Three others hang out with me when I’m painting in our garden. Lester and Mary were around here last year. This year they’ve brought along an oversized teenaged layabout with an annoying voice. Jack is often on his own, but Lester and Mary, who may be married, spend a lot of time strutting about, discussing, among other things, Jack. The parents are a bit co-dependent, but they like each other and seem smugly contented with their day-to-day routine. Lester, Mary and Jack are crows.
Their imminent arrival is often preceded by a loud smack on our patio. Lester and Mary will be dropping beach clams onto our hard tiles and breaking them nicely open, often near to Jack, who has been standing around, grumbling. This act of creativity seems wasted on Jack, as he takes forever to walk over and check out his take-out. No matter what the folks do for Jack, he’s a complainer.
Several years ago, Teresa Amabile, researcher and professor at the Harvard Business School, completed a study which led to “The Six Myths of Creativity.” In it she tore apart six popular ideas: “Creativity only comes from creative types.” “Money is the main creative motivator,” “Time pressure fuels creativity,” “Fear forces breakthroughs,” “Competition beats collaboration,” and “A streamlined organization is a creative organization.”
Amabile opts for more immediate and joyful creative motivators. In the business of money, for example, she found that reward didn’t count as much as most people think. It seems folks get creatively engaged when they have a sense of playful progress. “People are most creative when they care about their work and they’re stretching their skills,” she says. And it happens over a period of time — one day to the next in a cooperative environment can produce more creativity than the hot expectation of a bonus.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Lester and Mary do the clam-drop just because they know how. Maybe they were similarly lethargic when their folks were giving clam-drop demos. But somehow they figured it out, and they got to like doing it. I wonder if it warms their hearts to be among the more advanced, tool-using animals? I wonder, considering Jack’s indifference, if the production of dinner comes as a byproduct of fun?
PS: “One day’s happiness often predicts the next day’s creativity.” (Teresa Amabile)
Esoterica: Those of us who think we create best when under pressure or when meeting deadlines should think again. Amabile found that “time pressure stifles creativity because people can’t deeply engage with the problem. Creativity requires an incubation period, people need time to soak in a problem and let the ideas bubble up.” You can read management guru Bill Breen’s famous interview with Teresa Amabile here. A note of caution — none of the subjects of Amabile’s now classic research were crows.
This letter was originally published as “Lester, Mary and Jack” on August 26, 2011.
“The best way to help people to maximize their creative potential is to allow them to do something they love.” (Teresa Amabile)
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