Buying and selling creativity

Spot the CreativeThe term 'creativity' is now used so liberally and defined so broadly in job advertisements, political speeches, corporate flyers and university course guides, that it has become meaningless.

Everyone from real estate agents and academics to government spin doctors is flogging 'creativity'. It's the McDonald's of catch-all phrases.

British sociologist Frank Furendi says in Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? that creativity has become a feelgood term intended to make us all feel a bit better about what we do, whether it's stocking shelves at the supermarket or playing cricket in the Australian Test team.

'Creativity is not a personal characteristic but the outcome of inspired, hard-earned achievement,' Furendi says.

We need to take a reality check on the current use of the term 'creative'. Remember the Dot-com crash in 2000? Part of the reason it crashed was that companies who bought into the online information revolution realised that it lacked creative content.

Organisations market creativity like this: 1. Creativity is an essential human attribute. 2. Creativity is the key to economic prosperity — the engine of the market. 3. Therefore, the market is simply an extension of the fundamental workings of human nature.

Total rubbish — but the guys in Enron and HIH used exactly this form of argument to pull the wool over the eyes of their clients.

One of the dangers of putting so much bias or spin on the term 'creative', and then applying it to almost every field of human endeavour, is that one runs the risk of self-parody or mumbo-jumbo. The authors of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Awaken the Giant Within, Elizabeth 1 CEO: Strategic Lessons in Leadership from the Woman who Built an Empire and The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun used creativity as a lure for gullible executives hunting for magic in the workings of the market.

We used to say at university staff meetings that much our creative corporate planning was like a ritual rain dance. It had no effect on the weather but the dancers thought it did. Moreover, the advice about organisational creativity was directed at improving the dancing, not the weather.

The majority of corporations are not really looking for 'creatives' as such (they'd fail the psychometric tests). They don't want a lot of divergent-thinking people running around with no understanding of the bottom line. They're looking for people who can put business strategies in place — deal makers at the cutting edge of new capital creation.

I understand why universities appropriate the term 'creative'. It has social caché — it's good to be creative, like the way my mother used to say that it was 'good' that I learn to play the piano as a child because I would be popular at parties ('But', I added, to her anger, 'only if there is a piano at the party').

In his essay 'On Creativity', US physicist David Bohm argued that creativity is difficult to achieve and consequently rare. In Bohm's view, most of what we do as humans is fairly humdrum and routine. For most of us, only occasionally is life marked by flashes of creativity. He did not regard this as a failing of individuals, but of a society that encourages us to conform and think in mechanical and repetitive ways.

It's a paradox that a society that places such a high premium on creativity forces people to sit in an office all day shuffling paper around or staring at a computer screen. For all the cant spruiked by HR management, most organisations still operate in quasi-military hierarchies. These are not the fecund fields where creativity will bloom.

While I've been critical of businesses corralling the term creativity, there clearly is some form of phenomenon where life is marked by flashes of deep insight. It's those flashes that interest me.

Why should a woman walking down a street suddenly formulate in her head, from a complex juxtaposition of memory and sense perception, an idea for a painting that will one day be hailed as a masterpiece? Why should a young man flying from Sydney to Hong Kong on holiday in the year 2010 make an astounding discovery about the pattern of prime numbers? Beats me.

Creativity is something we all have but we don't know very much about it. I think it's time we called big businesses' bluff about their appropriation of creativity. For a truly creative nation to evolve, we need to study the wild mutability of the creative process. That would truly be a revolutionary step.

Malcolm KingMalcolm King is an Adelaide writer. He runs an educational PR business and teaches Sudanese children literacy and numeracy. He was the former head of the RMIT creative writing programs.



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