The Seductive Lie of the Literature of Creativity


The literature of creativity describes the heroic pathways of discovery and invention.

You know the stories: The post-it note and Swiffer to the music of Dylan and the art of Monet. These creations form the heart of gripping non-fiction accounts that provide a narrative around the individual achievements and miraculous inspirations that have delivered disruptive new ideas and technologies.

They usually involve a rebel, an outsider. They are about the individual’s ability to think differently, to ignore consensus.

You probably know the books, anything by Gladwell or Lehrer, for example. Ted talks are another version, a version where the person themselves are telling you about their achievements or what they have discovered.

And I admit, I have read lots of them, been inspired by them, and recommended them to others.

But are these works telling the truth? 

In his article Ted Talks are Lying to You Thomas Frank claims that, well, Ted talks are lying to you.

Specifically, Frank’s claim is that the literature of creativity isn’t really about creativity.

Frank argues that this literature is itself ridden with formulaic prose and standard examples. It lacks that flair of creativity and individuality that they describe and dissect.

What our correspondent also understood, sitting there in his basement bathtub, was that the literature of creativity was a genre of surpassing banality. Every book he read seemed to boast the same shopworn anecdotes and the same canonical heroes.

The literature of creativity, according to Frank, is itself guilty of not following its own rules. Remember the well-worn anecdotes about post-it notes and the Swiffer! For Frank, these works on creativity succumbs to the very group-think that it so often berates. As Frank says:

Those who urge us to “think different,” in other words, almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new instalments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed.

Furthermore, Frank argues that in contrast to what these creativity authors and ambassadors assure us, creativity isn’t valued by society.

…for all its reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society had no interest in new ideas at all unless they reinforced favorite theories or could be monetized in some obvious way.

It’s interesting to think about where the creative ideas flow from today in society. Take Google, that great monetiser of creativity, for example, is an endless flow of innovative ideas and approaches. From the design sprint through to the creative working environment. How difficult was it to get whiteboards on an office wall before it became a common-place feature of tech companies!?

Indeed, rather than creativity coming from the edge, it seems to flow from the centre (even when that centre attempts to maintain its image as a start-up or anti-establishment bad-boy).

Yet, it is ‘established expertise’, according to the Ted Talk genre, that creativity is supposedly rebelling against.

…far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus… Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does.

We, the members of the professional-managerial class, are the audience for the literature of creativity. It is created by us, for us.

We are, in effect, talking to ourselves about our own creation myths. We indulge in survivors bias – focussing on the one successful example at the expense of the multitude of failures. And from that one success we draw our lessons.

And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue.


Finally, as a kind of postscript, I should say I read these books. I enjoy them, and I even occasionally watch TED talks.

Of course I do, I am part of the professional-managerial class. I even just used the heading ‘postscript’ in a blog post.






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