Creativity Wasted?

Are young people channeling their creativity into the wrong professions? Is it a waste to use your creative abilities for commercial purposes?

The following quotes, both of which I came across in the past week, suggest a cultural shift:

The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”

Banksy (quote via the Lefsetz Letter – hat tip to Jordan for sending it my way)

The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”

Jeff Hammerbacher

I’ve written before about my own bias against advertising and commercial culture. Beyond those thoughts, since the Hammerbacher quote references online business, I’ll add that a number of my friends who work in the web are lamenting the industry’s commercialization.

When I graduated college in 1998, I was drawn to the web because it was a place where young people could do meaningful work without languishing for years at the bottom of a corporate ladder, filling someone’s coffee cup. It was a place where you could be creative.

The culture at web shops is different these days, even at nonprofit orgs; the scruffy, invention-in-the-basement energy from the web’s infancy has been obscured by a few coats of heavy-duty corporate polish. Of course, an industry with 10+ years under its belt is going to be more mature than one that’s brand new… and in some ways, this maturation is an improvement. We’ve learned a lot about how people use this crazy medium of the Internet, so we can create more user-friendly experiences out the gate. We know some strategies will work better than others, because we have years of experience and data to back us up.

But let’s not get smug. Not only because it’s such an unattractive trait, but also because — there is so much left to learn, not just about “the web” but about how to optimize human communication. Human understanding. And we need unjaded, genuine creativity to help us figure it out.

We all need to make money, and businesses (and artists) need revenue, and these are facts of life. But don’t kid yourself that creating copy for a car company is “creative” in the truest sense of the word. Don’t limit your contributions to the world to commercial pursuits.

I’ll get off my soapbox now. I guess I’m writing this post for recent college grads, most of all — people who can choose to pour their creativity into making things that help people, things that are beautiful… or things that keep the cogs going in the corporate machine. At the end of your life, “greasing cogs” isn’t what you want on your grave stone.

And if you’re mid-career, it’s not too late to change course. It’s never too late. Life is comprised of the choices we make, and all it takes to make a change is to make a new choice and commit to it like hell. With gumption and optimism, anything is possible.

I’m sorry if this post is sanctimonious. I’m trying not to be judgmental, but it really kills me to see people channel one of the greatest gifts we get in this life – creativity – to something insular, something that doesn’t contribute at all to making the world a better place.

What do you think? Am I being too judgmental? How do you apply your creativity?

Graphic above by Lloyd Dangle, courtesy of the Norman Lear Center on Flickr

7 thoughts on “Creativity Wasted?

  1. I started working at a multimedia agency in 1999. I wasn't interested in working at a startup for slave labor hours, the promise of a free lunch and foosball. (Although, I know of a few people whose stock options were actually worth something.) The place I worked for created educational products (online games. websites, interactive features, and video) for We worked with teachers and students quite a bit. We spent a lot of time creating quality content and the work was well received and successful for the time. It felt good to go to work every day.I know a lot of people who have left web in the last five years to start their own businesses or switch careers because the web world has changed. I've thought about it a lot myself. I'm sure there are still creative and fun firms out there (probably in San Francisco) but most firms focus endlessly on brands (personal or otherwise) and product development, marketing and advertising, and cannibalizing each other's ideas for the sake of selling what they deem is hot to the client. (And I especially love when those same dull ideas get slapped with the creative! stamp.) It's a lot of talk and often little action and it feels more like show than substance. There is so much crap being developed, so much noise that most of us ignore because it all looks the same. Who wants to contribute to that? A lot of places that I have worked for have been flooded with the same corporate structures (and aggressive blowhards that come with) that have always stymied creative development in traditional business – the businesses a lot of people like myself went to web to avoid. I know there are alternative voices out there, like Jason Fried at 37 Signals or Coudal Partners, who speak to finding a niche online, creating meaningful, successful content, products, and businesses that don't suck away souls and dull minds or tout the same self-aggrandizing bullshit that marks the times. It still feels like the market is teeming with bullshit, but I think the most interesting, satisfying experiences online are rarely created by the hip firms or agencies. Those places are too busy feeding off each other, endlessly remaking what someone else has made. My money is always on the people who resist that path.I love the Banksy quote. Love it.


  2. While I appreciate the idealism that is espoused here, little (if nothing) as to the hard reality of life is every given a moment's attention. To say that it is given short shrift is a fundamental understatement.Certainly many would love to spend their days and nights expressing their feelings, and yet be able to lead a comfortable life. Some have the talent and opportunity to do so, including those authors that are paid to write, those musicians that are paid to make and perform music, and so on and so forth.But the fact of the matter is that those recent college graduates that are here being exhorted to find their genius and share it with the world are likely in a tough financial position. The fact of the matter is that businesses that have revenue provide jobs that in turn generate revenue for their employees. It's really that simple sometimes.It is only in a country that is saturated with such wealth that those that choose to work (perhaps even at the expense of personally expressed creativity) are treated as being lesser than their colleagues. It is very frustrating to find that having a job makes one a lesser being than those revelling in their creative glory.So yeah, I'm going to say: too judgmental. Take a step back and really think about what makes for a good person and a good life. If the answer is solely living saturated in one's own creative juices, I suspect that not enough creativity was applied to the question at hand.


