Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘creativity

“The Artist’s Way” in an Age of Self-Promotion

The too common term Creativity has no longer any meaning?

When creativity becomes a profession…It often stops being creative.

Ad agencies are some of the most conservative organizations you’ll encounter. They’ve been so trained by fearful clients, they censor themselves regularly.

Successful authors are pushed by concerned publishers to become more true to their genres.

And the movie industry… well, it’s an industry first.

This is why so many bestsellers are surprise bestsellers.

In the words of William Goldman, no one knows anything. But, even though they don’t know, the industrial protocol demands that they act like they do.

Shareholders hesitate to give bonuses to CEOs who say, “I don’t know, let’s try it.”

If you want to be creative, truly creative, it might pay to avoid a job with the word ‘creative’ in it.

 

Preparing for a shark attack

A shark attack is sudden, visceral and overwhelming.

And it’s impossible to be a tough guy in the face of one.

The sheer terror of it overwhelms us, paralyzing us, helpless to do a thing about it.

And, most important, and easily overlooked:

Shark attacks are astonishingly rare.

It turns out that there’s no useful correlation between the enormity of a hazard and its relevance to our lives.

The same thing is true of your project, your upcoming speech, and the meeting you’re about to schedule.

Using the phrase, “shark attack” to describe the imaginary but horrible pitfall ahead is a good way to remind ourselves to focus on something else.

Better to prepare for a hazard both likely and avoidable instead.

 

Perfectionism is the enemy of the creative

william choukeir posted this June 26, 2014
 

“do you mind, even a little, that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else’s needs and […] career ahead of your creative […] life? giving all your life force away, to ‘help’ and impress.” —anne lamott

what does people-pleasing have to do with perfectionism? let’s get into that right after we establish a common understanding of perfectionism.

think of it this way, in geometry, you can imagine a perfect picture-frame with right angles, and with edges that are perfectly parallel.

in real life, there are no perfectly parallel lines. trying to re-create this perfect frame in the real world would be perfectionism. It’s like chasing the horizon.

“it’s actually kind of tragic”, admits david foster, because doing anything means that you “sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.”

so what does people-pleasing have to do with perfectionism?

it’s common for fear to be lurking behind people-pleasing, and that more often than not leads to perfectionism. i expect a couple of you to disagree with the following statement. if you do disagree, then you’re either not aware of the fear, or the following doesn’t apply to you.

you may not be aware that fear [usually] lurks behind perfectionism. fear is the fuel that drives your compulsion to polish things to the ultimate.” says renown psychiatrist david burns, M.D.(1) people-pleasers are usually afraid. According to burns, perfectionism protects you. “it may protect you from risking criticism, failure, or disapproval.”

one perfectionist confesses that if he didn’t submit a perfect paper, he’ll let down the professor, get a D, ruin his own academic record, and people would be angry with him, he’ll be a failure, rejected by everyone, alone and miserable.(2)

people-pleasing often leads us to follow someone else’s dreams and ideas, thinking them our own.

“a lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. they’re sucked in from other people. […] what i want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. […] because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.” —alain de botton

imagine being a perfectionist while attempting to work on a task you’d like to like. that’s a recipe for procrastination. imagine pursuing a journey you ‘thought’ you wanted, only to find out that it’s what someone else wanted.

perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. it will keep you cramped and insane your whole life. […] it will keep you very scared and restless your entire life if you do not awaken, and fight back, and if you’re an artist, it will destroy you.” —anne lamott

perfectionism freezes you. like ice stuck in time and space. water, on the other hand, flows. it glides around obstacles, adjusts its path, and moves forward. accept that ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist. ideas are only perfect within the safety of our minds.

