The statement “creativity is undervalued” might seem self evident. We glibly accept that the life of a creative person is financially insecure and poorly paid. Most creative people get day jobs that do not stretch their creative powers and leave that sort of thing to their hobbyist hours. We also tend to associate creativity with the arts and nothing else, unless you are a CEO doing a survey on what characteristics are most vital for corporate success, as which time the CEO will rank creativity (as applied to his business) very highly. Everybody prizes it, but nobody rewards it. Why is that?
Some people leap to the answer that creativity isn’t taught. Well that’s not strictly true and in any case, the education system reflects the requirements of commerce, in most cases, so that would be a case of the tail wagging the dog. Creativity is not undervalued because it is not taught, it’s not taught because it is actually undervalued by commerce. Paradoxically, even though the education institutions are geared up to undervalue and downplay creativity, commerce fully recognises that creativity is vital to saving it from oblivion. There is a disconnect.
Others pass the problem off by saying there is so much creativity, that it can’t be valued too highly. It’s too common. Once again, the CEOs tell us a different story. CEOs tell us that there is not enough creativity in all spheres of their business. Creative people are not attracted to corporate jobs, that’s true, but that simply raises another raft of questions about why, when something is so necessary, the culture is so hostile to creative thinking that people who are creative are repulsed by the idea of spending their working lives in that environment. The corporate culture is anti-creativity, yet the CEO is pleading for it to exist. Another disconnect.
Some people say that creativity is all very well, but it isn’t practical and produces no practical results. I think that is a misreading and misunderstanding of what creativity actually is. In corporate problem solving or technical problem solving, the power to imagine what’s possibly wrong, create a testable theory and then discover the real cause of the problem by exercising the theory is one of the greatest gifts to the scientific mind, in my view. It starts with an act of pure imagination and creative thinking.
The default meaning of creativity is that it means artistic ability. Artistic ability is just one of the many manifestations of creativity. You can have creativity in all sorts of non-artistic and artistic pursuits, alike. Yet, creativity has come to be relegated to meaning frivolous, decorative pursuits, or playing for no real purpose. It has acquired a derogatory taint. When we say somebody is creative, it can be shorthand for “not much good for real work”. That is a gross abuse of the word, of course, but few people talk about Warren Buffett as creative. No, he’s practical, even though he doesn’t work much with his hands, using hand tools. Creative means fluffy, flouncy and frivolous, at least in the world of high finance.
But why has it acquired that pejorative meaning? Creativity really isn’t fluffy and silly. It’s important. It’s what kept the species from extinction, over the millennia. It cannot be that creativity is undervalued because it is fluffy, woolly and inconsequential, because that isn’t actually true, in evolutionary terms. In fact, the opposite holds. This is the biggest disconnect of all.
So none of the above explanations satisfy me on the question of why creativity is undervalued. I am going to propose another. I think there is a blend of territorialism, coercion, power, envy, jealousy and control involved. Corporations, which govern the world of commerce in effect, really set the agenda, when it comes to what is and isn’t valued. The market for creativity is what counts, in this world (though, of course, it doesn’t have to be like this). Let’s use that as an opening assumption, for the purposes of argument. Corporations, as some of the most significant economic actors in society, effectively make the market in creativity.
So what are corporations? They are a strange, hierarchical fiefdom, in most cases, comprising a rigid caste system that includes the “king”, his “nobles”, their “footmen” and a whole bunch of “serfs”. Governance, in most companies, is a top down affair, with lower castes paying homage and obedience to the upper ones. Why? Because that feels best to the upper castes in the corporation.
Those positions are coveted because that’s where the money, perks and freedom are. People who have those privileges are keen to protect their territory, keep others down and out of their sphere and because they jealously guard their positions, they are going to act to preserve those positions, no matter what it takes.
Now here is the dreadful dilemma for those in command and control, at the top of the tree. Creativity is, in fact, a great leveller. There are few measures of men so equalising as their ability to be creative. If you are highly creative, you are a danger to somebody less creative in a position of higher authority, because self-evidently, in a setting where creativity really is the lifeblood of the company, if an underling displays any, then he has a legitimate claim to replace the less creative person above him in the hierarchy. Rather than concede defeat, it is much easier for the less creative man in the upper tier to squash and discourage creativity by those below him. How? By undervaluing it chronically. They control the purse strings. All they have to do to stifle creativity from the ranks is to simply not pay anything for it. Better yet, belittle and denigrate it. Consign it to irrelevance or to the arts and decoration only. Trivialise it.
In fact, there is a greater incentive for the upper caste man to steal the creativity from the underling, pretending it is worthless to the creative person that conceived it, yet taking full credit and all the profits when the creative idea bears remunerative fruit. Ever wonder why patents get stolen and why employment contracts for engineers require that they automatically assign their inventions to the company for the consideration of a single dollar or pound?
This intellectual moat building is very common and hence pervasive throughout the world of commerce. If the person in charge were valued on their creativity alone, they couldn’t possibly justify their privileges. Nobody has a monopoly on great ideas (yet the best ideas are the unique ones, paradoxically). So, by default, those that have the power to do so stamp on any ideas that are not their own. Meanwhile, they struggle to have enough creative ideas of their own (what, with all the territorial guarding, Machiavellian machinations and skulduggery that they need to engage in, there is barely any time to think creative thoughts).
So I think that creativity is undervalued because commerce organises itself along top-down, hierarchical, feudal lines of governance. It assiduously pretends that all men are not equally capable of having creative ideas. Not only does it pretend this, it asserts it through all its financial decisions. The structure of the company is underpinned by this very idea. Shareholders are thought to be the really clever guys, worthy of the lion’s share of the profits. They must be the smartest guys, because they are the richest, right? It’s what they hold up as their proof. Not their creativity, their wealth, however ill-gotten. Upper managers are the next to be sated, thanks to their obviously superior human qualities (but again, not their creativity, their cunning, guile, insensate cruelty, propensity to workaholism, etc). Meanwhile, the creative people that actually bring the company’s very existence and products into being are treated as the hired, interchangeable, replaceable, dime-a-dozen, worker-unit help. It’s the foundation of the hierarchy. The corporate hierarchy requires this fiction to maintain the structure.
Topple the structure, by flattening it, and you would have different incentives. If creativity was the measure of a man (and there is ample evidence that it ought to be), then companies could be organised along entirely different structural lines to reflect that actual reality. Creativity would be valued very differently if the CEO and the rest of the company had equal shares in the profits, perks, privileges and freedoms that being a creative company earns. If every company were organised along non-feudal, non-hierarchical lines, pretty soon creativity would carry a premium and creative people of all stripes would be sought, rewarded highly and valued. At that time, all of society would reflect those values. That’s my theory, anyway.
Creativity is undervalued because it has the power to overthrow. It is therefore seen as a threat and hence viciously discouraged. Unfortunately, the reality is that creativity is everything. Those that try to suppress it are swimming against the current. The undervaluation of creativity is temporary.