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How Corporate America’s Obsession With Creativity Wrecked the World and Brought Us Elon Musk

Samuel W. Franklin’s latest book explains how we sold ourselves out to a fake virtue.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Who is the most creative human being who ever lived? These days, if you put the question to Google, it will spit back a dispiriting answer: Elon Musk. When I pair “Elon Musk” with “creativity,” Google produces 17.2 million results. By comparison, when I pair “creativity” with Mozart, I get only 15.9 million results; with Michelangelo, 12.1 million; with Albert Einstein, 4.4 million; with Archimedes, 4.4 million; and with Leonardo Da Vinci, a pitiful 2.4 million.

Quite obviously, Musk is not the most creative person who ever lived. It offends reason to recite his name in the same breath as that of Mozart, Michelangelo, Einstein, Archimedes, or Da Vinci. Still, this search engine exercise is telling because it shows how completely Musk embodies the wrongheaded contemporary notion that creativity represents the cardinal virtue of our age, as expostulated brilliantly in one of the very best books I read in 2023, Samuel W. Franklin’s The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History.

What does it mean, today, to be creative? My Google experiment suggests that first, you must be stupendously rich, which automatically excludes just about every authentically creative genius who ever lived. Musk is worth, according to the Forbes 400 real time billionaire rankings, $260.8 billion, which (as of 5 p.m. on December 27) makes him the richest person on planet Earth. Second, you must lack human decency, common sense, or loyalty to anything larger than the workings of your own creative mind. “I’ve shot myself in the foot so many times,” Musk jokes in Walter Isaacson’s 2023 biography, “I ought to buy some Kevlar boots.” Musk then ruminates—momentarily—about installing, on Twitter, which he bought in 2022, an impulse-control delay button. 

Don’t bet on it. “It was a pleasing concept,” Isaacson observes:

an impulse-control button that could defuse Musk’s tweets as well as all of his dark impulsive actions and demon-mode eruptions that leave rubble in his wake. But would a restrained Musk accomplish as much as a Musk unbound? Is being unfiltered and untethered integral to who he is? Could you get the rockets to orbit or the transition to electric vehicles without accepting all aspects of him, hinged and unhinged? Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training.

Behold the creative genius par excellence, circa 2023. Less indulgently, my colleague Alex Shephard, in designating Musk The New Republic’s “Scoundrel of the Year,” calls him “deeply hateful,” “pathetic,” “a venal, thin-skinned moron” who “hates the truth” and “is making the world worse in innumerable ways.” 

Allow me to set forth a third view: Musk is the logical end point for a society that indulges creativity to the exclusion of every other virtue. That Musk is creative is undeniable; he has the track record, particularly at Tesla, to prove it. He’s also contemptible, dangerously irresponsible, and, at least in his management of X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, not even a minimally competent businessman. If this is creativity, let’s have less of it. That’s more or less Franklin’s message in The Cult of Creativity, even though the book makes no specific mention of Musk.

As a nation, Franklin writes, we are obsessed with creativity. Cities compete to attract what Richard Florida, in an influential 2002 book, dubbed “the creative class,” a mixture of bohemians, tech entrepreneurs, and new-economy professionals. In a 2010 poll by IBM, 1,500 CEOs were asked to identify the most important leadership qualities. “Creativity” came in first, chosen by 60 percent, well ahead of “integrity” (52 percent), “global thinking” (35 percent), “dedication” (26 percent), and “fairness” (12 percent). In 2011, “creativity” was the adjective that LinkedIn job applicants used more than any other to describe themselves. Creativity, Franklin observes, is judged the key not only to prosperity but also to spiritual and mental health. (Vincent Van Gogh and Philip K. Dick might disagree.) 

But “if creativity is really what it takes to make it these days,” Franklin asks, 

and everyone is at least potentially creative, how come inequality is compounding along the same old lines of race and class? And considering how many of our modern problems come from having too much new stuff too quickly, what reason do we have to believe that … encouraging more of it will solve any of those problems? … In our divided times, one of the most amazing things about creativity is that nobody ever says anything bad about it.

We didn’t used to be so obsessed with creativity. The word “creativity,” Franklin reports, “has only been a regular part of our vocabulary since the middle of the twentieth century.” The first usage Franklin can find dates back only to 1875, and the earliest dictionary definition came as late as 1966. Before 1940, the preferred term was creativeness, but even that word lacked much cultural currency. Creative as an adjective, Franklin explains, used to be a term neither of praise nor criticism; “generative” would be a decent contemporary synonym. “If you had told someone in 1900 that they were ‘creative,’” Franklin writes, “they would likely have responded, ‘creative of what?’” In the 1940s, when Joseph Schumpeter wrote of “creative destruction,” he wasn’t flattering capitalists (as today is often supposed) by comparing them to paradigm-changing genius scientists or artists. He was merely saying that new stuff smashed up old stuff.

