Creativity on demand

Joshua Rothman writing in the New Yorker

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.

8 Responses

  1. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  2. In the modern usage “creative” doesn’t only mean inventive. It can also mean something much closer to deviant or bizarre. The underlying notion seems to be that random behavior should be encouraged because some of that behavior will discover a new niche in our “increasingly complex world.” Creative behavior is analogous to sports of nature or genetic mutations, most of which fail, but a few of which hit a home run. If we think of it this way, “creativity” has a meaning very similar to “experimentation” in its non-scientific sense (e.g. the teenager who is “experimenting with drugs). But for the most part, I think this sort of talk serves to obscure the fact that most of us are interchangeable cogs performing routine functions in a vast machine.

  3. If there is such a demand for “creativity”, why aren’t companies handing out LSD and other “mind-expanding” drugs?

  4. But for the most part, I think this sort of talk serves to obscure the fact that most of us are interchangeable cogs performing routine functions in a vast machine.

    Is this the Leftist view or the true (Christian) one? Because if that’s the Christian view than no wonder the Left wants nothing to do with it and seeks to obscure it.

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2014/09/yes-modern-people-are-excessively.html

  5. @ Andrew E. I hadn’t intended to express a Leftist or Christian view of the matter. I do think the statement is more or less true for most employees in large bureaucratic organizations, that it is more or less the way those employees are viewed by their managers, and that motivational piffle about creativity in a cubicle serves to obscure this fact. Routine, standardization and the prohibition of arbitrary decisions are the telos of a bureaucracy. The Leftist view is that this telos is swell so long as the bureaucracy is a branch of the state. If there is a Christian view, I’d guess that it is that this is yet more evidence that we live in a fallen world that does not know us in the way that God originally intended us to be known. The Christian attitude towards this state of affairs is that one should be cheerful and shun despair, but this is because of our ultimate hope, not because we’ve swallowed the whopper that filing data is an “art.”

  6. > But for the most part, I think this sort of talk serves to obscure the fact that most of us are
    > interchangeable cogs performing routine functions in a vast machine.
    That’s probably true, and if this is just a matter of debasing the word “creativity”, then that’s better than actually demanding that everyone be really creative.

    I’m not sure if people really use the word “creative” to describe random behavior, except ironically. One could easily train a computer with a random number generator to be “creative” in this way.

  7. >>But for the most part, I think this sort of talk serves to obscure the fact that most of us are interchangeable cogs performing routine functions in a vast machine.

    And? Working as a “pencil pusher” ain’t the end of the world. Go paint on the weekends.

    >> I do think the statement is more or less true for most employees in large bureaucratic organizations, that it is more or less the way those employees are viewed by their managers, and that motivational piffle about creativity in a cubicle serves to obscure this fact.

    Sure, bosses could treat their employees with more respect and what not, but it’s the nature of the beast. Some times a job is a job no matter how routine and uncreative; at least it ain’t something degrading or something borderline exhibitionist like film acting.

    It seems like you got some bitterness towards cubicle jobs.

    >>Routine, standardization and the prohibition of arbitrary decisions are the telos of a bureaucracy. The Leftist view is that this telos is swell so long as the bureaucracy is a branch of the state.

    I could probably find a list of corporations that aren’t “a branch of the state.”

    >>If there is a Christian view, I’d guess that it is that this is yet more evidence that we live in a fallen world that does not know us in the way that God originally intended us to be known.

    No, that’s your view. You’re looking for Utopia. It doesn’t exist here on earth. It never did and it never will.

    Some look for Utopia where there is no poverty, no discrimination, no hunger, no wars, no racism etc. You look for Utopia in a land where everyone finds a job/career that taps into what “God originally intended us to be known.” Do you think all the carpenters in Jesus time truly wanted to craft wood? I highly doubt it. I’d wager that what you appeal to didn’t even cross their minds. In fact, what you’re appealing to IS very leftist.

    >>The Christian attitude towards this state of affairs is that one should be cheerful and shun despair, but this is because of our ultimate hope, not because we’ve swallowed the whopper that filing data is an “art.”

    Weird, I never actually heard or read of this “Christian attitude” you speak of towards ones job/career. I take it that it’s just your take on it and you’re throwing the “Christian attitude” blanket over it.

    When was it a Christian’s job/mission to stand up to corporations for their routine work?

    “Hey, boss, this job just isn’t fulfilling my needs of being a human. It pays decently and the health coverage is good, I think you’re a cool boss, but I don’t think this what God meant for us humans.”

    Yea, okay.

    Even people who “do what they love” (mostly those in the creative fields) at times have a hard time being cheerful; some are pricks and some have been raised in families that don’t have a moral bone in their bodies. As someone who has experience in the creative field there is despair; it’s not all “I’m SO satisfied and pleased with my uber creative job that helps me express myself!” — and it’s mainly a leftist political environment.

    Also, I don’t think many see data filing as an “art” no matter how their supervisor spins it or what they read in the New Yorker. It’s a job to be done so people do it.

    Both of your posts use the usual cubicle jabs, using them like it’s some sort of solid foundation of your contempt for the cubicle/filing data jobs. Yea, I get it, you don’t like being (or thinking of people being) a cog in a bureaucratic machine and feel it’s a horrid existence not fulfilling God’s plan for us. Seriously, gain some perspective.

  8. I haven’t got anything against cubicles or the people in them. If working there pays the bills, that’s all to the good. If the worker takes satisfaction in his work, that’s even better. The topic of this post and thread corporate happy talk in genera, and misuse of the word “creative” in particular.

    And what’s wrong with expressing my “take” in a comment? Isn’t that what a comment is?

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