Dressed for Success

Before I start, may I ask you for a moment of your time. If you have looked around you will know I am researching creativity and working on tools and systems to help people who have found themselves cut off from a creative life unlock their potential. The first step on that trail is to conduct several surveys, of which the first is now live. It will take 10  minutes and you should have a lot of fun. You can find it here. Thank you!

As you know, I have been reading Tim Harford’s wonderful book Messy this week. One of the chapters that induced prim air-punching was the chapter on work spaces. And yet, despite the fact he proclaims that what you have on your desk is none of anyone else’s damn business, the thing he fails to mention is the one thing that has held me back the most in my quest for “real” employment, and where I feel the greatest sense of relief and, almost literally, expanding brain capacity and all-around performance bandwidth the moment I enter “creative me” land. And that’s the subject of clothing.

Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.

Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.

These days, we’re familiar with the anecdotes about Steve Jobs and his black sweaters, or Mark Zuckerberg only ever wearing grey T shirts because that way he never has to think about what to wear. Sadly, we are also familiar with stories of outrageous sexist dress codes, of women being forced to mutilate their feet in the belief that it  is an essential part of doing their job.

The problem is the same one we see played out again and again in the confusing and arbitrary codes of the workplace. What we see in the powerful as quirk and eccentricity we see in the workers’ corpus as disobedient and disrespectful. One is lauded for breaking the rules, the other required to keep them if they want to keep their job. And by rules, I don’t mean maintaining customer confidentiality, billing in a timely and transparent fashion, or adhering to the finest tolerances in manufacturing. I mean working from home. I mean what you wear day to day. I mean whether you sit or stand at your desk. I mean what pictures you have on the wall.

I am intrigued to know if the things that apply to a tidy desk apply to our adherence to dress codes, namely that whether your desk is tidy or messy is not important, but whether you got to choose how it looks is. Because this is essential about autonomy, empowerment, freeing our mind for the important things and then putting us in a frame of mind where we can attack them with gusto, my intuition is that it is. And my intuition is that the reasons organisations cling to rules in the face of evidence are equally as strange.

Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.

Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.


Let me rewind and give some context. I have always struggled with clothes. And in many different ways. I wear clothes very hard, for one, so I tend to wear through things – seams will fall apart as soon as I put something on, fabric rub through, shoe soles crack and so on. Then there is hypersensitivity. The feel of some fabric, some cuts of clothing, some shapes of clothing causes me actual pain. And the claustrophobia from wearing clothing that clings in certain ways (strangely the opposite is true when running, when I guess my body recognises the need for compression and the need not to chafe) takes over my mind at every moment. Getting anything done requires me to find ways of functioning that work around the fact that this massive mental weight is constantly there. It goes without saying if I am wearing clothing that makes me feel like this I will not do as well as if I choose my own outfit. It got so bad with one retail job in a chain store that I had to leave the job because I literally couldn’t do anything other than try and survive with the suit I was given to wear. I have a fairly complex suite of mental health needs, which makes staying in full time work somewhat tricky – the full time work I am able to do is a long way from anything I am capable of or qualified for doing as a result. (Hence the need to stretch a brain that is on the one hand desperately impaired but on the other full of what appears to be an unusual set of abilities that constantly want to exercise themselves is met through my extramural life of mind sports, mental health campaigning, public speaking, writing and private research.) But even this limited job is extremely tough – not because of the work but because of the other things it puts my way – social interactions, being in shared spaces, the expectation of eating and drinking communally at some meetings. Each of these requires large parts of my brain I could otherwise give to my work.

And clothing is one more of those things. I don’t have to wear a suit, and I am very grateful for that. But I can’t wear the comfortable elasticated waist trousers I would wear by choice. Apparently that sends the wrong message.

And here’s where we get back to the general points about dressing for work, and why telling someone what to wear is absurd.

