Whenever I tell someone that I work at a comedy website with some of my closest friends, every single person has said “Man, that must just be the most fun place to work in the world, just a bunch of funny people, you must be cracking each other up all day.” And there is an element of that, but here is what the job is.
Harvard’s Teresa Amabile conducted a study a few years ago. Two groups were asked to produce a collage. One was told that whomever produced the most creative collage (as determined by a panel of artists and experts) would get some kind of financial reward. The second group was told to have fun.
By a wide margin, the people in the group told to have fun made the more creative and exciting collages. It wasn’t even close. Fun won.
“The expectation of a reward or evaluation, even a positive evaluation, squelched creativity.”
I work in a creative industry, but I work specifically in a managerial position in a creative industry, which has changed basically everything about the way I approach my own work and the work that I am in the best of times helping and allowing my employees to do and, in the worst of times, forcing them to do.
Amabile goes on to say “People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the challenge of the work itself— not by external pleasures.” And of course I feel that and I know that in my gut, but I also know I need my team to put out five videos every week, and if that number ever changes, it would only increase. I need my team to create their favorite things, and the things that they love, but I also need them to deliver consistently and on a deadline, and to ideally do it in a big, sterile office on a weekday morning. And this is a system where the only rewards I can give them when they succeed are financial, even though I know that financial reward is demonstrably not linked with better creative work. In an ideal world, when someone made a hit video I’d be able to say “Great job, take two months to work on whatever you want,” but in the real world we have to say “Great job, make more of that video, keep making that video and I will remember that when I do your performance review.”
The struggle between the manager part of my brain and the creative part of my brain, and the struggle between wanting to be an effective manager in my bosses’ eyes (by which I mean a person who hits his goals and makes the site money) and wanting to be an effective manager in my employees’ eyes (by which I mean a leader who gives them the space, time and support they need to be creatively ambitious) is something I think about every day.
On this subject, Jon Stewart says “Yeah, our morning meeting starts at nine. We have to pitch out our ideas– and in some ways that is the challenge of a show. It’s to create a factory that doesn’t kill inspiration or imagination. You try to create a process that includes all the aspects of a mechanized process that we recognize as soul killing while not actually killing souls.”
I don’t know how he did it (and the fact that he was still using the word “try” when describing this process in an interview in 2015 suggests that he doesn’t totally know either), but that’s what I want to do. In a lot of ways it means trying to reboot my brain every Monday. It’s about building a system that will churn out videos and then breaking that system the second it starts working and starting on a new one that feels fresh. In a sense, creating a system designed to trick our minds into thinking it isn’t a system.
Anyway. That’s just something I think about all the time every day.