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Posts Tagged ‘Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Tidbits and notes posted on FB and Twitter. Part 195

Note: I take notes of books I read and comment on events and edit sentences that fit my style. I pa attention to researched documentaries and serious links I receive. The page is long and growing like crazy, and the sections I post contains a month-old events that are worth refreshing your memory.

J. Krishnamurti wrote: “If you depend on books (of the left and right ideologies, or on sacred books), then you depend on mere opinion, whether of Buddha, of Christ, of capitalism, communism or what you will. They are ideas, not truth.

Opinion about fact can be denied.  A fact can Never be denied. If we can discover what the truth of the matter is, we shall be able to act independently of opinion.”

“If we can discover what is the truth…” and in my opinion, we cannot discover truth of anything: We have an idea or a feeling of what opinion means, but can we ever know what truth is? The big liars are those who use the term Truth

Why are first-person shooter games (Like Doom) among the genre’s most addictive? According to Maria Konnikova at the New Yorker, they create “a virtual environment that maximizes a player’s potential to attain a state that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’—a condition of absolute presence and happiness.”

Each Birkin bag is handmade, and other than the range of exotic skins it comes in, it fits specific parameters. It ranges from 25 to 55 centimeters, always sports the same off-rectangle shape, and features a lock with keys enclosed in a leather lanyard attached to the handle. Retail price range of a Birkin bag:  $10,000-$200,000

In July 2015, Jane Birkin asked for her name to be removed from Hermès Birkin Croco bag after she found out that live crocodiles were skinned or sawed open on farms to make the accessory.

Israel shut itself in the foot: France cancelled Israel film festival after Israel cultural minister wanted to sanction one of the films that hurt the credibility of the Israeli army

In many moments in life we ask “what is the meaning of life?” and “what is the purpose in life?” Two questions that are not similar except for those who confuse meaning with definite purpose attached to it; sort of feeling obliged to act on life and the universe simply because mankind species is very particular. 

We are a bunch of jumbled passions that we all share at different degrees of power and interest: they drive our life.  We ache by reflection to re-order our passions and sort out the strongest passions that mean most to us.

‘Meaning Quotient’ MQ of work? And how to increase it?
 
Musicians talk about being “in the groove,” sportsmen about being “in the zone.
Can employees in the workplace experience similar performance peaks and, if so, what can top management do to encourage the mental state that brings them about?

Through a few simple techniques, executives can boost workplace “MQ” and inspire employees to perform at their peak.

Susie Cranston and Scott Keller published in McKinsey Quarterly this Jan 2013:

Increasing the ‘meaning quotient’ of work

We’ve long been interested in work environments that inspire exceptional levels of energy, increase self-confidence, and boost individual productivity.

When we ask leaders about the ingredient they think is most often missing for them and for their colleagues—and by implication is most difficult to provide—they almost invariably signal the same thing: a strong sense of meaning.

By “meaning,” we and they imply a feeling that what’s happening really matters, that what’s being done has not been done before or that it will make a difference to others.

The idea of meaning at work is not new.

Two contributions to McKinsey Quarterly1 over the past year have highlighted this theme.

In one, the authors demonstrate how misguided leaders often kill meaning in avoidable ways. The author of the other suggests that “meaning maker” is a critical role for corporate strategists.

In this article, we will show from our research how meaning drives higher workplace productivity and explain what business leaders can do to create meaning.

Meaning and performance

The mental state that gives rise to great performance—in sports, business, or the arts—has been described in different ways.

The psychologist Mihàly Csìkszentmihàlyi studied thousands of subjects, from sculptors to factory workers, and asked them to record their feelings at intervals throughout the working day. Csìkszentmihàlyi came up with a concept we consider helpful.

He observed that people fully employing their core capabilities to meet a goal or challenge created what he called “flow.” More important, he found that individuals who frequently experienced it were more productive and derived greater satisfaction from their work than those who didn’t.

