My parents (both psychologists) frequently attend a conference called Creativity and Madness hosted by Los Angeles-based psychiatrist Dr. Barry Panter. Mental health and medical professionals share presentations with titles like “Tragedy, Loss, and Transformation within Bruce Springsteen’s Work” and “Iggy Pop, Narcissist, Shaman and Wounded Child.” The theme of much of the research discussed is the relationship between creativity and mental pathology — or at least periodic anguish. From Van Gogh to Virginia Woolf to Kurt Cobain, society now embraces the romanticism of the tortured artist. We expect the most creative among us to be the most unstable.
Business innovators, by contrast, are not afforded the same cushion of understanding. The likeliest consequence of “eccentric” behavior in the workplace is an uncomfortable conversation with HR. Our need for innovation in today’s oversaturated marketplace is greater than ever, yet most organizations are poorly oriented to spot and develop breakthrough innovators. Think about the real game-changers of the past few decades — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, for example. They’re college dropouts. That means they wouldn’t even get through the résumé screeners at the companies they went on to found. And big-thinking leaders who do go on to finish school aren’t the type to slug it out for 15 years working their way up the corporate ladder until they’re positioned to call the shots. They start their own companies.
Are all creative people unstable? No. But they do tend to be iconoclasts, and rogue behavior is not smiled upon in most organizations no matter how progressive they fancy themselves. It takes a certain amount of gumption to propose something that’s never been considered before, and driving a revolutionary concept through to fruition takes more than tenacity. It takes real political skill. Consider the myriad stakeholders a corporate idea generator has to consult, the alliances to be formed, the risks to consider, the brand to protect. It’s enough process to take the wind out of anyone’s sails, and leave a potentially great idea dead in the water.
There’s something sweet just about the fact that the largest, flushest companies are not typically the ones to introduce the ideas that flip the world on its head. Who doesn’t like a good underdog story anyway? In the same breath, it’s the giants of industry with the resources to create, scale, and market the groundbreaking products and services society needs. What if we’re missing out on a cure for cancer or an economically viable clean-energy solution because the titans with the funds to develop them are too big and complex to harness their own creative potential?
It’s a frustrating paradox — enough to drive anyone mad.
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