How to Get Your Big Idea Heard: Q&A With Hugh MacLeod

By: Mark Athitakis

Finding your own creative niche within a large organization isn't easy, but it's not impossible either. Bestselling business author Hugh MacLeod shares his insights on finding the creative spark, why work-life balance may be a thing of the past, and more.

A Sample of Images from Hugh MacLeod's Evil Plans

To pause, hover over the image. To move forward or backward, hover over the image and click the arrows that appear.

Hugh MacLeod was interested in the intersection of business and Web 2.0 before Web 2.0 had a name. When he began blogging in 2001, he was a former advertising professional who had built an online following by drawing pithy insights about business on the backs of business cards. ("Great ideas alter the power balance in relationships," one reads. "That's why great ideas are initially resisted.") With the help of social media, he's since become a successful marketer, artist, and author who specializes in delivering counterintuitive insights about how people and organizations work—or, too often, fail to work.

In The Hughtrain Manifesto—his variation on the internet marketing bestseller The Cluetrain Manifesto—MacLeod writes that "all products are conversations." As that line suggests, much of his writing focuses on the need for organizations to recognize the human aspects of the people who engage with them. His first book, the 2009 bestseller Ignore Everybody, was an irreverent look at finding your own creative style. In his follow-up, the new Evil Plans, he discusses how this works for businesses, how entrepreneurial creativity is sometimes resisted, and how to stay creative despite that resistance.

MacLeod spoke with Associations Now about how the internet has changed the nature of both creativity and business, what those changes mean for the idea of work-life balance, and more.

Associations Now: In the book you talk about how the business world has made a leap from prizing intellectual capital to emotional capital to what you now call "expressive capital"—the idea that products have to help people find meaning in their lives. What's changed that's put us in a time where expressive capital matters?

Hugh MacLeod: I think it has lots to do with economic wealth. In the developed world, we've learned how to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, and shelter ourselves. We've learned how to create medicines and not die before the age of 40 and cure 90 percent of all the major ailments that kill us. The farther we move away from that edge, the more we go inward to look for something higher. That's one thing.

The other thing is that the internet has made it much easier to explore, develop, and articulate our passions. When I was a kid in college, maybe high school, there was a really great movie called Brazil. I'd tell people how great it was. Then I wanted to see it 12 times. So I was dragging my friends, saying, "You gotta see this movie." My friends kind of liked it, but not as much as me. With the internet, it's much easier to meet people who like it just as much as you so you can share that feeling. The internet makes it much easier to find and join your own personal religion or your own congregation.

Evil plans start with individuals, but how possible do you think it is to bring an "evil plan" into an organization and get the organization behind it? Do institutional structures resist big ideas, or is it possible to get traction?

I think both. It's getting easier to have the evil plan with an organization, and the penalties for not letting your people do that are getting more severe. But the thing about big companies is you had better be right. There has to be some kind of level, degree of harmony within the corpus. The corpus is paying for it. But it begs the question: Why do you have a boss who won't let you do that? How much free will do you have?

You discuss how in the future more and more workers, particularly the ambitious ones, will need to become members of what you called the "overextended class." What does that mean for the notion of work-life balance? Isn't it important to draw a bright line between work and life?

I think work-life balance is a nice idea. I don't think it's a human right. I think sometimes you get it and sometimes you don't. By and large, we've evolved to have a wee bit of it. We like to spend time with our children, but we also have to go out and hunt or gather berries or do our chores. When you talk about work-life balance, you're talking about a platonic idea, which is a fine abstract marker. But you can't take it too seriously. Did Picasso ever talk about work-life balance? No; he got up and painted. He was a rich man by the time he was 30, so he had the economic surplus to buy himself a nice villa, but that was with economic surplus. That was not a human right.

After the Second World War there was this kind of schismed life where we are basically industrial serfs for eight hours a day and then we're couch potatoes by night. But in a world focused on expressive capital, society is changing. It's forced us to have to become creative again.

In the book you give a list of successful businesses and projects that were originally considered acts of futility: Starbucks, Ford, TechCrunch. How much do you experiment with a new project? How do you know when an act of futility is actually futile and that you should give up on it?

I don't think you do. I think you can cut your losses. I think sometimes you just walk away because it's easier than putting up with the abuse. But you start a project as an act of faith, and as with all facts of faith, your faith is tested and then tested again and then tested again. Some projects can withstand a lot of tests, and some can't. You bring your intuition and experience to it. I think there are projects which, if you give up too soon, you'll regret it for the rest of your life.

