by Marc Stoiber
Belief frameworks are funny things.
As the name implies, they’re structures that shelter us from confusion. They give order to our world, eliminate background noise, reassure us that things are as we believe they are. At the same time, they tend to slam the door shut on new perspectives that could help us grow.
As you might imagine, rigid belief frameworks don’t hold up well in rapidly evolving environments. They become cement shoes. I found it paramount to question and prune my beliefs on a regular basis as I progressed on my journey as a marketer.
What sort of belief frameworks did I overhaul?
Belief in the marketer’s life.
Here’s an easy one I started with—see if it resonates. In high school, the career counselor asked me what I imagined myself doing for a living. I said I didn’t know, but I saw myself getting off an airplane in a good suit.
As silly as it must’ve sounded (and still sounds), that 1970s suburban white kid belief framework of what success comprised became my scorecard. And, sure enough, I made it happen. I found a job that got me the corner office, the huge staff, people buying me drinks and quoting me in the press, business-class flights out the wazoo.
Of course, none of that stuff really mattered, I laughed with benign indifference from my tastefully appointed creative director throne on high. Symbols didn’t define me.
Until they were gone. When I left the big agency, all the symbols disappeared. It was as if HR had boxed and filed them. Suddenly, Daddy didn’t have to fly to New York anymore. His corner office was in the basement, next to the LEGO set. Oooooh, that hurt.
On the bright side, the rude awakening led to personal growth in a weird, roundabout way.
It started with phone calls from colleagues in Adland, asking how I’d done it. Invariably, the conversations would progress from the romance of turning my back on it all to actually listing the trappings I’d traded in. That’s where the chats would get a bit spiky and uncomfortable. Something like this:
“Wow, I wish I had the balls to do what you did. I feel I’m just dancing for the shiny dollar, selling crap. But there’s no way I could give up my [insert expensive habit here]. I swear I’m going to make the jump, too. Real soon.”
Slowly, I realized my symbols of success were the foundation of a very real belief framework I had shared with my colleagues. I’d been forced to give up the symbols and look at the belief framework as an outsider would. As I became more detached from it, I started to see new possibilities. That’s how one belief framework got turned on its head. Here are a few others I had to work through.
Belief in an Infinite Planet
Ever been in an earthquake? There’s nothing to match the feeling when you discover the ground isn’t as steadfast as you thought.
In a sense, we’re having our belief in planet Earth shaken every day now, as we discover the environment simply can’t swallow up our excess and stupidity like a benevolent parent. A pretty big revelation for anyone whose business involves selling pointless consumption.
Belief in Growth
This one’s linked to belief in an infinite planet. But it’s also deeply ingrained in our Western concept of business success. A successful brand is one that grows. A successful business and company, ditto.
My involvement in the business sustainability movement, however, enlightened me to the fundamental flaw in this thinking. Infinite growth has no natural template. Even the mightiest tree grows to its natural limits, then happily falls over and becomes mulch for the forest. No bruised egos. No fired CMOs.
So how did our belief in never-ending growth (often at great personal cost) become a fundamental goal? Question that, and you start to question a bunch of enshrined business principles. Down the rabbit hole you go.
Belief in the Western World
Growing up, I always assumed that Jesus was blond, Hollywood defined storytelling, and products innovated in the “developed” world (aka Europe and North America) were the only ones worth their salt. Thanks to global supply chains, the rising economic power of emerging nations, the Internet, and a dozen other factors I won’t bore you with, our status as center of the universe has been seriously called into question, if not thrown out the window. How does it feel to be not so terribly important?
Belief in My Career
My friend Lorne Craig, also a reformed Adland veteran, put it best when he said, “I’ve decided to be a human being now, not a human doing.” Ad guys give great sound bites.
Lorne has a point. My belief system always included a definition of self through career. I truly thought building brands was a noble mission. In fact, I was quite capable of justifying personal compromises as sacrifices for my extremely important career. What an idiot.
Thankfully, that belief was seriously curtailed. I can tell you, however, that knocking “career” off the podium of important things left a pretty big void in my psyche.
Belief in My Ability to Make a Difference
This links directly to the belief in my career. Once I realized my creative director job wasn’t going to make me a better human being, I had to step back and see how else I was making a difference in the world. Short, brutal answer: I wasn’t. Not one to dwell on past shortcomings, I vowed to immediately start adding value to humanity.
In my missionary zeal, I undertook the writing of a book. The results might not be on par with discovering penicillin, but if it steers a few marketers right, I would sleep better.
I also sold my big house, and took my family on a six month surfing trip to Bali. If you don’t see the connection between surfing and adding value to humanity, you’ve never surfed. I firmly believe a world with more surfers would mean a world with fewer warmongers, oil czars, and Wall Street hedge fund managers. We could all breathe a sigh of collective relief.
Belief in My Expertise
After loudly proclaiming my intent to write a book, I sat down at the keyboard and…nothing. All I could muster was a table of contents that would’ve produced an anemic facsimile of a B-grade business book. I simply wasn’t an expert.
I sent out a distress signal to my friend John Marshall Roberts. John calls himself a “mad scientist,” but he’s truly an expert in belief frameworks and unlocking human potential. He got straight to work on me, asking what I believed I was best at. Connecting dots and simplifying things, I said. So, he reasoned, why not forget about coming up with one mind-bending expert thought and simply write down all the smart ideas I’d collected and connected? Oh, I replied. And make it funny and readable. Oh. It worked. Turns out I’m an expert, after all.
Belief in Brands
As I’ve journeyed along, another dim bulb of doubt has started to glow more brightly. I still read ad journals and track leading brands. Something feels, well, different. The promises they’re selling look increasingly tired and superficial, even cynical and disingenuous. It’s a bit as if brands are religion, and the congregation has moved on to science.
Perhaps I’m just old, grumpy, and yearning for an irretrievable past. But maybe, just maybe, I’m connecting imperceptible dots that others aren’t seeing. Are brands on their way out, about to be replaced by something more reflective of our rapidly evolving beliefs?