It’s a new year and that means new beanbag chairs. Chances are high that someone in your office — the Chief Innovation Officer, perhaps, or the Senior Motivational Poohbah — will decide that your firm is not innovative enough, not creative enough, for the year 2016. Action will be taken. Free meals and, of course, free coffee will be requisitioned. Consultants will be summoned. And beanbag chairs, the lovable symbol of the freewheeling workplace, will be ordered.
We are living in the Decade of Perks. Companies are falling over one another offering workers such goodies as squash courts, hoverboards, lap pools, nap zones, pet care and more. What began as a Silicon Valley fad has spread to corporate America writ large. Even pest-control firms are getting in on the act. One, in Provo, Utah, provides its employees a golf simulator.
Urban planners, meanwhile, are doing much the same, only on a larger scale, desperately trying to lure the so-called “creative class” with hip restaurants, theater districts and other cultural bonbons.
Companies, and cities, offer these enticements in order to attract, and keep, top-notch employees but also with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) understanding that these perks will make them more creative. At first blush, it seems to make sense: Give employees all the tools they need to innovate, make space for a little fun, then watch the sparks fly.
The truth about creativity, however, is considerably less convenient. Discomfort, and even a degree of hardship, are what drive creativity, not beanbag chairs and Ping-Pong tables.
As John Adams put it, “genius is sorrow’s child.” A disproportionately large percentage of geniuses lost a parent, usually a father, when they were young. Many suffered illnesses throughout their lives. Thomas Edison was partly deaf, Aldous Huxley partly blind. Alexander Graham Bell and Picasso were dyslexic. Michelangelo, Titian, Goya and Monet all suffered from various maladies that actually improved their artwork. What doesn’t kill you may not make you stronger, but it will make you more creative.
Although well-intentioned CEOs assume the best way to foster creativity is to remove all obstacles, considerable evidence suggests the opposite is true. In one classic study, Ronald Finke, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M University, asked participants to create an art project. Some subjects were given a wide range of materials, others little. Finke and his colleagues found that the most creative work was done by those with the fewest choices — that is, with the most constraints.
Robert Frost once likened writing free-verse poetry to playing tennis without a net. Without boundaries, we are lost. That’s why the truly creative crave them and, if they don’t exist, construct them.
In the 1960s, a French novelist and a mathematician founded an experimental literary movement called Oulipo that took this “power of constraints” to an extreme, by constructing all sorts of self-imposed obstacles. (Raymond Queneau, the group’s co-founder, described Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.”) One member, Georges Perec, wrote a 300-page novel without using the letter “e.” You might consider that gimmicky, but followers of this odd movement were onto something.
Genius doesn’t require paradise. In fact, nirvana — a state that presumably requires no improvement — would surely kill the creative spirit. Throughout the ages, many a genius has done his best work in shabby settings. Albert Einstein wrote his general theory of relativity at the kitchen table in his dingy Berne, Switzerland, apartment. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did their tinkering in a completely ordinary neighborhood in Sunnyvale, Calif. The reality is that a degree of impoverishment can motivate, or as the physicist Ernest Rutherford once exclaimed, “We have no money so we will have to think!”
The problem with the beanbag chair — and all it represents — is that it is too soft. It provides us nothing to push against, and that is when we are at our most creative. Similarly, the problem with the “creative class” theory is that it confuses cause and effect. Sushi restaurants, experimental theater and the like are the products of a creative environment, not the generators of one.
Necessity’s less vaunted cousin, tension, is the mother of invention. Research conducted by Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, bears this out. He reviewed history’s golden ages and found that places riddled with political intrigue, turmoil and uncertainty thrived creatively.
There’s nothing uncertain or intriguing about a beanbag chair. If any perk boosts creativity, it’s not a sexy one, but the mobile meeting. A recent study by two Stanford researchers found that after even a short walk, as brief as five minutes, people produced more creative ideas than did those who sat still.
So what am I suggesting — that companies provide employees with uncomfortable chairs, feed them cardboard sandwiches? Of course not. (Nor am I suggesting that, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, only half-jokingly, the best gift a father can give a son is to die young.)
But if companies want to nurture creative employees, not just contented ones, they must include challenges and even a dash of hardship in their bag of perks.
Eric Weiner is the author of “The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places From Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.” He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.