Sustain Your Creative Spirit by “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”

One of my favorite books is Gordon Mackenzie’s, Orbiting the Giant Hairball (1998). During his 30-year career with Hallmark Cards, Mackenzie discovered ways to retain creativity in the face of the inexorable gravitational pull towards conformity (the “hairball”), and to seek bliss while remaining dedicated to the corporate mission and vision: 

“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.” (page 33)

He later quotes Joseph Campbell in service to this definition, offering “…if you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all along, waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.” Mackenzie says, “Orbiting is following your bliss.”

The ability to derive meaning from work is key to following your bliss. When we clarify our intentions and values, we define the criteria by which bliss has meaning for us. When we are determined to engage in Reflection and Synergy, not merely Task (referring back to Lesson #3 in What Matters at Work), we find our creative energies unleashed so we may be capable of “orbiting,” staying engaged without getting sucked into the Hairball of conformity. Just as importantly, we also do not fly away, escaping to save ourselves by jettisoning our creative talents from our work; all too often, many of us engage in repetitive, energy-depleting tasks at work and save our creative energies for sports, theatre, or other hobbies that occur elsewhere. 

As I look back upon my career, the ability to orbit has been key to my success and sustenance. I have been good at recognizing toxic environments and at assessing whether there was space to make them healthy. I have been capable of injecting creative energy into groups with whom I have worked, whether as a member, team lead, teacher in a course, group facilitator, or as the manager of the organization. In those few instances where I have failed to recognize the sucking, toxic energy of Hairball as quickly, I have also learned how that feels for me (exhausting, depressing, debilitating), for those around me (similar, though sometimes with different experiences of anger and betrayal at me for not protecting them), and for my customers (abandoned, disappointed, withdrawn… sometimes, when I am lucky, honest with their feelings). As Mackenzie notes, the Hairball is not the product of bad people, but a natural consequence of seeking “normal” and protecting those cultural assets we believe should be defended against the threats of creativity. But it is a misplaced loyalty, one that is derived from the assumptions of “pyramid organizations,” a concept we will explore later. 

Exercise: What is your experience with “Orbiting the Giant Hairball?” What has it taught you? How has it informed and revised your telling of the Core Story of your life? Reflect on these questions, then discuss your responses with a trusted Partner… of course, this may need to occur “virtually” these days, but that’s OK.

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

Harry Webne-Behrman is a consultant, facilitator, mediator, educator living in Ottawa, Ontario. Bringing vast experience to organizational challenges, specializing in complex conflicts, Harry offers coaching and consulting to people seeking to provide leadership to their organizations and communities on a wide range of issues.

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