by Brian Jackson – Camper 1996-1999, Staff 2000-2002
“It is I, Glow stick Man!” I shouted as I burst out of a crowd of people packed tightly along the Muskoka River, awaiting the Canada Day fireworks display.
My friends, in the midst of a farcical Elizabethan drama that was playing out, turned in unison with amazed looks on their faces. “Glow Stick Man?!” They all shouted back as a chorus.
Ridiculous. Or so I thought at the time.
It was the start of the summer of 2000, my first as a staff member at the age of 17. Camp Big Canoe had volunteered our staff to help raise money for the local Kiwanis group in Bracebridge, during the day-long Canada Day celebrations. At dusk, that involved selling glow sticks to the crowds gathering to enjoy the fireworks show. Picnic blankets and lawn chairs dotted the long stretches of grassy lawn at the bottom of the waterfall located at the centre of town. My group of friends and I took to the task more than whole-heartedly.
We started by inventing a catchy chant to draw people’s attention “You get one for three, two for five!” went one line, which was important because it also described the pricing system. Another line proclaimed “You got no sticks? You need glow sticks!”
The songs were fun and effective at first, but we soon bored and were wondering how to improve our glowstick-selling game. We were selling a lot, but were had a seemingly endless supply to unload on the crowds. Naturally, I suggested that we become a street theatre improve troupe in a bid to draw attention. We’d construct loose plots around a series of theatrical tropes – one play was a Western, another a Shakespearian play, and so on. The common thread was that at the moment of conflict, Glowstick Man would intervene as the hero, solving the problem with the aid of – you guessed it – glow sticks.
Not only was acting out the plays a lot of fun, but it actually worked in helping us meet our goal of selling glow sticks. Every time we put on the play – bellowing our improvise lines – a group of spectators gathered around and laughed at us. At the end of the play, onlookers came forward and bought glow sticks. I remember one man paid with a $100 bill, he wanted so many.
At the time, I didn’t think much more of the experience as being a ridiculous stunt. Something silly we tried that just happened to play out well. But now that I’m twice the age I was in 2000 (!), I can look back on it with a different perspective.
Today, I work as the editorial director at IT World Canada. We’re a media publisher that covers the technology sector across the country. I manage a team of journalists and we write about how technology is transforming the world a little bit more every day. A big part of my job is to write stories that company leaders find useful, so I interview a lot of CEOs, government leaders, and other thought leaders. I’ve interviewed leaders like Toronto Mayor John Tory, or environmentalist David Suzuki. I go to conferences where leaders from around the world gather to talk about – well, leadership – and what I hear them say over and over again is why I look back at Glow Stick Man not as a ridiculous joke, but a key learning moment.
Leadership is about being willing to experiment. To try something that others might think is crazy, something that even seems like it’s likely to fail, but you try it anyway. Leadership can never emerge in an environment where people aren’t willing to take risks. If people are too afraid they’ll be laughed at when they start acting differently from everyone else, then they’ll never push their boundaries and explore outside their comfort zone. In other words, they’ll never tap into their inner Glow Stick Man.
That’s too bad because if you’re not willing to take risks, you’re not going to do well in today’s world. Thanks in large part to the progress of technology, the pace of change our society is seeing is accelerating like never before. In my lifetime, I expect to see self-driving cars emerge as the most common form of transportation in big cities. It will be normal for a lot of people to go through a day where most of their conversation takes place with a computer, not with another person. There will be other changes to our daily life that I haven’t even guessed at yet.
The point is, we’re going to see an incredible amount of change in a very short period of time. That will demand creativity for those that want to succeed in the world. Already, we’re seeing that businesses that have been institutions for decades or longer are being disrupted and falling by the wayside because they can’t keep pace. More common now, we’re seeing small teams of creative entrepreneurs – ones that are tech-savvy – come forward with new and better ideas about how to do things.
It’s a particular type of creativity that’s required. One that takes limited resources and thinks of the best possible way to apply them in solving a problem. Just like our group of friends did when we had nothing to work with but a box of glow sticks and our own imaginations.
Too often, behaviour like that isn’t encouraged in our society. People who act differently are made to feel shame, as their peers are quick to point and laugh. Or people in authority immediately reprimand those acting outside the norm, perceiving someone that’s different from the crowd as being too disruptive to everyone else. I think this is all too common in a school setting, for instance.
But at Camp Big Canoe the opposite was true. Creativity was not just tolerated, it was celebrated. The bigger the experiment, the more passionate the support. Enthusiasm for new ideas was infectious and it was cool to be different and stand out. And if something didn’t really work the way you expected, you weren’t made to feel bad. People just moved on to the next big idea.
That’s why I felt confident enough to shout to a crowd of strangers that I was a superhero, defined by his possession of glow sticks.
That’s why still – 17 years later – when I question whether I should take a risk and stand separate from the crowd, when I doubt myself, I call on Glow Stick Man to rush forth and save the day.