Creativity, Now!

In America, economic incentives are increasingly aligned to reward creativity. Automation continues to erode the human role in repetitive work, and the pandemic has only accelerated this process. As Seth Godin says, if your job description can be written down, your job is going away. What A.I. won’t soon replace is humans’ capacity to invent, to draw lateral connections across disparate domains of information, impulsively drafting the new.

The shifting role of the human worker in an automated economy is common knowledge in the professional world, but as of yet, creativity seems to be generally misunderstood. Our technological environment isn’t designed with creativity in mind, our professional culture largely operates to stifle it, the taboos and standards of the old industrial economy linger, hanging like a noose over the head of anyone who might risk exploring.

Thus far, attempts to bring out creativity in the workforce have been clumsy. Bean bag chairs and ping pong tables; perhaps reclaiming a few physical tokens of childhood will summon up the vast sense of possibility known only to those who’ve yet to work a salaried position? Open offices and large co-working spaces; maybe chronic distraction will make people more insightful?

Such designs are admirable in their intent, but the execution betrays a fundamental flaw in the understanding of creativity. Transforming the workforce from a herd of industrial subordinates into freewheeling creatives is going to take more than a couple surprising pieces of furniture and larger allowances of work-from-home time. Scientifically, we are only at the very beginning of our journey to understand how the human mind operates, but individually, every creative professional has their rituals and heuristics, proof that they understand creativity well enough to get paid. Such people can see the efforts of professional management for what they are: a veneer on the status quo, a wig on a pig to make it a horse.

Creativity is a background program that only gets called up at the poles of human experience: pure idleness and intense pressure. Creativity will never be called up during the chronic stress of planned engagement. The non-linear operation behind the light bulb moment is allergic to categorization, prescription, and expectation.

Tell that to someone trying to run a creative assembly line. “Sorry boss, the only way you’ll get results outta me is if you prescribe nothing and expect even less.” Wouldn’t that be the sweetest gig ever? Getting paid to sit around doing nothing on the off chance something strikes you?

This predicament demonstrates that changing the furniture isn’t enough. The response to this problem, thus far, has been to go back on any genuine effort to understand how creativity operates. To meet the demands of the new economy, the system will only go as far as it can without dismantling anything. Too bad for the system that creativity actually is the new currency and lip service isn’t enough to bring it out of the employees. Organizations that don’t radically alter their structure, tools, and expectations will be replaced by upstarts.

I don’t have a silver bullet to offer, because fostering creativity isn’t a top down solution. In fact, one of the best ways to stifle someone’s imagination is to command them to use it. I do predict, however, one attribute of companies that will successfully foster creativity: they’ll be composed solely of employees who love what they do. People who would do it for a hobby if they weren’t lucky enough to be getting paid. This alone would radically alter every large company currently in business, and many small ones too.

The new economy is upon us and actively unfolding. Accepting that non-creative work is going the way of the dinosaurs is the first step in staying alive. The next step is radical, and only a few organizations will be brave enough to take it to its logical conclusion. May you be lucky enough to find yourself aboard one that does.

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