The subjects set goals for themselves to increase their capabilities, thereby tapping into a seemingly limitless well of energy. And they expressed a willingness to repeat those activities in which they achieved flow even if they were not being paid to do so.

Athletes describe the same feeling as being in the zone.

Bill Russell, a key player for the Boston Celtics during the period when they won 11 professional-basketball championships in 13 years, put it thus:

“When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. . . . It would surround not only me and the other Celtics, but also the players on the other team. . . . At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened. The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive. . . . I’d be putting out the maximum effort . . . and yet I never felt the pain.”2

Flow sounds great in theory, but few business leaders have mastered the skill of generating it reliably in the workplace.

An easy first step is to consider what creates flow in your own work situation—a question we have put directly to more than 5,000 executives during workshops we’ve conducted over the last decade.

In this exercise, individuals initially think about their own personal peak performance with a team, when, in other words, they have come closest to the feelings Csìkszentmihàlyi and Russell describe. Then they pinpoint the conditions that made this level of performance possible: what in the team environment was there more or less of than usual?

The remarkably consistent answers we’ve received fall into three categories.

1. The first set includes elements such as role clarity, a clear understanding of objectives, and access to the knowledge and resources needed to get the job done. These are what one might term rational elements of a flow experience or, to use a convenient shorthand, its intellectual quotient (IQ) coined by Daniel Goleman . When the IQ of a work environment is low, the energy employees bring to the workplace is misdirected and often conflicting.

2. Another set of answers includes factors related to the quality of the interactions among those involved.  Respondents often mention a baseline of trust and respect, constructive conflict, a sense of humor, a general feeling that “we’re in this together,” and the corresponding ability to collaborate effectively. These create an emotionally safe environment to pursue challenging goals, an environment with a high emotional quotient (EQ). When the EQ of a workplace is lacking, employee energy dissipates in the form of office politics, ego management, and passive-aggressive avoidance of tough issues.

While IQ and EQ are absolutely necessary to create the conditions for peak performance, they are far from sufficient.

3. The longest list of words we have compiled from executives’ answers to our peak-performance question over the last ten years has little to do with either of these categories. This third one describes the peak-performance experience as involving high stakes; excitement; a challenge; and something that the individual feels matters, will make a difference, and hasn’t been done before.

We describe this third category as the meaning quotient (MQ) of work. When a business environment’s MQ is low, employees put less energy into their work and see it as “just a job” that gives them little more than a paycheck.

The opportunity cost of the missing meaning is enormous.

When we ask executives during the peak-performance exercise how much more productive they were at their peak than they were on average, for example, we get a range of answers, but the most common at senior levels is an increase of five times.

Most report that they and their employees are in the zone at work less than 10 percent of the time, though some claim to experience these feelings as much as 50 percent of it.

If employees working in a high-IQ, high-EQ, and high-MQ environment are five times more productive at their peak than they are on average, consider what even a relatively modest 20%-point increase in peak time would yield in overall workplace productivity—it would almost double.

When we ask executives to locate the bottlenecks to peak performance in their organizations, more than 90% choose MQ-related issues.

Executives point out that much of the IQ tool kit is readily observable and central to what’s taught in business schools. The EQ tool kit, while “softer,” is now relatively well understood following Goleman’s popularization of the concept in the mid-1990s. The MQ tool kit is different.

What to do differently?

Business leaders, we know from other sources, are striving hard to find the missing MQ ingredients so they can improve motivation and workforce productivity.

Late last year, for example, a survey (conducted by The Conference Board and McKinsey) of more than 500 US-based HR executives identified employee engagement as one of the top five critical human-capital priorities facing organizations.3

Management thinkers are also on the case.

Gary Hamel urges modern managers to see themselves as “entrepreneurs of meaning.” In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and her coauthor Steve Kramer present rigorous field research highlighting the enormous benefits that a sense of forward momentum can have for employees’ “inner work life.”4 Csìkszentmihàlyi writes extensively about “the making of meaning” in his book Good Business.5

In our experience, though, there’s often a disconnect between the desire of practitioners to create meaning in the workplace, the good ideas emerging from cutting-edge research, and the number of specific, practical, and reliable tools that leaders know how to use.