The people in charge know it’s a trade off. I have certainly told my bosses that. And the manager of a woman forced to wear heels that hurt her feet or a person of colour forced to unbraid their hair must know it makes work harder for them. So to do the same work as their colleagues will take more. So they are doing less for the organisation, and as individuals they are systematically being denied equal access to performance based promotion. I have certainly explained this, and you would have to be particularly blinkered not to see it. Yet the demand is still there. and that means one of two things:

  1. They believe this is a trade off that’s worth it. Because something is more important than their employees being A. happy and comfortable and B. at their most productive, efficient, and creative.
  2. They just don’t believe us. Sadly, I fear that this is still a massive problem. Especially for those of us with hidden disabilities. You only have to look at the news to see people with Crohn’s being harassed for using the disabled bathroom. And those who have not experienced sensory processing issues simply do not “get” how headphones to drown out conversational noise would help; or having a quiet space to go and eat would be anything but “being demanding”; or having flexible hours would mean you were able to be at work when you were not feeling sick from your medication. There is still too wide an assumption that those with hidden conditions are making up demands they don’t really need because people just won’t believe us. That really isn’t acceptable and we need to keep working to change it – but that’s for another post.

For now, I just want to think what those higher priorities might be, and I want to encourage all the managers out there to have a hard think about their logic if they find themselves drawn to any of them. I have come across each of these. I think each of them is highly flawed.

  1. It creates the wrong image for clients. I still haven’t understood exactly what this means. It seems to boil down to “clients expect”, but clients expect a lot of things that appear on a spectrum that runs from slightly dubious to downright unacceptable and it is the job of organisations to separate out delivering superb service from pandering to prejudicial or outdated attitudes. Arrogating responsibility for that is simply lazy.
  2. You work better when you’re dressed for the part. There are so many people who believe that the way they believe you work better at a tidy desk. The message is simple – you might think you work better one way, but you’re wrong. Some people feel this way. Others feel differently. There’s room for all.
  3. It sends the wrong image to co workers. I have seen this meant in several ways – on the one hand I’ve seen it mean it sends the message you don’t care – but for that see point 2. Personally I think giving someone the freedom to dress how they want shows you care about being the best you can more than you care about an image. I’ve seen it understood as meaning that managers who dress casually won’t be respected by their staff, or are sending an unmanagerly message. But see Zuckerberg and Jobs. Maybe it’s not that “tech companies are different” but that staff who work at Apple and Facebook care about their managers’ vision, leadership, and skills more than their clothes.

What I’m trying to say combines two elements, but they do meet to form a single point. Some people need the freedom to choose their clothing because they have a condition that requires it. But it’s never really the best way to do things to make people ask to be made an exception. It singles them out, it requires a lot of resources from the people who have fewest to spare, it formalises s sense that some people are a disproportionate burden. Fortunately, if what is true of desks is true of dress, there is an easy answer – let everyone have the autonomy to choose their own clothing. Those who like to feel smart can do so. Those who need comfort can have comfort. Those who simply need to feel they can express who they are can do just that. So long as no one is breaking health or hate rules, what is the problem?

One of the things I care about passionately is making workplaces more creative. And that also includes giving the opportunities to be creative to those who have had the doors closed. I also care about making workplaces as accessible as they can be. Because accessibility enables diversity and diversity in the workplace has been shown again and again to be good in itself. And because it’s in the interest of all organisations that when their staff are working they are able to bring their A-game. And I have this ridiculous notion that is more important than having them in a tie.



Drink from the Source

Early posts – and future plans and past history – suggest there will be a lot of long reads here. So I thought it would also be good to have some quick tips as a counterbalance.  Posts where I don’t necessarily give a full literature review or historical context – just a quick tip.

Tip 1. Build a list of go-to places where you get your most valuable information. Great. You now have a list of the places you should visit less.

Broad and Deep. That’s the approach to creativity I am advocating. That means getting to know a lot of things. Importantly, getting to know a lot of different things, and getting to know them in different way.

Because I had a breakdown at about the worst time during my studies, and because, as we’ve already established, I’m a total butterfly, I have worked in some diverse areas. And whether it has been luxury flooring or self-published literary fiction, I have always ended up with a reputation for being the guy who knows the weird stuff no one else managed to find out about. The secret was always following the broad and deep principle, applying it to the way I got my information.

Element from Ruckstuhl is a stunning carpet made from hair, linen, and stainless steel.

Element from Ruckstuhl is a stunning carpet made from hair, linen, and stainless steel.

Where do you go for your information? There’s probably a handful of sites you go back to again and again because you love what you learn there. There’s always something to open your eyes. For lots of people who share my love of learning and culture and open-mindedness, once we’ve gone beyond Facebook favourites, a vast chunk of knowledge probably comes from TED Talks, xkcd, Thought Catalog, The Millions, Vice, Salon, you get the picture. Make a list of yours.

