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Creativity & The Cult Of Busyness- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & The Cult Of Busyness- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity & The Cult of Busyness


This is a post about an insidious malady, sometimes as difficult to cure as cancer but often with fewer external symptoms.

In the US, where we live, people are incredibly busy. It is a badge of honor to be busy. And there’s evidence that this disease is spreading to other countries and, unlike COVID-19, not diminishing with time. 

People try to “out-busy” each other:

“How are you doing?”

“Great, busier than ever!”

“Want to get together for a drink/walk/coffee?”

“How’s Tuesday at 4:15, six weeks from now? I’ll pencil in 45 minutes. See you later, gotta go!”

As one can easily imagine, dealing with this gets tedious and sometimes it’s just easier to disengage, giving rise to isolation and loneliness, another symptom of busyness.

I remember a story from childhood called The Phantom Tollbooth, in which people were in such a hurry and looking down all the time so they wouldn’t trip and fall that the city around them disappeared for lack of attention. It clearly made an impression in 4th grade, it is part of why I’m writing this.

There are times for busyness. If you’re doing outside work and you know rain is coming, it behooves you to hustle. Because hustling in this case gives you more time, time not spent laboriously digging mud or raking up sodden grass.

But it’s easy for this to become a habit.

To a hammer, everything is a nail. But not everything is a nail.

There’s shoes and ships and sealing wax, as Lewis Carroll opined. Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Dodgson, a mathematician and polymath who, along with contemporary George Boole, made fundamental contributions to mathematical logic.



Lewis Carroll (AKA Charles Dodgson), opining (1832-1898)



The Machine Metaphor


Busyness is birthed in the machine metaphor.

With the industrial revolution, people began to measure time and its’ relation to productivity. Quantity began to overtake quality.

People were “units” that “produced,” interchangeable parts like Eli Whitney’s musket parts in the early 19th century that revolutionized the manufacture of guns and other made objects.

They were no longer crafted, they were assembled.

This is the same Eli Whitney that invented the cotton gin, a device that made the process of converting cotton into cloth more efficient.



Eli Whitney, inventor (1765-1825)



What really happened is that Eli Whitney had gotten a contract for 10,000 guns from the US Government.

After several years, he was called in front of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1801 to justify his use of US funds. He hadn’t yet delivered a single gun, despite being three years into the contract.


Eli Whitney’s Ruse


Like many modern software entrepreneurs, he put on a demo.

He brought ten guns to his meeting, disassembled them, and put them back together after mixing up the parts.

It was all a ruse, not too different from modern demos. He had secretly labelled the parts so that they’d go together properly, they weren’t interchangeable at all.

But he got the contract for many thousands more guns, and eventually they were truly made of interchangeable parts.

A clear case of “Fake it ’til you make it.” Also a creative solution.


The Cult Of Utilitarianism


A by-product (you can’t escape this language!) of the industrial revolution and the associated cult of busyness was an increasing separation of “creative” from “useful.”

As an unfortunate consequence of interchangeable parts, the need for thousands of skilled craftspeople was obviated.

They eventually found other jobs, mostly in factories, but something important was lost.

Craft is a bridge between the utilitarian and the artistic, a set of skills that can be applied in both realms, a binding force that shortens the distance from the mundane to the inspired.  

The divine became distant.

A full century before Eli Whitney, mass-production and interchangeable parts showed up in an artistic context. The German organ builder Arp Schnitger (1648-1719) made interchangeable organ pipes that could be installed into different organs by virtue of being the same size and pitch and tonal characteristics.

He built over 150 organs, still renowned for their pure tonal quality and excellent craftsmanship (and still played!). Several of them were exhaustively tested by JS Bach (1685-1750). Some of the smaller organs could essentially be ordered from a catalog.



Arp Schnitger organ, St. Jakobi Church, Hamburg, Germany



Eventually artistic types no longer worked for Church or State or Court, but were increasingly on their own, both a freedom and a burden.

Now artists are responsible for their own economic fate. This translates as a pressure to be busy creating so you can sell (if selling art is your aim). And it’s certainly true that if you don’t create any art, you don’t generate any income.


The Power Of Reflection


But I assert that this doesn’t mean you have to be painting or writing every minute.

A lot of creativity doesn’t look busy. Long walks, staring into the middle distance, doing simple tasks mindfully, etc. are not only beneficial but essential.


Creativity is rooted in surprise, and surprise can be cultivated.


As Winston Churchill said,


When most people stumble over the truth, they pick themselves up and carry on as if nothing had happened.

-Winston Churchill


This tends to happen when people are very busy.

And as Norton Juster said in The Phantom Tollbooth, (you’ve got to love a character named Reason!)


“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Exciting News! We have a tradition to honor the arrival of Spring into Summer by exploring the explosion of color all around. On that note, we’re running a Special Offer on our Experimenting With Color Course. The tuition is the lowest ever. Check it out HERE. 









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