Orbiting the Giant Hairball

"Orbiting is responsible Creativity vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mindset, beyond ‘accepted models, patterns, or standards,’ – all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission."

- Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Page 33

Gordon MacKenzie treats us to a lyrical account of creatively pursuing his 30 year career with Hallmark, a traditional pyramid organization, in Orbiting the Giant Hairball. The “Hairball” is the tangle of rules intended to maximize productivity in a bureaucratic company but often impedes or stifles our best work.  MacKenzie illustrates how to “Orbit” harmoniously by maintaining a balance between following corporate rules and running your own show.

This book is not about becoming an entrepreneur. It is about creating a balance between corporate structure and personally rewarding goals. It is about rebellion against authority and the established ideals that promote overwork and dehumanizing defining systems intended to increase productivity. The organization may be flawed in its ideals, but it provides material security and the creative opportunity. Creativity is the means to achieve orbit or find a balance to pursue personally relevant goals but resist the company’s culture.

You will not find “10 easy steps” or a scientific method for achieving success here. Instead, you will find a poetic paradigm for success. MacKenzie uses an imaginative, creative writing style and prolific doodle illustrations in this collection of illustrative stories, as well as poems. They are focused on finding a balance between security and freedom meant to give inspiration not instruction. Creativity does not come from precise instruction but is the result of opening the mind to possibility.

Included are beautiful stories about the imperfect human condition. Topics include admitting you are stuck, the reasons we tease and why it hurts, turning around when you are on the wrong track, gaining engagement in workshops, dealing with the corporate dismissal of new ideas, and more. For this summary, I’ll focus on creative personal contribution.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

You have a Uniquely Valuable Contribution

"There has never been anyone quite like you, and there never will be. Consequently, you can contribute something to an endeavor that nobody else can. There is a power in your uniqueness – an inexplicable, unmeasurable power… a magic."
- Orbiting the Giant Hairball, page 53

MacKenzie uses a painting as the metaphor of a life of personal contribution. We are all born with a masterpiece inside. It is the criticism of mistakes and lack of perfection that leads to feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment and make the stunning masterpiece look like a hideous “paint by numbers.” The world will never see your masterpiece if you do not create it. It is uniquely yours to create.

The way to develop and share your masterpiece is to accept imperfection. Acceptance releases fear that blocks the creative force necessary to develop your unique contribution. The more mistakes you make and can freely correct, the more you learn and the more beautiful your contribution becomes. It will not happen if you are afraid, fear stifles creativity. One way to break down fear is to accept and support others. It creates a feeling of mutual respect and safety. Do you ever feel like the voice of criticism in your head is not yours? Other people hear your voice in their head, what is it saying?

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Learn to Compromise

"Generally, though, my suggestion is, if you want to live more fully, start somewhere toward the safe end of the security/freedom continuum and move mindfully, ever so mindfully, toward the free end."
- Orbiting the Giant Hairball, page 104

Freedom is the result of earned respect. Compromise is a way to express respect; it is working with people instead of against them. It is not outright anarchy that produces a life of material security and creative freedom. Instead, it is achieved by finding a compromise when encountering a challenge. It means accepting your goals are as valuable as theirs and agreeing to work toward a common goal. You follow some of the rules, and they give you some freedom. Compromise earns the trust that gives you more freedom. This allows you to support what is personally valuable to you and also valuable to them.

Where are your road blocks? Are there things preventing you from doing the work you really want to do? Are you at that impasse because you have decided not to compromise? There is a difference between selling out and compromising. Find common ground to get beyond the blocks.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Release Control

"Creativity is like that. It will not be looked at. As soon as you look at creativity – as soon as you become conscious (or self-conscious) of it - it simply vanishes."
- Orbiting the Giant Hairball, page 196

Control is the reason the corporate structure prevents us from giving our most creative and best contribution. Following restrictive rules forces us to look critically at ourselves and others. It creates a culture of fear by threatening exclusion as a consequence of nonconformity. Some rules exist to keep us safe, while others maintain power and uniformity. Control produces uniform, predictable results that are predictably mediocre, but they are safe. Releasing control is risky, but it produces creative and innovative results. Creativity is not possible unless we are willing to take that risk. Taking the risk opens up the possibility of better results and substantial gains.

Look for ways to release control. Discovery is often just seeing something that has always been there in a new way. When we control a situation we make conclusions based on existing beliefs; this is a closed system and we cannot discover anything new. Be naïve, and the possibilities open up. Do you need a creative solution to a problem? Have you evaluated and questioned, used a formula and proven ideas but you cannot find a solution? The solution may be just to stop evaluating. Look, and the answer is gone, don’t look and the answer is there. This is the essence of creativity: the answer appears when the barrier of internal (or external) control disappears.

This book is about “thinking of any organization as a unique medium in which you have the opportunity to create.” Finding a personal connection to your work is an important first step. Once you have the connection, creating a balance using these ideas is achievable. Every working relationship has at least two parties, and they need to have a mutually supportive arrangement. If you do not have the connection instead of orbiting you may find yourself using what you learned to move on.

I enjoyed the creative and expressive format and the lack of specific direction that allows wide application of the concepts. I have tried many times to make it work with a company and failed more often than not. I have come up with dozens of explanations. At first I thought this book would tell me what I was doing wrong. Instead, I found something more valuable. I felt myself letting go of my self-criticism and realizing I just have not found the right place. I do not need a “one-size fits all” solution. There is not a single paradigm for a perfect life. That is the magic of creativity. It is imagination, thinking about the possibility that creates serendipity, and finding the answer between the lines where you never expected.

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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