Gordon MacKenzie’s Analogy To Explain Why Time Is Key For The Creative Process

The late Gordon MacKenzie in Orbiting The Giant Hairball laid out the most interesting way to explain why you need to consciously invest time when using human creativity to get to an interesting outcome.

He drew this line to represent the amount of time required for a cow to make milk.

And then pointed out how the time at the very end is when the cow is milked. That’s when it appears like the cow is finally working and being productive.

But he explains that the cow could never have expressed any milk if they hadn’t spent time eating grass and resting and doing all sorts of key life activities to get their bodies to produce milk as a chemical/biological process.

In other words there’s tons of work happening that may not look like “work” at all. It’s important for us to invest in this kind of work explicitly.


I photographed the above lines from his original book because it’s precious to me (I was given one of the last special copies that the designer of the book made), but the real story is much better. Here’s the key excerpt from the Orbiting The Giant Hairball book. I highly recommend it for your collection!


Outside the zigzag of the fence stands a rotund gentleman in a $700, power-blue, pinstripe suit. He is leaning on the fence – as best he can. One hand is holding his unbuttoned jacket against his generous belly so that the suit’s fine cloth will not be soiled by the fence’s grimy rails. His other hand is shaking a stern finger at the cows. He shouts:

“You slackers get to work, or I’ll have you butchered!”

What this man does not understand is that, even as he threatens them, the cows are performing the miracle of turning grass into milk. Nor does he understand that his shouting will not cause the cows to produce more milk.

If we drew a line to represent a creative occurrence…

… the only portion that would reflect measurable productivity would be a short segment at the end of the line:

This line segment is the equivalent of the cow’s time in the barn, hooked up to the milking machine. This is when productivity is tangible measurable. but the earlier, larger part of the event, when the milk was actually being created, remains invisible.

The invisible portion is equivalent to the time the cow spends out the in the pasture, seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.

A management obsessed with the productivity usually has little patience for the quiet time essential to profound creativity.


—Gordon MacKenzie (1937-2014)


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