Creativity can stand on its own, but survival often depends on it, whether you realize it or not.
We may think that creativity depends on a safe environment to thrive, but it’s actually the other way around. Creativity may flourish in peaceful, bountiful times, yes, but in times of perceived impending doom, creativity might be the only thing that keeps us from losing everything that we have gained, from physical pain, and from our own annihilation.
For as long as I can remember, my special sauce has been my gift of creativity. And I do mean gift. There is no downside to it, no hidden curse unless you consider the antsy-ness to go make something to be a bad thing or maybe the need to create when you should be sleeping. It’s saved my life more than once and it’s helped my Acquisition career too many times to count.
When I say “for as long as I can remember,” I must confess that I have an eidetic memory, something I first heard of when my daughter was working on her doctorate in psychology and called to say, “Mom! We’re talking about YOU in class! I know why you’re like you are!” With first hand knowledge, she’d admired my odd memory for years whereas other people didn’t believe it, simply because they couldn’t fathom it and I was too hard on them for not having a memory I didn’t realize was unusual. I’m not sure if creativity and unusual memory ability are related, but my brain is definitely wired a little differently.
An eidetic memory is not quite the same as a photographic memory, and no, I can’t recite the FAR or various statutes to you nor do I have the slightest desire to do so. I’m neither a sadist nor a sleep doctor! For me, it manifests as recalling images and being able to “walk around in them” in my memories. My brain is wired to recall exact or near exact dates, who was present, who sat where, what they wore, what they said, even very subtle body language. It doesn’t work for everything but enough that long-term memory, unlike creativity, can be both a blessing and a curse.
An eidetic memory is especially good for recalling who was present at an Acquisition Strategy briefing and what was said when people insist later that they were there (but weren’t) and that the long-gone PEO had an opposing view to what we’ve done since then. It’s good when a Program Manager forgets a promise and I can remind him of the exact date that promise was made, the cartoon tie he was wearing, where he stood blocking the intern’s cubicle exit, the shoes I was wearing that pinched my toes, and the color of toenail polish within those shoes. It’s wonderful when an auditor asks about a decision made 15 years ago when there’s no written documentation to be found and I can pause and walk around in that memory and regurgitate the intent of certain meetings and where that related documentation might now be and who was in the meeting but has long since retired or moved on. It’s fantastic for when a mentee doesn’t understand 10 USC 2373 and I can serve up the reason for the one in 1993 and the one that didn’t fit the statute in 2006 because I can remember every Rapid Acquisition tool I’ve used since 1987.
Professionally, it’s a gift. Personally, it’s a curse.
An eidetic memory is horrible for personal relationships because I remember everything, even if I’ve forgiven it and even if we’ve gotten through it positively. I can shove it into box in a warehouse a la Raiders of the Lost Ark and never mention it again, but it’s still there and I know exactly where it is. I’ve run off more potential romances than I can count because in casual conversation I mentioned the calendar date I first laid eyes on him or what I was wearing at a casual lunch on a particular day and location or a snippet of conversation made in passing. Somehow my recall of insignificant things spooks a guy–go figure. It’s bad for times when someone tells me they’ll do a certain thing on a certain day, usually within a week but sometimes months later…and I’m waiting patiently for them to follow through when they have honestly forgotten and would never intentionally stand me up. It’s awful to remember six conversations six months apart and the story keeps changing, no matter how fervently the other person swears it’s the whole truth and he’s told me before, or to remember snippets that are contradicted three years later and now I know they lied to me, either by commission or omission, because I remember the sound of their words, the look in their eyes, when telling me something else as if it happened 15 seconds ago. It’s especially hard to let go of old relationships because I remember all the bad and all the good, and when I see it repeated in new people, those old memories are just below the surface and burble up to amplify the present emotion, so I have to be extra vigilant not to apply someone else’s sins to someone new.
An eidetic memory makes it that much more important for me to be able to trust those I’m closest to because I need honesty and transparency as much as I need to be honest and transparent.
I digress to tell you how I remember things because it’s important to answer the question I am routinely asked: “Where did you get all that creativity from?”
