skip to Main Content

How to protect creative work from uncreative people

Freeze frame from Pleasantville
Pleasantville (1998), from

(This article originally appeared in Medium.)

Creativity in a generally unimaginative, bureaucratic setting like an enterprise business or a university can be like sculpting in reverse. It is a process by which a painstaking work of art gradually has the discarded bits glued back on until it again resembles an unobjectionable rock. It is like this because very few people trade in creativity, feeling or impression. More often, the only currency that matters is reputation, output and (rarely) results. Advancement in almost any field requires well-timed creativity, most of which happens long before an idea is ever sent out into the world. The audience most people understand best is their own peer group, but seldom are they the ones we creatives are paid to galvanize into action.

… it is incumbent upon creatives to make the easy-choice crowd as nervous as possible as often as is necessary to occasionally produce something worthwhile.

Without the influence of a passionate creator, the safe, we-did-it-this-way-last-year option is the path of least resistance and it will win most battles before they even begin. Therefore it is incumbent upon creatives to make the easy-choice crowd as nervous as possible as often as is necessary to occasionally produce something worthwhile. To do less is, to paraphrase a certain Oregon track legend, to sacrifice the gift. But even when you can repeatedly justify your risks you are unlikely to chip away at their aversion to risk. Over time, your efforts to do something artful become Sisyphean ordeals, and your resolve weakens. Your work becomes less about satisfying your need for creative expression and more about the avoidance of grief through well-intentioned compromises that turn the provocative curves of your sculpture into agreeable geometric shapes.

So what can you do?

If you’re a creative person in an uncreative environment, then on some level you’re already a bit of a sellout. Maybe you’re just working for The Man while you write the great American novel or shooting the short film that opens the door to Hollywood, but chances are you’ve willingly traded some of your need for unadulterated self-expression for job security and a decent health plan. That’s okay — creativity and pragmatism must coexist. But don’t cede too many of the creative decisions that fill your cup to people whose only true priority is CYA self-preservation. Just like they protect their reputation, you need to protect your creative work against the daily assaults upon it. If it goes away, no one will truly miss it except you, because unless you take it out and whip it around sometimes, you’ll be the only one who ever knew it was there.

6 ways to protect creative work:

  1. Don’t just aim to please. Nothing has ruined more fresh, creative thinking than the desire to be liked. Most people who will try to influence your work either don’t really matter or feel like they can’t just give you a green light. Consider their opinions carefully and respectfully, and be willing to bend a little, but trust your gut.
  2. Show people your thing, early and often. Not everyone has a thing, but if you do, own it. Maybe it’s humor, or arresting visuals, or video. When you’re new you get a wider berth, so use that to your advantage and choose (or better yet, invent) a meaty project with a lot of visibility. If it’s what you become known for, then it’s easier to get away with it.
  3. Strategically procrastinate. The closer you are to a deadline, the harder it is for someone to want major changes. As Mark Zuckerberg is fond of saying, done is better than perfect.
  4. Don’t present undesirable options. If you want to avoid the “safe choice,” don’t offer it as an option. If the “conservative” choice is simply at the less-edgy end of the work you’re still proud of, then you’ve already won.
  5. Just do it. Few things really require permission, and fewer things still require forgiveness. What matters is that you can defend your decisions. If you know you’re right, own it—but be prepared to own your failures as well, and to strategically fall on your sword. If you don’t feel you have permission to fail, you probably don’t belong there.
  6. Make sandbox time. Learn a new program. Do tutorials. Take an hour here and there to make something that will never see the light of day just because it’s fun and it makes you better. Favor employers that give you that time.
Back To Top