“remember that sooner or later, before your work ever reaches perfection,  you will have to let it go and move on and start […] the next thing.” —neil gaiman

flow around obstacles, critics, and those who want you to follow their idea of success. accept to sacrifice your perfect idea. put it into a shitty first draft. refine a few times. then move on to the next best thing. some will like it. some will hate it. be very clear with yourself about who it’s for. it’s only those who matter. listen. improve. then move on. anything you give to the world is better than keeping it in your head. the world deserves your gift.

if you can do that, then maybe you’ll realize that passion can replace perfectionism. risk having your ideas clash with the world enough times, and you’ll learn. you’ll grow. and so will your gifts. in your eyes it may still not be perfect. but in the eyes of your audience, it may very well be remarkable. flow, despite the fears, the self doubts, and the risk of rejection.

“perfection is like chasing the horizon. keep moving.” —neil gaiman


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resources 1 and 2: Burns, David D. (1999). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Avon Books (Whole Care). pp. 359-363.

 

Bird by Bird: Anne Lamott’s Advice on

Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Creativity

by

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) is among my 10 favorite books on writing — a treasure trove of insight both practical and profound, timelessly revisitable and yielding deeper resonance each time.

Lamott adds to the collected wisdom of great writers with equal parts candor and conviction, teaching us as much about writing as she does about creativity at large and, even beyond that, about being human and living a full life — because as Lamott notes in the beginning, writing is nothing more nor less than a sense-making mechanism for life:

One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.

What makes Lamott so compelling is that all of her advice comes not from the ivory tower of the pantheon but from an honest place of exquisite vulnerability and hard-earned life-wisdom.

She recounts her formative years and where she headed once she encountered that inevitable fork in the road where we can choose between being shut in and shut down by our traumatic experiences, or using them as fertile clay for character-building:

I started writing when I was seven or eight. I was very shy and strange-looking, loved reading above everything else, weighed about 40 pounds at the time, and was so tense that I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears, like Richard Nixon.

I saw a home movie once of a birthday party I went to in the first grade, with all these cute little boys and girls playing together like puppies, and all of a sudden I scuttled across the screen like Prufrock’s crab.

I was very clearly the one who was going to grow up to be a serial killer, or keep dozens and dozens of cats. Instead, I got funny. I got funny because boys, older boys I didn’t even know, would ride by on their bicycles and taunt me about my weird looks. Each time felt like a drive-by shooting. I think this is why I walked like Nixon: I think I was trying to plug my ears with my shoulders, but they wouldn’t quite reach. So first I got funny and then I started to write, although I did not always write funny things.

[…]

All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging.

In seventh and eighth grades I still weighed about forty pounds. I was twelve years old and had been getting teased about my strange looks for most of my life. This is a difficult country to look too different in — the United States of Advertising, as Paul Krassner puts it — and if you are too skinny or too tall or dark or weird or short or frizzy or homely or poor or nearsighted, you get crucified. I did.

So she found refuge in books, searching for “some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in [her] head.” To find that, she became a writer and began fantasizing about getting published, about “the thrill of seeing oneself in print,” as the highest form of existential validation.

When Lamott published her first book, she awaited the affirming grandeur of public approval and secretly thought that “trumpets would blare, major reviewers would proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in all of its dizzying complexity.”

Of course, none of this happened — not with the first book, nor the second or third or fourth or fifth. Instead, what Lamott found was a deeper kind of reward — that sensation “unmerited grace” that Annie Dillard so eloquently captured in her timeless meditation on the writing life. Lamott echoes Ray Bradbury on rejection and reflects:

I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

[…]

I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.

But, one might wonder, why? Lamott answers beautifully:

My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment. Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested.

But I also tell [my students] that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something. It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out. Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.

For her, the essence of writing is about something simple, something immutable about being human:

Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.

[…]

Hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.

At the heart of writing, Lamott argues, lies a capacity for quiet grit and a willingness to decondition the all too human tendency to get so overwhelmed by the enormity of the journey that we’re too paralyzed to take the first step.

She recounts this wonderful anecdote, after which the book is titled:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

In this bird-by-bird approach to writing, there is no room for perfectionism. (Neil Gaiman famously advised, “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”, and David Foster Wallace admonished, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”) Lamott cautions:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

[…]

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

Lamott echoes Susan Sontag (“That’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world.” and offers a beautiful definition of what it means to be a writer:

Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.

