The cult of creativity
This article is published in Pages Of, a new culture and urbanism magazine created by Crystal Bennes and Cecilia Lindgren. You can buy a copy on the website. I urge you to do so. There are 78 other pages filled with much better stuff than this, including cartoons.
“You left me dangling, Lemon” bewails Jack Donaghy, the TV network kingpin, to Liz Lemon, the kooky liberal writer who abandoned him during an important pitch, in an episode of NBC’s comedy series 30 Rock. “I’m not a creative type like you with your work sneakers and left-handedness. I can’t do what you do.”
It is the ultimate plaint of a man out of step with his times. Nowadays an admittance of failure to think outside the box, or an unenthused face during a company brainstorm, can amount to career suicide. The amorphous concept of ‘creativity’ has become the unquestioned MacGuffin of our times, and anyone who doesn’t demonstrate it – or at least a willingness to cultivate it – is in danger of being labeled a conservative desk-monkey unfit for the creative rigours of our fecund social media world.
Google ‘become more creative’ and you’ll get over 335 million results. Amazon.com finds 11, 468 books with the word ‘creativity’ in the title; many juxtaposing such adjectives as ‘brilliant’, unleashed’ and ‘joyful’. TED.com has 93 thought leadership videos under the tag ‘creativity.’ And in one of those TED talks, renowned educator Sir Ken Robinson makes a bold call to arms. “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy”, he says, “and we should treat it with the same status.”
Robinson’s belief is that valuing creativity in our education system will encourage inter-disciplinary thinking and allow academically poor children to thrive in unexpected and important ways. It’s difficult to argue with, especially when you consider the world these children are being born into. More video is uploaded to YouTube in 60 days than the 3 major US networks created in 60 years; if Wikipedia were a book, it would be 2.25 million pages long. People are tweeting, blogging and self-publishing full-length novels every day. If you’re going to be a participant and not a lurker, a thought-leader and not a hive-mind drone, you’d do well to understand how to play the game.
But is our current creative exuberance entirely positive? Like its buzzword cousin ‘content’, the term creativity has become both laden with significance and utterly meaningless. It is at the heart of the value system of our new technology-led ‘socialnomics’, but it has also become a fuzzy and frustrating personal and professional dictate. Few would deny that democritising the tools of production and giving the humble everyman a public voice is one of the great achievements of our generation. But when it comes to creativity, there is a growing whiff of dogma in the air.
If creativity is a cult, it’s one of the oldest. The most famous book in the world opens with the classic ‘let there be light’ (bulb) epiphany. ‘Creo’ dates back to the Latin, and it had morphed into ‘create’ by the end of the thirteenth century when Chaucer used it in his Parson’s Tale, but the use of the term creativity to mean an act of human rather than divine creation only emerged during the Enlightenment. From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, creativity was considered the sole preserve of the arts, and it was only at the turn of the twentieth that philosophers such as Jan Ukasiewicz start to apply the concept to the sciences. Then in the 1950s, advertising executive Alex Osborn outlined the technique of ‘brainstorming’, and successive theories – from Genrikh Altshuller’s Theory of Inventive Problem-Solving (TRIZ) to Edward de Bono’s lateral thinking – helped to rapidly embed creativity as an important element in business and personal development too.
The academic study of creativity is now a flourishing field. But James C. Kaufman, Professor of Psychology at California State University and co-author of the seminal book The Creativity Conundrum, believes that unquestioned assumptions about the cultural hegemony of creativity are starting to creep in. “One thing that creativity researchers do”, he says, “is assume that creativity is the be-all and end-all and we don’t argue why it’s important. Creativity on an everyday level is associated with better physical and mental health, better leadership. But we don’t compare. Is it really better than being good at math or being able to run five miles without getting tired? It depends on what you value and it depends on what we need.”
These two discriminators of need and value seem to be increasingly overlooked. Take need. We fetishise disruptive ideas and original connections – but we forget that true creativity should always fulfill a purpose. “The standard definition of creativity is of something new and appropriate,” Kaufman explains. “Not socially appropriate, but that it does what it’s supposed to do. If you’re writing a novel, you have to have ideas, but it has to be readable and have an audience. But the new part is what people tend to focus on. If I ask you what is three plus three and you shout fish, it’s new and it’s different but its not creative. It’s random. The appropriateness is not the sexy part. You have to generate ideas but then you have to discriminate, you have to pick the best ones, and you have to be able to execute it. Otherwise its not creative, its just word vomit.”
