Creative Trespassing

Tania Katan’s new book offers innovative ways to approach your job

By Tom Reardon, February 2019 Issue.

We’ve all been there before.

The clock on the wall seems to be going in the wrong direction and whatever time your shift is scheduled to end seems to be getting farther away, rather than closer by the minute. If there was only some way to make the time go by faster, and even better yet, enjoy the remaining minutes or hours while being productive and doing something that actually makes you look good to your boss. This is a job for “Creative Trespassing” and Tania Katan, who may very well be the human equivalent of an everlasting pyrotechnics display, can show you how to do it.

For the unenlightened, Katan is most certainly explosive and something of a national treasure. In her late 40s, she is both survivor and disruptor, a writer, an ambassador for technology, a lesbian, a playwright, and possibly one of the most inspiring people you could hope to meet.

There is a fitting a line in “A To Z” from British pop band ABC’s 1985 album, How To Be A Zillionaire album where their bass player, David Yarritu sings, “I may be tiny, but I’m strong.” Katan is both tiny and strong, surviving two bouts with breast cancer, and in the past decade becoming a sought-after public speaker with a TEDx Talk under her belt, as well as being one of the masterminds behind the #ItWasNeverADress campaign for her former employer, Axosoft.

To say Katan is busy is an understatement, but after speaking with her it is easy to see why she prefers to keep moving all the time and quite possibly wears a cape: There is work to be done!

As she discusses throughout her new book, Creative Trespassing: How to Put the Spark and Joy Back Into Your Work and Life (Currency), which makes its debut in mid-February, there most certainly is work to be done and the best person to do that work is you. Luckily for us, Katan is there to guide us along the way, sharing her successes and failures, as well as a fair amount of input from her friends, colleagues, and mentors, but this is not your typical “how-to” book. Creative Trespassing offers the reader something more and feels as if you are receiving a gift from the author in each chapter.

Perhaps this is because Katan grew up feeling like an outsider, which may explain why her book feels more inclusive than other way-to-success tomes. “I thought I was just kind of destined to be an outsider never to fit in. And I didn’t realize that that was actually, that those were the best places to be,” shares Katan. The depth in her writing makes it feel like a shared experience — as if she’s shoulder to shoulder with the reader.

For many outsiders, there is often crippling doubt or fear that creeps in when there is an opportunity to step beyond the comfort zone into a new job or relationship. Katan teaches us to embrace our fears and doubts in Creative Trespassing by “turning into them” rather than avoiding them, much in the way drivers are taught to turn into a skid. In her eyes, there is often an opportunity to be wildly successful in areas where you may not have been able to see yourself succeeding because of attitude and willingness to think outside of the box. She talks with affection about her time honing her creative trespassing skills while working with the Scottsdale Museum Of Contemporary Art (SMOCA).

“When I first arrived (at SMOCA), I hadn’t worked in a large organization that was pretty corporate in its structure and its roles. And so, one thing they were saying, they were telling me about this thing called ‘employee of the month’ and I’m like, ‘Well, how do I win it?’ Then they were like, ‘You don’t win employee of the month, you earn it.’ And I’m like, ‘Well then I’m going to earn your votes and win.’ And so, I launched a full-scale campaign to, you know, like a political campaign to win employee of the month,” says Katan, who used her campaign to get to know her co-workers.

It should be noted that during her time at SMOCA, Katan revised her own job title and declared herself to be the Director of Shenanigans. While this did not make all of her co-workers happy, Katan recalls that it made her memorable to the people she met as she was spreading the word about SMOCA to the community at large.

The term “Creative Trespassing” itself is something Katan coined as she was trying to figure out how to accurately describe exactly what she does for a living. To be able to give that often elusive “elevator pitch,” one must be able to quickly and concisely define their professional skill set without making the listener want to run away.

“I literally sat down several years ago and I’m like, okay, what do I do? And I made a list of words, ‘Am I creative? Imaginative?’ And I’m like, ‘Well what do I do with them?’ I bring them into places where they don’t belong. ‘Well, what’s that called?’ It’s called a barrier to entry. And then I found trespassing and I’m like, ‘Huh.’ And you know, I took one word from column a, one from column b and it became creative trespassing. I was really happy to work that out and discover those two words together equaled what a lot of people do in the world.”

The book is written in Katan’s distinctive voice which is full of energy, empathy, and wit. This may be jarring, initially, to a reader unfamiliar with Katan’s work and style as many of us are not used to having someone speak to us in this way. She is direct and to the point, but also completely engaging as she takes us through the relationship between creativity and our professional lives.

For example, in chapter 11, which is called “Outgrow Adulting,” Katan talks about the importance of finding your power amulet. It could be that lucky fifty cent piece your grandfather gave you or a favorite pair of socks, but having that extra confidence that comes from having your power amulet (or socks) on your person when you are doing something big is a great way of tapping into your creativity and ruling the day with a little help from your imagination. Katan wrote, “For a long time, my power amulet was a specific pair of socks that I would literally wash every night after a performance, so I could wear them again. That’s how much power those suckers brought to me. Then it was a pair of sneakers.”

(And full disclosure, you’ll never see your author performing music without something green on, even if that article of clothing is not exposed to the audience.)

For Katan, who has lived in the Phoenix area off and on throughout large portions of her life, this work presented the best kind of challenge as she realized there were two audiences she was writing for as she got further into her writing process.

“One is for, you know, people who do not consider themselves creative, who are working the sort of quote unquote typical jobs and would just like to infuse more joy and imagination into their work. Because this is where we spend sometimes over 40 percent of our lives and then for people who fancy themselves as creatives because they will understand that there are more options and places for their creativity to go into,” says Katan.

As we were talking on the phone, Katan posed the question: “What’s the point of writing something that isn’t challenging both to the author and the audience?”

To those who struggle with creativity, the book will be a challenge, but Katan has anticipated these challenges eloquently by adding multiple “Productive Disruption” opportunities throughout the book. These activities are designed to help both creatives and non-creatives alike think outside the box and explore both their working environment and their beliefs about the way work can be done. The first of these activities involves taking a self-guided tour of your company (or your company’s website) and encourages the reader to truly look for the “tension between the company’s promises (quotes, mission statement, vision, etc.) and the on-the-ground realities.” Once the observations have been made, Katan then challenges you to figure out how to bring the “promises” and “reality” into alignment.

After graduating from Arizona State University (ASU), Katan spent many years living in California, both in the San Francisco Bay area and in Los Angeles. but when her wife, artist Angela Ellsworth was offered a position at ASU, the couple moved back to the Valley in 2005, which was just in time to see Phoenix undergoing a bit of creative trespassing itself.

“And then, you know, Arizona started living up to its promise. (The) Phoenix Metro area started to see art galleries pop up, Roosevelt row started to happen … I would say that it’s interesting because Arizona, Phoenix Metro, is in a moment where they have many choices as to whether or not they want to creatively trespass or whether they want to a go by the way of many cities who haven’t figured out a bridge between creativity and commerce, not a real bridge. And then that equals, you know, displaced artists and human beings,” says Katan, before concluding:

“And so, I think it’s a real opportunity we have a lot of cool tech companies that sprung up from Arizona. You have WebPT, you have Tuft and Needle and others. I think that they are actively trying to find tissue or connective tissue between the arts and these companies. I think that the companies that aren’t trying to creatively trespass, unfortunately, are either going to go away or they might find themselves devoid of the very messaging and branding that they’re putting out there.”