Happy, Healthy, and Hard at Work

Every election brings with it odes to the “job creators” and long-winded discourses on importance of entrepreneurship, and this one was no different. After all, we know that entrepreneurs create jobs, and that employment figures drive election results. And although it turns out those are both partial truths, it IS true that entrepreneurship is good for the economy. But is entrepreneurship good for entrepreneurs?

It’s an interesting question that scholars like Chuck Eesley (in my research group) and others are working to unravel. It’s been established, for instance, that the financial returns to entrepreneurship are negative relative to more traditional employment. In other words, entrepreneurs would do better to take a job than to create one. At the same time, research also finds that people don’t necessarily enter entrepreneurship for the money: concerns such as autonomy and bringing ideas to life tend to top the list. But while being your own boss certainly sounds nice, entrepreneurship also brings a tremendous amount of stress. A common mantra among entrepreneurs is that “there are no weekends”, and a coworker once joked to me that “the best way to ruin a marriage is to start a company.”

So what’s the net impact on entrepreneurs? A recent study by Michael Dahl and colleagues at Denmark’s Aalborg University tried one novel way to find out. They linked Danish Labor Market data with the comprehensive Danish Prescription database to find out what impact starting companies had on the health of entrepreneurs and their spouses. In particular, they tracked (prescription) psychotropic drug use among 6,221 first time entrepreneurs and their 2,381 spouses from 2001-2004. The result? Entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to fill prescriptions for sedatives and hypnotics than non-entrepreneurs, presumably because the high stress associated with running their ventures caused anxiety and sleeplessness. At the same time, entrepreneurs were substantially less likely to fill prescriptions for antidepressants than their wage-earning counterparts. In other words, entrepreneurs may be more stressed, but they’re also (probably) happier.

Continue reading

Making Creativity Come True

What does it take to turn a creative idea into reality? It seems like a simple question, but truly creative ideas are tricky critters: they don’t fit well with existing ways of doing things, they create conflicts between people, and they can even cause companies to go under. And the worst part is, truly creative ideas usually fail. After all, it’s their novelty and uniqueness that make them creative in the first place, so it’s no surprise that they don’t always work. Companies (and people) famously abhor change for exactly these reasons. Sure, that idea sounds great – why don’t YOU try it out and let me know how it goes?

So what makes a particular creative idea likely to be implemented, and when are you likely to be able to see your idea turn into reality? A new study by Markus Baer of Washington University in St. Louis asks exactly that. The motivation for his research, which appears in October’s Academy of Management Journal, is the observation that people and companies generate far more ideas than they actually implement, and that it isn’t the most creative or best ideas that usually filter to the top. After all, we all remember Windows ME and the KFC Doubledown (okay, maybe that one was pretty good).

Here’s the punchline: Baer finds that ideas are most likely to be implemented when the people pushing from them are motivated (i.e., they believe in the idea) and when they have strong networks of peers and supervisors. No surprise there. What’s interesting is how the variables all come together. When an idea is particularly creative, the person pushing it has to really believe in it in order to see it realized. On the other hand, if they have strong support from their peers and supervisors, personal motivation doesn’t matter too much: even far-out and risky ideas are likely to be implemented, even when the person who came up with it doesn’t see a ton of value in pushing it forward.

The upshot is that the value of the idea might not be as important as how everyone in the company perceives it. The best ideas might not see the light of day simply because they never found the right advocates, and mediocre ideas might make it all the way to the top just because they don’t rile too many feathers along the way. So next time you’re wondering how the Back-Up Bedside Gun Rack (“Reach your shotgun from the comfort of your bed!”) made it to market, just remember: they probably had other ideas too.

And ’cause it would be too good not to share, here’s the Huffington Post’s compendium of the Stupidest Products Ever. Enjoy.

Hackers, Hostels, and Floating Hotels

In the few months leading up to my wedding, a number of really fascinating articles and stories piled up that I wasn’t able to address. Digging back into the files, I came across one NYTimes article from July that definitely wants to be shared. It covers the Silicone Valley phenomenon of “Hacker Hostels.”

