The Irony of Creative Professions

Stuck because play may not rank high on a list with ‘rent’ and ‘food’ and ‘deadlines’, but still the drive won’t quiet. Stuck in the same room as ‘professional expectations’, ‘career goals’ and ‘performance reviews’, but unwilling to sit still. The creative is stuck with his humanity and so any demand for conscientious work must either be thoroughly human in its nature or risk cheapening his humanity through its completion.

With some courage, I believe we can re-emphasize the humanity inherent to deep creative work — even in ‘professional’ contexts. In fact, I think it’s our only honest choice.

‘Predictably Creative’

Any model which demands predictable results (“we guarantee client satisfaction”) sacrifices what’s possible at the extremes. For a manufacturing company capable of 1000–1100 pieces per day, pushing to move an extra 100 pieces likely isn’t worth the risk of injuring personnel, damaging equipment or exhausting the workforce. Instead, you build processes which squeeze the range of possible outcomes — you make your output predictable and accept that the ‘highest end’ of the spectrum has been indefinitely chopped off (i.e. you will almost never move 1100 pieces), but so too has the lowest (i.e. you will very rarely injure an employee).

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Creative work is different. You don’t need to be told that, and yet I’m sure you’ve noticed that most creative businesses still feel compelled to run on similarly ‘predictable’ models. Even without statistics showing that these models are predictably poor for creative work — with just 57% of agency projects completed within budget (Workamajig, 2020) — I believe our intuitions about the nature of the creative process can lead us to the same conclusion.

Say the client hires you for a project and you’re expected to deliver to a deadline. This isn’t the time to drop what’s worked in the past; to explore a new way of thinking; to put all preconceptions on hold and instead strive toward something truly novel and exceptional — at the risk of failing miserably. No, when failing miserably isn’t an option — when the deadline or budget decides which areas of creative exploration are to be pre-emptively chopped off — then creating a masterpiece becomes increasingly unreachable, too.

By a recent report, creative workers are three times more prone to mental illness than the wider working population (Changing Arts and Minds, 2018). Highest on this list are depression and anxiety, but suicidal thoughts and physical attempts are also far too common for an industry where people are assumed to engage in ‘work they love’. And rather than ascribe this statistic to the romantic notion that ‘creative achievement is only reached through suffering, madness or both’, I prefer to look at the structures which guide and compensate creative work, then see if there are any bugs which may be making the creative sector miserable.

It isn’t that every project must be considered a masterpiece; it’s that creative workers need to feel like every day might be the day where they get to work on their masterpiece. Unfortunately, it’s quite obvious to many creatives that day will never come at work — new quarters mean new budgets, new project turnaround goals, and new ‘design thinking workshops’ to boost efficiency at solving problems predictably well. And when that next big client walks through the door, it’s rarely the time to ‘challenge what’s possible’ — more often than not, that’s simply when the squeeze gets tighter.

To make things a little more concrete, I’ll briefly discuss three aspects of (for lack of a better term) ‘traditionally managed creative work’ which run counter to vulnerably creative environments and the work they produce.

  1. Creative purpose is diluted;
  2. Social contracts are implicitly signed, activating areas of the brain which can inhibit creative generativity; and
  3. The cost of ‘mistakes’ are often out of sync with the nature of creative exploration.

Together, they form the central irony we face as creatives looking to earn a living through our work. Namely:

The very mechanisms put in place to compensate creative passions all too often take any passion or humanity out of the creative process being compensated.

So that we might be better off working in a patent office by day, and doing our ‘creating’ by night…

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Creative Purpose

My dad didn’t think of himself as working for IBM — he thought of himself as putting a man on the moon.” — Chip Heath, 2007

The ‘whys’ of work matter. And if ever there were an industry where the answer to these ‘whys’ might seamlessly align with personally fulfilling markers: it would be in creative fields. However, if you work in a creative team where the answer to ‘Why am I re-working this website?’ is ‘Because the client needs you to make the fonts larger’, then it’s difficult to tell yourself a compelling story about the hours you spend at work.

The fact that you are creating for someone else isn’t the issue here; it’s necessary that the products of your efforts are indeed useful. The issue lies in the experience of the creative process itself. The motivations, incentives, recognitions and feelings of growth associated with one’s work. When the creative cannot access any human element or purpose in a project, she cannot bring her full self to its production. When she never sees nor knows what her design was used for, where her copy appeared, how it made people feel, what influence it had on her client’s business or community; when she doesn’t know these things, she creates at a distance, removed from the work by those layers which separate her from a final audience. Her creative purpose has become diluted, which is also to say all potency has been stripped from the products of her work.

