More on Cultivating Creativity

Robin, Thanks for your post. Seems like there’s much we agree on, and issues are coming more clearly into focus.

I agree completely that our education system was designed to sort people according to intelligence and diligence. And I agree about people wanting to be more creative. What I think is that people able to be more creative will likely be even more productive. Teresa Amabile, a psychologist now at Harvard Business School, has studied the economic and workplace implications of creativity for several decades. Her book on creativity nails how creative people are intrinsically motivated. She likes to say it’s counterproductive to use extrinsic rewards to motivate creative people who are mainly motivated by challenge, peer respect, etc.—motivated from within. She has a new study out which is quite remarkable. She finds creativity everywhere, apparent and under-used at many workplaces. A big problem for creativity is too much rules-based management, too much micro-managing, and too much stress.

I wrote a paper on this for the Harvard Business Review with Jim Goodnight, a computer scientist and founder of the SAS Institute, the largest and most sucessful privately held software company in the world. Jim is no softie. When I asked him what SAS does with slackers he said simply, “we throw them out.” Jim says the key to SAS’s success lies in challenging creative people—and not just his software developers. SAS outsources very little, even its grounds crew is composed of full-time employees. For Goodnight the key is to find out what really motivates and challenges people (in Amabile’s words their “intrinsic motivations”) and let them go to it.

Toyota has shown the world how giving workers less ambiguous rules, better measurement tools, and much greater ability to use their own intelligence and creativity can spur tremendous improvements in productivity.

I recently went to get a spa treatment in DC. I find these situations awkward, so I asked the young woman there how she got to DC. She said she came here for college. Interesting, I thought. I asked where did she go. University of Maryland. Hmmm. A very good university. I asked how did college figure in her career choice. I was not prepared for her answer. She studied economics, she said. And, after being actively recruited, she took at job with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS is the main source of the occupational data I use in my own research. She went on to say that she worked on the spreadsheets that are the backbone of the Bureau’s occupational analysis. It was a great-paying job, with a steady career path, job security, and great benefits. It was easy for her. Problem was, she said, she was bored to tears. Tearing her hair out bored. She wanted to do something more “creative”—her words not mine—more exciting, more fun, and challenging. So she decided to go back to school for a cosmetology license and take up work as a free agent in a spa.

My point here is that we have to square the circle between Robin’s point and my own. Perhaps she was more productive as an economist. Lord knows, she was more productive for what I do. But the organization could not hold on to her.

I think it’s important here to make a distinction between the kind of work we do and the context in which we work. To my mind, it’s not the work that was boring per se; it was her workplace that was a big part of the problem. Writing is among the most difficult things for most humans, including me, to do. But lots of folks enjoy being writers. For me, part of it is the work itself, but part of it is that I get to challenge myself, organize my own work, and do it on my time.

If we really want to increase productivity, we have to increase the creative content of work, make the context of the workplace better, and make better use of intrinsic reward and motivation. This is a huge step beyond the industrial model of work and education. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg here.

We are so very early in the Creative Economy. The real returns will come to those companies who learn better how to mobilize creativity. And so too with regions and nations that figure out ways to go beyond education as sorting and preparing people for boring jobs.

Robin says it’s not the cultural preferences of creative people that cause them to be innovative. Again, I could not agree more. My argument is not about individual cultural preferences, but about the characteristics of places—an important difference. He claims that “those same people would contribute about as much innovation to the economy even if they were forced to live in areas that less supported bohemian expression and ethnic diversity.” I’m struck by the use of the adjectives “bohemian” and “ethnic” in this sentence. My claim is about self-expression and diversity broadly, and I think it’s important to be clear about that.

My bigger issue is that my research shows this NOT to be the case. In fact there is a strong association between places that allow and enable self-expression and have higher levels of diversity and measures of innovation. I need not rehash the story of Silicon Valley and its long history of openness to diversity, self-expression, and just plain strange behavior. The same can be said of Austin and Seattle. What is so interesting about these places is that they channel self-expression and diversity into commercial innovation and successful entrepreneurial business formation. The same thing cannot be said for a place like Miami. Sure anything goes there and it’s wildly diverse. It does just fine on my third T, tolerance, but it lags terribly on the other two Ts, talent and technology. As I’ve said many times before for a place to succeed it needs to excel at all 3 Ts.

But the issue I want to call attention to is what happens to places that have significant technology and talent assets, but are not open to diversity and self-expression. Take Jobs and Wozniak in the early 70s at the start of Apple Computer. They were young. They dressed unconventionally. They wore their hair long. So did Gates and Allen by the way. Some of them were college dropouts. They would certainly qualify as non-conventional. I recall interviewing the venture capitalist Donald Valentine in the late 1980s for a project on the venture capital industry. My ideas had not progressed anywhere near the creative class and I was flabbergasted that such a straight-laced, professional-looking, older venture capitalist would put his money into the two clearly non-conventional Apple founders. He looked me dead in the eye, and after saying he couldn’t really remember if Wozniak had shoes on, replied simply: “I never bet on the shell; the only thing that matters is what’s inside the shell.”

A thought experiment I like to do is to ask people to imagine Jobs and Wozniak starting their search for funding in Cleveland or St. Louis or Pittsburgh. Imagine them pulling their car up to Mellon Bank, or some such, looking as they did, and asking for funding. The folks at the front desk would have called security.

A key to understanding innovation and economic advantage is to understand how and why places differ in their ability to mobilize creativity, attract creative people, and turn their energies into productive use. This is a huge and terribly neglected part of the story of innovative regions like Silicon Valley, and prosperous and competitive countries like the United States. And it’s something we need stop ignoring or rejecting out of hand and start subjecting to much more detailed empirical research.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Richard Florida, bestselling author of Rise of the Creative Class, argues that the old industrial era has given way to a new creative era. Science and technology, art and design, and culture and entertainment have superceded natural resources and industrial infrastructure as the key to economic success. Talent is now the key factor of production and winners in global economic competition will be those who can best deploy and attract it. However, the creative economy is a source of increasing inequality both within and between nations. Florida argues that the key to bridging the gap between the creative and service sectors is to harness the creativity of service sector workers to make their jobs both higher-paying and more satisfying.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Florida’s lead essay, George Mason economist Robin Hanson argues that creativity matters less for economic growth and the future of work than Florida thinks. According to Hanson, Florida’s emphasis on creativity distracts us from the prospect of a truly revolutionary change to work and economy just over the horizon: rapidly exponential growth driven by smart machines. “An economy with intelligent machines could grow very rapidly indeed,” Hanson argues, “and induce rapidly falling human wages.” Will we be prepared if we’re busy making the Creative Class comfortable?

  • MIT economist Frank Levy agrees that creativity is more important than ever in a world where computers and foreign workers can do routine work less expensively than domestic workers. This shift, Levy says, requires better education in problem-solving. But education can only do so much. The gains from rising labor productivity are going largely to the wealthy, Levy argues. Unless policies and norms are reinstated that spread those gains more widely “all of the nation’s institutions will be at risk.”

  • While agreeing with much in Florida’s essay, UCLA economist Edward Leamer suggests that the key to understanding the future of work isn’t creativity, but talent. “Is a personal computer like a forklift or a microphone?” Leamer asks. Forklifts are forces for equality, washing out individual differences in ability. Microphones, on the other hand, amplify difference in ability and talent. If training cannot create talent, but can only enhance it, the gains to training will be highest for the talented, and it will not be possible to close the talent and wage gaps by offering more training to the less talented.