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Creativity revisited

What Mickey Mouse, the Mad Max movies and the discovery of DNA tell us about being at our most creative

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Creativity is one of those mysterious concepts that is often treated by managers as a black box – something individuals have or don’t have. The result is that few organisations make any attempt to understand or encourage it systematically. How often do we read about companies that can clearly see what’s coming but seem powerless to craft responses in the face of disruption? Without creativity, they are doomed.

Now for the good news. My research suggests that, to a degree, creativity can be managed and fostered. Put the other way round, there are things that can be done that maximise the chances of people being, and most importantly staying, creative.

A persistent belief of our age is that creativity is a young person’s thing. We have come to assume that physical vitality, along with passion and drive, is a property of youth, so why not mental agility and freshness too? Mozart started composing at the age of seven. Watson and Crick were 24 and 35 when they published their famous article on the structure of DNA. Elvis Presley was 19 when he cut ‘That’s All Right’ in 1954, turning the world of pop music upside-down.

Yet although elder shooting stars are rarer, there are enough of them to prove that creativity isn’t condemned to wither like physical beauty. George Eliot wrote her first book at the age of 40, Raymond Chandler 44. Goethe finished his monumental Faust at 88, when he was still composing lyric poems of rare beauty. Picasso was more prolific in his 80s than most painters in the prime of life.

But elder creativity is different from that of blazing youth. Youthful creativity is sometimes termed ‘hot’ for its direct emotion and spontaneity, whereas the mature version is ‘cold’ (though perhaps ‘cool’ would be a better description). The craft and skill remain, but now supplemented with the ability to rationalise, reflect and integrate wider experience in place of the fire of youth.

How do breadth and depth of knowledge affect creativity?

And this difference is an important clue – as confirmed by the research. Broadly speaking, creativity comes from individuals’ ability to deploy and recombine elements of their knowledge into new shapes and in fresh contexts. But knowledge comes in different forms – deep knowledge of a single domain on the one hand, and broad knowledge across different domains on the other (think of the hedgehog, which ‘knows one thing’, and the fox, ‘which knows many things’, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay).

Deep knowledge of, say, music allows you to craft a piece that may be new, different and rich with allusions to others’ efforts – or at least to try. Broad knowledge of the arts, on the other hand, might open up the opportunity to combine music with other media in novel ways. But each attribute is a two-edged sword – the benefits it potentially offers can easily turn into their opposite. The possessors of only specialised knowledge, however deep, can find themselves stuck in a rut that they can’t get out of – which is another way of describing writer’s block. Being able to dip easily in and out of many domains, meanwhile, gives flexibility and a richer canvas for creativity to work on – but it can also lead to the syndrome of ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’ or alternatively a superabundance of possibility that ends up being as paralysing as writer’s block.

I and my co-researcher, Kevyn Yong, associate professor at ESSEC Business School, wanted to know more about how breadth and depth of knowledge interact to affect individuals’ creativity. For example, when are they more or less conducive to being creative? And does their effect on creativity vary over the course of a career?

One of the problems with research on slippery topics like creativity over the career is measurement (which is perhaps why the existing literature on the subject, although of high quality, is relatively sparse). Then we unearthed a satisfying and intriguing subject for study in what might seem an unexpected area: the Hollywood animation industry.

With the death of the studio system, making movies these days is largely a project-based affair, with little continuity of talent from one to another. Animation, a highly specialised subset of movie making, tends to have a much more settled cast of players, allowing Walt Disney, for example, to build a body of technical and creative expertise that kept it at the forefront of the industry for a remarkable 50 years.

It is also a setting in which creative craftsmanship has always played a big part, from Disney’s influential early experiments and creation of iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, to Pixar’s groundbreaking use of computer animation and new story lines in Toy Story and successors A Bug’s Life, Monsters and Finding Nemo.

Measuring how creativity varies over time

The other critical advantage of animation for our purposes is Hollywood’s well-developed penchant for awards ceremonies. Importantly, awards and nominations – a public rating of individuals’ creative performance in their specialised functions – give us a means of judging individual creativity and how it might change over time.

Taking the corpus of full-length animation movies made in the US from 1978 to 2013 yielded 231 films from which, using the awards measure, we could identify and rank for creativity a total of 2070 producers, directors, editors, cinematographers, art directors, production designers and composers: the core animation creators.

