Put Your Pen Down

I was fortunate many years ago during my undergrad to have experienced a small gesture from a professor that completely changed the way I think about holding onto ideas. I recall vehemently arguing for this professor to allow me to write a paper on a proposed thesis that I had spent several hours tinkering with. I firmly believed I had chosen an interesting topic, and that my meticulously crafted idea would result in an A+ paper. My professor, on the other hand, was adamant that it was sub-par. We eventually reached a stalemate, and there was an awkward silence between us. I wasn’t budging, and neither was he. He took a deep breath, and picked up a pen. He asked me to consider it as the representation of an idea. He then held it close to his chest, and he asked me to criticize it. “It’s made from cheap plastic,” I began. “The craftsmanship is shoddy…” He interrupted me mid-sentence, and told me that he felt insulted. I was flabbergasted. I explained to him that he shouldn’t feel insulted, as I was talking about the pen, not him. He smiled, and said to me that as long as he was holding onto the pen it was him, an extension of him. He wasn’t capable of receiving negative criticism, because the pen was attached to him. Criticizing the pen inadvertently meant criticizing him.

Having a bright idea dismantled by your colleagues can feel disheartening. The criticism might even cause you to disengage from the collaborative ideation process altogether, especially if you’ve grown emotionally attached to your idea. There’s a tendency to take the rejection personally, and retreating into yourself following a pivot or shutdown will ultimately stall progress. By growing silent and/or sour, you negatively impact the rest of the team; your lack of participation hampers the creative process, and ultimately the project suffers from a lack of your constructive input. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone.

My professor then asked me to criticize his pen again, only this time, he set it on the table between us. And this time, he was able to freely criticize it as well. We traded different ways in which the pen’s design and utility could be improved. By the end of it, we had devised a dozen different ways in which the pen could be improved.

The key to remain objective about your ideas is to put your proverbial pen down. Instead of holding onto it during meetings, place it in the middle of the table, where everyone can see it from a distant, different, and most importantly, objective, vantage point. It won’t matter how much time and energy you spent on it. It won’t matter who or what inspired it. All that will matter in that moment is the idea, and its inherent value.

In his 1969 book, The Age of Discontinuity, management guru Peter Drucker suggested that “the most valuable asset of the 21st-century, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.” He defined the typical knowledge workers as “[a] man or woman who applies to productive work ideas, concepts, and information rather than manual skill or brawn.” If you’re a knowledge worker, your work week is packed with meetings and opportunities to brainstorm, research, and nurture ideas. It’s safe to say that you “think for a living.”

But this style of work can be taxing if you’re not careful with how you discuss ideas. In a workplace where idea generation is part of your daily routine and in which you’re all passionate and encouraged to think big, it’s not uncommon for people to get emotionally attached to ideas. And while being impassioned is great for conviction, it can be detrimental for buy-in. Especially in an environment where not all ideas can be realized due to time and resource constraints. If you’re too attached to an idea, it can prevent the idea from being critically analyzed and modified.

When I work with my teams, I think of my professor and that pen a lot. I work in the education sector and we’re constantly pushed to move faster, given our proximity to the rapidly shifting needs of students. The volume of ideas that we encounter each week will only continue to increase. And for better-or-for-worse, most of those ideas will get parked, discarded, and erased as we continue to try new things. Idea generation is incredibly important to our work, but even more so is the ability to make an idea the absolute best it can be, as quickly as possible. There’s no time for bruised egos, and no space for incomplete ideas. It’s important that we don’t impede progress by clinging onto our ideas. So next time you sit around the brainstorming table, don’t leave your pen in your breast-pocket; take it out, cap it, and set it in the centre of the table.

You, and the pen, will be better for it.

This post was originally published on Medium.