The Curse of Calling and the Myth of Creativity

The Curse of Calling and the Myth of Creativity August 18, 2014


The word “calling” has the power to elicit eyerolls and sighs – a cliché of the worst kind. Though it stirs up deep desires to commit to a higher purpose and raises hopes for divine guidance, it also awakens the profound confusion within our culture and the church around personal identity and the meaning of a good life. Consider this grating email invitation to a Christian leadership retreat on calling, all too typical:

As you consider how 2013 ought to be different, start with the basics. Do you know your calling? …. Don’t let another year go by with confusion over who you were meant to be.

The church has become so confused about calling in part because it has become so highly influenced by popular, secular narratives about meaning and purpose. In contrast to a historic Christian understanding, I’ll consider two popular movements that compete with and shape how the church talks about calling, and show how they are simultaneously helpful and misleading. First, the creativity movement: think TED talks, crowdsourcing, and the current business trend of design thinking; and second, the community or craft movement: think local, slow, build-it-yourself, commit-to-a-place efforts. Though the ideologies of creativity and community fall short as ultimate systems of meaning, they do suggest some transcendent qualities inherent in a Christian understanding of calling.

The historic idea of Christian calling is best understood as a conversation, an active dialogue about creation between an individual and God. In its fullest sense, this conversation takes place among members of a community – past, present, and future – and in relation to social institutions and cultures. Knowing your calling is like knowing a friend, not like knowing what to do next. Such knowledge demands presence and intimacy, and relies on memory. Living out calling as a conversation invites dependence and deferral in rhythm with confident action, as in any healthy relationship.

In stark contrast to calling as a conversation, the creativity movement promises individual empowerment and an almost immediate, expansive sense of freedom from institutional ways of thinking as well as personal or social constraint.

Among the thought leaders in the creative movement are Tom and David Kelley. In 1991, David founded IDEO, an engineering-driven product and process design firm, and later the Stanford design school (or In 1999, IDEO and their design-based problem solving method leapt from the lab into public dialogue when IDEO was featured on ABC’s Nightline. In a staged segment called the “Deep Dive” their multi-disciplinary team redesigned the common shopping cart in five days. The methods they employed, including customer empathy, ideation, experimentation, and rapid prototyping, are now more formally known as “design thinking”or “human-centered design.”

The Kelleys’ most compelling example of how design thinking impacts problem solving is Doug Dietz. Through the design principle of empathy, Dietz made an emotional connection with the sick children who suffered through MRI scans under a machine he designed. Imagining himself in their position, Dietz and a team developed an entire child-centered MRI experience including themed graphics, creative lighting, smells, and music, as well as a fun story to explain why the children were there. The new experience helped children relax, almost eliminating the need for anesthetics, and it dramatically reduced the hospital’s cost.

As a problem-solving method that teaches keen observation of human behavior and calls for empathy for the person in need, design thinking can inspire meaningful innovation. As a philosophy for finding meaning in life, being human-centered faces limits.

In Creative Confidence (Crown Business, 2013),the Kelleys present design thinking not only as a method for problem solving, but also for pursuing calling and becoming the person you were meant to be: “Creative confidence is a way of seeing…[your] potential and your place in the world more clearly, unclouded by anxiety and doubt.”  When an individual gains creative confidence they undergo a conversion experience which the Kelleys call “flipping”. When someone is flipped, they gain a permanent shift in “mental outlook, a new self-image, and a new sense of empowerment.”

The most seductive promise of creativity is its price: almost nothing. Just give up an irrational fear of failure in exchange for an immediate rush of freedom and independence. Embrace a “do something” mindset, and quickly join those who “write the script of their own lives, and….have greater impact on the world.”

The problem is that while this mindset might enable you to rapidly prototype a product, you cannot prototype a life. Failure has consequences. And while the Kelleys quote Nietzsche kindly as a “poet-philosopher”, human experience tell us that you are unable fully to write the script of your life no matter how hard you try. Lasting meaning cannot be found through constant self-improvement, or as the Kelleys suggest, by “living in beta.”

The promise of creativity, however, remains tempting. Why? The Kelleys effectively tap into the transcendent human longing to be made new, as well as the constant frustration and failure that our own efforts produce. They acknowledge that even though “the origins of the word ‘calling’ are religious….[calling] maintains its meaning in the secular context of work: the sense that you are contributing to a higher value or to something bigger than yourself.”

I am afraid that for many Christians, the Kelleys are right. We are too easily satisfied by the desire to be part of something bigger, faster, and more creative than ourselves. We want to be made new by making something new.

