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.

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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.