When our shoot broke for lunch, the agency creatives went out to eat with Erin. Erin was our main client, a senior marketing manager at American Express. Tall, blonde and not at all unattractive, Erin nonetheless projected the hard-edged unhappiness one often finds among executives in the world of corporate communications.
None of us cared for her very much. But she was, after all, paying our salaries, so we put on our happy faces and feigned interest in what she said.
We were at an open-air Italian restaurant in the atrium of the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan. After we put in our orders, Erin mentioned that she had recently taken an aptitude test of sorts, one that “would help me understand where my true talents are, what I should really be doing with my life.”
This was the first time Erin displayed any vulnerability, and probably the first time we actually tuned in sincerely to what she was saying.
“Yea, it’s at this place uptown,” Erin explained. “Pretty expensive, by the way. You take a battery of tests. Kind of multiple choice. You also have an interview. At the end they tell you what what your real aptitude is.”
“And so,” I broke in, “what are are you really meant to do?”
“I’m actually an artist,” she said, holding back a proud smile.
“ Fantastic. Tell me more.”
“Well, after they reviewed my answers, they came to the conclusion that down deep I’m, well, truly artistic.”
“Was that a surprise?”
“Come to think of it, no. As a kid I used to draw, and paint water colors. I even did some painting through high school.”
“So, are you going to get back into it?
“Well maybe sometime later on. But not now. We’re renovating the weekend place upstate, and I really don’t have the time. Plus I’d have to prepare a room for it. And I don’t have any paints.”
“You could always do some drawing,” I suggested. “All you need is a pencil and some paper. And you can do that anywhere.”
“We’ll see,” said Erin, sharply.
I felt it best to let the issue drop.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Erin, in my view, had no real interest in painting anything, and I doubt to this day she ever acted upon her “real aptitude.”
What she was willing to pay for and so eager to share, however, was the promise that down deep she was a creative person, an artist.
The idea of creativity was of superior value to its practice.
That’s no surprise, since our contemporary culture, especially in its corporate manifestation, has divorced the concept of creativity from the act of creating things.
You see this in much of the current literature on creativity, especially in those books and articles aimed at the business community.
One of the most popular in recent times is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagination—How Creativity Works.
Unfortunately Imagination has been removed from bookstores once it was revealed that Lehrer made up quotes about Bob Dylan and then lied about it to a fellow journalist investigating the matter. (You can still pick up a copy, as I did, on eBay).
This is a shame, since Imagination has a lot of merit.
Lehrer’s basic aim is scientific: to describe the mental processes that occur when people have flashes of “creative insight.”
Although he pays some attention to the craft of creativity and the hard work involved in translating abstract ideas into tangible things, the real energy of the book, its sex appeal so to speak, lies in the detailed explanations of brain activity and the experiments researchers have developed to identify and measure what’s going on in our heads when we’re engaged in creative work, in particular when we have “breakthroughs.”
What’s curious, however—-and this will bring me back to Erin’s story—are the tests created by the researchers to simulate creative challenges.
Lehrer presents a number of them, and they might remind you of SAT exams.
A giant inverted steel pyramid is perfectly balanced on it s point. Any movement of the pyramid will cause it to topple over. Underneath the pyramid is a $100 bill. How do you remove the bill without disturbing the pyramid?
If you’re having trouble, here’s the answer: you set the bill on fire. The whole crux of the quiz rests on your interpretation of the meaning of “remove.”
A number of the tests present semantic games like this, and, like on any standardized exam, once you understand what the test maker is looking for, once you get the “trick,” things get easier.
Now try this one:
Marsha and Marjorie were born on the same day of the same month of the same year to the same mother and the same father, yet they are not twins. How is that possible?
Well…they’re triplets. Get it?
As interesting as these brain teasers might be, I find them beside the point, having little to do with creativity as I’ve practiced it as a professional for close to thirty years. (Real-world creative problems are never presented so cleanly. In fact, defining the problem is often the main challenge.)
But you do get a certain thrill when you arrive at a correct answer. And as you learn the tricks of the test it’s tempting to feel that being creative, if not being brilliant, is something relatively easy to learn. It’s nothing more beating the exam.
That’s the appeal of Imagination, and why I believed it made the bestseller lists.
It provides the same emotional reward that excited Erin when she was validated at an “artist.”
In both cases creativity is an abstraction, something that can be tested and measured using rational, bureaucratic techniques.
By disembodying creativity and equating it only with flashes of insight, you can enjoy your potential as an artist and innovator without having to do any of the work necessary to create things and put them out in the world.
This perspective bothers me because it diminishes the act of creating things which, to my mind, is perhaps the most satisfying experience we can have in this world, not to mention the source of all true innovation.
And I fear that our culture, with its fetishization of ideas, data and virtual realities, is depriving us of of this central and valuable human activity.
I hope Erin is painting.