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The Creativity Swindle

Why thinking "outside the box" is a padlock of institutional thinking

When I was in middle school I always looked upon the obligatory biannual parent/teacher conferences with a disconsolate dread. There were never any surprises. My mother and father knew exactly what they were in for. Regardless of the teacher, my evaluation would always be approximately the same. “Your son, Mr and Mrs. Malaspina, is smart. He’s even somewhat gifted. He has great potential. The problem is his attitude and his behavior. Currado is disruptive.”

Who knew that decades later, disruptive would be (together with branding and user friendly) a laudatory term of art? Suddenly my childhood history had been revised. In the space of 30 years I went from being a problem child to becoming a prescient iconoclast with a gift for paradigm shattering.

Has the culture changed that much?

No. The culture didn’t change – not by my reckoning. What has changed are the clichés by which we narrate to ourselves the delusion of our specialness. We are “awesome” as the self-awareness industry insists. All we need do is to banish the negative into a cognitive diaspora and embrace the affirmative. We must think creatively, imaginatively and courageously and above all else we must  think “outside the box.”

Well, take it from a veteran disrupter, if you’re using a shopworn platitude to describe the process of thinking unconventionally then you’ve already forfeited the ability to harness true originality.

Creativity comes from a position of what the French call je m’en foutisme, the clueless perspective where one isn’t even aware that a “box” exists in the first place. It’s a temperament where one does not affect the bearing of the indifferent but is actually indifferent to the prevailing conventions of thought and behavior. Can you teach that in a seminar or in a bullet-pointed How To Be A Really Really Effective Leader book or in an inspiring 14 minute TedTalk?

I don’t think so. If creativity and the life of the imagination were so easily accessible then the language of our putative “thought leaders” would not only be more colorful but it would be downright transgressive! If you’ve ever been around someone with a truly original mind, the experience can be quite terrifying.  The active, spontaneous mind is not a source of entertainment nor is it a pretext for inspiration. The singularly expressive and creative mind is always disorienting and often ugly. 

So how does a person reach that condition where the life of the mind churns with unanticipated tropes? The simple answer is: with patience. By curating an aesthetic life where slow pleasures are privileged over the rapid palliative rewards of “personal growth.” Where sloppy imperfection is valued over performance. Where serendipity becomes  a welcomed intruder into our over-scripted professional strategies. 

If creativity is the value and the talent that you aspire toward the simple trick is pretty straightforward. 

Stop aspiring … 

and wait …

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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