The Gift of Subtlety.

There are some gifts I willingly admit I possess; I have a talent for identifying color- which shades work together and which do not; I understand how to turn a phrase, or align words in such a way that they seem to make more sense; and I have a decent singing voice. These are real gifts.

The gift I do not have, nor has ever been attributed to me, is that of subtlety. (At this very moment, people who know me are nodding their heads, or laughing at the very thought of such an attribution.)

Subtlety, of course, isn’t the only gift I am lacking. I have zero idea how to throw a football or even the faintest understanding of the game. Numbers and I have a difficult relationship, making sometimes even the most basic equations an all-out brain freeze. And the square-jaw, rugged-handsome gene skipped my generation.

If my mother were to chime in right now, she’d probably say something like, “Well, Tom Brady and Daniel Day-Lewis certainly don’t have your singing voice, do they?” Thanks, mom.

However, just because I don’t possess those gifts, doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate them.

The gift of subtlety and nuance is one rarely witnessed today– but you know it when you see it. And you miss it when it is absent.

New York Times Opinion columnist Frank Bruni recently referenced this in his take of the 2020 Democratic Presidential Debates:

We’ve entered an especially coarse chapter in American politics. We’ve also entered a spectacularly unsubtle one, in which what stands out and wins the day are big jokes, bold strokes and broad-brush moralizing. Tidy, intellectually facile dichotomies rule: good and evil; villain and victim; oppressor and oppressed. The least exalted real estate is the middle ground and… the most rapidly fading shade is gray.  (full article)

In my line of work, subtlety is risky, but it sometimes really pays off. There are great examples of this in advertising over the years. I think of the simple “S.C. Johnson, a family company” creeping in at the end of television ads.

What isn’t said matters.

One commercial I saw recently brought me to tears in the first ten seconds. Watch it here, but try not to read what the commercial is for, just watch the ad. You’ll be glad you did. This is even the abbreviated version and it totally works.

Screen Shot 2019-09-18 at 2.05.40 PM

The subtlety of this ad is everything. What isn’t said is so important. (Watch the full movie here.)

I am looking forward to more opportunities in my creative life and my actual life that cue me to face challenges with subtlety and nuance.

Say What You Need To Say

Sometimes, we are just not all that invested. Sometimes, we don’t really care that deeply about the issue at hand, so avoiding our real stance on a subject is just easier– more convenient.

John Mayer proclaims nearly 30 times, “Say what you need to say” in his song by the same name. Ironic? I think not.

All too often, we avoid saying what needs to be said. We tiptoe around the truth or the hard truth with mere suggestions of what we are really wanting to say. We “suggest” our intent by veiling it with “perhaps…” or “maybe…” 

But– do we feel strongly? All we need to do is spend ten minutes on Twitter or Facebook to know that we are a people who feel. Unfortunately, it is all too simple to post strong feelings or attitudes without the backbone of a face-to-face confrontation.

Sometimes, we are just not all that invested to speak up for how we feel in the workplace. Sometimes, we don’t really care that deeply about the issue at hand, so avoiding our real stance on a subject is just easier– more convenient.

Recently, I saw a post on LinkedIn entitled, When Your Most Motivated Employees Become Silent! by Graham Thompson. I was immediately overwhelmed at the very concept. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I proclaimed as I read these words, “the origin of the lack of passion so often lies in leadership inappropriateness, neglect or selfishness.”

Have I created an atmosphere in the workplace where my coworkers feel comfortable to speak the truth? Have I created a safe place?

We have always tried to maintain a high-performing ensemble of teammates who are welcome, even encouraged to voice their differing opinions, knowing full well that dissent and criticism is often a crucial element of the creative process. It’s not for everyone. And the moment it becomes personal or petty is the moment the process grinds to a halt.

Every opinion matters. Yes. Indeed– or you wouldn’t have a seat the table. However, every opinion does not and cannot carry the same weight. The key challenge is discerning who is owning the project. And who is ultimately responsible for that project’s success.

View from back of man with his friend near bar



I will often begin a group session with something like, “Hey- a lot of these decisions have already been made, but I would love to get you take on where we are, and see if you have any suggestions for improvement.” That is different than, “What do you think?” If you aren’t prepared for, “I hate it”- you shouldn’t even ask.


Sometimes, it is important to remind your team of the Rules of Play. “This is John’s project, and he’s done a lot of work. Let’s discuss how he can take it to the next level” or “Folks, we are on a strict deadline. Only constructive, easy fixes at this point”.


Here’s where we often fail. Celebrate the success of your team, and your team’s work. I fail at this all the time, because I am so in love with the process. I absolutely take great pride and reward in the teamwork of a project, and I seldom remember that the rest of the team may find their reward in celebrating the win of the project once it is completed.



