I’m sitting here in my office with Larry David. He’s staring me down. Actually it’s a picture of Larry David, but he is staring at me—his raised eyebrow seemingly offering the question, “So, Bart, what have you done lately?”
Why do I have a portrait of Mr. David on my desk (not even a real photograph, but something I tore out of a magazine)?
I admire the guy because, until Seinfeld came along, he really didn’t have much going on. He was a complete nobody.
When Jerry Seinfeld asked him to co-write a sitcom pilot, he did it thinking nothing would come of it. When the pilot was picked up by NBC, he went into a panic at the prospect of actually having to write more than one show. When they picked it up for a second season, he went even crazier, believing God was punishing him. He was convinced that he couldn’t do it—that he had fooled everyone into thinking he was good when, in reality, he was a total loser. But Mr. David did it for nine seasons and, arguably, better than anyone has ever done it since. Was it genius or just neurosis that made him a success? Perhaps the latter caused the former. Which means there’s hope for me.
From my observation, Larry David simply used what he had: A complete lack of self-esteem and a firm belief in being without talent and thus incapable of producing anything that represented respectable work. Mr. David had everything he needed to succeed. He had fear on his side.
Isn’t it fear that helps us to create advertising in new ways? Sure you can be frozen by fear, but if harnessed, it can actually be a useful tool to break from traditional and expected thinking. Fear of failure presses us forward. Conventional thinking is not an option. We are more afraid of doing the expected than we are of all of the obstacles that stand between us and great work.
And there are so many obstacles. Foremost that the work actually has to sell something. This is why the safe answer is the one typically chosen by the powers that be. Playing it safe is why great work seldom makes it past a lot of people with opinions that matter. First, there are people like me, creative directors, who must add our experience-laden two cents. Then there’s an army of account people, focus groups and test analysts. Then come the clients. From the Soup Nazis who jerk their accounts away at the slightest provocation, to those more Kramer-like who want everything given to them, the clients, their spouses, children, dogs and mailmen are all qualified to “plus” your work. They all have fear too, but they are letting it work against them. You must not allow that to happen.
Creating something fresh and new is difficult, yet great work continues to happen, and I submit that fear is the reason. Fear trumps all of the obstacles man can devise. Neurosis is an underrated tool for creativity. Paranoia, psychosis and a myriad of complexes, seated in the subconscious due to bad parenting, can help us all to innovatively sell stuff to common folk. To correct Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is the lack of fear itself.”
In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, Jerry and George are explaining their idea for a TV pilot to NBC. They say the show is about “nothing.” When the president of NBC argues that the show can’t be about “nothing” but has to be about something, George stands and explains emphatically that the idea for the show is not going to change and that he for one is not going to compromise his creative integrity for anyone.
See how George’s fear set the bar for greatness? It protected their unique idea, their fresh thought. OK, in George’s case he wasn’t defending his artistic integrity, but his fear of not being able to think of a show about “something,” but that’s beside the point. Innovation was served by fear. It’s not relevant that in the very next scene George was groveling before Jerry—begging his forgiveness for being such a total idiot and blowing the whole deal. George’s fear paid off. NBC let them write a pilot about nothing.
I’m not so naïve to believe that great work will happen simply because we are afraid. There are other things involved. You must be working with others who are as scared as you are, those who seek the comfort of mutual paranoia. If Larry David had been asked by anyone else but Jerry Seinfeld to co-create, it’s likely they both would have failed. Their mutual fear was an unbeatable combination. They were in the right place, working with the right people where all of their fears culminated in maximum potential. Fear demonstrates that creative success is not a complicated recipe.
If it weren’t for my fear of being a hack, I doubt I would be in advertising. I’d probably be working as a security guard at a Brentano’s Books, or at the counter of a Kenny Roger’s Roasters. For me, fear is a godsend. It has allowed me to work in a business that is ripe with opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before.
If your career is not exactly on fire, you simply aren’t embracing your fear. Bring it out for all to see and proclaim your total inadequacy. You will be delighted with the liberty fear brings to your thinking. Once you’ve sunk to the lowest possible level of human dignity and have nothing left to lose, you can relax and come up with some great ideas.
This business is more than an opportunity to create, it affords us the opportunity to change the way people act and think. Don’t doubt yourself. Like George Costanza’s proclamation to Jerry that “doing the opposite” was his new religion, make fear yours. Nothing will motivate you more. Fame? Fortune? Their motivation wanes. But fear? Fear runs on nuclear. Fear can never be satiated. It is what great work needs most. If you are not afraid, you are doomed to mediocrity.
Some might think that it takes an iron will or a strict work ethic to create anew, but without fear, none of that matters. We must first seize the fear of our own personal ineptness to succeed in this industry. So give fear a chance. You won’t regret it.
I would like to thank Larry David for reminding me that we must be afraid—incredibly afraid—to be at our best. I salute you Mr. David. Thanks for your raised eyebrow and perfect example of self-loathing. May we all use our own neuroses to the level of success you have. ca