Good. Now make a conscious effort to avoid those sites for the next month.

Find other sites. Click on random links and then click through from those. Going back again and again to the places you know means you lose the possibility of serendipity, of finding out the things you never knew you were interested in finding out. And when you find something truly fascinating, then you go deep, find the leading sources of information on that field of knowledge, and branch out again from there.

Basically, this is a way to disrupt yourself out of a “more of the same” approach to information.

The Algorithmic Butterfly

Having snagged a signed copy at his talk earlier in the week, I have spent my commutes reading Tim Harford’s Messy. It has been what I can only call “disconcerting”. It has felt as though Tim has crawled inside my head, extracted each of my techniques, systems, and inner infrastructures, and assigned them to different figures from the creative field.

The second, third, and fourth things I thought were – hmm, I’m going to have to do some serious creating to make my writing about creativity more original (but cool challenge); ouch, I should have known some of that (but yay, gaps to fill!); and, I guess that explains why I seem to do OK at creativity tests. On further reflection, in the moment before the “how dare you blow your trumpet” feelings hit, I did allow myself an “It’s pretty cool that I seem to have intuited my way to the best methods of doing stuff rather than, as I always figured, royally screwing myself over with self-sabotage at every turn.”

Let me take three things Tim talks about as illustrations

Iterative Algorithms

Suppose you are looking for the highest point on a globe in a limited amount of time, and you can take only individual readings at a time. How would you do it? The algorithm you would devise, we are told, would begin with widely spaced random positions, pick the most promising and then scatter around them, and iterate inwards thusly. It’s one of those techniques that is so self-evident you do it without thinking about it (we’re taught it in maths of course when we do trial and error, and in arithmetic, it’s a fairly useful way of calculating square and cube roots).

One of the projects I am working on a lot at the moment is campaigning on mental health issues

One of the projects I am working on a lot at the moment is campaigning on mental health issues

I actually approach Torrance test type questions of the kind we get in the Creative Thinking World Championships in exactly this way as a deliberate strategy. My master memory map or whatever you want to call the sum of all your knowledge, is basically divided up into Knowledge Continents, and within each continent there are countries, and so on. So there is Science (breaking into History of Science, Human Science, Physical Sciences, etc, which then narrow all the way to the likes of different strains of poppy hybrids or subduction zones of the world), Culture, Sport, History, Geography and so on. Whenever I am faced with a creative puzzle (say, uses for a burst balloon), I will touch down on every continent and see what’s there and whether it feels promising. If it does, I’ll look on a country by country basis and so on. That way I’ll never be trapped in one terrain that might be the one burst balloons instantly conjure up (there are only so many ways you could celebrate National Eeyore Day, after all). I will always take myself on a whirlwind tour of Australian History and Neuroscience, maybe dipping in for a moment in Designland to consider Brutalist architecture and wallpaper printmaking and ultimately really doubling down on microscopy (the different shapes of balloon burst marks would make excellent taxonomical tools for classifying the countless hitherto unknown protozoa that may be found in the sediment of our deepest ocean trenches).

Another, unconnected but cross-pollinating, project relates to open access

Another, unconnected but cross-pollinating, project relates to open access

Oblique Strategies

Harford talks a lot about Brian Eno, which is not surprising because Eno is one of the most absurdly and diversely creative forces of the late 20th century and beyond. One of Eno’s key techniques for pushing himself and other people out a creative rut is his Oblique Strategies cards, a deck of cards that he will draw at random that each contains simple but very peculiar phrases to direct one’s thoughts elsewhere. It is basically a way to harness the creative power of disruption by finding a way to create fruitful disruptions on demand.

Again, forced disruption is a technique I use all the time when looking for ways out of creative dead ends. I even use cards in pretty much this way to facilitate this disruption, and the system I am beginning to work on to map, enable, and record the brain’s creative memory – improving on the two-dimensional associations of the mind map – is card-based, using a three card system where one of the cards represents an operation that constitutes a means of associating.

And of course, I'm still writing. Though *what* I write changes daily.

And of course, I’m still writing. Though *what* I write changes daily.