The Joy of Being Known

We all hear that a cardinal rule of sales is “know your customer.” As an oft-for-hire actor, I can tell you the cardinal rule for any performer is “know your audience.”

I have benefitted from that sage advice many, many times.

The gist of knowing one’s customer, or audience is that, if you know them, you can adequately serve them, or (in the performer’s case)– reach them.

Today, like I always do, I stopped by a coffee shop to acquire my hourly fix. ( Full disclosure: I contemplated typing “daily fix,” but I decided to be honest– its hourly.)

This was a brand-spanking-new coffee shop. It has been open for less than 24 hours. I had the privilege of stopping by the coffee shop for an ‘advance tour’ on Sunday, and was excited about its opening.

Today, when I stepped to the counter at this new coffee shop, I was greeted with a friendly smile, and a warm, “Hi, George– you want the Nitro, right?”

You bet I do. And lots of it.

coffee picYou see, Nitro Cold Brew is my jam. Big time. I love it. But, you’re missing the point. How did she know my name– and my coffee order. It was day one!

The reason doesn’t really matter. But she did. And that mattered.  You see, she knew my order, and she knew me. And I love that.

Now, sometimes, I like to be not known. I’m not famous, not by any stretch of the imagination. But, there are those moments when any of us loves to disappear into a city, or a foreign place and merely be a spectator. But not today.

Today, I was reminded that I was known. Even at a brand new coffee shop. And that really meant something.

Who You Know Matters

We all recall the phrase, “it’s not what you know, but rather who you know.” This is usually referencing climbing the corporate ladder, or some reference to unfair opportunities based on relationships, rather than skill or talent. But some of it may be true in our work: Do we really know our clients or customers?

“Hey, George! How was your trip to Colorado?”

“Good morning, George! Where have you been? We’ve missed you!”

“George- so sorry to hear about your sick dog- is she better?”

These may seem trivial, but they are important signs that we know each other–– really know each other. This kind of interaction goes beyond emoji-level responses to real life, and ground us in the importance of being known.

Perhaps we could all take a few minutes this week and attempt to “know” one another. We may find ourselves embracing the joy of fellow humans in our midst. At the very least, we may end up with a delightful cup of coffee. And a smile.





Why do the Wrong People travel?

“Travel they say improves the mind, An irritating platitude, which frankly, entrenous, Is very far from true.”

from Noel Coward’s, “Why do the wrong people travel”


I love looking at the year ahead, and anticipating what great things I may encounter. It seems silly, I know. The resolutions, the predictions. But, maybe lookin a head is exactly what we are supposed to do.

Anticipating the Future

It’s not really possible to predict the future, I think. I know I may make some enemies by saying this. However, we can make goals and prioritize the twelve months that lie ahead of us.

I’m not a big goal maker, although I live by my daily lists and calendar items. You might say they guide my daily progress. The items not tended to from today get bounced to tomorrow’s list. Sometimes the top, sometimes a sidebar.

But this year, I looked at 2019 and thought, “I want to travel more.” This great article in the New York Times emphasized my longing to succumb to my wanderlust and depart the midwest for adventures unknown.

But then I got to really thinking about it, and discovered a greater truth. I don’t want to just travel. I want to travel and explore with people I love–– my family and friends.

Noel Coward famously penned, “why do the wrong people travel… when the right people stay back home?” Coward blasts the American tourists for slathering food with ketchup and mucking up dust in famous attractions around the world. It has nothing to do with my article, but it makes me laugh.

As for me, I want to be with, and experience new things with my children. To watch their eyes light up at the revelation of a new understanding, and to see them experience different cultures. I want walk cobbled streets and sip coffee at cafes we alone have discovered.

I have traveled for work most of my life-– first as a performer, now as a creative director, but even in those moments, it wasn’t the travel itself that was fun, it was the people I encountered, and those with whom I shared the experience.

For our family, road trips are crucial to our family dynamic. Each holiday, we pack into the SUV and make way to family’s homes across the country. And the ride is important. We always end up singing some goofy song together, arguing about who sits where, and casting our ballots for which coffee shops will earn our business along the route.

And, the family needs that time together. We need to be cramped in a limited space, relying on each other for map guidance and navigation, dj-ing, and management of the all-important snack bag. But– making this trip alone? Not hardly. The reason we enjoy this trip is because we are together.

Travel on, wanderers. But do it with those you love.

Great Starts


Checking In

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of staying at a brand-spankin new hotel, two days after they opened the doors. I didn’t plan to be their thirteenth guest, it just happened. How fun for me!

The parking lot was sparkly and all the landscaping perfectly-manicured. The lobby smelled like fresh paint and new carpet. The staff stood behind the counter and were smiling. Widely. They were excited to see me. All their attention was on me.