[…]

The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell” standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes. You’re outside, but you can see things up close through your binoculars.

Your job is to present clearly your viewpoint, your line of vision. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.

In a sentiment reminiscent of E. B. White’s timeless words on the responsibility of the writer, Lamott considers the core of being a writer:

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.

That is, one needs to have a moral position.

I myself have long believed that the role of a great writer — or editor, or “curator,” or any other custodian of cultural values — is to frame for people what matters in the world and why.

George Eliot famously observed, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” — a notion Lamott considers in the context of that necessary moral position:

As we live, we begin to discover what helps in life and what hurts, and our characters act this out dramatically. This is moral material. … A moral position is a passionate caring inside you. We are all in danger now and have a new everything to face, and there is no point gathering an audience and demanding its attention unless you have something to say that is important and constructive. My friend Carpenter says we no longer need Chicken Little to tell us the sky is falling, because it already has. The issue now is how to take care of one another.

She finds in writing what Carl Sagan found in science — profound awe, deep reverence, a source of spiritual elevation:

In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? … Think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world.

Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment.

This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.

[…]

There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness. . .

Most of all, however, Lamott sees in writing not a selfish act of personal gratification but an act of warm generosity — which is, after all, what drives all of us who wake up in the morning to put something we love into the world and go to bed at night glad that we did:

If you give freely, there will always be more. … It is one of the greatest feelings known to humans, the feeling of being the host, of hosting people, of being the person to whom they come for food and drink and company. This is what the writer has to offer.

This mutual gratification is where the mesmerism of literature lies:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.

We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

Bird by Bird is an absolute must-read, and must-reread, in its entirety. Complement it with Annie Dillard on writing, which inspired Lamott, and Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, which was inspired by Lamott.

For more notable advice on writing, see Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Are TED talks lying to you?  And why did I hear all these predictable stories before?

The writer had a problem. Books he read and people he knew had been warning him that the nation and maybe mankind itself had wandered into a sort of creativity doldrums.

Economic growth was slackening. The Internet revolution was less awesome than we had anticipated, and the forward march of innovation, once a cultural constant, had slowed to a crawl.

Thomas Frank posted on Salon this OCT 13, 2013:

TED talks are lying to you

One of the few fields in which we generated lots of novelties — financial engineering — had come back to bite us.

And in other departments, we actually seemed to be going backward. You could no longer take a supersonic airliner across the Atlantic, for example, and sending astronauts to the moon had become either fiscally insupportable or just passé.

TED talks are lying to youEnlarge

Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm in “Mad Men” (Credit: AMC/Michael Yarish/amc)

And yet the troubled writer also knew that there had been, over these same years, fantastic growth in our creativity promoting sector. There were TED talks on how to be a creative person.

There were “Innovation Jams” at which IBM employees brainstormed collectively over a global hookup, and “Thinking Out of the Box” desktop sculptures for sale at Sam’s Club.

There were creativity consultants you could hire, and cities that had spent billions reworking neighborhoods into arts-friendly districts where rule-bending whimsicality was a thing to be celebrated. If you listened to certain people, creativity was the story of our time, from the halls of MIT to the incubators of Silicon Valley.

The literature on the subject was vast. Authors included management gurus, forever exhorting us to slay the conventional; urban theorists, with their celebrations of zesty togetherness; pop psychologists, giving the world step-by-step instructions on how to unleash the inner Miles Davis.

Most prominent, perhaps, were the science writers, with their endless tales of creative success and their dissection of the brains that made it all possible.

It was to one of these last that our puzzled correspondent now decided to turn.

He procured a copy of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” the 2012 bestseller by the ex-wunderkind Jonah Lehrer, whose résumé includes a Rhodes scholarship, a tour of duty at The New Yorker and two previous books about neuroscience and decision-making. (There was also a scandal concerning some made-up quotes in “Imagine,” but our correspondent was determined to tiptoe around that.)

