The creative climate
In the current issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk has a fascinating description of how Paul McCartney and John Lennon created music together. McCartney was meticulous while Lennon was chaotic. McCartney emerged out of a sunny pop tradition. Lennon emerged out of an angst-ridden rebel tradition.
Lennon wrote the song “Help” while in the throes of depression. The song originally had a slow, moaning sound. McCartney suggested a lighthearted counter melody that, as Shenk writes, fundamentally changed and improved the nature of the piece.
Lennon and McCartney came from different traditions, but they had similar tastes. They brought different tendencies to the creative process but usually agreed when the mixture was right. This created the special tension in their relationship. They had a tendency to rip at each other, but each knew ultimately that he needed the other. Even just before his death, Lennon was apparently thinking of teaming up with McCartney once again.
Shenk uses the story to illustrate the myth of the lone genius, to show that many acts of genius are the products of teams or pairs, engaged in collaboration and “co-opetition.” And we have all known fertile opposites who completed each other — when they weren’t trying to destroy each other.
But the Lennon-McCartney story also illustrates the key feature of creativity; it is the joining of the unlike to create harmony. Creativity rarely flows out of an act of complete originality. It is rarely a virgin birth. It is usually the clash of two value systems or traditions, which, in collision, create a transcendent third thing.
Shakespeare combined the Greek honor code (thou shalt avenge the murder of thy father) with the Christian mercy code (thou shalt not kill) to create the torn figure of Hamlet. Picasso combined the traditions of European art with the traditions of African masks. Saul Bellow combined the strictness of the Jewish conscience with the free-floating go-getter-ness of the American drive for success.
Sometimes creativity happens in pairs, duos like Lennon and McCartney who bring clashing worldviews but similar tastes. But sometimes it happens in one person, in someone who contains contradictions and who works furiously to resolve the tensions within.
When you see creative people like that, you see that they don’t flee from the contradictions; they embrace dialectics and dualism. They cultivate what Roger Martin called the opposable mind — the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.
If they are religious, they seek to live among the secular. If they are intellectual, they go off into the hurly-burly of business and politics. Creative people often want to be strangers in a strange land. They want to live in dissimilar environments to maximize the creative tensions between different parts of themselves.
Today we live in a distinct sort of creative environment. People don’t so much live in the contradiction between competing worldviews. We live in a period of disillusion and distrust of institutions.
This has created two reactions. Some monads withdraw back into the purity of their own subcultures. But others push themselves into the rotting institutions they want to reinvent. If you are looking for people who are going to be creative in the current climate, I’d look for people who are disillusioned with politics even as they go into it; who are disenchanted with contemporary worship, even as they join the church; who are disgusted by finance even as they work in finance. These people believe in the goals of their systems but detest how they function. They contain the anxious contradictions between disillusionment and hope.
This creative process is furthest along, I’d say, in the world of B corporations. There are many people today who are disillusioned both with the world of traditional charity and traditional capitalism. Many charities have been warmheartedly but wastefully throwing money at problems, without good management or market discipline. Capitalists have been obsessed with the short-term maximization of shareholder return without much concern for long-term prosperity or other stakeholders.
B corporations are a way to transcend the contradictions between the ineffective parts of the social sector and myopic capitalism. Kyle Westaway, a lawyer in this field and the author of the forthcoming “Profit & Purpose,” notes that benefit corporation legal structures have been established in 22 states in the last four years. The 300 or so companies that have registered in this way, like Patagonia or Method, can’t be sued if they fail to maximize profits in order to focus on other concerns. They are seeking to reinvent both capitalism and do-gooder-ism, and living in the contradiction between these traditions.
This suggests a final truth about creativity: that, in every dialectic, there is a search for creative synthesis. Or, as Albert Einstein put it, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.