Nobody comes right out and says it, in so many words, but it’s what they mean. Keep your creativity under control! Don’t be too overtly creative, because it makes the rest of us feel uncomfortable. Above all, keep your creativity within proscribed limits. What a horrid sentiment!
Cease and desist. Slow down. Take your foot off the gas. Curb your enthusiasm. You’re making the rest of us look bad. In Australia, this is known as the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, where an anti-intellectual, anti-arts, anti-achievement social undercurrent seeks to belittle those that exhibit outstanding creativity. It’s designed to prevent outstanding things from being done. Why? So that the rest of the populace feels no pressure to keep up or contribute to the same level. There are whole societies that value complacency, conformity, uniformity and being unremarkable over creativity and it’s free expression. Astonishing!
I saw a lady having her soul surgically destroyed, the other day. She was a receptionist at a hospital, but her task, that day, was to take cheap, generic envelopes and stamp the hospital’s details onto the envelope using a rubber stamp, so that other people in her workgroup had envelopes to use, in their correspondence, which identified the sender clearly. Instead of letting her creativity soar, this poor woman was reduced to performing a repetitive, mechanical, low value task, simply to save a few pennies on the cost of envelopes bought in bulk. Her misery and boredom was to save a small machine printing cost.
Clearly she had not obtained the job of being the welcoming, friendly, helpful, organised, public face of the organisation for her rubber stamping abilities, yet here she was – reduced to the level of an automaton. She knew it, too and clearly didn’t like it. A key member of staff, who ensured all patients referred to the unit were greeted with an understanding and sympathetic smile, put at ease, kept informed and reassured, was being treated like a galley slave. Clearly she had more to offer, as a human being. Clearly, her supervisors wanted none of it. Curb your creativity.
It was obvious that the time she spent on the job, between receiving patients at the reception desk, could have been better spent knitting colourful, custom made mittens for hospitalised children, for example, rather than stamping envelopes, or engaged in any number of genuinely creative pursuits that stretched her and challenged her, but the management were not interested in any of that. They wanted to keep her busy, but the most useful thing they could think of using her time to do was to rubber stamp envelopes. Isn’t that a pathetic waste of human potential?
Any waste of human potential is a lost opportunity, for society and the economy, not to mention the individual. Underemployment is sometimes worse than unemployment, to highly creative people, because it is slow, corrosive, drip-fed, toxic ooze that gradually envelops your creative inner prodigy, snuffing it out by degrees, over a long, drawn-out period of time.
I’ve found to my cost, at various times in my career, that no matter how skilled and experienced you are and how “important” your job title, when it comes down to it, whenever I showed substantially more creativity than those nominally in charge, I was “encouraged” by more senior managers to rein it in, rather than exploring where that creativity might have taken their businesses. I can honestly say that in some cases, their unwillingness to explore the direction I was motivated and enthusiastic about taking the firm in cost them great fortunes, which other companies more interested in exploring those directions went on to make, in the fullness of time. Of course, no accounting of any company’s activities takes the opportunity costs into consideration, but if they did, they would clearly see the deficit caused by being disinterested in following the thread of creative thought brought to them by a lowly employee. In every case, maintaining the appearance of being superior and in charge mattered more to the managers than going in a new, fruitful direction, suggested by somebody outside of the executive team. This has been a repeated pattern, in my experience. I’m sure it is a recurrent theme in many companies. My experience is typical, rather than unique.
A sort of charade develops. Play acting, on a daily basis. Employees pretend to enjoy their jobs and the opportunities for expressing their creativity afforded them by their jobs, by staying a little longer, each day, after the nominal end of business hours, or by starting a little earlier than their colleagues. This, of course, is all fake posturing. Employees have little real opportunity for expressing their creativity and the ritual of staying twenty more minutes at the desk is simply to score points and create the veneer of being indispensible. The reality is that most employees are given narrow scope for self-determination and creative input, their jobs are always at risk and they are required to remain within the narrow confines of their defined role and job title.
Artists pursuing their art as a full time career are frequently asked, “Do you have a backup plan?” Well, do most employees in corporations have a backup plan? Usually not. What will they do when the firm they work for no longer needs their test plans, Gantt charts, PowerPoint presentations and status reports? Usually, they’re as vulnerable to the firm’s inability to succeed as a professional artist is, they just don’t acknowledge the possibility of redundancy at any moment convenient to their company.
