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Book Summary: “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon MacKenzie

This book, subtitled “A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace,” was recommended to me by my longtime friend and colleague Robyn Rickenbach of Springboard International. The author worked at Hallmark Cards for 30 years in a variety of creative roles (even having the unusual title of Creative Paradox, at one point) and was described by some there as “the bridge between Hallmark’s creative forces and its executives.”

And just what is the Giant Hairball and how does a person orbit it? The Hairball is a company’s policies and procedures, it’s Gordian knot of Corporate Normalcy (i.e., conformity with the “accepted model, pattern or standard” of the corporate mind set). Every new policy is another hair for the Hairball and since hairs are never taken away, only added, the Hairball grows enormous. And, like physical gravity, it is the nature of Corporate Gravity to suck everything into the mass – in this case, into the mass of Corporate Normalcy.

Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mind set, beyond “accepted models, patterns, and standards” – all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.

As is obvious by the title and cover art (and you should see the “artwork” on the book’s pages), this is not your standard “how to” business book. Rather, it contains 24 fairly stand-alone chapters, each based on a story or situation from the author’s life and tenure at Hallmark. So, instead of summarizing this book, as is my typical approach, I decided to merely capture some of the book’s quotes, messages, and passages that stood out to me the most.

  • The magic of creativity can happen even in the institutional environment (schools) where formal learning is supposed to take place. However, schools tend to suppress creative genius, but this is not done intentionally. Rather, genius is an innocent casualty in society’s efforts to train children away from natural-born foolishness.
  • From the cradle to grave, the pressure is on: be normal.
  • Our artificiality is caused, in part, by the many teachers and trainers who work so hard to instill a professionalism that prizes correctness over authenticity and originality.
  • It is not the business of authority figures to validate genius, because genius threatens authority.
  • Our creative genius is the fountainhead of originality. It fires our compulsion to evolve. It inspires us to challenge norms. Creative genius is about flying to new heights on untested wings. It is about the danger of crashing. It is amorphous, magical, unmeasurable and unpredictable.
  • You can achieve Orbit by finding the personal courage to be genuine and to take the best course of action to get the job done rather than following the pallid path of corporate appropriateness.
  • Through the measured assertion of your own uniqueness, it is possible to establish a dynamic relationship with the Hairball – to Orbit around the institutional mass.
  • Hairball is policy, procedure, conformity, compliance, rigidity and submission to status quo.
  • Orbiting is originality, rules-breaking, non-conformity, experimentation, and innovation.
  • 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.
  • If you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted. No one else can paint it. Only you.
  • Choose not to be mesmerized by the culture of the company. Instead, find the goals of the organization that touch your heart and release your passion to follow those goals.
  • If we drew a line to represent a creative occurrence (think cows producing milk), the only portion that would reflect measurable productivity would be a short segment at the end of the line. A management obsessed with productivity usually has little patience for the quiet time essential to profound creativity.
  • The Anal Retentives, the Trustees of the Hairball, lust for the fruits of creativity but mistrust the act of creativity, which remains invisible and elusive.
  • A healthy Orbit of trust allows time – without immediate, concrete evidence of productivity – for the miracle of creativity to occur.
  • Courage, courage, courage. We need courage to cross boundaries, to admit idiocy, to acknowledge impasse. We need much courage if we are to respond successfully to the consequences of exploring beyond authorities’ sometimes-beneficial, sometimes-detrimental boundaries.
  • To be fully free to create, we must find the courage and willingness to let go: Let go of the strategies that have worked for us in the past. Let go of the biases, the foundations of our illusions. Let go of our grievances, the root source of our victimhood. Let go of our so-often-denied fear of being found unlovable.
  • If we are to grow, explore we must.
  • Allow those you lead…To lead…when they feel the need. All will benefit.
  • In their book, The Matter Myth, Paul Davies and John Gribben discuss the concept and importance of non-linearity: not proceeding in a linear manner or being bounded by a system where the whole is merely equal to the some of its parts. Rather, proceeding not by analysis but where there is a diversity of possible patterns of thought and behavior resulting in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. That surplus over and above “the sum of its parts” was creative energy.
  • Compassionate emptiness: a state of nonjudgmental listening and receiving of others’ ideas, thoughts, opinions, burdens, worries
  • When we find the courage to risk to grow – to leave the status quo of the Hairball – that can be pretty threatening for others to witness. Because the threat is that we, too, might be expected to grow. And sometimes growing can be a frightening and painful experience.
  • Why not think of any organization you’re a part of as a unique medium in which you have the opportunity to create?

I hope that you find this book as interesting, thought-provoking, and inspirational as I do.