Rant: In Defense of the Creative Life

Thanks to my colleague Lee Anne for pointing me to this article – Seven Rules for Managing Creative-But-Difficult People – in the Harvard Business Review. It’s not long; linking through should only cost you a minute or two. (And if you have more time, don’t forget to read the hundreds of comments…)

What the What???

Not surprisingly, there’s been a lot of response, more than I can wade through. And although I knew immediately that I had to respond, it took a while to sort out how. A turn-the-tables parody on how to manage supercilious MBAs or ivory-tower academics? An explanation of how I expected more from (and gave more credit to) my own toddlers than this approach deigns to give its “creatives”? (Oh, and I hate that word, despite the fact that people I respect tend to use it.) And does the author acknowledge that “creative-but-difficult” is not an inevitable combination?

I spend a significant amount of my time surrounded by – actually, exponentially outnumbered by – highly creative people. And most of those are young creative people; folks who are just figuring out how to ply their talents in the real world. Part of what my company does is make a contribution to their process of figuring out how to shape their professional adult lives while being good stewards of their unique gifts. My response (and please forgive today’s post length) is neither clever nor catchy (nor creative:)), but it is honest, heart-felt, and born of experience.

The HBR article essentially asks “What are the keys to engaging and retaining creative employees?” Quotes below shown in italics.

1. Spoil them and let them fail: Like parents who celebrate their children’s mess: show your creatives unconditional support and encourage them to do the absurd and fail… Creative people are the natural experimenters, so let them try and test and play.

Is unconditional support the same as “spoiling?” Everyone (and I don’t believe anyone is truly and completely “non-creative”) needs unconditional support under-girding the individual successes and failures of daily life. We should celebrate the mess always. But truly creative people don’t stop there, and HBR doesn’t get that. As far as “letting them fail”… no one can live well who lives in constant fear of making a single mistake.

2. Surround them by semi-boring people: The worst thing you can do to a creative employee is to force them to work with someone like them — they would compete for ideas, brainstorm eternally, or simply ignore each other… The solution, then, is to support your creatives with colleagues who are too conventional to challenge their ideas, but unconventional enough to collaborate with them.

Putting a stereotypical high-strung “diva” in a hierarchy with a team of “semi-boring” colleagues. Now that’s a recipe for success. Truth is that we all need competition – the healthiest kind. Surrounding creative people only with folks who will never challenge them is a recipe for disaster from any perspective I can think of.

3. Only involve them in meaningful work: This all-or-nothing approach to work mirrors the bipolar temperament of creative artists, who perform well only when inspired — and inspiration is fueled by meaning.

The article does go on to say that this should be applied to all employees, so that’s reassuring. But artists “perform well only when inspired?” Seriously? Has the author never met a writer or painter or musician who cranks out endless just-show-up-and-work hours so that the cream can rise to the top? “Bipolar temperament?” The gent’s exposure to “creatives” must be serious whacked.

4. Don’t pressure them: Creativity is usually enhanced by giving people more freedom and flexibility at work. If you like structure, order and predictability, you are probably not creative. Don’t constrain your creative employees; don’t force them to follow processes or structures… don’t ask where they are, what they are doing or how they do it.

The artists I know have a healthy craving for structure and order in many parts of their lives. In the best scenario, structure in one area frees up imagination for other arenas. If the author handles “creatives” by letting them do whatever they want, whenever or however… well, how do I sign up for some of that? Sounds like a good way to bypass adulthood completely.

5. Don’t overpay them: There is a longstanding debate about the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Over the past two decades, psychologists have provided compelling evidence for the so-called “over-justification” effect, namely the process whereby higher external rewards impair performance by depressing a person’s genuine or intrinsic interest…The moral of the story? The more you pay people to do what they love, the less they will love it.

Wow. OK, I know all about how we’ve discovered that token external awards sometimes actually debase the work they’re meant to reward. (What’s better? Having your child play well for the love of the game or getting a trophy for showing up?) But this goes beyond that. At the heart of this statement is a belief that creative people are actually paid enough to live. In the business world the subject of “overpayment” barely starts at six figures. In the real world of “creatives,” it means cobbling together enough honest work to pay rent. Artists have plenty of intrinsic motivation, and paying them enough to live on won’t “impair” their performance.

6. Surprise them: Few things are as aggravating to creatives as boredom. Indeed, creative people are prewired to seek constant change, even when it’s counterproductive. Creatives love complexity and enjoy making simple things complex rather than vice-versa… You should at least let them create enough chaos to make their own lives less predictable.

The most creative thing in the world? Making a complex thing simple. And if you don’t understand that, you should just be quiet. As for letting artists “create chaos?” They are not undisciplined children. (Oh, and BTW, unpredictability ≠ chaos.)

7. Make them feel important: As T.S. Eliot noted, “most of the trouble in this world is caused by people wanting to be important”. And the reason is that others fail to recognize them. Fairness is not treating everyone the same, but like they deserve.

Well, sure, every single one of us wants to be important – in the best sense of the word. To know that what we do has meaning. But you see, artists already know that their work is important. Trust me; it’s too hard to make your way in the world as an artist, and if you don’t believe in the work, you’ll give up pretty quickly. They don’t need to be treated in with artificial patronizing VIP handling; all they want is for those around them to respect the work they’re engaged in enough not to dismiss it. Pandering ≠respect.

The author finishes with a discussion about keeping “creatives” in their own little isolated orbit, neither allowing them to manage other people nor truly lead. For “natural innovators are rarely gifted with leadership skills.” Yes, I will agree that the nature of some creative people’s gifts means that they are not suited to inspire and lead other people. But you see, the same thing applies to the poor folks that the author would consider “semi-boring” or non-creative. We are not all suited to lead. But some amazingly creative people are the best leaders we could ever wish for.

Phew. Thanks for going along on the rant ride. And because there are true artists out there who have said all of these things better than I, let’s close with Hafiz, a Sufi poet from the 14th century. Let the HBR folks build cages in which to put us. We will happily continue to drop keys for those who make our lives beautiful.

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the


lee anne

Well said. I’m planning to repost this all over the bloody interwebs…and on that supercilious man’s article.

Leslie Cook-Day

Very insightful and well-expressed. Thank you for standing up for artists everywhere!


This is fabulous. A friend posted this on facebook, and I read the other article first, as you posted it, and I was livid! Thank you so much for such a clear and well argued response. I shall be posting this as much as I can. Thank you!


well done Kim. What he fails to acknowledge is that most people are creative in different arenas, and wouldn’t we all love to be left alone and given only stimulating work. Duh, they do call it work…. .


Well said. Much better – and more helpful – than my rabid foaming.

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