These hostels offer cheap lodging and nerdy community for the waves of would-be entrepreneurs who flock to tech-mecca each year. And with a spot on a bunk going for $40/night, they’re a pretty savvy piece of entrepreneurship themselves. Overhead is low (wifi and a roof), and the residents – typically techie men in their mid to late 20s – don’t want much more than to be left to their work.

Cramped living conditions aside, these hostels a pretty popular idea. After all, cramming into tiny spaces is a time-honored tradition in the hacking community: HP was famously founded in a 12′ x 18′ rented garage, and early coders at MIT slept in their offices while waiting for time on the mainframe. When it was acquired in 2012, Instagram was still shoveling pizza boxes out from under the employees in a cramped SF office.

Keeping things cozy does two things. Continue reading

Wedding Wonders

CRTVTY has been a bit quiet these past few weeks, but with good reason. On September 30th, five years after the day we met, I married my love and co-conspirator, Tien-Tien.

The wedding took place under a sunny sky in Palo Alto, California, and was followed by a beautiful celebration at the CuriOdyssey Museum in San Mateo. And although planning the wedding was far from easy, it turns out that the process involves a lot of creativity, and we actually had a fair amount of fun putting together some of the components. At the top of the list: wedding favors.

That project started when a friend bequeathed us a large supply of 12oz mason jars. The wedding had a bit of a DIY theme already, so we decided that each jar could contain a DIY “kit” for the guest to build and enjoy during the reception. I scoured the ‘tubes for ideas and ended up devising five kits, each with a very different flavor. Although I thought I had designed them with manufacturability (and affordability) in mind, we experienced some NASA-esque budget overruns and *may* have put the staff at the local art supply store through grad school. But with a few late nights and a few capable groomsmen, we got them done. And what a success they were!  Continue reading

A World Without Walls

“If the Ivy League was the breeding ground for the elites of the American Century, Stanford is the farm system for Silcon Valley.”  -Ken Auletta

This quote appeared in a New Yorker story from last April. While “Get Rich U” doesn’t exactly wax eulogic on Stanford’s educational priorities, it is a fascinating exploration of what makes the university the innovative powerhouse that it is. Stanford has quite a track record, after all, claiming credit for some five thousand companies including Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, Netflix, Electronic Arts, LinkedIn, Fairchild Semiconductor, and Google. What makes the article particularly noteworthy, though, is how thoroughly the author walks through the themes discussed on this blog. It reads as a recipe for creativity.

1. Community Builds Creativity. The campus itself was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as an open environment with no walls, broad avenues, and vast gardens lined by palms and California live oaks. Central plazas allow large gatherings and encourage chance encounters.

2. Diverse People = Diverse Ideas. The school cultivates economic and social diversity: caucasian students are a minority, 17% of Stanford’s undergraduates are the first member of their family to attend college, and if an undergraduate’s annual family income is below a hundred thousand dollars, tuition is free.

3. T-shaped People. There is an overwhelming emphasis on interdiscplinary education. From the article: “[interdisciplinarity] is the philosophy now promoted at the various schools at Stanford — engineering, business, medicine, science, design — which encourages students from diverse majors to come together to solve real or abstract problems. The goal is to have them become what are called “T-shaped” students, who have depth in a particular field of study but also breadth across multiple disciplines. Stanford hopes that the students can also develop the social skills to collaborate with people outside their areas of expertise.”

4. Dream Big Dreams. Stanford has a “bias towards action”, and students profess a “sometimes inflated belief that their work is changing the world for the better.” The culture emphasizes learning-by-doing.

I’d highly recommend that anyone interested in creativity or education give the article a read. And there’s an interesting hook for the Stanford community as well: the article discusses the possibility that Stanford’s current emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation threatens the fundamental mission of the university itself. From former university president Gerhard Casper, “Stanford is now justifying its existence mostly in terms of what it can do for humanity and improve the world.” All well and good, but what about learning for the sake of knowledge?

Check out the full article at the Newyorker.com.

