Being happy at work makes you more creative says some science. Eating on a garbage truck and more.
Prompt: How did you get your first job?
Paper: “Affect and Creativity at Work”- Teresa M. Amabile (Harvard), Sigal G.
Barsade (University of Pennsylvania), Jennifer S. Mueller (NYU), Barry M. Staw
Recipe: Paint it Black
Jeff Rabkin. President, creative director and sprint facilitator Wowza inc.
The next time I’m at a party (assuming there are ever parties again) and need to
make small talk with a stranger, rather than ask them what kind of work they do,
I’ll ask them about their first job. Someone’s first job is an interesting way to see
the trajectory of their work life. Parents should think about that when they counsel their children to enter the workforce.
As a kid growing up in the early 70s, I had an old-fashioned paper route. The
paper was a rag I delivered weekly door-to-door. It had a little bit of suburban
news and a lot of coupons and ads. I tossed a paper to every house on my route,
then I’d have to go door-to-door and collect subscription money. Nobody actually
subscribed—they got the paper and if they wanted to pay for it, they did. I only
got paid from the money I collected. The bundle of papers was dumped at my
house, and I’d have to fold them into origami-style triangles and load them into a
big canvas shoulder sack. Then I could take my bike and throw the papers on the
lawns and doorstops on my route. Occasionally I got complaints about papers in
the bushes and puddles. Some people didn't want the paper and were pissed
when they got one; others were pissed if they didn't.
I don’t remember doing that job for very long, but it no doubt taught me a lot. I
had to follow a process, keep to a schedule, and stick with the task until all the
papers were delivered. I got feedback from strangers—mostly negative. But I
also got feedback that was positive and, with that, money. What a way for a kid to
engage with reality. Tangible objects. Heat. Cold. Rain. I had to work
independently. I had to look my customers in the eye and ask for money. If I
threw their paper in the bushes every week, I paid the price.
My first “real” job was working as an assistant to the maintenance man at the
apartment complex my dad managed and co-owned with my uncles. It was a
summer job, and I must have been about 15. The Village was a complex of
garden apartments in a working-class neighborhood in Cincinnati. The brick
buildings, built in the 30s or 40s, were one-level, townhouse-style apartments
spread out over a pretty big area with common green spaces and a swimming
pool. There was a couple who lived on the property and a full-time maintenance
man who fixed broken toilets, changed locks, mowed the grass, and cleaned
empty apartments for the next tenant. I can’t remember his name, but I can see
him as clearly as if I’d worked there yesterday. He was a pale, skinny man with
greasy jet-black hair, who smoked cigarettes through a grill of rotten teeth. His
dental hygiene consisted of rinsing daily with 16 oz returnable bottles of Mountain
I mowed the whole complex on a riding mower and got to see how other people
lived. One day, we entered an empty apartment that the previous tenant had
painted black. The entire apartment. Black. There was a guy who garaged his
gold-plated Harley in his living room. Once a week, we’d eat lunch with the
garbage men on the back of their truck. Other days, we’d eat in the maintenance
shop, thumbing through Hustler magazines while listening to country music on a
Larry Flynt, the infamous publisher of Hustler magazine, started his porn empire
in Dayton and Cincinnati. Hustler was banned in Cincinnati, and the city attorney
was constantly up Flynt’s ass (metaphorically speaking, not in the way you would
find in his magazine). The relentless efforts to stop Flynt created a Streisand
effect (long before there was such a term), making the hard-core porn magazine
well known to everyone in this conservative city. Nothing was as licentious for an
adolescent at the time as open access to Hustler.
Thinking back on it now, I doubt the maintenance guy was thrilled to have the
owner’s kid following him around all summer. I probably wasn't much help to him
Parents schlep their kids to private schools, piano lessons, and soccer practice to
mold their character and prepare them for life and work. But it’s actually messy,
uncontrolled interactions with real life that forge us, not the choreographed and
curated experiences designed for child development. Waterlogged newspapers
and rotten teeth.
