The paradox of productive creativity

We have heard quotes like this before:

You can either optimize for creativity or for productivity, but not for both

We live in a world driven by productivity — or so we think! In reality, both personal and technological progress are extremely non-linear. Our lives are defined by a few key events that fundamentally shape who we are and push forward our personal lives and work careers. The rest of our time, we are either enjoying what those key moments brought us, or trying to get more exposure (luck) to experience more key moments.

An example is meeting your life partner. We spend time out there, trying to get lucky (increasing exposure). Once we get lucky, we can enjoy what that sweet entropy brought to our lives for nearly our entire lifetime.

Same with business. Whether it's founding a successful company, joining one early, inventing something new, writing a great piece that gets wide exposure, producing a summer hit... Those things can push us forward and suddenly make the rest of our lives easier. For example, once an entrepreneur has had an exit, it's orders of magnitude easier to raise, attract talent, etc.

These moments are the culmination of two things: hard work and creativity.

To create a successful startup, a founder needs to master multiple skills such as management, product and technology. But without a vision fueled by creativity, it gets nowhere.

Similarly, to create a summer hit, you need to have spend thousands of hours producing music. But without intuition and taste, both fueled by creativity, the output would just be another boring track, not a summer hit.

In turn, creativity is fueled by entropy — which is essentially randomness. That's why new experiences tend to make us feel creative. But then, why do we sometimes feel creative when bored, maybe just looking out of the window or when we cannot sleep?

Well, creativity is a process. It does need an input (entropy) but it also needs processing time. Creativity takes seemingly random inputs and mixes them in new, unprecedented ways. That process takes time. Walking, going for a run, taking a shower don't need much mental input, and so our brain wanders around and gets creative. It sometimes also happens as the background process over extended periods of time — then there's a final input that comes in and causes an a-ha moment.

After realizing that creativity is responsible for most of our successes, even as a species, we would love to turn the knob up and increase it as much as possible, right? Well, it's not that simple.

So, to be creative, we seem to need:

  • A lot of randomness, which usually comes from spontaneous, diverse experiences. This is the exact opposite to having a routine, which requires having total control over our time.
  • A lot of blank time, which can be walking, taking a shower... In today's world, we usually rush from place to place and even rush taking showers.
  • It seems like being creative is at great odds with being productive. Yet achieving a creative breakthrough can set us decades ahead of those who have been extremely productive, yet haven't had such breakthrough.

    Through those lenses, being creative is the ultimate form of productivity.

    Through those lenses, letting go of extreme control and routines — and ultimately the sense of time as a linear constant we have to constantly worry about — is the best path forward.

    Still learning how to apply this to my own day to day, like everything in life it's hard to strike a balance.