Steve Jobs, Positively 4th Street and the Upside of Angerby David Zahl on Aug 31, 2011 • 12:20 pm 3 Comments
Apple cultivates such a serene image, it’s hard to believe that the underlying corporate culture, at least if reports about Steve Jobs’ management techniques are to be believed, is one of confrontation, brutal criticism and threat. Then again, perfectionism tends to produce such fruit. Sort of the opposite of Pixar, which is ironic, since Jobs help found that studio as well. Not that either company has suffered creatively (Cars 2 notwithstanding).
Over at Wired, Jonah Lehrer uses Jobs’ announcement last week as an opportunity to report on a few recent discoveries on the relationship between creativity and anger. Discoveries which frankly challenge the notions we often promote on this site, of encouragement and love breeding inspiration, and criticism shutting it down. It turns out that anger has recently proven beneficial in “thinking outside the box,” both in terms of volume and freshness of ideas. The Scientific American writes:
Though anger may be unpleasant to feel, it is associated with a variety of attributes that may facilitate creativity. First, anger is an energizing feeling, important for the sustained attention needed to solve problems creatively. Second, anger leads to more flexible, unstructured thought processes. This flexibility involves the use of broad and inclusive categories and the increased ability to find new connections between categories. People who feel angry (vs. sad, for example) are less likely to think in systematic ways, and are more likely to rely on broad, global cues when judging information. This kind of global processing tends to be associated with literally seeing the “bigger picture.”
Not surprisingly, the effect diminishes over time; anger is exhausting. There is a cost. But the managerial implication are pretty clear. If you want people to produce more, and more innovatively, you need to upset them somehow. You need to give them negative feedback. Lehrer quotes Modupe Akinola’s must-read paper, “The Dark Side of Creativity”:
Previous research has shown that negative feedback can lead to increased subsequent effort, as long as the task is not perceived as too difficult to be mastered (Locke & Latham, 1990). This is consistent with research indicating that when individuals experience negative affect in a situation that requires creativity, this negative affect may be interpreted as a signal that additional effort must be exerted for a creative solution to be discovered. In contrast, positive mood coupled with a situation that requires creativity may be an indication that the creative goal has been met, reducing the amount of effort exerted on the task.
So what do we make of this? First, I’d say that the effectiveness of “negative feedback” highly depends on the individuals with whom you’re using it. We all know that different people respond differently to criticism: “pleasers” tend to kick into high gear, while others who are perhaps more “type B” find themselves paralyzed. That “pleasers” would find their way to the top of the Apple food-chain isn’t exactly Earth-shattering news. And the research seems to confirm, under the heading of “situation-sensitivity.” Theologically (or emotionally) speaking, neither is particularly laudable; there’s nothing righteous about doing right thing for the wrong reason or vice versa, at least not according to the Sermon on the Mount.
Next, the form of creativity being explored here is one that is fundamentally expressed in terms of productivity. It is quantifiable – measurable – which means we are unequivocally in the realm of achievement and Law. This represents a significant divergence from what we mean when we talk about Gospel-inspired creativity, which has to do with freedom from having to produce results. There are no brainstorming sessions on how best to love another person. Not if the love is real. Grace-related creativity is spontaneous. So perhaps these studies can be taken as a bit of wise “negative feedback” about linking creativity to (Christian) freedom too tightly.
But all that aside, anger clearly provokes creativity. The Law (condemnation, confrontation, etc) does have the power to inspire people, to get them moving – in the short-term, at least. It’s why we use the term “works of the Law.” It is also explains why the best rock n roll is always made by people in their 20s, kids who are both full of fire and out to prove something. Not the best music, mind you, just the best rock, which is an inherently angry medium. I’m thinking of “You Really Got Me,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Street Fighting Man,” to name a few fairly antiquated examples.
But anger doesn’t have the power to inspire over the long-haul. If you’ll forgive the pithiness, judgment drains while love sustains. The upside of anger is no upside at all – a truism that it ironically might take a little indignation to recognize.
Fortunately, Lehrer closes with a wonderful little statement from writer J.M. Coetzee, which captures a deeper truth about the creative process: “Always move towards pain when making art.” (Pain and anger being related but not synonymous, the latter an expression of the former). What Coetzee is getting at is what we call the theology of the cross, of suffering producing beauty, and it is another matter entirely. As Thornton Wilder puts it, “It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble in the hearts of men.” Or, as Elvis Costello, on my immaculately crafted iPod, sings:
Or get in touch.