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.

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.

The Most Creative Game

Or, Why Studying Math Is The Best Thing You Can Do

In the hallway the Academy of Management conference last week I ran into a colleague who mentioned that he’s been following CRTVTY (hurray!). But he was surprised. “You’re a math guy,” he said. “What’s a math guy doing with a blog on creativity?” Well, aside from all of the research linking math to music and art, this brings up an interesting question: can math itself be a creative exercise?  Continue reading

How Not to Make a Catapult

With a soaring twenty-foot throwing arm, a hulking wooden frame, and three hundred pounds of sand hanging pendulously in its belly, our catapult made for an impressive school project. Mike and I had been working for weeks, but despite the machine’s fearsome appearance there was still plenty of work to be done. The latch that released the projectile was in particular giving us no end of trouble, alternately flinging its payload into the ground at our feet or sending us scampering for cover as potatoes and cantaloupes rained down from above. We put in countless afterschool afternoons and no small amount of engineering effort, but in the end were defeated.

Where had we gone wrong?  Continue reading

Hey Crowd, Who’s Feeling Clever?

Let’s say you run a research lab, and you’ve got a really tough problem. I mean a real doozy – your best scientists have been working on it for years and they haven’t been able to figure anything out. But you still need an answer, so how are you going to get one?

Enter a new phenomenon: Open Innovation. You’ve probably heard of companies relying on the “wisdom of the crowds” for things like the latest Doritos ad campaigns, Threadless T-shirt designs, and the world’s largest encyclopedia, but you may not know that firms are also turning to crowds with their really high-tech conundrums. A number of platforms have sprung up to connect problem seekers with problem solvers, of which Innocentive (founded 2001) is probably the most famous.

I’ll go more into Open Innovation (and it’s cousin, Crowdsourcing) in a later post, but the basic idea behind Innocentive is that companies can post problems and associated rewards on a website where individual scientists can sign up to view them. If someone thinks they might be able to answer a problem, they connect with the company and send in a solution. The company then determines the best solutions and gives (big) rewards to the solvers – up to the tune of $100,000. Keep in mind, though, these are complex research problems. Examples include designing an injectable suspension placebo with no pharmacological or biological activity, or synthesizing a food grade polymer delivery system. So then the big question: does it actually work?  Continue reading

Grab a Drink: It’s Time to Get Creative

What did Beethoven, Poe, Hemingway, and Jackson Pollock all have in common? First, they’re considered to be among the most prolific and creative minds in history. Second, they all had more than a bit of a fondness for the drink. And that’s probably not a surprise to many people: “altered cognitive processing”, brought on by insanity, sleep state, or substance use, has long been linked to creativity in artists and problem solvers. But will grabbing a beer really help you or me tackle tasks more creatively?

That’s exactly what three researchers at the University of Illinois recently set out to test. Their paper, titled “Uncorking the Muse” and published earlier this year in the Journal of Consciousness and Cognition, has got to be one of the funnest studies ever printed. Here’s the punchline: intoxicated individuals solved a test of creative problem solving more completely, and in less time, than their sober counterparts. They were also more likely to have confidence in the creativity of their solutions.

To test the effect of alcohol on creativity, the authors recruited a target sample of forty male social drinkers aged 21-30 through Craigslist and the University community. The subjects were “administered” a succession of Smirnoff vodka cranberries and shown the movie Ratatouille. Once they reached peak intoxication, the participants completed a battery of creative problem solving tasks known as the Remote Associates Test (RAT), while also undergoing occasional breathalyzer tests. The control subjects did the same routine, minus the Smirnoff.

Not only did the intoxicated subjects complete a greater portion of the RAT items, but they did so faster and more creatively. The underlying intuition is that alcohol reduces ones ability to mentally focus and control attention. Laser focus may help a lot on structured analytical tasks, but actually inhibits creativity by discouraging associational, divergent, and nonlinear thinking. By limiting the ability to keep one’s thinking straight, alcohol can therefore encourage creativity. In this sense, it acts just like grogginess or sleep deprivation, as I discussed in an earlier post.

Now, this doesn’t mean that getting smashed is going to make you more creative, but it does suggest that having a beer before your next project might not be a terrible idea. And hey, it’s Friday.

Check out the paper here. Thanks to Brooking for the heads up!