Soapbox: ‘Creativity’ is Not an Excuse for Unprofessionalism

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I’ve been wondering for a while if I’m going to have a rant about this, and it seems the thought won’t go away so here goes. The following graphic has been doing the rounds on social media and it has been irritating me quite disproportionately for what is intended to be a friendly and empathy-inducing little picture.
To start with, let’s acknowledge the psychological truths that it does capture with some success. The red phase says something valid about how resistance to a task is proportionate to its demands on your brain’s background-processing functions. The things that are the hardest to start are the ones that, once embarked upon, will invade your dreams. And the flurry of work up to the deadline reminds us about the end-effect, and the way it so helpfully refreshes attention as we head into the finish line.

So I can see why people who I know to be genuinely involved with interesting and distinctive work may have been tempted to identify with the view of the process it presents. (Part of what has been annoying me is that I have a higher opinion of the people who have been sharing it than I do of its content.)

But, the ‘creative person’ it postulates is basically a loser - which is a colloquial way of saying they have an external locus of control. In this worldview, creativity is both a gift and a burden, bestowed upon the creator by fate or genetics, and the need to get something finished is likewise imposed from outside in the form of a deadline. The creator then flops around saying ‘I don’t want to’ like a petulant toddler until the reality of impending doom panics them into action.

How about a worldview in which doing creative work is a choice you make, and the consequence of making that decision is that you get on and do the work? It’s entirely optional, you know. If you prefer to spend your life operating processes defined by others rather than generating your own process, that path is always open to you. But if you want to spend your life doing something you love, then you have to get on and do it even when you hate it.

This graphic mythologises creativity in a way that creates excuses for amateurism. In particular, to claim ‘all the work happens here’ tells you that the final product is going to be shallow and shoddy, and the only way that the practitioner would find it acceptable would be because they are (a) doped up on caffeine and adrenaline at the time, and (b) unaccustomed to doing consistent, deeply thought-through work, so they can’t see its flaws. (The Dunning-Kruger effect comes to mind here too.)

The only way to get good at something is to keep at it. The red phase exists, for sure, but the way to create good work is to continue working right through it. Yes, there will be days when everything you touch turns to shit, but working through that is how you solve the central problems in your field. This model of the ‘creative process’ is essentially one of creativity as leisure, in which a large part of the pleasure involves prancing around labelling yourself as ‘special’.

Please. These behaviours are difficult enough to overcome without pretending they’re in any way integral or necessary. We all have our personal battles to fight against procrastination and disorganisation, and if we are to win them, we need to recognise that these aren’t part of what makes us creative, they are what prevents us producing our best work.

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