  The same may be true for airborne partial asphyxiation.  If Mr. Kahn is to be believed, material that seemed brilliant at 35,000 feet may not bear up to scrutiny at sea level.  This raises the question of what happens to people who spend half their lives on airplanes.  No one in business spends more time flying than management consultants, which may account for the fertility of their imaginations.  Unfortunately, they are often not as discriminating about their new ideas as they should be when they come back to earth.

As a freelancer, I fly only intermittently, almost never wear ties, and therefore spend my life in as oxygen-rich an environment as New York City will allow, so I have had to find other means to trip the relevant circuits.
  1. Give a damn about something.  As hired pens for companies and causes that don’t necessarily coincide with our own deepest concerns, we sometimes come to see all of life through the same jaded lens that we use for our work.  It pays to mobilize your skills on behalf of something you do believe in, even if it’s just over beer.  My own current pet project is arguing that firearms and ammunition should be subject to the same regulation as any other dangerous consumer products.  I’ve spent enough time working on financial deregulation issues to recognize a commercial interest masquerading as a defense of principle when I see it.  With any luck, the conviction you feel in making a heartfelt argument will carry over into your day job, helping you make fresh connections and new lines of logic.
  2. Preach to your children.  Small children are a lot like corporate audiences.  They rarely argue with you about the substance of your speeches and register their feelings with non-verbal means.  Next time your spouse isn’t home at dinner time, use the opportunity to listen to the sound of your own voice, test your most imaginative ideas on your kids, and if you like what you hear, try to transpose it to your work.  If they are older, as mine are, you might have to answer some difficult questions about content.  Keep a stiff upper lip in the face of their third-degree sarcasm and admonitions to get a life, and stretch your creativity to its limits.
  3. Recreate the experience of air travel.  Prepare and eat a bad meal cooked in the microwave oven, put a bad movie on the VCR and watch it with a clear plastic bag over your head, but with enough holes to allow some air to enter.
  4. Meditate.  Sit in a dark room with your legs in the lotus position, shut your eyes, and silently repeat the word “mortgage” over and over again.  After 20 minutes, you will emerge thoroughly depressed and unrefreshed, but infused with a new sense of purpose, which, necessity being the mother of invention, is the next best thing to inspiration.
*From The Wiley Book of Business Quotations.

© Copyright 1999, Henry Ehrlich

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