Social Contracts

Many recent insights from research on the neuroscience of creativity speak to the importance of ‘switching off’. Daydreaming, mind-wandering, napping, lowering of inhibitions; when activity in certain regions of the brain decreases, this is when one tends to see higher levels of creative generativity (Jung et. al., 2010). Unfortunately, the modern workplace doesn’t always make it easy to switch off. Whether that’s due to ambient distractions from open-plan offices (see ‘Staying Focused in a Noisy Open Office’) or simply not having processes in place which tell you with certainty ‘I have the next 90 minutes to myself’ (see Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’), the migration of creative work into a ‘managed’ office environment can be a serious blow to the originality and novelty of ideas.

It isn’t that the creative process must happen in isolation — it’s that creative interactions, co-operations and collaborations are less effective when creatives feel they are always ‘on call to be creative’.

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(Left) The classic ‘10,000 hours’ progression. (Right) The progress of creative accomplishment and progress. Taken from: Damian, R. I., & Simonton, D. K. (2011). From past to future art: The creative impact of Picasso’s 1935 Minotauromachy on his 1937 Guernica. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5(4), 360–369.

Cost of Mistakes

The thought of Beethoven composing an awful symphony or Shakespeare writing an amateurish play will always be difficult to square with the strong associations we have for their great genius — but of course, it happened. In 1997, Keith Simonton put forward his ‘Equal Odds Rule’, suggesting that even creative achievement can be understood as a numbers game of sorts; to summarise, if you want to write your masterpiece, the best thing you can do is to get busy writing.

You’re likely not surprised by this. A version of the expression has appeared so many times, in so many different formats, that it hardly seems worth repeating: ‘fail small, but often,’ ‘it takes a lot of bad writing to get a little good writing’, ‘I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work’. Quantity, failure and probability all have their place in the creative process, but the creative business models we have today don’t quite know how to factor that in. We don’t feel we can quote the client a ‘10% masterpiece — 10% flop’ — but for any true exploration to occur, this must be implied. Creative output exists on a wide spectrum, and predicting where the next work will show up on that scale is impossible — if you drown your workplace in processes which ensure it ends up in the 50–65% pass range, you’ll squeeze all the joy and brilliance out of your creative talent. And if you do that for long enough, you may just be squeezing them out of the workplace altogether.

Consequences for Creative Teams, Agencies and Studios

The primary consequence of these factors I’d like to discuss is what happens to the individual’s creative drive. What began as a hope for co-operation or collaboration is soon turned inward, into a private endeavour. The creative feels that he cannot explore or play during working hours, and so he must repress these instincts and ‘do his real creating on his own time’ (if not after hours, perhaps in retirement). Thus, we can see that his creative profession quickly risks becoming a kind of ‘pseudo-creative’ space: one which is labeled creative by all external viewers, but does not actually fulfill the creative’s desire for exploration, play and meaning. Instead, it becomes a practice of technical proficiency, where the fastest, most ‘skilled’ and efficient are rewarded over the slow thinkers, the assumption-testers and 15%-floppers.

The final irony of this arrangement is that the creative who ‘holds her creative drive private’ through the working hours may feel little incentive to access it on her own time. The pseudo-creative environment provided by a workplace with colourful posters, ping pong tables and plenty of talk about ‘creativity’ is mentally fatiguing — so that by the time she comes home, has dinner and unwinds with something decidedly ‘non-creative’, the last thing she wants to do is ‘more creative work’ (she must get up early for another full day of ‘creating’, after all).

Despite having worked her way up to an arrangement where she can finally be ‘paid to be creative’, she may learn that the creative drive which brought her there has no genuine outlet and so remains wholly dissatisfied.

3 Solution Spaces

The problems identified run deep through the creative sector and are by no means an easy fix. Much better to consider them three viable challenge spaces where innovative solutions could well prove disruptive. Here are the three challenge spaces I would prompt you and your creative team to explore:

  1. Creative leaders (or relevant members of a self-managing team) can consider ways of framing projects so that they touch upon personally meaningful values. Sometimes this can be as simple as ensuring the creative team understands how their work will benefit the client/community (‘I’m helping build a beautiful, public space’), but it may also involve asking creative team members what they would like to focus on in their work and finding ways to incorporate that into future projects;
  2. Design physical work environments which allow for periods of low inhibition. Whether that’s encouraging your team to ‘think of the strangest solution’ to a problem without judgement, or introducing isolated spaces reserved for deep, private work; giving your team consistent opportunities to switch off their executive attention at work is an ongoing challenge for shared creative spaces; and
  3. Build a culture which greets ‘big flops’ as a sign that creative exploration is present. It isn’t easy to act like you’re happy about a project flopping — and you don’t need to. But recognising that creative output exists on a spectrum means anticipating failures from time to time; how you respond to those failures can be the difference between a creative team withdrawing or extending themselves through the next project.

Ultimately, if creative industries are to retain the essence of what makes them so appealing and valuable in the first place, designing new models of work which allow us to optimise for humanity and fulfillment through the creative process may just become our highest priority.


Gerrard + Bizway AI Assistant

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