creativity is overrated

There I go with one of my disingenuous, clickbait subject lines again.

Except…psych! I totally mean it.

(When’s the last time anyone said “psych”? The last time ever, in history? When “psych” passed from this world, did anyone mourn?)

It’s so easy (and self-congratulatory) to praise creativity, especially in the world of business. All hail “creatives”—business-code for unhappy graphic designers and copywriters who’d much rather be making their own stuff. Plus, Steve Jobs.

(Let’s not even get into invention, innovation, or ideation. I’m late for brunch.)

Saying anything negative or even equivocal about creativity and creative people is like saying you hate kittens. (Jonathan Franzen hates kittens.)

In my experience, truly creative people are rare. Actually rare. I’ve been involved exclusively in theater and then publishing since my freshman year of college and I’ve only ever met a handful.

Reader, you’re not creative. Neither am I, and this is no false modesty.

No one can blame you for thinking otherwise, of course. If you’re reading this newsletter, you were probably one of those creative kids in school. Parents and teachers would often praise your remarkable creativity, perhaps while unhooking your underwear after an atomic wedgie or upon releasing you from your locker.

Meanwhile, they’d do their very best to stamp it out, or at least tamp it way down. Not because they were squares, but so you could go on to live a happy, productive life.

Don’t blame grown-ups for killing that spark inside you. It’s a hard-wired caregiver’s instinct. Deep down, adults understand that a teeny, tiny amount of creativity will go a very long way. Like cologne. If you love your son, you don’t let him splash on handfuls of Hai Karate before prom.

Working with creative people sucks. They can’t turn it off. They can’t organize or prioritize. It’s one new idea after the other—mostly bad. You’re a giant tube worm at the bottom of the ocean next to a hydrothermal vent. Sure, you might starve without that hot, sulphuric flow of ideas bubbling nearby, but you have to keep your distance if you’re going to get anything done.

Most of us learn to self-censor by the time we enter the workforce. When you say something stupid or create something lousy as a kid, you get plenty of negative feedback (see atomic wedgies and locker enstuffments, above). You begin to watch what you say and edit what you share. Since no one is a very good judge of their own work, that means we censor most of our good ideas. It’s a price worth paying. Our flow of new ideas slows to a trickle, but consequently we’re able to function in society.

Adult creatives never got negative feedback growing up. (This is one of the many dangers of home-schooling.) Unshakably confident in the value of every single synapse that has ever fired in their annoying heads, they splatter others with unverified possibilities and untested new directions every time they open their mouths. You need an intellectual hazmat suit.

Sure, this means that good ideas do arrive, every now and then. There’s nothing to stop them, after all. And, if that creative person is lucky enough to be paired with an endlessly patient, detail-oriented saint or ten, amazing things can get made, like Star Wars. Inevitably, though, the creativity keeps flowing long after the saints retire or expire. Then you get The Phantom Menace.

If working with creative people sucks, working for creative people violates the Geneva Conventions. You can’t override your boss when ideas 2, 3, and 4 supplant the weeks of effort you’ve invested in idea 1. There’s a reason they call these monsters “serial” entrepreneurs: true creativity is messy, painful, and often happens in basements.

Yes, we can all be more creative when it counts. With the right coaching, the right techniques, in the right environment—when we need to, we can coax our scarred and callused creative muscles into action. But always for a limited time and at great cost. If you need a new logo or a name for your book or something, sure, do what you can to force the spigot on. Get what you need from the Muse and then for god’s sake lock her back up where she belongs, in the basement. You’ve got work to do.