I recently came across a video of James Lynch telling his own story.
And something about that story made me think differently.
James Lynch, it seems, has achieved some pretty remarkable things.
He is a graphic designer, property developer and one of the pioneering creatives behind early Shoreditch – although he’s keen to stress that this was, in his own words, in the days before the archetypal ‘Shoreditch twat’.
He got out of Shoreditch when the city boys moved in and began to ‘rub the shoulders of bohemia in a vain aspiration for cool’.
These days he runs fforest, a collection of beautiful rural and coastal spaces in Wales that open the door to great accommodation, beer and a wonderfully simple celebration of the outdoors.
It would be easy to think of his journey – from art school graduate, to designer, to studio space designer, to property developer, to farm owner and advocate of the simple life – as one that naturally followed the things he was good at; an almost effortless progression from one life stage to the next.
But hearing James talk about his story lends quite a different perspective.
As a kid he wrote really slowly. He still does apparently.
It got him in trouble in school. And made him feel stupid.
But he wasn’t stupid. He was just slow at writing.
So he found a different way to express himself, through art. And he got himself a degree.
When his contemporaries and an emerging generation of artists and designers couldn’t afford sky high studio rents he turned old industrial buildings in inner city London into affordable work-live spaces that encouraged creativity and energy.
Driving never clicked for him. So, when his friends learned to drive he never did. He took lifts instead. Now when he travels he’s not distracted by road signs or navigation – he gives himself more time to think, dream and plan.
And when the local planners rejected his first application for eco accommodation at the fforest farm (fearing that he would swamp the area with ‘crusties’) he rethought what he was doing to produce something even simpler and more beautiful – the tents for which fforest has become renowned.
Struggling in school, trying to make ends meet with low-budgets, turned down by the planners – not exactly the accepted positive pivotal moments in a life or a career.
But for James, not being able to do something was just as important as being able to do something else. He has become shaped and defined as much by what he couldn’t do as by what he could. He says, ‘the things that form you are not the obvious.’
If he’d been able to write quickly would he have developed his passion for art? If studio costs had been lower would he have developed an artists’ space? If he’d been able to drive would he still have had the same time to dream? If the planners had approved his initial thoughts would the purity of his vision for light and simple living have been realised at fforest farm?
Most of us would have seen these things only as obstacles.
But what if we embraced the things that we can’t do as levers for change, rather than only focusing on the things we’re good at?
When a client tells us that campaign timings are insanely tight, rather than just railing against the deadline could we make cleaner, simpler choices in what we do?
When budgets are tight, rather than complain about all the things that aren’t possible, could we be more creative in our response?
When a client doesn’t like what’s presented, rather than taking this as a set back could we use the feedback to sharpen our ideas?
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an appeal for less time, lower budgets and constant client pushback. But it is a challenge to see limitations – our own and our clients’ – as a way of focusing ourselves ever more clearly on the task at hand.
What would our work look like if we were prepared to be positively shaped by the things we can’t do? Could we become simpler, clearer, sharper and more creative? What kind of agencies would we become? What remarkable things of our own might we achieve?
Global Strategy Director
This post is inspired by James Lynch’s talk ‘We are shaped by the things we can’t do’ at the 2010 Do Lectures.