Rolling maul

The rolling maul is a term I borrowed from Rugby Union that I have used now for many years to describe the way I like to work creatively, being part of movements and collaborations and projects and endeavours. A rolling maul is essentially a mass of bodies that move up the pitch. People join it, and they fall off it, so that over the course of the progress of the body of bodies, it will rarely retain the same make-up for long. But it is still recognisably the same thing, defined by a single purpose – carrying the ball up the field.

This, it seems, is something pretty much akin to the way many of the best collaborations work – both from the perspective of the collaborator (who works most efficiently by joining in a succession of fruitful relationships with people whose expertise may lie in areas often dissimilar to their own) and of the project at hand (where teams and individuals from disparate areas are brought together for a specific purpose).

If I look back at the groups of which I have been a part (groups where I have forged very close working relationships, and where I have been at the heart of activities), what characterises them is their markedly different constituencies. There have been bridge teams, the world of powerlifting, politics and activism, and within the literary sphere Year Zero, eight cuts, the performance poetry scene, the Alliance of Independent Authors among others. Interestingly, I have always seen this way of doing things – join a group related to an area that’s new to me (and if there is no group then start my own), very quickly work my way to its centre by feverishly participating, volunteering, and “being gobby”, drive things forward, then move on to the next thing – as a fundamental weakness of mine. And, more even than that, a character flaw. It showed, I always felt, a kind of flippancy in my approach to my creativity and a disrespect to others. It boiled down, as I saw it, to the fact that whether we were talking about people or creativity, I was unable to do it “right”.

Tim Harford explains that disparate groups often make the best decisions even if they rub each other up doing so. Year Zero Writers was certainly a rollercoaster but we produced truly magnificent things.

Tim Harford explains that disparate groups often make the best decisions even if they rub each other up doing so. Year Zero Writers was certainly a rollercoaster but we produced truly magnificent things.

It turns out that many of the other ways of being I have always adopted are also there in the playbook – having more than one project on the go at any one time, in often unrelated areas, and using them as ways of reinvigorating each other, for example; or flitting endlessly from field to field (or, as I call it, being unable to write a sequel to that thriller because I’m busy doing poetry).

As I said at the beginning, this has been an eye-opening experience. But it also gives me a challenge. Though I am not yet 100% sure what the challenge is. To make the best use possible of the knowledge that I have unwittingly developed a toolbox that could serve me well? To attempt to explain how I do things the way I do? To find a way of making techniques that are evidently well-worn actually fresh? Almost certainly a little of each of them as the weeks go by here.

For now, though, I feel a little less guilty at having quite so many balls in the air.



Why Statistics Matter

I sometimes forget just how spoiled I am in Oxford. Like the time last term when I got to take part in a round table with one of my heroes, the French author Marie Darrieussecq, only a few days after I’d chaired a panel at Waterstones with the legend that is Philip Pulman. And this afternoon, wandering 100 metres across the old Radcliffe Observatory Quarter to the Mathematical Institute to hear Tim Harford give a fascinating lecture on the importance of statistics.

The lecture closed with a tribute to the greatest public statistician of our time, Hans Rosling, founder of Gapminder, who died this week. Harford isn’t (yet) quite at that level, but as our leading exponent of the joy of facts and figures he plays an essential role in UK society.

And excitingly for me, he has some fascinating things to say about the public perception of facts, social media and the nature of creativity. I wanted to use a brief post here to function as a review of the lecture and to outline a couple of his points as fascinating kicking off points for debate and more work. The full lecture will appear very shortly here (http://www.maths.ox.ac.uk/events/public-lectures-events).

The take home points of this fascinating lecture could form the basis of a manifesto for those of us who care most about making society as a whole care more, whether about facts or creativity. I’ll put them very succinctly as bullet points, and come back and embed the video when it’s up so you can dig around for the tl;dr

  • Fact checking and rebuttal are essential. They can have a small positive effect on people who already have some factual foundation. But they are not enough.
  • In fact, the backfire effect (built of 3 components: tell people “x is not the case” and what they’ll remember is “x”; simple messages are what sticks, but facts are of necessity complex; we will perceive all new knowledge through the lens of our existing feelings, even if we at surface level acknowledge that knowledge runs contrary to them).
  • Fake news is not a problem on the level we are sometimes led to believe it is. Nor is social media at present creating bubble effects beyond those we already create for ourselves. The big problem is that people don’t care about facts.
  • Sitting alongside that, the most effective form of propaganda is not spreading false facts but distracting people so they never think about facts at all.
  • Fascinatingly for me, research shows that the greatest scientists and creatives change field or topic with remarkable regularity.


