With rare exceptions, creativity is hard for a corporation, company or institution. Why? Because creativity is hard to define. Nevertheless, in recent years most executives say creativity is a critical human capacity needed for its success. Now, creativity is even more important as we all look to create adaptive and innovative visions that will guide the design of a post-Coronavirus world.
Working at the intersection of business and the Arts, considering creativity from a cognitive point of view and interviewing such imaginative thinkers as the eminent jazz musician, Wynton Marsalis, and Nobel Laureates, Konrad Lorenz and Richard Feynman, led to this moment’s discourse on creativity that is different from the one business usually professes or implies.
You Can’t Find Evidence of Creativity in a Resume
Hiring for creativity is problematic. Creativity cannot be surmised from a resume. Nor is creativity found in case histories that, by their very nature, entail an analysis of the past and hold context constant. Creativity is also not synonymous with problem-solving, as in most cases, the usual attitude brought to bear here is, “Given my experience and socialization into my industry and corporate doctrine, I know how to do this.” Business is risk averse. Worship of the past hangs as a profound constraint, like a monkey tethered to an organ grinder’s leash.
In contrast, artful thinkers inhabit a creative stance of “I have to go through the chaos of not knowing to get to the other side.” The designer Charles Eames calls this interval a “Delicious Agony,” and the author Philip Roth calls such an attitude, “Anti-Fluency.” Spielberg images this going-through-the-chaos process in Close Encounters of a Third Kind when the Richard Dreyfuss character, after thinking he might have seen a UFO, begins — not knowing why — to build a model clay mountain on his dining room table. His wife asks him what he is doing. His answer, “I don’t exactly know.”
Creativity Cannot Be Taught, Directly
Most importantly, creativity can’t really be taught — at least, directly. As Martin Scorsese said: “The most personal is the most creative.” A case in point: Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock, the pop music duo of “Air Supply” said, “Writing Rock love songs was not by design. It was just an expression of who we were.”
Creativity emerges from a person’s ‘self-story.’ One’s self-story, though, is not straightaway. You don’t find your self-story, you create your self-story: a narrative that imaginatively transforms the events of your life in terms of the feelings you have about those events, in order to symbolically produce a personal mythology that in a sense is a fiction, but is true. Think Bob Dylan. When asked where he was born, Dylan didn’t answer he was born in Duluth, MN. He answered, “I was born very far away from where I was suppose to be born. I’m always on my way home.” Such a transformation from data to self-story turns out to be the wellspring of creativity. Creativity comes from passing what you know through the sieve of one’s own self-story.
Authoring one’s self-story usually entails making metaphors and integrating paradoxes.
Creativity most often makes connections between things that at first blush do not seem to have any connection. Recall the words in Paul Simon’s album, Graceland — “The Mississippi Delta is shining like a national guitar.” That’s a metaphor: one thing merges with another thing to arrive at a new way of seeing. David Bowie is a good example of a person who made cross-domain connections. You can call Bowie a supreme “mixologist” — he plucked from everywhere to blur the lines between everything. To Bowie, music, lyrics, art, fashion and performance were seamlessly intertwined. Wynton Marsalis, the inventive jazz composer and director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, said it simply: “Jazz happened the way all profound things happen — a thing and the opposite of that thing are mashed together.”
Creativity is about finding a “new.”
Bruce Springsteen at SXSW 2012 said, “If you are able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well in your head and heart, if it doesn’t drive you crazy it will make you strong.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words echo a similar sentiment: “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” in his book, The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin, the well-known business educator and management consultant, wrote about the critically-needed capability to integrate seeming contradictions. After all, as Walt Whitman wrote, “I am a multitude.”
Being a Self-Witness and Being a Sensual Body
Contrary to popular belief, creativity is not a consciously-directed process. A person caught in the very process of creativity is more a self-witness than an active director. Moreover, creativity is more sensual and visceral than it is wholly linguistic, logical, rational or linear. The creative process lives in feeling. Even Albert Einstein said his ideas mostly came from “the intuition of my body.” Relatedly, Spielberg’s advice: “listen to your whispers.” Notice the two words in these two quotes, “my” and “your”. They are personal. No one else has them. No one else can engage that way because no one has your self-self.
Creativity Best Exists in a Social Matrix
You can’t hire for creativity and expect that a particular hire to significantly help your organization, unless your organization is already primed for cross-fertilization between people coming from diverse backgrounds and types of experiences, kicking-in many different thoughts to the idea-pool.
Yet, most companies are organized into silos, establishing insurmountable borders between functions and levels of hierarchy — for example, marketing, manufacturing, distribution or strategy; and novice, mid-career, and executive. Creativity needs doors and windows and a wide horizon, not walls. Even the so-called “Skunk-Works” — a small group who work in isolation from the rest of the company — proves the limitation imposed on creativity in the routine way of doing business.
The Ultimate Function of Creativity
By their very nature, creative minds do not just think about selling; creative minds vitalize — they produce things that bring people more to life. Isn’t that the best definition of creativity: Creating a product that evokes in the audience an expanded view of their world and the world. Isn’t that exactly what we need as we begin to imagine designs for a post-Coronavirus world?