Settling into a hot bath — well known for its power to trigger outside-the-box thoughts — he opened his mind to the young master


Anecdote after heroic anecdote unfolded, many of them beginning with some variation on Lehrer’s very first phrase: “Procter and Gamble had a problem.” What followed, as creative minds did their nonlinear thing, were epiphanies and solutions.

Our correspondent read about the invention of the Swiffer. He learned how Bob Dylan achieved his great breakthrough and wrote that one song of his that they still play on the radio from time to time. He found out that there was a company called 3M that invented masking tape, the Post-it note and other useful items. He read about the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and about the glories of Pixar.

And that’s when it hit the correspondent: He had heard these things before.

Each story seemed to develop in an entirely predictable fashion. He suspected that in the Dylan section, Lehrer would talk about “Like a Rolling Stone,” and that’s exactly what happened. When it came to the 3M section, he waited for Lehrer to dwell on the invention of the Post-it note — and there it was.

Had our correspondent developed the gift of foresight? No.

He really had heard these stories before. Spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer is a staple of marketing literature. Bob Dylan is endlessly cited in discussions of innovation, and you can read about the struggles surrounding the release of “Like a Rolling Stone” in textbooks like “The Fundamentals of Marketing” (2007).

As for 3M, the decades-long standing ovation for the company’s creativity can be traced all the way back to “In Search of Excellence” (1982), one of the most influential business books of all time. In fact, 3M’s accidental invention of the Post-it note is such a business-school chestnut that the ignorance of those who don’t know the tale is a joke in the 1997 movie “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.”

These realizations took only a millisecond.

What our correspondent also understood, sitting there in his basement bathtub, was that the literature of creativity was a genre of surpassing banality. Every book he read seemed to boast the same shopworn anecdotes and the same canonical heroes.

If the authors are presenting themselves as experts on innovation, they will tell us about Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso, Dylan, Warhol, the Beatles.

If they are celebrating their own innovations, they will compare them to the oft-rejected masterpieces of Impressionism — that ultimate combination of rebellion and placid pastel bullshit that decorates the walls of hotel lobbies from Pittsburgh to Pyongyang.

Those who urge us to “think different,” in other words, almost never do so themselves.

Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.

That was the ultimate lesson. That’s where the music, the theology, the physics and the ethereal water lilies were meant to direct us.

Our correspondent could think of no books that tried to work the equation the other way around — holding up the invention of air conditioning or Velcro as a model for a jazz trumpeter trying to work out his solo.

And why was this worth noticing?

Well, for one thing, because we’re talking about the literature of creativity, for Pete’s sake. If there is a non-fiction genre from which you have a right to expect clever prose and uncanny insight, it should be this one. So why is it so utterly consumed by formula and repetition?

What our correspondent realized, in that flash of bathtub-generated insight, was that this literature isn’t about creativity in the first place. While it reiterates a handful of well-known tales — the favorite pop stars, the favorite artists, the favorite branding successes — it routinely ignores other creative milestones that loom large in the history of human civilization.

After all, some of the most consistent innovators of the modern era have also been among its biggest monsters. He thought back, in particular, to the diabolical creativity of Nazi Germany, which was the first country to use ballistic missiles, jet fighter planes, assault rifles and countless other weapons.

And yet nobody wanted to add Peenemünde, where the Germans developed the V-2 rocket during the 1940s, to the glorious list of creative hothouses that includes Periclean Athens, Renaissance Florence, Belle Époque Paris and latter-day Austin, Texas.

How much easier to tell us, one more time, how jazz bands work, how someone came up with the idea for the Slinky, or what shade of paint, when applied to the walls of your office, is most conducive to originality.

But as any creativity expert can tell you “no insight is an island entire of itself“.

New epiphanies build on previous epiphanies, and to understand the vision that washed over our writer in the present day, we must revisit an earlier flash of insight, one that takes us back about a decade, to the year 2002. This time our future correspondent was relaxing in a different bathtub, on Chicago’s South Side, where the trains passed by in an all-day din of clanks and squeaks. While he soaked, he was reading the latest book about creativity: Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class.”