(Tim Harford’s new book, Messy, is essential reading for all who care about creativity)

To comment on the last of those first, that offers some intriguing avenues to explore for my notion that creativity’s goldilocks zone exists at the intersection of deep and broad learning, and offers hope to all of us flitting butterflies.

The message of the rest of his talk can be summed up very simply. We need to make facts engaging. We need to do for statistics for this generation what Carl Sagan did for science for my generation. We need to fill people with wonder at what numbers can do, at the incredible power of statistics to explain and enlighten our world. In a world that works better when we know less, we need to make facts cool the same way books became cool and countercultural in the society of Fahrenheit 451.

And that’s where the challenge lies for someone who is as much in love with figures as they are in love with being creative. Thinking of new ways to make people’s jaw hit the floor with the sheer bedazzlement of statistics, to make finding out the facts deliver the hit of cultural crack. This talk is a call to arms. And in that sense it is at once empowering – it offers us a roadmap or, rather, it tells us where we need to go and says, OK, go on, get there. But it’s also a warning to take its own subject seriously. If we care about facts, then the fact of the dangers of foregrounding rebuttal over all other forms of engagement are ones we need to take seriously in our day to day actions and interactions.

“Not for the likes of you”: How The Self-Improvement Industry is Failing People with Mental Ill Health

You are probably here because, among other reasons, you are, like me, ever so slightly obsessed by self-improvement books, articles, and videos. I devour self-improvement books, and I can usually pick up something from pretty much each one I read. But I also have a big problem. And with the self-improvement, how-to-succeed, be-a-successful-entrepreneur industry as a whole. A good half of what I read makes no sense to me. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, it leaves me with a very simple message – success is not for you.

If I tell you that one in four people will share something with me this year, you will get an idea of what I mean. I have a mental health disability. Specifically, I have bipolar, though like many I have several co-morbid issues. Not all of the 1 in 4 who experience mental ill health every year will have a disability. A lot will, though. And that’s the thing. For a condition to constitute a disability in law, it has to have a long term impact on your day to day functioning.

Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute's report "Seeing Through The Fog"

Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s report “Seeing Through The Fog”

For those of us with mental health disabilities the impairments we experience are manifold, but a significant number of the areas where we struggle just so happen to be those areas where self-improvement books point us. And that’s a really big problem.

First, let me give some examples. A condition like autism can severely affect the ability to communicate. The up phase of bipolar can impair concentration and judgement while the down phase, like depression, can create an inertia that affects the ability to start tasks.

The problem should be becoming clear. These are problems “everybody has.” And they are things that get in most people’s way when they are trying to start a business or get an idea out of their head and into the world. And self-improvement books are really good at giving people ways to get around them. I am reading one now that begins by explaining the most essential step of all is developing a “do it now” mindset. Struggling with getting things done? Always distracted by what you have to do in the day ahead? Do it now!

Well yay, go you, slap me round the face and call me Tony I never thought of that one! The thing is, people I’ll call, for want of a better word (and I know it’s imperfect because only a small subset of conditions are neurological rather than, say, chemical) “neurotypical” use the same vocabulary as those of us who are disabled use. So it appears to everyone concerned that we have the same problems and, therefore, the same solutions.

on the panel for the same event

on the panel for the same event, at Barclays HQ in Canary Wharf

But we don’t. When someone who has depression talks about inertia, they don’t mean they’re “feeling tired”. They don’t mean they’d rather be sitting on the sofa. In fact, most people I know with depression would rather be out there changing the world. But they can’t. As in, they might as well be sitting with a 3 ton weight on their legs having every trace of caffeine that’s ever passed their lips slowly withdrawn from their physiological history. And when an autistic person says they can’t make a phone call, they don’t mean they “get nervous” or “would rather watch TV.” They mean if they pick up the receiver you might as well be screaming white noise at 120 decibels as talking their language.

