I believe all humans are creative.
It’s a quality we all have - innately from being humans - no matter what our role or job or how we perceive our fit into society. I believe a creative God created humans, and we reflect that creativity and have these creative qualities from long before we even know anything about ourselves.
And as a qualified accountant myself, who then set up a creative agency to support and help accountants, it took me many years to realise those two things were the beauty - and conflict - of this agency I run.
Accountants seeing yourselves as creative and recognising that so your marketing can be better.
For most accountants it presents an instant problem: one you’ve heard, or been told, or worst of all told to yourself for most of your life. Ever since you chose to be an accountant or work in accounting you’ve believed you were boring, not creative.
Putting numbers in columns.
Telling people what they can’t do, what’s not allowed.
That’s certainly how others perceive accountants. (Just go to Google images and type in ‘accountants’, and literally ALL YOU GET is pictures of people in suits sitting at desks with calculators.)
So you - and others - have told yourself you’re not creative because creativity brings up the idea of artists. Painters. Writers. People who are creative....create things. Out of nothing. Ex nihilo. And you as an accountant don’t do that. Your something is presented to you, sometimes as a mess and you make sense of it, but you’re not starting with a blank page.
I’ve long considered myself “creative” (though I didn’t always), but in part that’s because of how my creativity expresses itself. I sketch, I draw, I paint, I write, I lead a creative agency. All things we imagine to “be creative”....and yet the more time I spent with accountants the more I saw their creativity, too.
I saw accountants coming up with ideas, hesitantly sometimes, but saying “what if we….?”
I listened to accountants explore how they could help their clients better, show their team and culture and values better. Talked with them about other businesses (who are not accountants) and what they did well in marketing and social and video - and heard them say “I wonder if we could do something like that”.
Yes, our creative team would take their ideas and bring it to life, or turn it into something that was on-brand and visually impressive, but the core idea was theirs. We were both being creative, in our unique ways.
I’m currently reading Ed Catmull’s very excellent book Creativity, Inc. (He’s the president of Pixar.) It is literally one of my favourite business books of all time, because it had me writing notes in the back blank pages within the first chapter. Ideas. Challenges. What if we…? How might we…? How could…?
Halfway through the book he says something about creativity, almost a throwaway comment really, which struck me so much.
“You may have noticed that I have expressly not sought to define the word creativity - and that’s intentional. I don’t do it because it doesn’t seem useful. I believe that we all have the potential to solve problems and express ourselves creatively. What stands in our way are these hidden barriers - the misconceptions and assumptions that impede us without knowing it.”
Ed hit the point I’ve been mulling over for several years: what IS creativity, after all? How do we define it? How do I help accountants say yes, I’m creative too, and see that in their business and their life?
Ultimately it comes down to two things:
When I meet an accountant who is eager and willing and interested in solving problems - of whatever kind, whether it’s in their systems or onboarding or website or hiring or whatever, I see sparks of creativity.
When I’m talking with an accountant who says “Well, would this work to share this idea?” or “I saw what this company was doing or I read that book and it made me wonder if we could do something like that…”, I see their curiosity and we’re both reminded they are creative, too.
We ran an event called “Accountants are creative, too” (back in former times) and it was one of the most enjoyable events I’ve ever run in my life. There weren’t record numbers or anything - we wanted a small group of those who either know they are creative or are willing to explore it - and there were 20 or 30 accountants at each location where we ran the event.
By the end of each evening, every accountant was more inspired, more lifted up, more enthusiastic, more positive. They were talking to me and each other about things they could do or try, and were excited to bring their team on board. Some of them felt a little discouraged, like “oh, this is a lot of work and a totally different mindset”, but they didn’t hide that inside. They talked about it and shared that and we discussed some very tiny things they could do in the days and weeks ahead.
At one of those events, I asked an accountant, a friend of mine, to speak. He owns the accounting firm who takes care of PF’s numbers. He was one of PF’s very first clients ever, and right from the start I saw him with these qualities. We talked about what creativity is, and he shared his perspective on how it’s about problem solving and inviting other perspectives, and he spoke for about 15 minutes about how he and his firm have worked through some of the problems many accounting firms face. Problems like systemising communication so deadlines are always met, or setting up the qualifying process so they only take on the very best clients (rather than just any client, who then becomes troublesome later).
Every accountant was literally spellbound. There were so many questions. They all wanted to talk systems and processes and how-to’s...and for a moment I thought “no, that’s not what I meant for us to talk about, we’re supposed to be talking about being creative!”
And then I realised I was the one with the wrong perspective. Yes, creativity includes your marketing and your team and your brand and your events. It includes getting things designed and new websites and printed banners and art. But it also includes solving problems, and being curious.
Those two qualities lead to all kinds of creativity - whether it’s a designed image for your marketing or a new onboarding system or a better way to communicate with your clients.
Accountants, you are creative, too.
And if you believe you’re not creative, that shuts down or slows down the very qualities you need the most, and which will help you, your firm, and your whole team the most.
When you think about problem solving and curiosity, it’s a little easier (I hope) to believe that. To say okay, maybe I’m not much for drawing or painting or sketching or even writing. I find it easier to send an email or work through a spreadsheet than to try something new, like writing a blog post or recording a video. Or working with clay, or painting a mural, or whatever….
...but what’s the problem here I can work on solving? How can I have a curious, open mind to ask questions and see things differently? Who could I involve in this process to help me see new possibilities, and to remind me that in creativity, there’s no right answer?
That’s the real kicker with creativity, I think: there’s no right answer.
There’s no debit and credit columns which always add up.
It’s sort of a big scribbly mess, like a child with crayons just going all over the page and outside the lines and maybe even onto the table. (Or wall.)
You try something, and maybe it works - and maybe it doesn’t.
Maybe it sort of works, but you need to tweak it a little. Maybe in the process of working on it you realise what’s wrong.
Maybe you can’t figure it out so you scrap the whole thing and try something else.
Yes, accounting follows rules. And you help your clients do that (or you sort it out for them). But what you really love, what stirs you up and gets you motivated and keeps you doing this work you call accounting, is the conversations with your clients about their business problems. Whether it’s a problem with their numbers or software or prices or products or team or taxes or lockdown or profits….you get to look at the pieces and consider what the possible solutions are. And you and your client both get to stay curious and ask new questions and get excited and find a new way (or an old way) that works.
All of that is creativity. All of that is problem solving, and curiosity, and trying.
Keep up the good creative work.
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