Yesterday, I led my Artist’s Way Alumni Group through an exercise using the book “The Gap and the Gain” as well as Seth Godin’s little book “The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.” Putting my notes together for our group, I had a number of aha moments. Both books (and many of Seth’s other books) talk about what Seth refers to as the “industrial complex.”
I remember learning about the Industrial Revolution in school. The takeaway? Factories. Machines. Pollution. An influx in city dwelling. That’s what I remember. What I didn’t learn about were the long-term effects of living, working and doing life in this new system or integrated social complex. Here is a definition of the industrial complex: “The industrial complex is a socioeconomic concept wherein businesses become entwined in social or political systems or institutions, creating or bolstering a profit economy from these systems.” Let’s stop there for a moment and say that while we can hear this as pure capitalism (which it mostly was) certain pieces of this system also had noble ideals at inception, such as removing kids from factories via compulsory education. Let’s continue … “Such a complex is said to pursue its own financial interests regardless of, and often at the expense of, the best interests of society and individuals” (Wikipedia). So, we have a system where businesses, whose aim is to produce income (usually for themselves), utilize social political systems or institutions to bolster their cash flow. And, as we know from history and present day political complexes, it’s usually the most vulnerable in a society who get co-opted into these systems. In this case, children.
Children whose families had been, for generations, working farms or other small, locally-based income models moved to big cities with their families when factories became a part of the social complex. Many of these kids actually ended up working in the factories. But even if some well-meaning minds said, “Let’s get these poor children out of these awful conditions,” where were they to go? Their parents had made the move to cities with the promise of jobs and consistent income. And what do you do with kids whose parents are working all day in factories? Ta da! You put them in schools where they are not only “cared for” but also trained to be good workers themselves. It’s a win-win, right?
Ok, so what does this have to do with creativity? As I’m starting to learn, quite a lot. Let’s start with a bit of history on this idea of mass education.
“Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.
The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world. This system did not emerge instantly. Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society. Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius. The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy. The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions. Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations. Bells rang to announce changes of time.
The inner life of the school thus became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society. The most criticized features of education today – the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher – are precisely those that made mass public education so effective an instrument of adaptation for its place and time.” (Alvin Toffler, Future Shock)
Right. Now I’m beating a dead horse. The educational industrial complex was set up to mimic factory life and train children to be good workers. But how does this actually affect our creativity in the here and now? How does this affect the creativity of the generations? And really, does it even matter?
Ok, are you ready to go with me down a bit of a rabbit trail? We’ll call this “choose your adventure.” If yes, keep reading. If no, I hope you enjoyed the first half of this post and Godspeed.
As I’ve been reading the book “The Gap and the Gain” by Dan Sullivan and Dr. Benjamin Hardy, I’ve been struck by their nod to the fact that most of us-even the most successful of us-will always believe that we haven’t yet achieved enough. We will continue to pursue happiness as if happiness is something we can find outside of ourselves. We stay on the hedonic treadmill, pursuing one pleasure after another, never giving ourselves the chance to say “Well done. Now take a rest. Enjoy what you have. Notice the moment and catch a glimpse of gratitude. This is enough for now.” Dan Sullivan, in coaching hundreds of executives, entrepreneurs and business folks saw this trend firsthand. His clients would hit a huge goal, only to feel that they weren’t yet successful because there was now a higher goal to hit. And as both Dan Sullivan and Benjamin Hardy point out (as well as Seth Godin) this need to keep chasing external validation to make us feel of value and worthy–to find happiness–is, in part, the way our educational system was set up to work.
“Do public education and it’s ‘measures’ breed success or compliance? Seth Godin and many others have explained that public education was actually invented in 1918 to get kids out of the factories. Back then, kids as young as seven did grueling hard factory work. The education system was designed to train kids to be “better” and more obedient, productive, and submissive workers in the future. The goal of the education system was definitely NOT for those children to become leaders or critical thinkers, but to become people who did what they were told, looked for the ‘right answer,’ and did not think for themselves … One obvious reason that our public education system may hinder creativity and autonomy is HOW success is measured.” (The Gap and the Gain, page 32)
So now we’re getting into it! How can a society that has been taught to base their value on performance standards set by other people with an agenda to mold those same people into more submissive and productive workers begin to learn to base their value and worth on their own set of criteria? And for those of us interested in the creative fields, how can we stop working to perform for a system that asks us to color inside the lines when art necessitates the ability to follow the joy, take as long as it takes, follow process, not the product and believe in the unique quality of each person’s individual voice?
For those of us trained to look for external validation (test scores, letters of acceptance, college degrees) of course we are hitting the creative wall. Because creativity isn’t something external. It’s an inside job. It necessitates finding our own internal rubric for success.
And guess what, Dear Creative? Now we are seeing a new industrial complex emerge. The social media industrial complex. Maybe we’re no longer vying for teacher’s awards, good grades and acceptance letters. But if you are part of the social media machine (as I am) you are now vying for likes, comments, shares, story shares, tags. And we are told it will serve our businesses (and it can) and that we need it to survive this brave new world. But have we stopped to look at whom it really serves? Or have we just transferred our external validation to a new system, looking for new ways to measure our success? Now, in full transparency, I use social media avidly for my business. And I will probably continue to do so. But I really, really want to be aware that as I use social media, I’m also being used by it. No more pretending that these are nebulous systems. Social media didn’t develop with ill intentions, but it also didn’t develop devoid of intention. (And no, I haven’t seen the movie The Social Dilemma … yet).
How does all of this affect our creativity? Creativity is, in and of itself, a realm of the spirit. It is a space of Divine mystery. It is the place between. And in this space, we don’t live in concrete time and measurable objectives. We live in flow. We live in awe. We live in the present moment where we are beholden to no one but ourselves and God.
In the creative space, we are seeking process over product. Production is a measurable metric. Process is a messy middle. We show up to the work (or “the practice,” as Seth Godin calls it) and yes, we can measure that. We did show up. But what we can’t measure in quantifiable, data-driven terms is what exactly was accomplished there. I showed up to the page today, now I hear a new story in every conversation. I put paint on paper, now I see a bird’s pudgy body as shapes and color. I played the piano for joy and now I can hear music in the wind. “But what did you produce? Show me your work? I want to see what you actually ‘made.'” Can we resist the need to prove “what we have to show” for our time, our energy, our effort? Probably not. I can’t do it most days.
To be clear, the process of creating does produce art. This is a double gift. You create to create and at the end of it, you have a creation. Isn’t that insane! But also, I want to be aware of how I’m choosing to be validated. Am I pursuing an external locus of validation? We all do, to some extent. It’s human. But as much as I’m able, I want to set my own standards of success. This is precisely why creativity is spiritual work. It is getting away from the false self of external validation and towards the true self of the essence of who we are without all of the externals: beloved, worthy, enough, daughter or son of God. (By the way, one of my favorite books “True Self, False Self” by M. Basil Pennington is a quick and very helpful read on this idea.)
So yes, we all have the right to remain silent, as Seth Godin says. We have the right to let our creativity be defined by the same systems that have sought to define us, use us, maybe even originally help us. But no system is us! Our creative “wins” are only those if WE define them so!
So, Dear Creative, how do you define success? What makes you a creative? (Spoiler alert: YOU make you a creative because YOU say so. That’s it!)
Its an inside job! You have the right to remain silent. But we all really, really hope you won’t!
And if you want to keep the conversation around these big ideas going and keep processing, go check out the latest episode of my Monastic Mamas Podcast.