Be Nice, but Be Difficult: Finding a Balance as a Creative Person

Being difficult is a learned skill we should nurture

In advertising, being a "nice" person is often the ultimate compliment. 

And why not? Being kind, understanding and respectful is not always easy when your life is filled with a steady flow of rejection, disorganization and subjectivity. Those who remain positive when they have every earthly reason not to be deserve sincere praise. You should be nice. We should all be nice. There is no excuse not to be. 

We should also be celebrating the extremely difficult. Because some of the nicest people are also the most difficult. They just learned the subtle art of being both.

It's important to start by defining what difficult means. It doesn't mean destructive, or disrespectful. It doesn't mean diva or a one-man show. It doesn't mean weird bullshit creative work for creative sake. It doesn't mean you aren't often wrong and don't have to listen to other, smarter (sometimes not difficult) people. 

It definitely doesn't mean slave-driving. It's never OK to waste people's time. Simply working longer hours does not mean you are working toward something better. Smart, creative and passionate people will wither and die if they are having their time wasted. 

Difficult does not mean ignoring your clients. Quite the opposite. It means listening harder and more closely.

Difficult people ask a lot of questions. They question the work. The strategy. The process. They dissect what they are being asked to do. How their agency works. Why it works that way. They push the people around them to work harder, and smarter, dig deeper and reach higher. They don't always give people what they are asking for, but work collaboratively to figure out what is needed. They are trying to get somewhere no one has ever been. It's uncomfortable. It's not easy.

We can't be the industry that says "Here's to the crazy ones" but then celebrates "The really nice ones" or "The ones who make things easier on everyone."

Being effectively difficult is a learned skill. Like speaking a foreign language. When you are just starting out in this business, you may have the talent but not the full vocabulary. So you grunt your hellos and goodbyes and swear words, and people label you an asshole. You might actually just be an asshole, but there's a pretty good chance you are just misunderstood and underdeveloped. 

Difficult needs to be nurtured. Taught. Honed and polished like any other valuable skill.

There are a lot of people in my past to whom I'd like to apologize. You know who you are, and I'm sincerely sorry. When I was just starting out, I knew I had good ideas, but I had no idea how to move them through a complicated system of account people, clients, production folks and more. So, like a cornered animal, I lashed out at people in a desperate attempt to protect the idea I perceived as being in grave danger. 

Truth is, I was just dumb. Nothing was in peril. I just didn't understand the system. I didn't understand how all of these incredibly important people work together to bring something to life. I finally made my way to creative leaders and an agency that taught me about how it all worked. You know who you are, too.

It should never be problematic to be extremely passionate. To be opinionated. To respectfully question authority. To challenge our clients and the people we work with to find more genuinely unique solutions. To make sure we're creating something truly innovative. If we are not doing these things for our clients, what are we doing? 

If we don't nurture this quality in people from the very beginning of their careers, we run the risk of permanently dimming it, instilling bad habits and creating an environment where we don't properly push boundaries. Creativity can't live in that place. 

We need talented, passionate, difficult people to look to advertising as a place where they can be fulfilled. Where they will be free to explore new places by questioning the old ones. They will come in rough. They will seem prickly. They will be harder to manage. If their heart is in the right place, it's our job to help them harness that passionate, questioning nature and use it to make amazing things. 

Let's celebrate the nice people who make us enjoy coming to work. Let's also appreciate the difficult ones who get us to do our best work.

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Paul Caiozzo
Paul Caiozzo is founder and chief creative officer of Interesting Development.