It’s a topic close to Scott Belsky’s heart. Belsky is founder and CEO of online community Behance, ‘the world’s leading platform for creative professionals to gain exposure and manage their careers’. In 2010, he published the Wall Street bestseller Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality. “I was most inspired by a sense of frustration”, he explains. “There is so much discussion in the creative world about inspiration and creativity, but very little discussion about organisation and execution. The stuff that makes our lives interesting – the art, the design, and all of the original content – is all created by the creative professional community. But, unfortunately, creatives in particular face unique obstacles when it comes to actually making their ideas happen.”
Belsky suggests that, particularly in the business world, our enthusiasm for creativity is not being sufficiently matched with training in how to apply that creativity in an effective and, yes, appropriate way. “For companies to embrace creativity more, they must understand how to manage it. Unfortunately there is an inherent clash between creativity and execution. Very creative people have the tendency to jump from idea to idea to idea without following through on anything. I have met many entrepreneurs with this problem. Also, given the passion we have for our creative projects, we often face challenges when it comes to gathering feedback, refining our ideas, and engaging others. Within a business, these common tendencies of creative people can get in the way. As such, despite what businesses say about nurturing creativity, they struggle with it.”
And what about the thorny issue of value? In their latest work, Beyond Big and Little: The Four C Model of Creativity, Kaufman and co-author Ron Beghetto identify four different levels of creativity. These can be summarized as ‘mini-c’, the internal creativity involved whenever we learn something new; ‘little-c’, everyday creativity of the craft-fair type; ‘Pro-C’, the quality output of creative professionals which contributes to their wider milieu; and ‘Big-C’, the Mozart symphonies and Einstein theories – in Kaufman’s words, “the stuff that changes everything”.
It is an inclusive and encouraging model, and one that absolutely has a place for all our social media ‘content’, even if it is, largely, word (or visual) vomit. That’s people exercising their right to enjoy mini- and little- c activity, and good on them. But while our new technologies and the habits they inculcate are excellent for encouraging and valuing mini- and little- c, they are less good at encouraging and valuing Pro- and Big- C. They may even be disabling and burying them.
“Discussions between people can only take place on the basis of a shared encyclopedia”, novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco declared last year in This is Not the End of the Book, a collection of conversations between Eco and the playwright and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. “I could prove to you that Napoleon never existed – but only because all three of us have learned that he did. That is what ensures that dialogue can continue. It is this intercourse that allows for dialogue, creativity and freedom […] the Internet gives us everything and forces us to filter it not by the workings of culture, but with our own brains. This risks creating six billion separate encyclopedias, which would prevent any common understanding whatsoever.”
Eco also reminds us that culture is a shared endeavour that requires discarding the insignificant as well as uncovering the great. “One thing is certain: what we call culture is in fact a lengthy process of selection and filtering,” he says. “So, are the books that remain the best of the huge legacy of centuries gone by? Or the worst? Have we retained the golden nuggets or the mud in the various spheres of creative expression?”
In other words, who now curates what culture is worth keeping, where does it live, and how do we find it amongst the spume of half-realised ideas and half-baked opinions? This process has traditionally been facilitated by editors and mentors, who can help a new generation polish their ideas until they produce something extraordinary. But in the age of self-publishing, that expertise and experience is often bypassed.
“If you were a writer twenty years ago and you wanted to have your poem read by hundreds of people it would mean publishing it, which is hard,” Kaufman explains. “You’d get these gatekeepers who make sure that poem or that scientific paper is at a certain level before it’s published. But now we can circumnavigate the gatekeepers and publish as an ebook on Amazon or make a movie on your iPhone. On the one hand great, I’m not an elitist and I love this idea of democratic production; conversely gatekeepers do have a role. It forces the creator to revise, keep thinking, keep building on it without sending it off into the world prematurely. And it allows the consumer to have a certain level of trust.”
