Instrumentalizing creativity

Creativity is best played as an infinite game; winning means you get to keep playing. This stands out in contrast to the convention of playing a game as a finite game; winning means you get to declare victory over your opponents, and stop playing. 

For creators, here are some elements to enable you to play it like an infinite game:

  • Income or cashflow that you can rely on so that your creative work doesn’t need to produce financial or critical results (in other words, you can easily remove the financial pressure of needing your creative practice to make you money)
  • Whether you’re signed with a partner or handler or not, you’ll want a degree of self-reliance so that you don’t need to work with intermediaries to get your creative work out there—nobody can block your creative expression, in other words (this means owning your marketing)
  • An ability to let go of the results of your creative work, and instead to focus on the process—to essentially relax expectations, lose yourself in it. Part of this is circumstantial (see the first point!), and part of this is learning to let your worries, anxieties, and stresses pass, surfing the urge to quit or to build into a creative block. You need to be free to make bad work, to clear wastewater

This last point is one that I’ve mentioned before, but I believe is getting lost in the louder and looming dialogue about creativity. 

For starters, businesses and companies care about creativity because of the results it can produce; unfortunately, the real creative companies here understand that there’s no direct path to it. You create, you test, you learn, you develop your taste, and you create again, and you basically refine this process until you’ve created a competitive advantage. 

When you instrumentalize creativity—that is to say, to make it a resource—you actually squish its true potential. The best way to allow creativity into the company, or team, or into yourself, is basically to work with the constraints you have and let go of the outcome. That’s not going to be what a business leader wants to hear, but maybe that business isn’t in a place where it’s ready to be more creative. 

I’ll close with this passage from Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, in which he makes an observation about instrumentalizing time:

One way of understanding capitalism, in fact, is as a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters—the earth’s resources, your time and abilities (or “human resources”)—in the service of future profit. Seeing things this way helps explain the otherwise mysterious truth that rich people in capitalist economies are often surprisingly miserable. They’re very good at instrumentalizing their time, for the purpose of generating wealth for themselves; that’s the definition of being successful in a capitalist world. But in focusing so hard on instrumentalizing their time, they end up treating their lives in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle in which to travel toward a future state of happiness. And so their days are sapped of meaning, even as their bank balances increase.

If you don’t want to experience a creative block, or to grow to hate your creative work, don’t make it an instrument in service of future profit. You can set yourself up to allow your creative work to make money, which is great, but to force it to do something will set up an imaginary barrier that keeps you from doing your best work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *