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The Editor’s Corner: Let Your Creative Flag Fly
Our society is more ambivalent about creativity than it likes to admit, and that’s a shame
In the Mercatus Center’s offices in Arlington, Virginia, there’s a quote by F.A. Hayek displayed on a major wall: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” It’s an important reminder to all of us that innovation isn’t something that happens from the top down. Rather, Hayek believed that creative progress happens from the bottom up. This makes a lot of sense: You can’t expect real innovation to happen unless you unleash the thinking power and creativity we all have.
But I’m no economist. So, in addition to Hayek, I recommend looking to another great thinker about the creative process: actor and writer John Cleese.
A couple of years back, Cleese (of Monty Python, “Fawlty Towers” and “A Fish Called Wanda” fame) published “Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide”—and indeed, it’s both of those things. My favorite lesson from the book? Many of us tend to think that creativity is something we’re born with: Either we have it or we don’t. But Cleese vehemently disagrees. He realized from his own life experiences that creativity is something that can be taught. We can take steps to open our imaginations.
That’s certainly a thought that cheers me up, particularly as an editor and writer. When I’m feeling not very creative, I now realize I can do something about it. After all, if you can’t trust the Minister of Silly Walks on that, who can you trust?
But here’s the funny thing about creativity: Our society doesn’t treat it as some sort of unequivocal good. Instead, creativity is one of those assets that we’re rather ambivalent about. While we tend to say we value it and argue that our culture needs more of it, in reality, we only embrace creativity when it comes within a narrow set of goalposts. Most of the time, we don’t feel comfortable with creative action that’s too “out there,” too far from the mainstream. And sometimes, just knowing that these goalposts exist can chill even creative thoughts, let alone the expression of creativity.
That’s because creativity requires freedom from fear—fear of being judged, of hurting our reputations or of losing our livelihoods. And judging others is something our culture seems to do pretty well, particularly these days. For example, think about how hard it is for stand-up comedians today. Fear of being canceled can keep them from fully embracing comedy’s true mission: telling us uncomfortable truths about ourselves while making us laugh. At the very least, the climate is hazardous enough to give them pause. The same is true in other professions and endeavors, and not just the obvious ones such as art, music or writing. When was the last time you listened to a nationally known politician put forth a creative policy solution or just say something “outside the box” interesting?
So our society can create conditions in which creativity and innovation can either flourish or wither on the vine—but limits to creativity can also come from within. For instance, we all want to be accepted and loved, so we sometimes hide the funniest, most acerbic, most real parts of ourselves for fear that we’ll be rejected if we put it all out there. As a result, our creative talents may simply atrophy from lack of use. How is this possibly a good thing for society? Even when people do continue creating, fear of rejection or humiliation can drive them down the paths of least resistance and greatest social acceptance, resulting in the creation of work that isn’t terribly creative.
Certainly, fear of failure is a powerful motivator for installing our own creative guardrails. For some, the fear may be so intense that it keeps them from creating in the first place. But when we’re able to overcome that fear, great things can happen.
My colleague Leah Kral wrote for Discourse earlier this year that having courage is integral to sparking innovation. In her article, she quoted from a recent book on the Socratic method by Ward Farnsworth, former dean of the University of Texas School of Law. Farnsworth argues that asking courageous questions is “a personal risk taken in part for the good of the community.”
I think of creativity in the same way: It demands that we take risks. And, like it or not, our society is often averse to this kind of risk-taking—again, for the understandable reason that we may be punished for exercising our creativity. Why do you think kids value “fitting in” so much? Diverging from what others think and do opens them up to criticism and bullying. These feelings follow many of us into adulthood.
As Sahil Handa wrote this week at Discourse, even those who feel the most unencumbered in their creative processes can still feel limited by the actions of others—profiteers, for example, in the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s case—and as a result may turn to self-sabotage. For Basquiat, this led to his death at age 27 from a heroin overdose. Fortunately, there are many stories of creative people who have persisted and overcome in the face of internal and external challenges. One well-known writer experienced domestic abuse, poverty, divorce and a severe bout of depression while also getting a dozen publishers’ rejections for her novel. You know her name today because J.K. Rowling’s debut novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” finally found a publisher.
This week, I hope you choose to do something creative—for yourself and for others. My writing hero, Ray Bradbury, said he wrote 1,000 words every day from the time he was 12. (Sounds pretty daunting to me, but something to strive for!) And I hope you also remind yourself that letting others show their creative selves is an act of tolerance and openness. By encouraging each other to let our creative flags fly, we may be unknowingly working toward a better, more innovative society.
Meanwhile . . .
What I’m Watching: Obviously I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity recently, but I’m also doing my share of baseball-playoff watching. And if you like creativity and baseball, then I think you’ll find Netflix’s newly released “The Saint of Second Chances,” a documentary about baseball executive Mike Veeck—to be well worth your time. As promotions director for the Chicago White Sox—reporting to his father, team owner and future Hall of Famer Bill Veeck—the younger Veeck came up with several ideas that revolutionized fans’ experiences. Fireworks after a home run? His idea. Luxury suites at the stadium? Also his. Animals delivering game balls? Yup, you guessed it. (As you can tell, Veeck is really quite a character.)
But ultimately, it was one of his failed ideas that he became best known for. After a successful “Salute to Disco” promotional event, Veeck came up with the idea of hosting an anti-disco night. Fans who brought a disco record to the ballpark would be allowed into a doubleheader for a discounted price—and would get the added “perk” of watching all those records be destroyed in an on-field explosion between the two games.
“Disco Demolition Night” ended up attracting far more fans than security could handle. Ultimately, the disco-record explosion not only damaged part of the playing field but prompted thousands of fans to swarm the field, forcing the cancellation of the planned second part of the doubleheader. Veeck resigned in embarrassment and spent the next several years in exile. It was only when he got a call from the independent league St. Paul Saints that he began to rebuild his career.
I won’t ruin the film for you, but suffice it to say that the documentary is both a fun ride and an emotional one. It provides a unique perspective on both Veeck’s career and his family, particularly his heartwarming relationship with his chip-off-the-old-block daughter, Rebecca. Billed as a redemption story, it’s also a testament to the idea that sports can be a way to unite people—and to have a good time, both on the field and in the crowd.
In Case You Missed It: If you read David’s Editor’s Corner column last week, then you saw his brief discussion of the great 1946 film “Deception.” But since I have control of the column this week, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend the other half of your Bette Davis-Paul Henreid-Claude Rains-acted, Irving Rapper-directed double feature: 1942’s “Now, Voyager.” Based on the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, the movie traces the evolution of Charlotte Vale from a sheltered Boston spinster to an independent, self-assured woman capable of finding her own happiness.
Two things to know: First, much like “Deception,” “Now, Voyager” has a wonderful score—in fact, composer Max Steiner’s work for the film ended up winning an Academy Award. And second, it’s the origin of the trope of lighting two cigarettes in one’s mouth and giving one to one’s partner (which is more than a little reminiscent of the cigarette sharing in another favorite of mine: “Better Call Saul”). Cue heart-eyes emoji . . .
Hope you have a great week! David will be back with a new Editor’s Corner next Monday.
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