Often, platitudes about communication, quality feedback, job flexibility, and empowerment are used as substitutes for such tools. Much of this amounts to little more than advice about how to be a good manager.

Inspirational visions, along the lines of Walt Disney’s “make people happy” or Google’s “organize the world’s information,” have little relevance if you produce ball bearings or garage doors.

In McKinsey’s research, we’ve uncovered a set of specific, actionable techniques underpinned both by experience and a significant body of social-science work.

The full tool kit can be found in Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage.6 The three examples described here are not only among the most counterintuitive (and therefore the most often overlooked) but also the most powerful.

Strategy #1: Tell five stories at once

We typically see organizational leaders tell two types of stories to inspire their teams.

The first turnaround story runs along the lines of “We’re performing below industry standard and must change dramatically to survive—incremental change is not sufficient to attract investors to our under-performing company.

The second good-to-great story goes something like this: “We are capable of far more, given our assets, market position, skills, and loyal staff, and can become the undisputed leader in our industry for the foreseeable future.

The problem with both approaches is that the story centers on the company, which will inspire some, but by no means all employees. Our research shows that four other sources give individuals a sense of meaning, including their ability to have an impact on

  • society—for example, making a better society, building the community, or stewarding resources
  • the customer—for instance, making life easier and providing a superior service or product
  • the working team—for instance, a sense of belonging, a caring environment, or working together efficiently and effectively
  • themselves—examples include personal development, a higher paycheck or bonus, and a sense of empowerment

Surveys of hundreds of thousands of employees show that the split in most companies—regardless of management level, industry sector, or geography (developed or developing economies)—is roughly equal. It appears that these 5 sources are a universal human phenomenon.

The implication for leaders seeking to create high-MQ environments is that a turnaround or a good-to-great story will strike a motivational chord with only 20 percent of the workforce. The same goes for a “change the world” vision like those of Disney and Google or appeals to individuals on a personal level.

The way to unleash MQ-related organizational energy is to tell all five stories at once.

A recent cost-reduction program at a large US financial-services company began with a rational-change story focused on the facts: expenses were growing faster than revenues. Three months into the program, it was clear that employee resistance was stymieing progress.

The management team therefore worked together to recast the story to include elements related to society (more affordable housing), customers (increased simplicity and flexibility, fewer errors, more competitive prices), working teams (less duplication, more delegation, increased accountability, a faster pace), and individuals (bigger and more attractive jobs, a once-in-a-career opportunity to build turnaround skills, a great opportunity to “make your own” institution). The program was still what it was—a cost-reduction program—but the reasons it mattered were cast in far more meaningful terms.

Within a month, the share of employees reporting that they were motivated to drive the change program forward jumped to 57 percent, from 35 percent, according to the company’s employee-morale pulse surveys. The program went on to exceed initial expectations, raising efficiency by 10 percent in the first year.

Strategy #2: Let employees ‘write their own lottery ticket’

The first strategy gives specific and practical guidance about how to tell the story. Yet the best meaning makers spend more time asking than telling.

In one of Daniel Kahneman’s famous experiments, researchers ran a lottery with a twist. Half of the participants were randomly assigned a lottery ticket. The remaining half were given a blank piece of paper and asked to write down any number they pleased. Just before drawing the winning number, the researchers offered to buy back the tickets from their holders. The question they wanted to answer was how much more would you have to pay people who “wrote their own number” than people who received a number randomly.

The rational answer should be no difference at all, since a lottery is pure chance, and therefore every ticket number, chosen or assigned, has the same odds of winning. A completely rational actor might even want to pay less for a freely chosen number, given the possibility of duplicate ones. The actual answer? Regardless of geography or demographics, researchers found they had to pay at least five times more to those who chose their own number.

This result reveals a truth about human nature: when we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome—by a factor of at least five to one.