Broadly speaking, the results supported our overall hypotheses:

  • that deep knowledge of a specialised domain becomes progressively less of a creative advantage as a career develops
  • and conversely that the effect of knowledge breadth becomes more positive

Just one example: consider the trajectories of two garlanded animators, John Lasseter and Tim Burton. Pixar’s John Lasseter sprang to fame with his first feature, 1996’s Toy Story, which garnered numerous nominations and a Special Achievement Academy Award. In fact, Toy Story was the product of deep domain knowledge developed during an apprenticeship spent working on animation shorts of a similar kind. Lasseter went on to make several other highly regarded features – until 2011, when Cars 2 opened to a mixed reception and became an unwelcome Pixar first: its only full-length feature till then not to be nominated for best animation feature, or indeed any other award. 

Burton, meanwhile, pursued a roundabout route, spending his early years experimenting with different animation approaches and genres that gained little public notice. The experiments came together later, however, when he drew on his wide-ranging sources to make the innovative dark fantasies The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, both commercial and critical successes.

Looking at the careers of other filmmakers through the same lens, it’s not hard to arrive at similar conclusions. It’s at least arguable that Woody Allen’s most recent movies show a decline in creativity, though not craft, as they mine the same narrow comic vein with diminishing returns. Is it coincidence that his best regarded later work is within a different genre, in a more sombre, reflective mode, as in Crimes and Misdemeanours, Match Point, or Hannah and Her Sisters?

Or take the director George Miller, best known for the four Mad Max films. The first and second movie of the saga were a huge success, the third less so, though still more than respectable. Mad Max 4, aka Fury Road, released in 2015 fully 30 years after the third instalment, was however a massive hit both critically and at the box office, harvesting 10 Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best director. Again, is it coincidence that in the interim Miller had branched out genre-wise with The Witches of Eastwick and Lorenzo’s Oil, and, interestingly, two well-regarded animated family features, Babe, about a pig, and Happy Feet (penguins) that was not only a runaway box-office success but also won an Oscar for best animated feature?

All this makes sense intuitively: in terms of creativity expertise in a domain is an essential starting point but may be subject to diminishing returns with age as mental structures and thought processes harden. At that point, branching out into different areas can pay dividends by loosening structures and encouraging more (literally) lateral thinking. It fits with our ideas about motivation, too. Whether through boredom (‘been there, done that’) or self-confidence, succeeding in one area can lead to curiosity and desire to master another.

Tellingly, Francis Crick ascribed some of his productive part in the discovery of DNA to ‘arrogance’ – as a previously successful physicist, he realised he was much bolder in his assumptions and conclusions than some more cautious biologist colleagues.

Creativity at any career stage: four takeaways

Our research is by no means the final word on creativity over the career and what shapes it. It is a promising beginning rather than the end of the line. Nevertheless, we believe the results are robust, and that the implications stretch far beyond movieland for both individuals and companies. After all, we are all knowledge workers now. The four key takeaways are these:

  1. The equation of old age with lack of creativity is a myth. With suitable encouragement and environment, individuals and organisations can be consistently creative over long periods, irrespective of age. Disney is a prime example in animation. Mark Zuckerberg’s faith in youth might be valid for an enterprise in ‘move fast and break things’ mode – but would Facebook (or Uber) have been better served by a more mature kind of creativity as it mushroomed in size and reach? Close to home, the finding that Silicon Valley start-ups founded by older entrepreneurs raise more capital and fail less often than those with youth at the helm might have told him something. Interestingly, Google has taken the opposite line, at least in Europe.
  2. The conventional assumption that training and learning happen at the beginning of a career – already under pressure from technology and longer working lives – needs to be revised. Continuing learning will of course be necessary, but if creativity is the object, the emphasis needs to switch over time: from deepening domain expertise first, to broadening the knowledge base in mid and later career to nudge individuals to explore new approaches to their work. Suitably, Pixar University may be leading the way. Its courses for new hires focus on job-specific knowledge, while later in their career employees can opt to study any topic, including ballet, meditation and creative writing, alongside computer programming.
  3. Similarly, traditional ideas about career development need a reboot. The common practice of inducting new recruits by rotating through different departments and functions before they take up a permanent position may be the wrong way round. Although it may be more difficult to organise, this goes for managers as well as creative workers.
  4. Finally, today’s new employees facing the prospect of a 100-year life and working well into their 70s should take every opportunity to spread their knowledge base as far as possible as an aid to continuing creativity, earning power and human vitality. Why should elderly rock stars have all the fun?

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