  3. Amanda – thanks for getting me thinking on this post.I'm really passionate about college students & grads – the challenges they face, the conflicting messages they receive, and the stories they have yet to live. What I think is so exciting, though, about the emerging economy is that there are fewer choices to make. Life (and work) is more closely resembling art. Art is more closely resembling art. I think you can make artful advertisements and financially rewarding art. Creativity is creativity – why draw a distinction and make a judgement? We created those distinctions and we can choose to ignore them if we want to.But I think the important question here is whether there is a brain drain of great people going into "business" instead of "service?" And the answer there is simply to stop drawing a distinction between business and service as well. People are proving it's a viable model – it needs to be examined and taught. Not to mention, it needs to be given time and nurturing to grow into the next paradigm of American (or world) culture.


  4. Ooh, great comments here. I'm thrilled! This is exactly the kind of discussion I hoped to have.Emily, you are absolutely right that finding meaningful work is a luxury. First and foremost, a person must put food on the table. Where I'm coming from is having recently encountered a lot of people working in advertising in particular who pat themselves on the backs for their creativity while contributing nothing to the world beyond helping a corporation sell products with no social value. This agitates me to no end. What a squandering of creative resources.I do want to clarify, I am not advocating bathing in creative juices, as you put it… I'm advocating applying your innate creativity in meaningful ways. Ways that help make the world a better place. Yes, we need food on the table, but the world needs things too — solutions to major problems, compassion, inspiration. In such a context, settling for a career that does nothing positive for the world, is, to me, unacceptable. Of course, we are more than our jobs – we can apply our creativity outside the workplace in our families and communities, in constructive and beautiful ways. But the reality is that for many people, work is what gets the most of their time. And so I do want to see people choosing work that benefits something other than their bank account. Again, if someone is in dire financial straights, then "choice" may be a luxury they can't afford… but life is a process, and a series of choices, and I would encourage a young person to aspire to apply their creativity in more pro-social ways over the course of their lives, whenever possible.Tara, I agree with you that increasingly, it is possible to blend your life/work/art, and it is absolutely exciting. More and more people are realizing that the supposed stability of a full-time job is just an illusion, and forging new paths for themselves – starting their own businesses, freelancing, etc. These alternate paths are not always smooth sailing but they teach you a resourcefulness and agency that often serves you better in the long run, economically and spiritually. Where I disagree with you somewhat is on "artful advertisements"…. per my comments above, I reject rewarding applying creative gifts to creating advertisements. So much of what is wrong with America stems from the fact that commerce dominates every arena of our lives. I want the "best minds of a generation" working to feed the hungry, find new sources of energy, bring peace to their communities… not writing algorithms for online ads, or designing "artful advertisements" for products that do nothing to enhance the quality of our lies. Again, sure — if that's the only job a person can get, fine. But with all the non-profits in the world, and all the socially responsible businesses, and all the opportunities to create your own business, not to mention all the volunteer opportunities…. it's often possible to choose a more meaningful path, especially over the course of a lifetime.


  5. I think that issue here is that you're imposing your judgment of what is a worthwhile pursuit onto others. The only careers that you deem satisfactory are those that somehow immediately impact the greater good. However, I think that this fails to consider the complex web that is society.Take, for example, your advertising executive. Sure, one account may be selling Camel cigarettes, but another account may be a company marketing solar technology. Don't both deserve to be represented in the marketplace by a talented individual?Another issue is that you state where *you'd* like for the best minds to work. What if those minds find their work engaging, exciting and fulfilling. Are you here to tell them that their feelings are wrong or misguided because they *should* be applying their mental prowess elsewhere? Finally, I don't think that this response has adequately spoken to why it's somehow unacceptable to enjoy a job (or the fruits from that job) that doesn't have a greater social meaning. Sure, I'd never want to be a Wall Street financier, but by all accounts, money makes the world go 'round. I'm glad that there's people out there that enjoy it (though they could stand to learn the lessons of the past 5 years better than they apparently did).As they say, it takes all kinds. All kinds deserve more respect than I see given here. Certainly being socially conscious is not a bad thing, but it's also not the *only* thing.


  6. Emily, I guess it's hard for me to understand what it is we're here for, if not to try to impact the greater good? That said, there are of course many interpretations of how to have an impact. I personally believe that the more self-realized we are, the better able we are to be of service, so personal fulfillment and social contribution are intimately linked. It isn't "wrong" to enjoy a job that doesn't have larger social meaning. I'm not here to define right and wrong. But I do want to encourage people who self-identify as creative to apply their creative gifts in a way that helps make the world a better place. (And I want to encourage people who don't see themselves as creative, to uncover their creativity… but that's a topic for another post, or 2, or 100.)


  7. Pingback: What is real power? | Having it Alt

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