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Creatives in Cubicles: Creatives in the Non-Creative Workplace

03/09/2015 10:07 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015
Cultura/Lilly Bloom via Getty Images

For those on the right end of the left-brain/right-brain spectrum, the structured -- even regimented -- nature of the non-creative workplace can be trying at times. I often meet creatives who have, for whatever reason, found themselves in non-creative fields, surrounded by left-brain thinkers, who seem to be operating on different wavelengths or, if you prefer, speaking different languages. Perhaps the most common frustration surrounds the creatives' approach to problem solving. What seems like an obvious solution to a right-brained thinker can seem a risk-filled gambit to a left-brained thinker. If both sides refuse to give ground, the conflicts that spring up surrounding these differences of opinion can be explosive. The prevalence of these creative/non-creative conflicts results in a variety of strategies employed by creatives to make their way in the non-creative workplace. The most successful of these strategies boil down to the following five main points.

1. "Give yourself an outlet" - A notebook or sketchbook ready at hand is a highly constructive way to give vent to your creative impulses. Write down your ideas, or doodle away whenever you feel the creative impulse about to overflow. An outlet could also mean something as simple as a hobby; if you don't have the opportunity to express yourself creatively at work, spend your evenings and weekends doing something that satisfies your deeply felt creative passion. Remember, if you're not employed in a creative field, you'll never find the time to do something with your talents; you need to make the time to do so.

2. "Find the middle ground between flaunting and hiding your talents" - This point is aimed at creating a relatively friction-free workplace. Nobody likes a show-off. At the same time, people are perfectly happy to recognize the talents of their friends and co-workers. It's a razor-thin line between seeking recognition for one's creativity and demanding it. Creatives thrive on recognition, though, so the last thing you'll want to do is just blend in entirely. Learn to walk in the liminal zone between the shadows and the limelight.

3. "Don't let your candle gutter" - Routine can, over time, sap creativity, which can lead to a frittering away of rich creative potential. If you've decided to work in a non-creative field, there are presumably compelling reasons that you have done so. This doesn't have to mean that you entirely cease nurturing your creative side. Like anything, creativity needs cultivation to thrive, so don't forever shut the book on your talents, even if you haven't found a way to make them dovetail with your professional life. Letting your creative flame burn down to nothing is one of the things that late-in-life creatives often regret.

4. "Learn to identify and respect boundaries" - Creatives love to shake things up. They love to challenge the conventional order and push through boundaries (both their own and those of the people that surround them). These tendencies can be highly problematic in a structured workplace. Identifying and respecting boundaries means learning to hold one's tongue occasionally when colleagues -- especially when they are superiors -- are presenting ideas in which you see room for improvement. There are absolutely times and places when and where it is appropriate to critique uncreative thought, but always and everywhere will not make you very popular around the office.

5. "Be the oil--not the grit--in the machinery" - We've already covered resisting the urge to be contrarian above (a definite hallmark of the right-brained mindset), but it remains to discuss what the creative can do that contributes in the most positive way possible in non-creative environments. The most successful creatives are those who oil the gears of the enterprise they've yoked themselves to, contributing new perspectives or brand new ideas at the right time and place and, crucially, in the right way. When given a chance to explore more creative options, do so with gusto and determination, but resist the urge to pipe up frequently with the contrarians mantra: "I've got a better idea."

Finally, if things are just not working in the non-creative fields, it might be worthwhile to consider going into business on your own. This can begin as a side-project, and, if the market seems receptive to your idea, a more dedicated follow-up might be in order. Going into business for yourself (especially in the creative industries) is by no means easy, but, if the career you've chosen (or perhaps the one that's chosen you) is one in which you feel stifled or boxed in, it might be time to consider something that allows you to give rein to your creativity rather than always reining it in.