But not everyone. The process of creative destruction, or constantly re-imagining what the world could be, cuts against the stabilizing belief that we are building lives and a society that will last. In a rapidly changing world it is difficult to maintain a consistent sense of meaning. For those who feel disoriented or abstracted, committing to a community, discipline, or a long-standing craft, rather than the creativity movement, is a natural response. Matthew Crawford, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Shopclass as Soulcraft (Penguin, 2009) is an influential voice among the “community and craft” movement. He sees serious limits to the creative human-centered approach to calling, warning that “the simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name ‘creativity’ trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counter-culture, and if we’re not paying attention such usage might influence our career plans.”

Crawford senses that when “creativity” stands in for calling it “invokes our powerful tendency toward narcissism.” For Crawford, moving from self-referential actualization to reality requires submitting to something outside yourself, something that humbles you. He understands that this process is also a type of conversation, but not between man and God. Crawford’s conversation takes place in the manual trades between the laborer and his materials. Manual work forces you to learn the intimate contours of physical matter; things you can see, touch, hear, and test. The motorcycle repairman faces the chemical properties and limits of steel, the carpenter of wood, and the surgeon of the human body.

In any attempt to fix or improve something material, a person must face their own physical and intellectual limits, and they must answer to visible results. The motorcycle runs or sputters. The house stands or falls. The patient lives or dies. These authoritative results stand in contrast to (as he puts it) the “smarmy and passive-aggressive” benchmarks of the creative corporation where a team mentality and corporate culture work to appear transcendent in order to sustain moral expectations. This kind of objective authority is at once humbling and empowering. One way or another, it’s clear what has been accomplished.

Crawford raises the bar, claiming that “creativity” is only gained as the “by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice…built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra).” If your goal is to grind an intake manifold to efficiently boost the performance of an old bike, no amount of creative thinking is going to get you there, only the well-honed skills of an experienced mechanic.

Submission, however, is an unpopular idea, in part because our economy demands flexibility. Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of people operations, was recently quoted claiming that Google no longer hires employees based on traditional standards of intellectual ability or excellence, but rather on “the ability to process on the fly….to pull together disparate bits of information.” In contrast, Crawford shows how “the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling in any task long enough to develop real competence”

Creativity demands personal and mental flexibility. Competence demands submission. Here Crawford exposes a key weakness in the argument for creative confidence: the unspoken assumption that before you can creatively “break out” you must already be an expert. Take Dietz’s MRI experience, mentioned above. What the Kelleys fail to emphasize is that before Dietz had this creative breakthrough, he was an engineer at GE for over twenty years. It’s no accident that the Kelleys’ design thinking movement took off in Silicon Valley, likely the most densely populated environment of highly trained engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs in the world. Those who have submitted themselves to a discipline for an extended period of their career are in a position where creative exercises can effectively disrupt ingrained ways of thinking. However, for a generation of young people who are being trained to be flexible, creativity is exactly what keeps them from competence. You may get a job, but competence cannot be gained “creatively.”

Crawford’s understanding of submission, however, also has limits. Notably, Crawford expects that scaling back to a focused discipline, or scaling down to a smaller community, is a necessary step for taking moral responsibility. Just as the Kelleys could embrace creativity after they had succeeded as engineers and consultants, Crawford could scale down to a back-alley motorcycle repair shop in Richmond after he earned his PhD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago. But not everyone can walk that path. Crawford was dissatisfied with an esoteric and stale academic environment, but your typical professional trying to make it in the modern economy will have trouble building a livelihood the way he has.

Like the Kellys, Crawford reaches a conclusion in Shopclass that points to, but never connects with, a transcendent source of meaning. He writes that discerning the meaning of the good life “may be helped along by practical activities in company with others, a sort of conversation in deed” in which “lies the potential of work to bring some measure of coherence to our lives.” For all the hope of meaningful work and community that Crawford offers, “some measure of coherence” doesn’t answer the desire we have to do great things with our lives.

Neither the inward movement toward creativity, which promises empowerment and freedom, nor the outward movement toward community and craft, which promises a stable sense of reality, can fully answer the complexities of modern life or the deep desire to live responsibly. When you begin to understand calling as a conversation – knowing God, knowing yourself, knowing the world – then what’s best in both of these movements is  honored while what’s worst in them can be tempered. Creativity is unchained, as it no longer bears the weight of self-justification. Community can be accepted even for those who can’t live the kind of life Crawford does. You can choose to develop competence in a discipline without fear of missing out, and there’s no need to hurry. Like a friendship, calling proves trustworthy over time.

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