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Hugh MacLeod’s Ignore Everybody: A book review by Bob Morris

Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity
Hugh MacLeod
Portfolio/Penguin (2009)

As I began to read this book, I recalled a situation years ago in which a little girl (probably seven or eight years old) announced that her foot was asleep. What does it feel like? “It feels like ginger ale.” I also recalled the response of a French romantic poet (probably Charles Baudelaire, although I am not certain) when asked how to write a poem. Long pause. “Draw a birdcage and leave the door open. Then wait and wait and wait. Eventually, if you are fortunate, a bird will fly in. Then immediately erase the cage!” We cannot be creative and be innovative if we are unable to experience the world with the ignorance and innocence of a child.

In this thought-provoking, for some an anger-provoking book, Hugh MacLeod identifies and discusses a total of 40 “keys to creativity.” The first is to Ignore Everybody. Presumably that includes little girls with a foot asleep, poets such as Baudelaire, MacLeod, and others such as Seth Godin and I who highly recommend this book. Godin characterizes it as “A work of art, a brilliant insight, a book that will change your life.” Well, it hasn’t changed mine thus far (and may never) but the material provided has certainly encouraged me to question some of my favorite assumptions and premises. Also, no small achievement, it is among the few books that have caused me to laugh aloud while reading it. Moreover, I very much admire MacLeod’s illustrations that clearly indicate an appreciation of other artists such as Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, Jules Pfeiffer, Saul Steinberg and Al Hirschfeld…an appreciation that I certainly share.

I am not among those who are offended by MacLeod’s frequent use of profanities. In my opinion, they are not gratuitous. On the contrary, as with material created by other humorists (notably Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor), they are used to help achieve aesthetic objectives as punctuation, adding seasoning, resonance, and emphasis to his key ideas. By the way, my choice of the word “humorous” is intentional. Almost all of the most serious commentators on human nature during the last several decades have been humorists.

It was Joseph Schumpeter who popularized the concept of “creative destruction” in his book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, first published in 1942. If I fully understand MacLeod’s key ideas (and I may not), he is urging his reader to embark upon a process of self-directed creative destruction. The objective is not to “blow up” GE as Reginald Jones asked Jack Welch to do when he named Welch his successor as the company’s CEO. The objective is not to “blow up” someone else’s cherished beliefs but, rather, one’s own. MacLeod seems to agree with Lily Tomlin that reality “is a collective hunch.” He also seems to agree with Ernest Becker that no one can deny physical dearth but there is another form of death that one can deny: that which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with others’ expectations of us.

He also seems to agree with Alan Watts’s observations in The Book, such as these: “We need a new experience — a new feeling of what it is to be `I.’ The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.” This is precisely what Oscar Wilde had in mind when suggesting, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

What does all this have to do with being creative? In my opinion, everything. MacLeod explains that, by nature, the process of creation consists of a matrix of paradoxes: creation and destruction, affirmation and negation, less and more, anonymous and self-centric, everything and nothing. Most of MacLeod’s “keys to creativity” are admonitions. That is why he urges his reader to ignore everybody; to assume personal responsibility for the past, present, and future; to identify one’s personal Mount Everest and then climb it; to avoid crowds and thus avoid the limitations crowds inevitably impose; to “sing in your own voice” only the music that you have composed; to remain frugal (“The less you can live on, the more chance your ideas will succeed. This is true even after you’ve `made it.'”); and to remember that “none of this is rocket science.”

By now it must be obvious that when addressing the subject of creativity, MacLeod views who we are and what we do, who we aren’t and what we don’t do, as interdependent and inseparable. He also believes that each of us can complete a self-directed process of creative destruction that will reveal the “I” to which Watts refers, just as Michelangelo chiseled away at the huge block of granite to reveal the work of art within it.

Make no mistake about it: MacLeod offers no guarantees. He fully realizes how perilous the journey is on which he urges his reader to embark. My guess (only a guess) is that his journey is still in progress. I know my own is. It is a struggle for me, frankly, to ignore everybody (including Hugh MacLeod) as I proceed. In fact, it helps to remember what he shares on the final page of this unforgettable book: “Work hard. Keep at it. Live simply and quietly. Remain humble. Stay positive. Create your own luck. Be nice. Be polite.”

Lift off!

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