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The Myth Of Creativity


By Robin Hanson Creativity is in. Seminars teach employees to "think outside the box" and release their inner Picasso. Managers preach innovation, and today's rich and powerful prefer to describe themselves as creative heroes, valiantly besting the naysayers to bring us the radical changes that add up to progress. Richard Florida's best-selling The Rise of the Creative Class argues that societal progress increasingly comes from places like New York and San Francisco, in part because those cities encourage creativity by embracing bohemian self-expression and openness to diversity in dress, speech, or even sexuality.

Despite this affirming chorus, much of the hoopla over creativity is a crock. Why? Because we are already up to our eyeballs in it. Make no mistake: Innovation matters. Nothing is more essential for long-term economic growth. But to get more innovation we may want less, not more, creativity.

The sobering truth is that the dramatic artistic creations or intellectual insights we most admire for their striking "creativity" matter little for economic growth. Creative new clothes or music may change fashion, but are soon eclipsed by newer fashions. Large and lasting economic innovations, like steam engines or cell phones, are rare and tend to be independently "invented" by many people. One less visionary would matter little.

Instead, the innovations that matter most are the millions of small changes we constantly make to our billions of daily procedures and arrangements. Such changes do not require free-spirited self-expression. Instead, people quite naturally think of changes as they go about their routine business and social lives.

IN FACT, HUMANS GENERATE far more suggestions than we could ever possibly pursue. We throw away most ideas, while those we do bother to mention are rarely pursued. Almost everyone has suggestions they think were unfairly ignored. This is not because of evil conformism; given our limited resources, it simply could not be otherwise.

Where's the biggest surplus? All those "big ideas." After all, big changes take even more resources to pursue, and people long to be creative heroes celebrated for their big ideas. It seems every actor wants to direct, every musician wants creative control, and every manager wants to be a CEO.

Such striving for creativity can actually reduce innovation. Vying for creative credit, people routinely neglect good ideas "not invented here." And they often join the crowd behind a new idea just to declare their creativity, which distracts them from really trying to make that new idea work.

To succeed in academia, my graduate students and I had to learn to be less creative than we were initially inclined to be. Critics complain that schools squelch creativity, but most people are inclined to be more creative on the job than would be truly productive. So schooling is mostly about selecting the smarter and more diligent, and learning to show up day after day to somewhat boring jobs with ambiguous instructions.

What society needs is not more creativity or suggestions for change but better ways to encourage people to focus on important issues, identify the most promising ideas, and tell the right people about them. But our deification of creativity gets in the way.

We laugh at our ancestors who believed in "trial by combat" because God made morally virtuous people physically stronger. But our myth of creativity similarly associates creativity with moral virtue. Artistic achievement is thought to require deep, almost spiritual self-awareness. Indeed, Richard Florida says creativity favors "individuality, self-expression, acceptance of difference, and the desire for rich multidimensional experiences" instead of "homogeneity, conformity, and 'fitting in."' Creativity is said to come not to those who try to control it, but to those who let it control them.

This is a Star Wars vision of innovation: "Feel the force, Luke; let go of your conscious self and act on instinct." And it is just as much a fantasy as that celluloid serial. Innovation is no more about releasing your inner bohemian than it is about holding hands, singing Kumbaya, and believing in innovation.

In truth, we don't need more suggestion boxes or more street mimes to fill people with a spirit of creativity. We instead need to better manage the flood of ideas we already have and to reward managers for actually executing them.

Views expressed in Outside Shot are solely those of contributors.

Robin Hanson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a Mercatus Center scholar. A version of this essay appeared online at Cato Unbound (cato-unbound.org)


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