How many professional music careers have been cut short, prematurely, because the artist’s creativity is no longer embraced and welcomed by their audience? “We don’t want to hear your new music, just the hits you wrote long ago that remind us of our own youth.” It makes you wonder if the people that first bought the artist’s music ever really appreciated their musical creativity at all, or if they were truthfully more interested in how they looked and dressed, rather than how they sounded. Of course, some artists are dishonest about the valuable contributions of former collaborators, who they no longer work with. These “musical differences” are yet another way of somebody saying to somebody else, “I don’t want your creative (musical) contribution any more. Curb it.”
It’s sad, but true, that it is often other artists that most vehemently resent people openly displaying their artistic creativity. They can be the worst offenders. More than anybody else, those who see themselves as creative, who place a lot of value in their reputation for creativity, are particularly unsettled when another artist, more creative than themselves, is in their presence. There is a creativity pecking order, no doubt about it, with artists seeking to jockey for the position of alpha creative.
In truth, there is nothing particularly brave or courageous about exploring your creativity overtly, despite the chorus of people encouraging you to do less of it. Nobody has shot or imprisoned me for doing so, yet. Rather, being creative and being willing to show that you are being creative is about a determination to investigate new things. New things are worth investigating. It’s where the gems are found. What people are really saying, when they assert that creativity takes bravery or courage, is that they are afraid to display their most creative ideas to others, for fear of judgement and rejection. You just can’t live a creative life that way. If you are constantly worried about what other people will think about your experiments and flights of creative fancy, you’ll investigate virtually none of the available creative terrain. You’ll remain rooted in tradition and repetition of techniques and ideas that have already been done. It’s like rubber stamping envelopes.
In politically repressive countries, the creativity those in power want to suppress is that of the writers, academics and artists that dare to think about how things could be better. It’s not that the different way threatens the rulers; it’s the fact that somebody more creative than them threatens the leadership’s claims to intellectual superiority and of having the best ideas for how things should be run. The suppression of creativity is driven by pure ego. What is sacrificed, of course, is a potentially much better future for all. It’s a heavy price to pay, just to pander to somebody’s ego.
If you think about it, being instructed, either directly or subtly, to curb your enthusiastic creativity is an assault on all your hopes and dreams. You’re being told to stop imagining how things could be better, so that those less inclined to do so don’t have to. Is that a good enough reason to curb your creativity?
Last week, my painting was all about trying to make an acceptable image, using all the colours of the rainbow, diluted with liquefying medium, applied with an Egbert brush (a long bristled Filbert), but so that I could still make the human form of the model look recognisable. In this creative experiment, which was only partially successful, I learned how to handle very thin, free-flowing acrylic paint, applied with exceptionally loose and flowing brush strokes. I learned how it reacted with the canvas (it forms beads of paint, initially), how to blend those distinctive colours on the canvas (delicately!), how to balance the tones with the hues to create a three-dimensional looking figure and what I needed to do to balance the colours against each other and when to introduce some white. I also worked out when to use a fan brush to create a highlight effect, how to drag the colours in a dry scumble and all sorts of things that simply emerged from doing the experiment. That’s a lot of creative exploration ground to cover, in the just ninety minutes available, don’t you think?
Some people I know have suggested that there is a glut of creative output. Every village is full of retirees learning to paint. My view is the more the better. If everybody raises their creativity bar, then the most creative will be truly outstanding and exceptional. The whole world runs on and relies on creativity, after all, so any excess creativity can easily be absorbed. Heaven knows there is a creativity deficit at the heart of official policy on so many matters. Curbing your creativity to reduce the supposed glut doesn’t seem like a good decision, to me.
Regrettably, people will be discouraging about your creativity. Whenever you offer some of it up, somebody will always advise you to offer less. They’ll be dismissive of your purposeful creative explorations, as if they were just a bit of frivolous fun, but they miss the point. You learn important lessons, through creative exploration. It’s anything but a frivolous enterprise, even if it is a whole lot of fun.
It can be hard enough to believe you will be successful in art, but harder still when you can’t find anybody else who does. In an ideal world, people would be less willing to ask others to curb their creativity, just to feel comfortable with their own lack of creative output. My advice is to shine brightly, with your creativity, no matter what, so that it spreads like wildfire – contagious and unstoppable. Challenge everybody to be more creative than they are game to be. Only that way do we raise the average creative output of the population. By encouraging people not to curb their creativity, but instead to express it as fully and as broadly in scope as their creativity demands, we improve everything for everybody. Maintaining complacent indolence just isn’t a worthwhile goal.
Egos be damned!