After Gordon MacKenzie flunked out of engineering school, he worked as a cartoonist and copywriter. Eventually he joined Hallmark, a $3.6 billion company known for its creativity. He stayed there for 30 years, much of the time as director of a humor workshop.
Then, one day he faced the brick wall often encountered in today's corporate world - he was given "a nothing job" and he thought they were preparing to put him "out to pasture."MacKenzie was not about to take it lying down, so he asked his boss what title he had in mind. He said "aide de camp," which MacKenzie thought sounded "militaristic and servile."
That night, while out for a run, the word "paradox" popped into his head. It seemed so powerful that he looked it up in the dictionary - "a statement contrary to common belief, a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable or absurd, but is true in fact."
MacKenzie decided it was the perfect title. It had no meaning, yet it carried a mystique, an undefined power.
Even more surprising, his boss went for it. Soon MacKenzie was introduced in the company newsletter as "The Creative Paradox."
People were stunned. Because creative paradox had no meaning, nobody knew where he stood in the power hierarchy.
"Everybody treats you according to how much power they think you have. One woman thought I had more power than I had - which, by the way, was none."
When MacKenzie expressed an idea, this woman's boss rallied in support before anyone else had even heard about it. The company liked his idea, and his new job was off to an odd but promising start.
The word circulated around the company that if anyone had an idea to which no one would listen, he or she should bring it to "The Creative Paradox."
When VIPs visited the company, they were brought to meet MacKenzie, a courtesy visit to someone who seemed important. Because people were increasingly inflating his status, his influence grew.
MacKenzie responded by creating "a magical environment" in a windowless office. He got a rolltop desk and converted his room into "a sort of corporate model den." He camouflaged the lights to present a dim, eerie appearance.
A friend with matching antique oak kitchen chairs from a flea market transformed them into a beautiful sculpture. MacKenzie called it "the eco chair."
When people came to see him, he would slip into "a method-acting mode, like a character from `Lost Horizon,' a 136-year-old man who was incredibly frail but profoundly wise."
MacKenzie would become the `High Lama of Hallmark.' He would say, "Come," and direct them to old chairs near the front wall.
"I was trying to create a sacred environment in which to offer up a new idea. I would say, `Tell me.' They would tell me the idea, and I would say, `GOOD idea.' Then they would leave."
MacKenzie practiced that little ritual for three years. He had inadvertently converted a job and a title with no meaning into "the most joy-filled, productive time I had at Hallmark. If you want to bring more power into your work, tap the power of paradox, tap the contradiction, the absurdity, and the power you receive will be wonderful."
In 1991, MacKenzie left Hallmark to go on the lecture circuit, visiting blue-chip companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Nabisco, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps, the FBI, GTE and Wal-Mart.
Recently, he spoke to Salt Lake merchants at Crossroads Plaza. In the midst of intriguing ideas, he threw out gems of wisdom: "How do you deal with a raging bull? If you can't, you're dead meat. Imagine you have a magical cape. Face the raging bull. Hold up your cape. Have contact with Mother Earth. Use civilized behavior. You will add to the grace of your life, and very subtly you will add to the grace of HIS life. Let the bull come. If you're patient enough, you will wear him down enough that he will be open to some dialogue."
MacKenzie's animated presentation is lively, unorthodox and thought-provoking. Through audience participation, he uses cards with drawings to expound on an interesting array of ideas, trying "to bridge the gap between creative chaos and corporate bureaucracy."
Ironically, MacKenzie not only transformed a dead-end job into something he loved, he deserted the company and took his show on the road.
Last year, he self-published a book, "Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Coporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace." It has done so well that Viking is republishing it in April.
He describes the book as "a liberation manual for the chronically entangled and the relentlessly oppressed." He says bureaucracy is like a hairball that provides stability for a company but gets in the way of original thinking.
He sees orbiting as "pushing boundaries of ingrained corporate patterns. It's striking a relationship with the corporation so that you can benefit from what it offers - without being sucked in by its gravitational pull."
MacKenzie believes that at Hallmark, he was "a liaison between the chaos of creativity and the discipline of business." He says it is hard for people to understand that creativity is about much more than succeeding - "it's about experimenting and discovering."
Sounding a little like Ralph Waldo Emerson, MacKenzie says "the most important creative skill is the ability to listen to yourself - and to trust what you're hearing."
Sound familiar? That's because it's a paradox.