Ahhh, Vacation…

Take a look at my post from 2007 on the importance of vacations to creativity:


I’ve just returned from two weeks with my family in lovely Savannah (and on the nearby Atlantic Ocean beaches). It worked as I described in the 2007 post: new ideas come to mind that seem obvious now, but somehow didn’t occur to me before taking time off.

In a few days, I leave for a world tour of invited talks in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cambridge, UK, so stay posted for my blogs about these events!

Intrinsic Motivation is More Creative When You Look Outside Yourself

One of the most commonly reported findings from creativity research is that intrinsic motivation–doing something just because you love doing it, and not for any external reward–is correlated with higher creativity. This is the “flow” state made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 book titled Flow. But it turns out the research isn’t so clear; not all studies have found a relationship between intrinsic motivation and creativity. A recent study* attempted to figure out what’s really going on.

The researchers reasoned that intrinsic motivation works well to generate new ideas, but ideas aren’t judged as “creative” unless they are both new and usefully appropriate, as defined by some community. The researchers further reasoned that people who are externally focused–those who are good at “perspective taking” and those with a “prosocial motivation,” meaning that they are willing to expend effort to help other people–would be better at generating useful ideas. So they designed an experiment to test whether or not intrinsic motivation and prosocial motivation combine to result in greater creativity, than would be predicted by intrinsic motivation alone.

In three different experiments, with three different populations, the finding was YES, prosocial motivation strengthens the association between intrinsic motivation and creativity. The three populations were quite interesting:

  • Study 1: 90 security force officers at a military base
  • Study 2: 111 employees and supervisors at a water treatment plant
  • Study 3: 100 college undergraduates

And furthermore, they found that prosocial motivation is positively associated with perspective taking, and that perspective taking strengthens the association between intrinsic motivation and creativity.

This is an intriguing finding, because many people believe that when you think too much about what others think, you end up being less creative: because you conform more to what’s normal. Some other researchers have found that the other-focused values associated with “collectivism” result in lower group creativity. The researchers explain the apparent contradiction by arguing that collectivism is different from prosocial motivation and perspective taking. Basically, being nice is not the same thing as trying to conform and avoid rocking the boat.

The practical implications are that if you’re overly focused on the pure joy of your own personal flow state, you might end up being less usefully creative (in the context of the real-world organization you work in). I’m a big supporter of the “flow” research tradition, so this is personally quite fascinating for me!

*Grant, A. M. and Berry, J. W. 2011. The necessity of others is the mother of invention: Intrinsic and prosocial motivations, perspective taking, and creativity. Academy of Management Journal Vol. 54 No. 1 pp. 73-96.

The Lone Genius: R.I.P.

In medieval and rennaissance Europe, artworks were generated in highly collaborative work environments known as “studios.” Twelve assistants worked with Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling; Raphael, Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt-all of them had full-time assistants, many of whom imitated the master’s style (often making attribution quite difficult).

Only in the 19th century did artists begin to work alone. There are many reasons, but two basic causes were: first, cultural beliefs about artists changed, as a result of Romantic era philosophy; and second, the industrial revolution made the work of painting much easier, with the development of paint in metal tubes (you no longer have to mix your own paints) and mass-produced brushes (you no longer have to make your own).

The Wall Street Journal of June 3, 2011 reports that many contemporary artists use an equally collaborative studio system. The article (by Stan Stesser) reports that Jeff Koons has 150 people on his payroll and readily admits that he never paints himself. A long list of expensive, widely collected artists are named in the article; apparently, it is not a secret that the “artist” doesn’t actually execute the work himself. There’s no misreprentation here; gallery owners and dealers tell potential buyers the actual story, and buyers still collect the works.

The earliest return to a collaborative studio model was probably Andy Warhol in the 1960s, who called his studio “The Factory” and famously said “I want to be a machine.” So the “lone genius” model of the painter has been fading for several decades already. In the greater scheme of history, the Romantic era belief that the painter was an inspired solitary genius has been a small blip: slightly over 100 years. Painter as lone genius: Rest In Peace.