In business, of course, leaders can’t just let everyone decide their own direction. But they can still apply the lessons of the lottery-ticket experiment. The head of financial services at one global bank we know first wrote down his change story, shared it with his team for feedback, and then in effect asked all individual team members to write their own lottery ticket: what change story, in each of the businesses, supported the wider message?

His team members in turn wrote change stories, shared them with their teams, and the process continued all the way to the front line. Although this method took far longer than the traditional road-show approach, the return on commitment to the program was considered well worth the investment and an important reason the bank achieved roughly two times its revenue-per-banker-improvement targets.

Likewise, when Neville Isdell took charge at Coca-Cola, in 2004, he co-created a turnaround strategy by bringing together his top 150 employees for three multi-day “real work” sessions. The process was then cascaded further down into the organization, at small working meetings where participants could in effect write their own lottery ticket about the implications for their particular parts of the business.

With hindsight, this process of creating and interactively cascading what became known as The Manifesto for Growth is seen as a pivotal intervention in a two-year turnaround in which the group stopped destroying shareholder value and generated returns of 20 percent, driven by volume increases equivalent to selling an extra 105 million bottles of Coke a day. In this period, staff turnover fell by 25%, and the company reported what external researchers called unprecedented increases in employee engagement for an organization of this size.

Leaders who need to give their employees more of a sense of direction can still leverage the lottery-ticket insight by augmenting their telling of the story with asking about the story. David Farr, chairman and CEO of Emerson Electric, for example, is known for asking virtually everyone he encounters in the organization 4 questions:

(1) how do you make a difference? (testing for alignment with the company’s direction);

(2) what improvement idea are you working on? (emphasizing continuous improvement);

(3) when did you last get coaching from your boss? (emphasizing the importance of people development); and

(4) who is the enemy? (emphasizing the importance of “One Emerson” and no silos, as well as directing the staff’s energy toward the external threat). The motivational effect of this approach has been widely noted by Emerson employees.

Strategy #3: Use small, unexpected rewards to motivate

US author Upton Sinclair once wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The flip side, however, isn’t true. When business objectives are linked to compensation, the motivation to drive for results is rarely enhanced meaningfully.

The reason is as practical as psychological. Most annual-compensation plans of executives are so full of key performance indicators that the weighting of any one objective becomes largely meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Furthermore, most compensation plans typically emphasize financial metrics whose results depend on myriad variables, many beyond individual control. On top of that, most companies don’t have deep enough pockets to make compensation a significant driver of MQ in the workplace.

Leaders of organizations that successfully instill meaning understand the power of other methods. Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan’s book, Mean Genes,7 describes an experiment in which 50 percent of a group of people using a photocopier found a dime in the coin-return slot. When all were asked to rate their satisfaction level, those who got the dime scored an average of 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 7, while those who didn’t scored just 5.6.

The lesson here is that when we aren’t expecting a reward, even a small one can have a disproportionate effect on our state of mind. And that’s also true of employees in the workplace.

At ANZ Bank, John McFarlane gave all employees a bottle of champagne for Christmas, with a card thanking them for their work on a major change program.

The CEO of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, marked the first anniversary of its change program by sending out personal thank-you notes to all the employees who had been involved, with specific messages related to the impact of their individual work.

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, sends the spouses of her top team handwritten thank-you letters. After seeing the impact of her own success on her mother during a visit to India, she began sending letters to the parents of her top team, too.

Some managers might dismiss these as token gestures—but employees often tell us that the resulting boost in motivation and in connection to the leader and the company can last for months if not years. As Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores, put it, “Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free—and worth a fortune.”

 

Of the three Qs that characterize a workplace likely to generate flow and inspire peak performance, we frequently hear from business leaders that MQ is the hardest to get right. Given the size of the prize for injecting meaning into people’s work lives, taking the time to implement strategies of the kind described here is surely among the most important investments a leader can make.

About the authors

Susie Cranston is a senior expert in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, and Scott Keller is a director in the Southern California office.

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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