In “Creativity on Demand,” one of the business-minded books, the creativity guru Michael Gelb reports on a 2010 survey conducted by I.B.M.’s Institute for Business Values, which asked fifteen hundred chief executives what they valued in their employees. “Although ‘execution’ and ‘engagement’ continue to be highly valued,” Gelb reports, “the CEOs had a new number-one priority: creativity,” which is now seen as “the key to successful leadership in an increasingly complex world.”
It sounds bizarre, in some ways, to talk about creativity apart from the creation of a product. But that remoteness and strangeness is actually a measure of how much our sense of creativity has taken on the cast of our market-driven age. We live in a consumer society premised on the idea of self-expression through novelty. We believe that we can find ourselves through the acquisition of new things. Perhaps inevitably, we have reconceived creativity as a kind of meta-consumption: a method of working your way toward the other side of the consumer-producer equation, of swimming, salmon-like, back to the origin of the workflow. Thus the rush, in my pile of creativity books, to reconceive every kind of life style as essentially creative—to argue that you can “unleash your creativity” as an investor, a writer, a chemist, a teacher, an athlete, or a coach. Even as this way of speaking aims to recast work as art, it suggests how much art has been recast as work: it’s now difficult to speak about creativity without also invoking a profession of some kind.
Theologically speaking, only God is creative. Analogically, the closest thing humans do to being creative is having children. And, of course, Distributism’s idealization of small farms and businesses is meant to be a way of getting to “the other side of the consumer-producer equation”. None of that now counts as “creative”, which now means something like “inventive” and “original” to a high degree. (Rothman, citing the nineteenth-century Romantics, means something else yet by being “creative”. More or less, he means “contemplatively aware”.) Demanding that ordinary people be creative is a cruel thing. Most people just can’t do it, and nobody can do it on demand. I certainly know that nothing locks my brain more quickly than consciously trying to be creative. To think well, one must stop worrying about whether one is being original. Indeed, it’s usually best not to be thinking about oneself at all.
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