So when we read the language we use of ourselves for our problems with the world, and see “handy hints” about how to overcome them, we take home one or more of the following messages

  • I am not trying hard enough. In fact the books, classes, videos are telling everyone that people with mental health disabilities aren’t trying hard enough.
  • Running your own business and being a success isn’t for the likes of you.

I used to challenge people regularly. I’d say “you do realise if you said that to someone with depression, it could be really damaging.” In fairness, once people had realised that a similar vocabulary can mask greatly differing realities (not everyone does – some will always prefer the “you’re not trying hard enough” explanation, or will unable to get their head round anything else even if they try), they would agree.

And then they’d say “but I wasn’t talking about people with depression.”

And that’s nice. They get it.

But, HANG ON A MINUTE. We’re back on message again. And that message is that being an entrepreneur, or a creative, or simply successful, isn’t for you if you have a mental health disability.

Which brings me full circle, because the book I was reading was something about “finding your big idea” and the rant it sent me off on made me realise that among other things to do with creativity and empowerment, my big idea is providing the tools for people who have those difficulties in life to achieve the things they dream of. By understanding exactly what the impairments and barriers they deal with are – and where I don’t understand directly, talking to people who do, so that as well as giving people the skills to be creative, which is mission number 1 here, I can give people the strategies to use that creativity fruitfully in the face of the obstacles they need to tackle.

Which means not telling you to “do it now” but being somewhat, er, more creative than that. The self-improvement industry is letting people down, and it’s letting organizations down. And that’s a challenge I want to pick up and run with.


  • Do you run a self-improvement business? What do you do for people who have mental health difficulties?
  • Do you experience difficulties because of mental ill health that make the advice you read seem as though it doesn’t work for you? What problems in particular?


All the Broccoli Became James Corden: The Problem of Finding Creativity’s Goldilocks Zone

In Originals, his brilliant tour through the inner and outer worlds of the world’s most innovative thinkers, Adam Grant tells us that these stars in our firmament have one thing in common. They fail more than other people. In his 2013 speech to London Book Fair, Neil Gaiman acknowledged this same trait with his call for publishers to apply the dandelion method to their trade, trying, as he put it, a thousand things in order that 100 might take seed.

Creativity and failure cannot be separated. Brilliant ideas emerge from a primordial soup that is given its potency by sheer weight of numbers. Writers generating the sparks of plots know this. Inventors know this. Artists know this. And if you’ve ever taken part in a task of the kind used in the Torrance Test, the benchmark test for measuring creativity (and the kind of test similar to those used in the Creative Thinking World Championship), it is something you will recognise as being central to the very essence of creativity. Creativity is, at its base, the mashing together of stuff that’s never been put together before, in ways that have never been tried before, to see what happens.

This is why the best creative out there is nature. Nature gives us everything from pulsars to the murmuration of a million starlings, black holes to graphene. Evolution not only gets to experiment with all of the mutations – it gets to run those experiments longitudinally in a way scientists can only drool over. And then there’s cosmology, which has given us the universe in which this conversation is able to happen thanks to infinitesimally finely-tuned parameters like the Hubble Constant (which means there is just enough matter that gravity stops everything flying off into nothing, but not so much that it all collapses back in). On one reading of the multiverse model, we find ourselves in such a wonderful world precisely because literally all of the not so well put together ones have happened and, like something from Douglas Adams, failed.

The Undercroft of London's Southbank is one of the most creative spaces in the UK

The Undercroft of London’s Southbank is one of the most creative spaces in the UK

The problem we have as creatives is that we don’t have billions of years or trillions of possible universes to play with. We have a few decades, lives limited by numerous external factors, and the strictures of circumstance. We cannot generate all of the ideas and test each one. We cannot run longitudinal experiments on random mutations. There just isn’t, as it were, the longitude to do it in. If we as creatives pursued the nature’s super-top-optimal strategy of try everything then there is every possibility we might miss the answer to providing clean, renewable energy to whole nations because we are too busy exploring what might happen in imaginary worlds where at 6.43 pm on a wet grey Tuesday all of the broccoli becomes James Corden.