Creativity was now the most valuable quality of all, ran Florida’s argument, “the decisive source of competitive advantage.” This made creative people into society’s “dominant class” — and companies that wished to harness their power would need to follow them wherever they went.

Therefore cities and states were obliged to reconfigure themselves as havens for people of nonconformist tastes, who would then generate civic coolness via art zones, music scenes, and truckloads of authenticity. The author even invented a “Bohemian Index,” which, he claimed, revealed a strong correlation between the presence of artists and economic growth.

Every element of Florida’s argument infuriated our future correspondent. Was he suggesting planned bohemias? Built by governments? To attract businesses?

It all seemed like a comic exercise in human gullibility. As it happened, our correspondent in those days spent nearly all his time with the kinds of people who fit Richard Florida’s definition of the creative class: writers, musicians, and intellectuals. And Florida seemed to be suggesting that such people were valuable mainly for their contribution to a countercultural pantomime that lured or inspired business executives.

What was really sick-making, though, was Florida’s easy assumption that creativity was a thing our society valued. Our correspondent had been hearing this all his life, since his childhood in the creativity-worshipping 1970s. He had even believed it once, in the way other generations had believed in the beneficence of government or the blessings of Providence.

And yet Richard’s creative friends, when considered as a group, were obviously on their way down, not up. The institutions that made their lives possible — chiefly newspapers, magazines, universities and record labels — were then entering a period of disastrous decline. The creative world as he knew it was not flowering, but dying.

When he considered his creative friends as individuals, the literature of creativity began to seem even worse — more like a straight-up insult. Our writer-to-be was old enough to know that, for all its reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society had no interest in new ideas at all unless they reinforced favorite theories or could be monetized in some obvious way.

The method of every triumphant intellectual movement had been to quash dissent and cordon off truly inventive voices. This was simply how debate was conducted. Authors rejoiced at the discrediting of their rivals (as poor Jonah Lehrer would find in 2012).

Academic professions excluded those who didn’t toe the party line. Leftist cliques excommunicated one another. Liberals ignored any suggestion that didn’t encourage or vindicate their move to the center. Conservatives seemed to be at war with the very idea of human intelligence. And business thinkers were the worst of all, with their perennial conviction that criticism of any kind would lead straight to slumps and stock market crashes.

Or so our literal-minded correspondent thought back in 2002.

Later on, after much trial and error, he would understand that there really had been something deeply insightful about Richard Florida’s book. This was the idea that creativity was the attribute of a class — which class Florida identified not only with intellectuals and artists but also with a broad swath of the professional-managerial stratum.

It would take years for our stumbling innovator to realize this. And then, he finally got it all at once. The reason these many optimistic books seemed to have so little to do with the downward-spiraling lives of actual creative workers is that they weren’t really about those people in the first place.

No. The literature of creativity was something completely different. Everything he had noticed so far was a clue: the banality, the familiar examples, the failure to appreciate what was actually happening to creative people in the present time.

This was not science, despite the technological gloss applied by writers like Jonah Lehrer. It was a literature of superstition, in which everything always worked out and the good guys always triumphed and the right inventions always came along in the nick of time.

In Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” (2010), the creative epiphany itself becomes a kind of heroic character, helping out clueless humanity wherever necessary:

Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

And what was the true object of this superstitious stuff?

A final clue came from “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.”

Innovation exists only when the correctly credentialed hive-mind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise”.

Consider the narrative daisy chain that makes up the literature of creativity. It is the story of brilliant people, often in the arts or humanities, who are studied by other brilliant people, often in the sciences, finance, or marketing. The readership is made up of us — members of the professional-managerial class — each of whom harbors a powerful suspicion that he or she is pretty brilliant as well.

What your correspondent realized, relaxing there in his tub one day, was that the real subject of this literature was the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members hear clear, sweet reason when they listen to NPR and think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk.

And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue.

Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.

An edited version of this essay originally appeared in Harper’s magazine

Thomas Frank’s most recent book is “Pity the Billionaire.” He is also the author of “One Market Under God” and the founding editor of “The Baffler” magazine.


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