What’s the Point of Creativity?

Creativity and innovation are hot topics these days, and they are being studied more frequently and intensely. Great observations have come of the attention, as Will Burns writes for Forbes: A coffee-shop study from the University of Illinois concluded that moderate levels of noise, as opposed to high or low levels, foster greater creativity. A study from the University of Stuttgart found that low levels of lighting enhance creativity. And then there’s my favorite, another study from the University of Illinois, that concluded that alcohol intoxication improves creative problem solving.

The attention is good, but too often creativity is studied and written about without examining the context. Why would we want to be more creative? Why bother fostering the conditions for creativity? Why dim the lights, adjust the volume, and get drunk? What’s the purpose of it all?

The unspoken assumption is that our goal is to gain competitive advantage, to crush the competition, to win. But I believe that the best creativity comes from a much deeper place than the desire to win. It comes from a desire to contribute to the lives of others, either by introducing something new that improves the quality of their lives or by showing people that something thought to be impossible is in fact possible. When you change people’s perceptions about what can be accomplished or achieved, you contribute to their humanity in the richest possible way. You give them hope for the future — a sense that life is not the demoralizing, unchanging drudgery day after day that the world so often teaches us that it is. When you change the way people think about possibility, it is an existential experience. It makes them feel understood. More than that, it makes them feel loved.

When JetBlue said it was going to bring humanity to its business, it reunited two worlds that had been estranged for decades. When it put those TV sets in the backs of the seats, upholstered the chairs in leather, and gave everyone a little more room, people felt loved. “You know what it’s like to be crammed in one of those tiny seats for five hours going out of your mind with nothing to do! You’re one of us! You understand me!”

This, in a world in which people so often feel not just that they’re misunderstood but that no one is even bothering to understand them. Have you ever been on hold with customer service and heard a recording that says, “This call may be monitored for quality assurance”? Have you ever once seen evidence of customer quality improving as a result of all of that monitoring?

Increasingly, creativity — and the study of it — is divorced from the real needs of real people. Adding ever more gimmicks to a smartphone in the interest of increasing market share, rather than giving people something revolutionary that will make their lives better, reeks of something other than love and has no power to stir peoples’ enthusiasm.

So the question we have to ask ourselves in business is this: Why create? Are we doing it for the gratuitous sake of creativity itself, without any larger purpose? Are we doing it because Harvard Business Review writes about it all the time? Are we doing it out of fear? To make more money? To get on the cover of Wired? Or are we doing it out of a desire to improve people’s lives and transform their sense of what possibilities life itself has to offer?

I write a lot about philanthropy. Philanthropy means, literally, love of humanity. You don’t have to give a million dollars to charity to be a philanthropist. You simply have to actively demonstrate your love of humanity. Your empathy. If the purpose of our creativity is philanthropy — if it is love for our fellow man, an appreciation that people struggle in their lives, and a desire to somehow lessen that struggle and increase their joy, with a little more leg room or with an iPad — it will change the world. And that is the greatest competitive advantage of all.

Post courtesy of Dan Pallotta for Harvard Business Review

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