There are, of course, collective creative endeavours that have found pretty effective equilibrium models that narrow the scope of possibility enough to cope with the whole being finite thing whilst allowing maximal flexibility by the throwing numbers at it method. Science is a really good example. We fund, as a society, experiments to test a whole load of conjectures knowing damn well that most will be dead ends without, if we are doing it right, prejudging which those will be. Another really good example is literature. Anyone can write (and as a slush reader trust me, they do) absolutely anything and send it forth and most of it will be, politely, the kind of thing that makes one think, aw how nice that people have a hobby. And that avalanche of the average and sub-average is the precondition for the few soaring works of originality that occasionally break the surface.

So, we can celebrate the fact that we are a part of a glorious process at the macro- and the supra-macro-level. But what about how that creative imperative can play out in our lives? Are we subject to an overwheening irony that dictates the only difference that we, as individuals, can make, is to allow ourselves to be played by these grandscale numbers games? Well, I’m not going to dismiss the notion out of hand. There’s a lot of work to be done in the field, but the myth of the singular genius is, thanks to the likes of Adam Grant, being replaced by a different mythic image, that of the shape slowly emerging from a bubbling soup of possibility.

But might it be possible for us to make a genuinely creative difference in our own lives? What might lives dedicated to that end look like?

If you go into any bookstore, or even have the misfortune to take a wrong turn in the labyrinth of life and wind up in the living hell of a management training workshop, you will have been imbued with a lot of incredibly positive mantras and techniques. Blue skies and non-boxes and multiple hats and rhymes that sound like something from the 1990s news. Because it’s not the business of the self-improvement, er, business to sell you failure, or even uncertainty.


It’s all very well devoting your life to thinking outside the box, but without there being some kind of box, and some kind of reference in your thought to that box, you are liable to spend your life experimenting with scenarios involving James Corden and broccoli, or at the very least a variety of commonly available brassicas. And this brings us to one of the big questions for humanity – would our future as a species be better if we threw our collective effort behind boxless experiments even though we know that for many people their lives will be experimental dead ends? Is boxing individuals in better using our resources, or is unboxing them and celebrating green Corden the only way to maximize our overall creative success? And how on earth do we square that with economics?

And this is where, as so often, we descend to question and conjecture. Which is not a bad place to start, especially as this post marks the start of my own project, a systematic exploration of the nature and potential of creativity on the human, the organisational, and the societal levels.

Let us assume that absolute creativity, whatever that may mean, is the province only of those forces with infinite resource. There must still be an optimal amount of creativity for a life. Here we face a question I want to come back to in the weeks and months to come, but to leave aside here. It is the question we have already asked, and it is this – how does a creative society balance optimal ingenuity for the world with optimal ingenuity for each individual who finds themselves part of that whole with their separate and equally valuable dreams and desires and needs?

Let’s say for now that the idea of an individual’s optimal ingenuity makes sense. How do we achieve that? What is the best way for us to be creative? How can we go about it so that we have the best chance of hitting on the best idea that will change the world or people’s perspective on it the most, and ideally for the best?

That is the set of questions at the heart of the research that, in short, will constitute the main work of this blog, and this part of Rogue Interrobang, for the years to come.

Fortunately, I have a conjecture that I want to put to the test. I will explain how I arrived at it, and why I think it has potential, later. But for now, I will simply state it. See what you think. Does it make sense? Does it have legs? Does it fit with your own experience of being creative or watching others around you follow an original idea through to a truly creative conclusion?

It’s not particularly startling. It’s certainly not, I am sure, original or overly creative, but it’s been niggling at me for a long time, hinting at me, asking me to take a closer look, so here it is:

Creativity occurs at the intersection of deep knowledge and broad knowledge. Deep knowledge of a subject means that you have mastered the workings of the small field in question to the extent that consciously or unconsciously you start to become aware of the flaws and fissures within it, to have a feel for its landscape. But deep knowledge also means that you know something so well that you have internalised its “rules”, have developed a blindness to fresh perspective. Broad knowledge brings a voracity and enthusiasm and furious connection-building that sees everything as new, free from preconception. But it also leaves you navigating in the dark, lacking an atlas of its semi hidden pathways and pitfalls. It is in the constant change of focus, the zooming in and zooming out of perspective, the bringing of deep knowledge to play on new fields and constant newness on an intimately known terrain that the possibility of truly meaningful innovation will most likely and most profoundly occur.

And that’s where I’ll leave it for now, ready to revisit with a rationale and a methodology later. In the meanwhile, over to you. What is creativity? Is real originality possible and does it matter?