So Big-C creativity may be under threat from our lack of shared cultural vernacular. It may be lost in our inability to separate the wheat from the chaff. But there is a third repercussion. Might our reliance on real-time, instantly gratifying and constantly collaborative platforms and tools be handicapping our actual creative abilities?
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi is one of the heroes of modern creativity theory, and the only one most of us have heard of. In 1990, Csíkszentmihályi wrote Flow, a hugely popular examination of the ‘in the zone’ mental state which results from a combination of factors such as single-minded concentration, clear goals, a balance between ability level and challenge, and loss of self-consciousness. Today he believes that flow is more elusive than ever. “New social technologies will facilitate quick collaborative solutions to problems,” he admits, “but they are intrusive on the long, concentrated, and solitary effort that most truly creative accomplishments require.”
In 2008, Atlantic magazine published an essay by Nicholas Carr titled ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ Carr began by musing: “over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain”. Having struggled to think or read deeply, he reasoned that “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Carr’s article sparked a global debate about the evolution of our cyber-saturated brains and spawned such books as The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World by Bryan Appleyard; How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future edited by John Brockman; and Carr’s own Pulitzer finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. As these books admit, proper studies on the issue are in their infancy, but early research suggests that we really are rerouting our neural pathways to suit the online environment. It is of course perfectly possible to switch off our browser, silence our smartphone and reconnect with pen, paper and sustained creative thought. But resisting the social sugar-high of the web, where every meaningless tweet provokes a deluge of feedback, can feel increasingly difficult.
Moreover, debates springing up beyond the creative and technological industries suggest that our over-production may be symptomatic of a wider issue, one that has implications beyond wasted potential and white noise. In last year’s RSA President’s Lecture, David Attenborough chose to speak, movingly, about what he perceived as the biggest threat to the planet: overpopulation. The population of the world is growing by around ten thousand people an hour and there are complex social, political, religious and economic factors driving the trend. These will not be easily tackled. But what Attenborough found surprising was how reluctant governments and individuals are to mention the one phenomenon that will make all other environmental measures obsolete. “Why this strange silence?” he asks. “I meet no one who privately disagrees that population growth is a problem. No one – except flat-earthers – can deny that the planet is finite. We can all see it – in that beautiful picture of our earth taken by the Apollo mission. So why does hardly anyone say so publicly? There seems to be some bizarre taboo around the subject.”
The fact is that abstinence, restraint and silence have become deeply unfashionable and even morally questionable in a society where positivity, productivity and freedom of expression have cult-like status. Attenborough exhorts us to get them back on the public agenda. “Break the taboo, in private and in public – as best you can, as you judge right,” he pleads. “Until it is broken there is no hope of the action we need. Wherever and whenever we speak of the environment – add a few words to ensure that the population element is not ignored.” If, as Eco suggests, culture is a graveyard, then we are living in a giant maternity ward. Perhaps in creativity, as in conservation, opening a dialogue about the importance of ‘less and better’ would be to the benefit of all.
So how will our relationship with creativity develop? According to the predictable cycles of fashion, it may soon be time for the left-brainers to steal the limelight back from the left-handers. Kaufman believes that the backlash is already here. “We have a spoken praise of creativity, we say we like creativity, but most people don’t. Companies say they want creative workers but they often don’t. Creative workers tend to make more mistakes, be less conscientious, be more focused on their own not the company’s success. And there is still the belief that creative people are mentally ill! There are people who don’t enjoy creativity. That’s fine. We need people who can get straightforward stuff done too.”
Csíkszentmihályi believes that our current obsession stems from a deep spiritual unease that is unlikely to shift until we find a new panacea. “I have been saying for a while that creativity has taken the place of salvation and divine grace, which have lost credibility with the wane of religious faith,” he says. “It has become the secular equivalent of hope in the afterlife. And in the process the whole phenomenon of creativity has become mystified, as behooves a concept that people use to reassure themselves about the future.”
Of course, our beliefs around and use of creativity will help to shape that future. We may not be able to restore a belief in divine grace. But at the very least, it feels like the time has come to seriously question which combination of tools, attitudes and education – beyond work sneakers and self-help books – might encourage a culture of creativity that will enable both individual pleasure and cultural impact.