Killing Creativity…Or Not

If you’ve been with us for more than a few posts, you’ll know that one of the main themes of this blog is that creativity is a learned skill (or an unlearned skill, according to Picasso). Spreading this gospel and encouraging creative thinking is a goal that I share with countless designers, academics, and self-help gurus. Unsurprisingly, though, most of our work focuses on easily digested morsels and well-packaged exercises: brainstorming, asking questions, breaking routines, finding the right environment. But what if effectively teaching creativity requires stepping back a bit farther? If you were going to design an educational system that encouraged creative problem solving, for example, what would it look like? Or more to the point, what wouldn’t it look like?

In a deeply insightful and genuinely funny 2006 TED talk, creativity expert Ken Robinson makes a pretty persuasive argument that the system wouldn’t look like the one we have now. An alien visiting earth, he supposes, would look at public education and come to the conclusion that it’s one purpose is to produce university professors. They are the kids who “come out on top” in the current system, after all; who “win all the brownie points and do everything they’re supposed to.” As children grow, Robinson argues, we “progressively educate them from the waist up, focusing on their heads, and slightly to one side.” Academic achievement, in other words, narrowly defined and strictly enforced, is the sole metric by which we determine success. It’s a talk littered with memorable and inspiring quotes. Here’s the one that got the loudest applause: “creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

Sir Robinson’s argument goes beyond standard complaints about teaching to the test or facilitating equal access to education. Instead, he suggests that the entire structure of public education is geared towards producing workers for an industrial workforce and is predicated on a hierarchy of learning with math and science on top and the arts at the bottom. Strong stigmas are associated with any learning not critical for getting a job after school, and the entire k-12 education system ends up functioning as a protracted university enrollment test (click that link, it’s terrifying). Because success within the educational system is defined so narrowly, “a lot of highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they’re good at wasn’t valued in school.”

Robinson’s call to action is a grand one, but persuasive nonetheless. Math is important, of course, and none of us would be here but for the countless innovations and technologies that our relentless pursuit of the scientific frontier has allowed. At the same time, I’m receptive to the idea that the system is imbalanced. After all, no one would argue that all of our students should be dancers, but it might not hurt if our biochemists knew how to dance. In the end, creativity is about divergent thinking and the intersection of ideas. The more diversity we have, and the more we celebrate that diversity, the better off we’ll be.

Watch the talk at TED.com, or check out Robinson’s book “The Element” at Amazon.

Yet Another Excuse to Cut Out Early

In the mood to start your weekend early? It might not be a bad idea, according to an article in Sunday’s New York Times by Jason Fried, the co-founder and CEO of a Chicago-based software company called 37signals. In it, he discusses two experiments that his firm has used to improve creativity and productivity:

1. During the summer, the company runs on a four-day workweek. Rather than cram forty hours into four days, they actually switch to a 32-hour workweek. This creates helpful pressure without introducing creativity-crushing stress, just as we discussed in earlier posts (Creativity Under the Gun and You Should Go Home Early Today).

2. Every June, employees use their non-essential time to explore projects and ideas of their own. As Keith Sawyer points out in his excellent blog “Creativity and Innovation“, this is actually a technique commonly used at companies like Google (20% time) and W. L. Gore (dabble time). The practice dates back to 3M, which initiated “15% time” as early as the 1940s. The basic idea, as always, is to encourage divergent thinking and allow employees to find the products that might become the next big thing.

It’s a short article, but it’s exciting to hear about companies that are exploring creative new ways to get work done. Creativity may not be a primary consideration in every profession, but I wouldn’t mind seeing our society place a greater emphasis on those in which it is. After all, taupe walls and square lines survived through a period of amazing economic growth and revolutionary innovation over the past half century, but it’s arguable whether those environments have been good for the people in them. The same holds for the length of the American workweek, which has been climbing steadily over the past decades and is now one of the longest in the world. Three cheers for the managers that see happy and healthy employees as a key part of a healthy (and creative) company.

Check out Jason’s op-ed at NYTimes, and thanks to Keith Sawyer for tipping me off.