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Shawn Mak

What’s your brand and creative Everest?

I recently visited with my friend Renee who stays in Moorpark, California. But who works in Thousand Oaks. Geographically, the city is about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles.

Moorpark and Thousand Oaks are connected by either Freeway 23, a leisurely 8-mile cruise down those wide-open California highways you see in a Katy Perry music video; or a stunning, bendy, 2-mile stretch of Moorpark Road called the Norwegian Grade, seen only by the privileged few. For the several years I’d lived there, I never knew this place existed. And boy, is it breathtaking.

The historic Grade started as a one-lane trail carved out of a steep hillside by Norwegian settlers in the early 1900s to help farmers move harvested crops down the hill to Oxnard, a neighbouring county. A century later, today, the Norwegian Grade serves not farmers but some 6,000 commuter cars each day shuttling between Thousand Oaks and Moorpark, Camarillo and further cities. Besides the fact that you effectively shave 6 miles off your commute, the view along the grade is beyond words. And I can certainly see its appeal. Cradling the windy, narrow 2-lane stretch of road are rolling hills, green leaf cactus, brown sage, wild oats, old wooden fencing, the occasional grazing cows, and at dusk…the most magnificent sunset you will ever see. Never mind the fitful shocks of rusty barbed wire, a palpable lack of guardrail, and the absence of road shoulders and passing lanes. Negotiating the Norwegian Grade is therefore an understandably frustrating and rewarding experience. You can’t tear your eyes off the beauty that unfolds at every bend with great aplomb, but doing so would be deadly. Local media and residents call it “dangerous”, “really rough”, “patched up with lots of patches”, you get the idea.

And if you pay close enough attention, you can make out also the occasional accident shrines. I was told they were roadside memorials for cyclists who were killed traversing the Grade. Jim, who was with us as we travelled down the Grade, didn’t understand why cyclists continue to cycle up and down it, where there is virtually no passing lane or shoulders; only annoyed drivers being forced to share what’s already a difficult drive. Brush a little too close, and less sure-footed cyclists might plunge to certain death or become human-metal carcass. But that hasn’t stopped many cyclists from tackling the tricky Grade daily, bringing much consternation to drivers who’d rather be risking their lives for the beautiful sunset than having second-degree manslaughter on their conscience. Renee, a cyclist herself, simply said, “Maybe to some cyclists, this is their Everest.”.

We know the aphorisms: No guts, no glory. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. Yes, cyclists do trade in cliches sometimes. But dig deeper and cliches are grounded in kernels of human truths. Whether you are a cyclist, a brand strategist, a creative thinker, a designer, or a business owner, you can cruise comfortably along an 8-mile stretch like everyone else, and be one of many; or you can grit yourself, strap on that helmet, peddle as hard as you can, and be a giant among few. Go for the glory and the bragging rights. And when you get to the top, you’ll pump your fist in the air like Tenzing and Hillary when they conquered Everest.

The best brand strategists, business owners and creative designers always stare up the grade and peddle as hard as they can. Never mind that they risk getting sideswiped by more conservative drivers or elbowed to an inch of their life. They have a date with the summit, and are determined to make it. The more treacherous the risks, the sweeter the taste of success. And if you get sideswiped, well, at least you leave a wakeful legacy for others (and yourself) and you trip up to the most amazing sunset of your life. And the good thing with what we do is, you’ll wake up again the next day, and live to see another sunrise. And be the wiser for it. That’s when you strap on your helmet and go at it again.