That was the moment that it occurred to me to inquire, “Did you just open?’ “Yes!” They all exclaimed- “Monday!”

In that moment, I was instantly both excited and a little sad. You see, I had just come from a three-day conference where I led focused sessions on hospitality and guest services. So, I was secretly hoping the service I was experiencing was genuine and unique. It was probably genuine, but it is most likely temporary. Nerve-enduced attention. And, I’m okay with that. It was a fine experience.

I’ve come to expect a certain level of service from hotels and other hospitality providers. Occasionally I am overwhelmed with expertise and accommodations, but usually, I am-(how to say this nicely?)- satisfied.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Satisfaction is good. But it isn’t a goal. Because, how can we possibly know the extent to which some guests will require being completely satisfied with their experience? Not always is that information clear. But what is clear is genuine care and attention.

It only takes a single visit to a Starbucks to know that the priority has been placed on speed and drink accuracy. That’s good. And that would make most customers “satisfied”. But is it enough? For a while, perhaps- or at least until someone opens a coffee shop that provides exceptional customer-focused service. Today, I look for coffee shops where the barista (not wearing a headset), is willing to engage in a conversation. I want to know about the coffee’s origins, I want the expert’s advice on the best brewing process for a particular roasted bean. (Thank you, Stone Creek Coffee)

Start Start Start Start Well

What if every day was a start? What if each day was a new gift? What if we treated every day like it was the first?

Maybe if we begin looking at every day from the customer perspective, it would change our outlook. After all, it is new to them.


Pulling a Creative All-Nighter? Nope.

On a recent Tuesday morning, after enjoying a long-weekend due to holiday, I studied my list of to-do’s, and attempted to organize the week ahead. I have become accustomed to starting my day with a ‘big three’ list, the top three things I must accomplish that day. Throughout the day, I revisit the list, to ensure I am on track for completing my agenda. Sometimes the items are specific: ‘Complete Photo Assets for Web Project.’ Sometimes they are general: ‘Forecast Design Profiles for June.’

As I made my way through the day, I quickly learned that Tuesday’s list may get held over to Wednesday, which is often the case. Waking early Wednesday, I proceeded to the airport for an early flight, and quickly boarded the plane. I am writing this while aboard a United CRJ 700.

It got me to thinking- perhaps I should have pulled an all-nighter. Remember those?

The old, college all-nighter. The thirty page term-paper, or exam-cram, or presentation prep. Back in the day, no all-nighter was complete without a pizza, a trip to Denny’s, or endless amounts of caffeine. They worked, usually without many long-term consequences, besides sleeping through the next few days while trying to catch up.

But, did they really work? They always felt more like cheating than really accomplishing anything. Virtually nothing of those evenings made it into long-term memory, and, aside from nailing the presentation, or landing that score, they were a blip on the college experience.

Creative Work is Unique

Okay, I know that’s a ridiculous headline- obvious, perhaps. But, for a moment, let’s acknowledge that many of us find ourselves in creative work. And, whether we ever thought those two words would cram themselves together and haunt and befuddle our lives, they have, and they do. Creative Work.

In my more than twenty years as creative and art director, I have learned that, even though every project begins and ends on a specific date, the life experience of your art director is part of his or her employment.

For example, if I know that I am starting a project focusing on, say, the rebranding of a major soft drink, my eyes are opened to every drink around me. The customer at the table next to me during date night becomes my test patient in my very public laboratory. I eavesdrop on conversations, spy on consumers, and evaluate every sip of every drink in my sight.

And that is the creative work. Though my pen hasn’t yet touched paper, and no images have been conceptualized, no talent hired, no scripts produced- the work has begun.

Some days I jump from the shower and type notes into my iPhone centered on a thought or idea that works with the new beverage campaign. And sometimes I test ideas on my family or friends.

Perhaps it is that way with every profession. Perhaps lawyers, accountants and teachers all do the same thing. In fact, I am sure they do.

However, artists begin their work- their craft- long before they sit at a canvas, and dip the tip of a brush into paint. The only difference is, they don’t look at those moments of ‘life’ as ‘Work.’
My children will often chastise my wife or me for talking ‘work’ for hours after we get home, How unfair is that? We shouldn’t be clouding our home with the mess of our days. And yet, some of the greatest insight I’ve had comes from our smart, insightful boys, usually unbeknownst to them.

Today, it is expected that employees and associated be available, or at least on-call virtually always. When was the last time you ignored work issues over a weekend? Being available to life is equally important. Or, we may miss it.

So- when does the work begin? When does it end? Maybe it is as simple as re-framing our thinking.

Maybe life fuels our work, not the other way around.