Earlier this week, I saw a online mention of an article by Thomas Frank in the June 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine, with the mention indicating that the article took some pretty harsh potshots at the literature on creativity. After my own reading of some of the popular press books about the creative process – including Jonah Lehrer’s now-withdrawn Imagine, one of the biggest sellers on that topic – the idea of a critical look at this literature intrigued me, especially a critical look by someone whose main job isn’t writing about or researching business.
I managed to find a copy of that issue of Harper’s, and when I read Frank’s article, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I wanted to jump up and down for joy when I saw that Frank was bold enough to say what way too many business writers and researchers are afraid to acknowledge. In Frank’s words, “those who urge us to ‘think differently’…almost never do so themselves.”
Frank points out that the literature on creativity recycles the same stories over and over again: Procter & Gamble and the Swiffer mop, 3M and the Post-it note, how Bob Dylan writes songs. He also proposes that there are plenty of examples of creative success that don’t get discussed because their results were destructive and dangerous: for example, the development of the V2 rocket and other forms of weaponry. This contrast reminded me of the research on deviant leisure – a fascinating subset of serious leisure research that suggests some people engage in illegal or underground activities because they get the same excitement and benefit from them as others do from participating in, say, sports or theatre. The idea that people might have fun doing bad things is along the same lines as the idea that people might be very creative when making bad things.
Frank also disses the quality of writing in creativity literature – “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” – and concludes with some larger questions about the purpose of this literature. He contends that its actual implicit purposes are simply to reinforce existing ideas rather than to foster truly different ones; to make money; and to reassure “members of the professional-managerial class” that creativity is “the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world”. (The ‘rightly’ is sarcastic, of course.)
In all fairness, the problems that Frank highlights aren’t exclusive to the literature about creativity. You’d be challenged, for example, to find a discussion of alternative forms of workplace organization that doesn’t talk about W.L. Gore (the company that makes Gore-Tex fabric) or a discussion of co-operative businesses that doesn’t talk about Mondragon. And you could ask the same type of questions about the companies that are always mentioned in these discussions: if organizing companies like these is a way to be successful, why aren’t all organizations operating like them? But I have to agree that writing about creativity should be practicing what it preaches – and Frank deserves a lot of credit for asking the uncomfortable question of why it doesn’t.
I fear that because Frank’s article is not in a business magazine or business book, it won’t get noticed by those who probably most need to hear what he’s saying – but I encourage you to take a look at it nevertheless. It might make you think, as it did for me, about what we know about creativity and how limited that perspective really might be.
(Unfortunately, Frank’s entire article isn’t available online for free, but here is the first part of it on the Harper’s website, where you can also purchase the complete article. You may also be able to find the June 2013 issue of Harper’s still on sale.)