Before he was a MacArthur Fellow, or a Man Booker Prize recipient, or the person David Foster Wallace named the most exciting writer in America, George Saunders was a technical writer at Radian Corporation, crafting numbingly dull environmental impact statements that nobody read. He wrote his first book, the now-celebrated short story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, in spare moments snatched over seven years in the company’s Rochester, New York offices. It was the kind of atmosphere that stands in opposition to every conception we have of a creative place: thin, synthetic carpet; cubicles; employees like Saunders toiling at desks wearing, as he wrote in a later edition’s afterword, “sad khakis.”
We tend to operate under the assumption that there are jobs that allow one’s creativity to flourish (writer, musician, certified MacArthur genius) and others that smother it. You either have the privilege of a job that requires the use of creativity, or you don’t, and any subsequent exercise of said creativity must be done outside the confines of the office, or done subversively, Saunders-style, inside of it.
Yes, the job matters. A full-time, independent artist can define the opportunities for on-the-job creativity more easily than an employee getting lots of top-down direction. But further research suggests that creativity in the workplace is less a function of the job than of the person doing it.
Evidence on this comes from a recent paper in the journal American Behavioral Scientist. A team of researchers led by Lehigh University assistant professor of sociology Danielle J. Lindemann looked at the responses of more than 13,000 art school graduates to a survey administered by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. A majority of respondents had occupations directly related to their field of study. A sizeable minority—39%—worked in jobs not associated with the arts.
When the researchers looked at respondents’ answers to how their arts training affected their work, they were struck by how little a relationship there was between the type of job held and people’s perceptions of their own creativity at work. While 87% of people working in the arts were satisfied with their ability to be creative at work, so were 60% of the people working in non-arts fields.
One music major described a somewhat alienated relationship between musical training and work: “Relevant in working with others and needing to consider people skills like in the band. Not relevant because I don’t take my tuba to work at Microsoft.” But a different musician saw the two as far more connected: “I use the technical skills on my instruments as a tool and backdrop for most of the creative work I do, with or without the instrument.”
Even people in similar professions had radically different perceptions of the creativity involved in their work. Consider these responses from two arts graduates, both of whom ended up as STEM researchers:
I have been very effective professionally in large part because I use creativity in my approach to solving problems, planning, and innovating. I am able to see possibilities where others can’t, and I’m able to identify the consistent and related themes woven among seemingly divergent concepts.
I work in Cancer Research at an animal laboratory, nothing I do relates to art or creativity.
Then there’s the perspective of this attorney:
Art training has carried over into the legal world with creative thinking, practice presenting my art or case, hard work and confidence.
And this one:
I’m a lawyer. Arts is creative. Law is thinking.
Working in an “uncreative” gig does not suddenly make one an uncreative person. The problem, the authors write, is that “many creative people limit themselves because their self-concepts as creative people are too narrow; they believe their creativity is only relevant in some settings but not in others.”
This view stems from a romanticized ideal of what a “creative” life looks like, one perpetuated in popular culture (and, the authors caution, in many art school programs). It’s a myopic view that overlooks the opportunities for inventive thinking in some fields and underemphasizes the dull, rote aspects of others.
“We typically treat playing an instrument in a symphony orchestra as an extremely original and creative way of making a living, although many, if not most, symphony players testify that it is, in fact, extremely repetitive and boring work,” the sociologist Howard Becker wrote in a recent essay. “How many times can you play the nine Beethoven symphonies ‘creatively’?”
Such limited thinking tells us more about who is judging what’s creative and what isn’t. When a job is done by someone whom those judges don’t value very highly, Becker writes, its creative value gets diminished. This is particularly true for people who belong to groups devalued on account of gender, race, or class. Becker cites the work of home cooks (typically women) and factory workers (typically working-class) as occupations that demand frequent but rarely appreciated ingenuity.
“What is scarce is not the fact of creativity—of some kind of activity unlike what others have done before—but rather the activity of labeling something ‘creative,’” Becker writes. Looked at that way, he points out, the whole concept of “creative jobs” is little more than a trick of labeling, in which the mere act of calling something by a particular name imbues it with qualities it otherwise wouldn’t have.
We apply those labels to ourselves as well. Previous research on self-perception and college majors found that art students, unsurprisingly, self-identified as creative more often than people in other majors. Yet students in what researchers term “investigative” majors (“thinkers” like doctors, lawyers, etc.) and enterprising ones (business and entrepreneurial types) scored higher on actual creativity, as measured by the researchers’ tests.
Expressing creativity in a job that doesn’t necessarily demand it doesn’t mean sacrificing artistic or creative goals. Had Saunders decided to set his love of fiction aside and pour all of his considerable talents into technical reports, the world would be much poorer for it. But even if a job doesn’t satisfy the full depth of your creative urges, it doesn’t mean you have to leave them at the door.
As the survey respondents featured in Lindemann and her team’s work made clear, a job’s creative potential was less about the job than the attitude of the person doing it. Some arts graduates saw their creativity as an indivisible part of their identity that traveled with them everywhere. Others saw creativity as circumstantial, a trait that could only thrive in particular settings. It’s impossible to say who is right. But the people who saw their creativity as an inseparable part of themselves sure sound a lot happier in their responses.