Most parents today would cringe at the idea that their kid was entering a
stranger's apartment and eating twinkies on a garbage truck. Kids today have
open access to infinity pools of pornography; few have any idea how to fix a
Diverse work experiences increase creative problem-solving ability, making it
easier to draw on analogous situations and make lateral connections by drawing
on patterns and solutions from other domains. These days, workers are often
discouraged from having diverse, unrelated work experiences and counseled to
specialize early in their work life, thus reducing creative capacity, curiosity, and
empathy. Putting kids on a narrow track toward a specific career or lifestyle robs
them of the opportunity to deposit unique and diverse experiences into their
A diversity of work experiences, with a variety of people, is one way to discover what makes you happy at work. Is a boring job you do with fun people better or worse than an interesting job with people you dislike? Is an incompetent boss who’s nice better or worse than a highly competent boss who’s an asshole? How does it feel to do difficult work vs. work that’s easy? The sooner you understand the qualities of work that light you up, the sooner you can find your vocation. This really matters, because if you're happy at work, you’ll be more creative. If you’re more creative, you’ll produce more value. It’s a virtuous cycle.
In “Affect and Creativity at Work,” authors Teresa M. Amabile, Sigal G. Barsade,
Jennifer S. Mueller, and Barry M. Staw address the question of positive affect
and its impact on creativity at work. They conclude that people are more creative
when they’re in a good mood. This is true when working independently or on a
team. It’s also a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Your mood is better, you’re more
creative, your mood is better. If your mood is good when you're working on a
creative problem on Monday, your mood will likely be better when you come back
to the problem on Tuesday.
If maintaining a positive affect has an impact on creativity, and creativity is where value is created by knowledge workers, then keeping people in a good mood is a major driver of business improvement. If you think about it, creativity is THE value generator. Take two competing businesses with very similar products. If the market price for both company’s products is roughly equal, then profitability comes from one firm’s ability to reduce costs. Some costs appear unrelated to creativity, like a lower cost of capital due to the timing of debt or geographical factors (a plant in rural Alabama vs. one in suburban LA), but even those could be considered a creative component of the business. The finance department’s creative ability to lower the cost of working capital, the operations department’s creative ability to locate plants or negotiate manufacturing leases. If parity products command different prices, it’s usually due to branding, distribution, design, and other factors that are more commonly associated with creativity.
Ideas are what make businesses compete. Products and services are representations of a business’ collective creative output. While execution is downstream of product and service design, creative ideas are still required to produce the quality and efficiency necessary to maintain a competitive edge. A well-executed bad idea fails, as does a poorly-executed good idea.
A common characterization of an artist is that of the tortured soul. Research cited
in this paper suggests a possible correlation between affective disorders, like
depression, and creativity. This “creativity comes from pain” trope is prevalent in
media and pop culture. Depressed artists make more headlines and better
drama, but happy creatives produce more and better ideas. It’s reasonable to
assume that ideas from positive employees are more useful and valuable to the
business. Try to imagine Sylvia Plath writing jingles for a radio campaign.
The takeaway from this research might seem obvious, but it is rarely taken
seriously and valued appropriately. How is the mood of your knowledge-worker
manipulated or influenced by the processes, tools, personal interactions, and
internal expectations they encounter on a daily basis? Are you even aware of the
effect in your workplace?
If your office was filled with bugs and vermin, you’d exterminate them. If your employees were shivering in the cold, you’d repair the cracked windows and HVAC. Do you have a way to debug your workflow processes and make your employees more comfortable so they can generate new ideas?
Recipe to make stupid shit: Paint it Black
Why would someone feel compelled to paint their apartment black? Maybe they were profoundly sad. Or perhaps they intended to process photographs.
Tools and ingredients:
An object that isn’t black
A way to apply the paint
Instructions: Listen to the classic song “Painted Black” by the Rolling Stones.
Take an object that isn't black and paint it black.