Like tract housing, rock and roll, and the Pill, the cult of creativity was a post–World War II phenomenon, driven “by a concern not for art per se but for inventiveness in science, technology, consumer products, and advertising.” This was the era of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956). White-collar jobs were displacing blue-collar jobs (the former exceeded the latter for the first time in 1956), and corporate conformity risked deadening American capitalism. “How may we rescue talented individuals,” asked a 1961 Rockefeller Brothers Fund report, “from the lowered aspirations, the boredom, and the habits of mediocrity so often induced by life in a large and complex organization?” 

Creativity was corporate America’s answer. “Unlike genius,” Franklin writes, “creativity could be said to exist in everyone, and in that sense was both more democratic and (more importantly, perhaps) more useful for managers overseeing scores or hundreds of thousands of employees.”

The newly created National Science Foundation poured a fortune into research on the nature of creativity. So did the Pentagon, spurred on by Sputnik, and the major philanthropies. Test subjects were handed a brick and asked to enumerate different uses for it. Or they were given a word and asked to identify anagrams. Or they were given an illustration and asked to tell a story that corresponded to it. Their scores on such tests would then be compared to their IQ tests to establish whether creativity could be identified as something distinct from mere intelligence. No one thought to ask whether either test truly measured what it purported to identify. A psychologist named Ellis Paul Torrance developed a Torrance Test for Creative Thinking for measuring creativity. This was used widely in schools from the 1960s through the 1980s until a longitudinal study demonstrated that it didn’t work. 

Corporations mobilized not only to identify creative talent in their ranks but also to inculcate creativity in those who demonstrated none. An advertising chief executive named Alexander Faickney Osborn had, in 1942, coined the phrase “brain-storming” to describe a specific practice in which a selection of employees at various levels was gathered for dinner and asked to spout rapid-fire ideas for new directions the company might take. The rules forbade any criticism of these ideas; instead, participants were encouraged to build on the ideas of their fellows. (They were almost always male.) 

The practice grew so popular in the 1950s that Osborn, on retiring from the firm, co-founded a Creative Education Foundation in Buffalo, New York. The foundation, now headquartered in Scituate, Massachusetts, continues to publish a Journal of Creative Behavior. “I have learned by experience,” Osborn said, “that imagination, like muscle, can be built up by exercise.” In 1963, Osborn’s ideas were condensed into a pamphlet titled “The Goldmine Between Your Ears.” But by then, a Yale study had debunked brainstorming by comparing ideas brainstormed by teams to those brainstormed by individuals working alone; the latter were judged superior in quality and quantity.  

Meanwhile, K-12 educators scrambled to find ways to make kids more creative. One tool was a 1968 short called Why Man Creates, funded by Kaiser Aluminum and animated by Saul Bass, charting the history of, er, creating stuff. (“I am unique,” the narrator recites solemnly at the end. “I am here.”) The only tangible result was some deterioration of traditional discipline since creative children were presumed to resist authority. (Other forces, of course, were at work as well.) 

The only area where the cult of creativity achieved an obviously favorable outcome was Madison Avenue, where a new emphasis, starting in the late 1950s, on more creative advertising prompted a revolution led by Doyle Dane Bernbach and later commemorated in the TV series Mad Men. Advertising acquired wit. You couldn’t, for instance, sell a Volkswagen bug, a cheap ugly car invented by Nazis, by playing it straight, so instead you sold it by appealing to consumers’ sense of humor. Even there, though, one could argue the profession’s creative flowering had more to do with Madison Avenue finally ending its previous exclusion of women and Jews.

Establishment interest in the cult of creativity petered out after the 1960s, but within the wider culture, it continued to grow. According to Google Books, Franklin reports, the word “creativity” was used twice as frequently in 2000 as in 1970, and during the first decade of this century more books and articles were published on the subject of creativity “than in the previous forty years combined.” The tech industry that birthed Musk is built almost entirely around the cult of creativity. That’s what all those ping-pong tables and foosball machines on tech campuses are intended to draw out. 

What’s wrong with fetishizing creativity? Franklin has a long list of criticisms. It invites people “to interpret career and lifestyle preferences as expressions of innate personality traits rather than as exercises in class distinction.” It conflates economic growth with personal growth. It “is not particularly interested in an idea of truth.” It “is often used to valorize other more questionable or uninteresting forms of progress, like gentrification.” It’s created “an obsession with the importance of new ideas,” when the problem isn’t a lack of ideas but a lack of political will to carry them out. (I’m already on record opposing self-congratulatory “idea festivals.”) It disparages, implicitly, the mundane work of taking an innovation and sustaining it over the years through infrastructure investment, maintenance, and repair. Just about every one of these criticisms applies to Musk. 

Am I denying that creativity is a virtue? Of course not. But creativity can’t be the only virtue. When we let people get away with thinking that creativity is the alpha and omega of existence, or even just of the business world, we sow a garden of vices. We’ve seen corporate monsters before, but it took the cult of creativity to concoct the particular monster called Elon Musk. Samuel W. Franklin’s wonderful book made me understand, as never before, the forces that shaped this billionaire narcissist schmuck and not a few lesser rich schmucks as well.