Why death and dying are important for creativity

I have written at length about where people do their ‘best thinking’ and which tools should be used for different types of problem. But there’s one place where people think very clearly indeed, but which is not spoken about very much. A place we all go to at some point in our lives, but a place that was not mentioned by a single one of the hundreds of respondents that helped me with the research for my book Future Minds.

Where – or when – is this place? It’s somewhere Steve Jobs knew all about. A place he faced when he got fired from Apple and visited again when Apple almost went bankrupt. It’s somewhere he mentioned in his famous commencement speech at Stamford.

It’s death and I firmly believe it’s a misunderstood opportunity for individuals and institutions alike. Here’s what Steve had to say about death:

“Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be because death is very likely the single very best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. “

This might all sound a bit morbid, especially since he has now passed away, but it needn’t be. Indeed, facing death doesn’t always mean that you end up dying. It simply means that you are threatened with the end of something, like being fired, failing a really important exam or facing bankruptcy.

It is threats such as these – whether they relate to an individual or an institution – that can result in fresh thinking. A threat of extinction, more often than not, creates a clarity of thought that is so sadly lacking at other times in our lives.

Why would this be so?

I think the answer is connected to why necessity and austerity are the mother and father of invention. Too much time allows us to prevaricate. If we have too much time we will put things off – or allow ourselves to be distracted – by things that appear momentarily urgent rather than universally important.

Things never get done. You are never forced to act.

Similarly, too much money often prevents people from really changing things significantly. If you are loaded up with cash, individually or institutionally, your first priority is often to preserve what you’ve already got. Too much money allows you to do nothing rather than something.

The impulse is preservation not innovation.

Conversely, if you’ve got next to nothing (perhaps you are a young employee not invested in the current corporate hierarchy or a cash-strapped start-up thinking of ways to reach customers without a million dollar marketing budget) you will often think of things that are unusual or unexpected or will try new ideas that older, more established, individuals or institutions will not.

In short, you will think. As Ernest Rutherford, the chemist, and father of nuclear physics once said: “Gentlemen, we haven’t got the money, so we have got to think.”

Urgency, too, creates a sense of focus. If you don’t have long you will think of ways to quickly filter what’s important from what’s not – a bit like the old cliché that says if you want something doing well, give it to someone that’s really busy.

If you are threatened with a crisis you tend to be bolder. If a company is fighting for its survival it sometimes take risks that it wouldn’t usually take. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but if you think you are probably history anyway way not give a new idea a go?

So here’s the question.

If you are not facing death how can you create a culture or process that creates a similar level of empowerment and action? How can you create a metaphorical forest fire that gets rid of all the dead wood and creates some space for new growth?

You possibly can’t, although I’m reminded of a technique widely used by an ex-CEO of a multi-national packaged goods company. If a new product development project was going really badly he’d cut the budget in half and shift the deadlines forward by several months.

There’s nothing like a bit of pressure to get the grey matter moving.

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2 Responses to Why death and dying are important for creativity

  1. Pingback: On Death « MTA Optima Blog

  2. David says:

    People are like storage sheds. Why do we keep people around that have terminal illnesses that they know can not be cured? Like the “stuff” in the storage sheds, just get rid of them! They take up to much of our resources just to keep them breathing. They don’t really want to be kept in “their” strorage shed of life. Let them go so they can be born again! http://tinyurl.com/3bo6829

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