It’s because of my eidetic memory that I can answer that question though many people would not believe me, and I’ve not told this story often or publicly until now, so if you’re hearing my confession, here goes.
I got my creativity from the interactions between the man in the picture above and his daughter. Because I remember what happened to her so well and my brain is not wired to forget it, just shove it aside to be as constant as air and breathing without focusing on every breath. She was the long-awaited daughter, born long after her parents thought probable. Her father liked to show her off, carry her around in the palm of his hand when she was small, and display her to fawning young women at work. I remember these things vividly, and later, walking around in my memories of women in mini skirts near a big executive desk he was visiting without his wife in tow, I saw that the child was his “babe magnet.” The advantage–or disadvantage–of walking around in an old memory is that I can see it from an adult perspective now.
In this photograph, she’s two years old. By the time she was five, she was a master at creative solutions. She had to be to survive. She should’ve died at 3, at 4, at 5, at 8, at 11….
In this photograph, she was such a little thing. She was maybe 25 pounds here–roughly the same weight and size as a paper bag full of groceries you might carry under one arm.
She was tiny, yes, but she had her favorite hiding places. Hiding places were always a good thing. A kitchen cabinet minus the bottom drawer that was being built for dish towels. When the cabinet was completed, she found a new hiding spot…under the family car.
She was so tiny that she could crouch underneath the Buick without bumping her head or getting dirty. If she was in trouble, she could scoot closer to the tire and hold her breath until the man passed. Then she would scamper out from under the car, run around to the back yard to another hiding place or to the safety of her mother’s arms on those occasions when her mother had been locked out of the house. It was much more common that the mother was locked out while little girl was inside the house, listening to her mother banging on the door and begging to be let back in and worried sick about her baby. No, she couldn’t protect her children or stop him…long story and one I’m not willing to tell yet.
On one occasion, company had come to see the man and his wife, and the child’s protective older siblings weren’t around. The man told the little girl to go play outside, so she wouldn’t make noise. She was barely potty trained though, at least not reliably yet, which left her in a quandary after she’d been playing outside alone for a while: Defy Daddy and get in trouble for going back inside the house to the bathroom? Or risk being in trouble for not being able to hold it? She chose the former, thinking she could be vewy, vewy quiet like Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny wabbits.
The screen door that led inside the farm house from the back porch was a lightweight–four black boards and a wire screen stapled to them–but to a toddler, it was way too heavy. She could barely reach the door knob over her head and needed both palms around the knob to twist and unlatch it.
As she squeezed through the door, it was too heavy for her to guide quietly back into its latch. The door slammed shut. Only about three inches’ worth of a slam, but enough to get Daddy’s attention. Enough to sound the alarm that she had not done as she’d been told, that she had not stayed outside playing, that she’d broken a rule.
She knew what was coming, and there was no escape. She knew her mother couldn’t help her. She knew also that if she cried, it would only be worse and she’d have to do her best to swallow her sobs until she was back in a hiding place.
The one thing she had to be thankful for was that she was not her older siblings, for whom the leather belt was reserved, to be doubled and doubled again and used in one session until it broke into four pieces.
The family didn’t carry medical insurance. Trips to the doctor were only for dire emergencies, like a farming accident or the dog attack that happened two years later.
That night, they took her to the emergency room.
He’d half-bent her over his knee, half-held her upright. He’d beaten her where it wouldn’t show, on her bottom, with the palm and butt of his hand. He’d yelled at her to stop squirming–so he wouldn’t hit off mark. But his hand was so big and she was so tiny… Afterward, her kidneys would give only blood.
You might think that someone at the hospital would’ve said something or called the police or done something, given that there were red handprints still splayed across her bottom and lower back, but no one did anything. Nothing changed. It was a small town that favored “Spare the rod and spoil the child” for generations, and children were inherently bad. No relative, no neighbor, no Sunday School teacher, no one was going to save her. No one was going to protect her from his unhinged tirades over nothing.
In many ways, that night, in that emergency room, a fighter was born: she knew that she was going to have to be more creative if she was survived childhood. It became her superpower because there was no one who could protect her from his rage and from the many times that he put her in danger’s way.
