Live dangerously

A recession is no time to just batten down the hatches and sit it out, argues Simon Waterfall. It’s far better to embrace failure and rediscover the creative possibilities of time spent at play

I firmly believe that the recession has made me what I am, and informed how I do what I do. It has fuelled me and given me the freedom to choose what I eat next.

Recession literally means to ’recede within oneself’. In a recession people tend to capitalise on existing resources or money already spent – their intellectual property, the clients that they have retained, skills that they already have or the hobbies that they find solace in now become assets.

Failure becomes a measurable phenomenon in a recession and in the process becomes more accepted. If everyone around you is failing, normality gives risk a different meaning.

Crossing a species barrier often makes you appear to be taking huge risks, when, in fact, all the time you have a solid foundation that you can rely on.

We are witnessing a rise in system design – the ’design of businesses’ – in order to squeeze more out of what we already have, or even more out of less.

But in a recession what can you really measure yourself by? How do you know when to give up and start again with something else? It’s quite alright to take a risk, but I think it takes real intelligence or experience to know when you’ve failed.

Is the recession just a question of life throwing us a tighter brief?

The emotions are not the same if you leave a career when you’re at the top rather than at the bottom, but the consequences are. I have done both and, believe me, it was important which one came first.

Dealing with failure is a massive part of life and if you don’t do it early on it can cripple you.

In life you deal with the big three events: you retire and lose your social circle; you lose your parents and become head of the family with no safety net; you get sick and old, and you face your own mortality.

I failed early on most of these. Failure is a good thing when it comes early. The thrill of failure – putting yourself in harm’s way – is pushing the boundaries of sanity.

Some say recession stagnates business and makes people hibernate. I find the marketers you have to explain this to are naturally asleep. If everyone else is sleeping, you go out hunting.

Stop professing and start playing – success comes out of play not out of a profession. Early in my career, people called this ’the amateur society’. This was wrong as it suggests there were professionals. No-one knew anything – at Deepend we made it up as we went along.

Recession makes room for play. It pushes us to invest in ourselves. Someone once asked what I had given up for the recession – I replied, ’Looking at my flat as my pension fund.’ I work in the service industry, and can only invest in me.

I have worked hard to redefine play/work boundaries. The rules are similar, the end-game being you still get fed. I want to wake up every morning and play at producing the best work of my life, on that day. I have a finite amount of them left and I’m no fair-weather rider.

If you mix recession and play you get a period of recess. When I was at school, huge things happened in the recess. Worlds were created, rules, boundaries and windows were broken. I made friendships, avoided beatings and had only one fear – that the bell would ring and I would be called back into class.

Recession is over, let’s enjoy the recess.

Simon Waterfall is founder of consultancy Fray, He co-founded digital groups Deepend and Poke, and is a former president of D&AD

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