You once wrote, "It's not enough for the customer to love your product. They have to love your process as well." Why do people have to love your process?

The short answer is because we're human beings—we're wired to love people. I think what makes products interesting is not what they do, but what they allow us to become or be—or offer the possibility of becoming or being. Some products perform more of the basic mundane needs of economics than others. We all buy peanut butter because we like peanut butter, the kids like peanut butter, and it's cheap. But as we acquire economic surplus, then we start trying to elevate the peanut butter experience. We start buying peanuts grown by monks. Think of the whole rock-salt phenomenon. It's just salt, but we tend to fetishize it because we like the story. We like stuff in our life that elevates us and that we can elevate the world around us with.

That's the great thing about the Japanese tea ceremony. You're just making a cup of tea, but it's about how well you can make a cup of tea. It relates to the old Zen principle that how you do anything is how you do everything. It's not the tea that matters. It's the engagement and the awareness of the ceremony. In Evil Plans I write about how products need to fill narrative gaps in our lives. We use products and services to fill those gaps. It's not just that a company or organization makes a good product, but that they're nice people.

One theme that comes out throughout the book is that there are lot of people—not just people in authority—who are eager to derail your evil plan.

It's easy to say, "Hey, let's meet for a drink after work and talk about how much our jobs stink." But you can get to a point where all the commiseration in the world doesn't help you on a certain level, and you can't just go commiserate. You have to actually do something that only you can do. And your friend who's a great guy to commiserate with and a great drinking buddy isn't there to help you. It's kind of painful when your fellow commiserator can't be there for you when you no longer feel that urge. They'll essentially say, "Don't you want me to be your crutch?" And you have to say, "No, I don't. I can't. I've got to walk by myself. I've got to do this. I'm sorry. I still love you, but I'm sorry." There's a certain part in your career where commiseration is no longer a comfort.

Are there particular things that you do to spark a new idea or to start thinking in a different direction?

With me it'll always be about the cartoons. I might do different things like being an author or being an entrepreneur. My cartoons are to me the thing I do, and they allow me to do other things as well, besides being objects in themselves. What great cartoonists have—and I hope to acquire it over time—is they're really interested in what motivates other people or motivates themselves. Look at Charlie Brown—Charles Schulz was all about what motivates him and what motivates other people. That kind of interest in human drive is really fascinating. It's the same thing with Steve Jobs or Jack Welch or some hotshot entrepreneur. They started a company, but what was the real drive? It wasn't "I want to make money" or "I want to make a better corporation" or "I want to make personal computers…" So what I want to do is remind myself and people to be human and understand the humanity of it, as opposed to just thinking you're a robot there to make money…

Which is not a path to success either as a business or as a human being.

There are people who go to Harvard Business School and turn out to be fairly unsuccessful in life, and I think part of it is they thought it was a simple process, that it's about passing tests. "I've always been the smartest guy in the class, so I'll continue being the smartest guy in the class. I'll get into Harvard. Then when I get to the company I'll still be the smartest guy there so I'll be successful." No, actually, you won't. You might, but you probably won't.

I think as human beings we have to get beyond the assignment mentality, where you do what you're told and there's always going to be somebody to grade you, and there are always going to be objectives, and an A is always going to be better than a D.

That explains why you avoid discussing specific case studies, the way many business-book authors do.

I've been exasperated even with the work of some of my friends. I feel sometimes people have been reduced to writing success tips online. "Five ways to maximize your whatever"—the very fact that you used the word "maximized." When you ask a kid, "What'd you do in school today, honey?" she doesn't go, "Maximize results." Didn't Picasso recommend staying a child? I know we have to live in the adult world, but when things start getting too adult, I start getting worried.

Hugh MacLeod, founder of the website, is an author and entrepreneur based in Alpine, Texas. Twitter: @gapingvoid, Email: [email protected]

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Words of Wisdom

Since 1997 Hugh MacLeod has been scribbling business aphorisms in cartoons on the backs of business cards. Below are a few of his provocative pieces of advice:

  • "The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other with great care."
  • "The market for something to believe in is infinite."
  • "It's not what the software does. It's what the user does."
  • "All control is damage control."
  • "Stay ahead of the culture by creating the culture."

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.