At three years old, she knew already that she had to be creative, that she had to think on her feet, to avoid getting hurt. It didn’t always work, true, but she knew well enough to make sure that there was a pole or a tree trunk or a fence between her and Daddy when she was in the back yard playing and he was working on a piece of machinery. All it took was one small failure with his handiwork and he would take out his frustration on anyone or anything present. If she could put something between Daddy and her, then a hurled wrench would hit her shield instead. By the time she was in middle school, she already knew by the flip of his wrist and whether he was squatting or standing if it was better for her to leap or duck to avoid being struck in the head by thrown hammer. She knew his mood at supper would be indeterminable until he walked through the door and how to create different solutions to diffuse his anger while at the same time coloring within the lines and following his rules.
This may all sound shocking to you now, but to that little girl and her family, this was normal. Decades would go by before she would come to understand that this was not normal. When you don’t know anything different, everything around you is normal. Even ducking wrenches and leaping over hammers or having your legs routinely bloodied with pear tree switches.
But there’s a part of us that is our human biology, that innate struggle for survival and how that unique skill set of creativity kicks in to protect us when nothing else can. How sweet it is to allow our creativity to paint uplifting art or compose heartfelt music or design landscapes or write fiction when our world is at peace. Creativity during self-actualization manifests in beauty, joy, indulgent emotions. Overlay creativity against survival and it comes out in much different ways.
This, I believe, is what we are seeing with the current push for innovation in the Acquisition world. We’ve gotten a good scare in the last year or so that we’ve let our adversaries get ahead of us, and there’s suddenly a push toward survival by tapping into technology innovations as well as creative contracting solutions. This is the connection between creativity and survival on the national scale vs the personal scale I’ve confessed here, but if you can understand the need to let creativity step in and find solutions in a dysfunctional family, you can understand why there’s a resurgence of it within the Acquisition community.
I was the little girl in that photograph, and for me, life was a daily exercise in finding which creative solution would work so I didn’t get whipped or yelled at, and it was excellent preparation for battling the Federal bureaucracy for three decades in the Acquisition career field. The early learned skillset of making sure outcomes were the best possible translated into creating tools and contract vehicles that would be flexible enough to accomplish anything thrown at me. Those tender age life lessons became ingrained skills, available on demand. I know exactly where they came from and how they developed.
This confession isn’t meant to ask your sympathy for that child. Or for me. What’s done to the child cannot be undone without dismantling the adult, and if it could be undone, I would not be anything like the person I am now and I would not have accomplished the things I have.
So for all the bad things, the gift I was given at such a tender age was creativity. There are other work-related insights I’ve uncovered through deep personal excavation of my relationship with him. Feeling I could not be loved for who I am but having to earn it every day turned me into an overachiever by first grade. Being warned not to show my pain or risk getting more of it taught me to be so stoic about physical pain that I caused multiple physicians to have misdiagnosed me as not appearing to be in any physical distress despite specific and quantifiable verbal complaints. My heart belongs to SOCOM because those guys represent the kind of badass guys I yearned to protect me when I was helpless, because it doesn’t take much of a man to beat a toddler into submission. To know yourself, whether through deep introspection, prayer, or counseling, can be a wonderful thing once accomplished, but difficult to wade through on the journey. It’s still worth it, though, to know exactly what you’re made of and why you are the way you are so you can make the best of the good and mitigate the not so good.
The little girl in that photograph isn’t sugar and spice: she’s a volcano of creativity and the beginnings of a very long memory, and both have served her and her country quite well so far.
c 2018 Lorna Tedder
- Rapid Acquisition Consultant
- Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
- Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
- Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
- Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
- Expert in developing junior and mid-level personnel to become innovators in Government acquisition
- 3 decades of first-hand experience and success with Other Transactions, Oral Proposals, 10 USC 2373, Broad Agency Announcements, unique pricing arrangements, Price Based Acquisition, Award Without Discussion, streamlined source selections, multiple award IDIQs, UCAs, waivers, omnibus tool creation, Quick Reaction Capability teams, and strategic sourcing
- Do you need help? Would you like me to spend a couple of days teaching your Government team how to use innovative contracting methods? Message me on LinkedIn or my contact page.