Why Is The Business Of Creativity Such An Oxymoron?

TED talks and bestsellers about creativity are often anything but creative. Here's why.

Judging by the number of TED talks or books bouncing up and down the bestseller lists offering to help us bottle that elusive djinn, we should be living in the Age Of Creativity. If that's true, though, why are so many books and talks about creativity filled with so many clichés? How can books and talks about creativity—and, indeed, the whole weird creativity business as a whole—be as bereft as a bovine of the very imagination that it claims to harness?

Those are the questions posed by a thought-provoking article called "TED Talks are lying to you" written by Harper's columnist Thomas Frank. It's a polarizing read, and Frank's take on people who are in the creativity business isn't exactly kind, but he's got a point: the business of creativity isn't practicing what it preaches.

Dissecting semi-disgraced self-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer's 2012 bestseller, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Frank asks himself how a book that aims to break creativity down can be so unapologetically trite. To Frank, Lehrer's book reads as if it were written by a particularly asinine algorithm hooked up to a database of MBA undergrad anecdotes: how Procter & Gamble invented the Swiffer, how Bob Dylan writes a song, how Pixar makes movies, how 3M invented the Post-It Note, and so on.

But it's not just Lehrer who is guilty of this. As Frank points out, these same anecdotes pop up in pretty much every book about harnessing and understanding creativity. The lessons they supposedly teach us are repeated at TED talks around the world, unapologetically and ad infinitum. If the narrative of creativity had its own Hero of a Thousand Faces, these corny stories would be equally spaced waypoints on the would-be creative's journey: "Suffer through them to unleash your own inner creative, hero, or die of boredom on the Road of Trials!"

There's a major disconnect here, Frank says. You have a multi-billion dollar industry that is made up of people ostensibly selling "creativity" without bothering to spend a whit of it on some fresh ideas or lessons. Instead, the booyeahing bros, strangely strutting billionaires, and mystical gurus who are trying to teach you how to harness your own inner creative are all copping from the same list of bullet-points. What does it mean when self-proclaimed creatives are this oblivious?

To Frank, the answer is that the concept of creativity being espoused in New York Times bestsellers is a "literature of superstition, in which everything always worked out and the good guys always triumphed and the right inventions always came along in the nick of time." Creativity is believed to be the "benevolent doctrine" under which rich, white guys "rightly rule the world," Frank sarcastically notes. Your average TED talk is meant to be as much of a litany as anything that happens at a Catholic church. That the business of creativity is so oxymoronically repetitive might actually be the point.

But perhaps such a perspective is overly crass. Anecdotal lessons aren't necessarily clichés just because they are repeated endlessly: If they perfectly illuminate a fundamental truth, they are called parables instead. Or to link us back to Joseph Campbell: There may be a rigid formula to its narrative, but that doesn't mean that creativity itself doesn't have a thousand faces.

You can read Thomas Frank's entire essay here.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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2 Comments

  • Dave W

    Yay, Thomas Frank. It shouldn't take a whole lot of intellect to have known for decades that the whole .creativity/positive thinking/motivational complex has always lives somewhere between outright fraud and and the dippiest kind of wishful thinking. Much of the time the TED talks are near-indistinguishable from Oprahish psychobabble.

    Reality is, nobody knows how to activate creativity any more than anybody knows pills or teas that prevent cancer. The whole complex simply grew out of motivational speaking for salespeople, where it actually did serve some purpose for them by revving them up to make cold calls and/or lie without shame.

    People who are creative don't write books about it -- they create. Simple as that.