Artists and knowledge workers (both of whom I regard as creative practitioners) and those that manage or commission them in commercial settings, are well aware of the value of having these sorts of people engaged and motivated. The decisive difference between a creative task taking ages and being poorly finished and one that is completed amazingly quickly, to an exceptional standard, is often how curious the creative practitioner is.
Curiosity causes them to seek out their own answers to questions that arise. It causes them to ask important questions that the less curious would overlook or even actively avoid.
Curiosity makes them wonder why they are being asked to carry out the creative task requested of them, to get inside the drivers and motivations of the end user or recipient of their work and to ask themselves how to make something for their client or customer that delights them, or goes further than was asked of them.
Curiosity encourages creative people to take initiative and develop a sense of personal responsibility and commitment to the quality of what they deliver. The work gets done faster, with fewer silly questions and less need for rework, but turns out to be much better than the customer could have imagined.
Curiosity is the driver that helps a creative person produce the very best thing they can possibly make.
Curiosity, in an artist, knowledge worker, inventor, designer, programmer or other creative practitioner is a very valuable thing indeed. But it’s a fragile thing, curiosity. Initiative can evaporate like ether.
Here are some things that can kill curiosity stone dead:
- Distraction – pull a creative person in too many directions at once and their curiosity will die. If you don’t set, communicate and stick to clear priorities and simply deluge a creative person with undifferentiated tasks, or constantly shift the task of most urgency and importance to something else, their desire to take initiative and drill into their tasks with diligence and curiosity will rapidly diminish.
- Destruction – put a creative person into an environment where there is a lot of destruction (people leaving, lots of desk moves, completed tasks thrown on the scrapheap) and curiosity will also flee. Why would a creative make the commitment? If they see that it all ends in waste and wanton destruction, why would they try hard to make it better than best? Destruction, in my experience, is so very rarely creative.
- Disrespect – treat curious people as if they are disposable, replaceable, undifferentiated commodities and they will act like that. It always works that way. On the other hand, if you treat them with some respect, as a unique, talented and amazing artist and they will stay curious and retain their initiative. The choice is very simple.
- Disintegration – if you divide the creative task into too many tiny pieces and distribute them to enough people to do, you lose the sense of a creative, cohesive collaboration and instead introduce a production line mentality. No one person controls the all important creative vision anymore and the work turns out like something designed by committee, where no single creative person has responsibility for, or their full heart and soul in the outcome. Why take initiative and be curious if your part of the whole is so small?
- Debilitation – exhaust your creative practitioners and the work they turn in will fulfil contractual obligations, but no more. Exhausted people don’t have the capacity to exercise their curiosity. This faculty becomes dulled and ineffective, with increasing fatigue.
- Demotivation – make the task thankless, spend more time criticizing the work than praising what’s good about it and fail to appreciate the fruits of initiative and curiosity and both will vanish like ghosts.
- Denigration – treat the artist and the work as though anybody could have done this, or that others could have done it better, or as if the additional initiative and curiosity that when into its making was valueless and you send a strong signal to the creative practitioner that you don’t care for these attributes, in a creative work product. Don’t be surprised when the creative person turns in work of average quality next time. Average is what you asked for, by strongly asserting that what you got last time was no better than average.
- Demonization – blaming the artist, creative or knowledge worker, or his work output, for other things that might have gone wrong in a commercial setting is the quickest way to get the creative practitioner to stop taking chances. Initiative flies out the window and they will only take detailed instructions. Curiosity about how to do a better job or make a better piece of work will be non-existent. Everybody senses intuitively when blame is unjust or misplaced.
- Dishonesty – taking initiative is a supremely honest act. It takes a great deal of personal integrity to dig into the details and to be curious about what will make the creative product the best it can be. If the commercial sponsor of the work reacts by leaving invoices unpaid, or by disputing the quality and value of the work produced, or by stealing the ideas and having them finished by cheaper (but less creative) people, or otherwise tries to cheat and lie to the creative practitioner, that additional advantage that comes from them taking initiative and being curious will be very short lived and definitely irreproducible.
- Draconianism – insist on a dress code, uniform behaviours, clocking in on time (but strangely frowning upon clocking out on time), mandate clear desk policies and provide identical furniture and work spaces and you will kill curiosity too. What’s there to stimulate it? What says that diversity is valued? Why would an artistic, imaginative, creative person take a leadership role and take initiative, if everything about the engagement suggests conformity and compliance is what is actually valued? It’s written in the surroundings and conditions.
People that need creative work done for them have choices to make. They can unquestioningly accept the prevailing mindset of the military, where all the thinking is done at the top and everybody else is simply required to follow orders efficiently and without question, or else they can imagine themselves to be far more creative and capable than the creative people they employ. Those things seem to be very commonplace, in commercial settings. Alternatively, they can embrace the curiosity and initiative of the talented, imaginative and clever people they call upon to carry out creative or knowledge work on their behalf and celebrate their autonomy, integrity, curiosity and initiative.
The choice is very clear and the outcomes are very different.