Creative work is over-rated.
There are two reasons for this.
First, an emphasis on it tends to diminish the value of both maintaining what is good and useful and destroying what bad and harmful. A balanced account should value all three.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Perhaps you wanted to be President or a writer or a movie star or an inventor or an architect or an athlete. Here’s the question: Did what you want to be involve regularly doing creative (interesting, imaginative) work? I’ll bet it did.
By way of contrast, you probably didn’t dream of doing routine labor such as operating a drill press, delivering mail, or washing cars.
You may well have wanted fame as well as fortune, but you also probably wanted interesting, engaging work, right?
An artist is the paradigm of someone who does engaging, creative work. Think of a Michangelo, a Shakespeare, a Beethoven, or a Picasso. They are heroes to many.
Some philosophers have tried to imagine how we should organize society so that we can all be as creative, as artistic, as possible. For example, it may surprise you to learn that Karl Marx thought that human beings were essentially artists. He dreamed of a society in which we all did as little drudgery work (“alienated labor”) as possible and were free to be as creative as possible.
Nietzsche, too, had an essentially aesthetic conception of human nature. He thought that it was only those humans who freely created their own values who were able to live well, authentically.
Whatever your field, you probably admire those great men and women who proceeded you who did recognizably innovative, creative work in that field. They are sources of inspiration.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but too much emphasis on it is unbalanced and misleading. It’s also a valuable contribution to work simply to maintain that which is best and to destroy that which isn’t.
In other words, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with valuing creative work, but it’s unrealistic to value only it. It’s just part of the story.
Second, noncreative work can be spiritually more valuable than creative work.
This idea may be approached quickly by imagining the work done by a spiritual master who lives in solitude. Think, for example, of a Jesus in the wilderness or a Buddhist monk living in a mountain hut. What kind of physical work does such a person do?
Physical work classically involves moving a weight a certain distance in a certain time. After washing a shirt, it requires physical work to move it over to the clothes line to hang it up to dry.
Notice that solitary spiritual seekers typically do physical work that would not be classified by anyone as creative. They might, for example, patch the roof or gather berries or chop firewood or carry water.
By way of contrast, they would not be working on a novel or drawing pictures or composing poetry. Everyone recognizes those kinds of activities as creative.
Most people recognize the value of work. After a few months of distraction, someone who suddenly becomes financially independent is quite likely to go back to work voluntarily.
If you are young and recognize the value of work, you may ask yourself: “What kind of work would I like to do until I’m so old that I must retire? Should I do creative work or work that isn’t creative?” Put that way, I think that nearly all of us would answer: “Creative work.”
After all, it’s more interesting, engaging, and challenging than noncreative work. Isn’t it in our self-interest to be as interested, engaged, and challenged by our work as possible?
Suppose that my work is to split firewood. It’s very simple: I pick up a piece of wood, stand it on end, swing the blade of the axe down on it to split it, and pile up the pieces. Then just repeat indefinitely. For years and years!
Boring? Well, perhaps. If I drag my old mindset into it, I think each time, “Same old, same old.” I’ve been doing this for months, for years. Why do I have to keep doing it? It’s just endless repetition. My working life is punishment; I’m not better off than Sisyphus. I did it yesterday. I’m doing it again now. And I’ll have to do it again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.
What, though, if I didn’t drag those same old thoughts into it? What if I took each experience as new and fresh? After all, the experiences are not really the same. Today’s is not yesterday’s and tomorrow’s will not be today’s. Furthermore, each piece of wood is different. It’s also much safer to attend fully to what I’m doing than to be elsewhere lost in thoughts; wielding an axe is not child’s play. What if I paid full attention to how the axe felt in my hands, to how good it feels to be able to use my body vigorously enough to swing it, to the satisfying sound of the wood as it splits, to the comfortable warmth of exertion as I continue to work.
In one of Tolstoy’s great novels there’s a wonderful description of a day that a nobleman went out into the fields with the peasants to mow hay. It was physical drudgery and the nobleman was unaccustomed to it. Yet he found joy in it because he didn’t separate from it. He became the work he was doing; there was no conceptual surd.
That’s the kind of work that has genuine spiritual value. It may be mentally stimulating work or it may just be splitting wood or swinging a scythe. The key to the spiritual value of work is becoming one with it, not separating yourself in thought from it. This has nothing to do with the consequences of work (such as, for example, making money or getting a blister).
Didn’t you do finger-painting as a child in school? Imagine that you are absorbed doing your work and your teacher interrupts you to tell you that you are doing a good job. Noticing that evaluation can only separate you from your work! Students should pay attention to their teachers and, if you paid attention to that evaluation, it would break the spell of doing good work.
Noncreative work is often more spiritually valuable than creative work. Therefore, there is no justification for looking down on it. Cleaning a toilet or sweeping the floor can be more valuable than writing a poem or building a bridge.
Yes, a novelist can get just as absorbed writing a story as a child finger-painting or a farmer mowing hay. Nevertheless, creative work often involves more thinking than noncreative work and it is the separation brought about by unnecessary thinking that ruins work from a spiritual point of view.
The paradigm of unsatisfying, spiritually ruined work is an employee who is watching the clock waiting for the end of the shift. I’ve seen it with prisoners just counting the days until they are to be released from prison and with soldiers just marking time until their tour of duty ends. Those are three examples of suffering, of unnecessary dissatisfaction brought about by attachment to unnecessary thoughts.
Bottom line: don’t worry about whether or not your work is creative work. Whatever your work is, pay attention to it. Pay full attention to it. Paying attention does not mean thinking about it; paying attention means being absorbed by it.
Hammer the nail mindfully. Wash the dish mindfully. Rake the lawn mindfully. Such work may not be creative work, but it can be wholly satisfying.
Working well is living well.
As always, please pass this along if you know someone who may benefit from reading it.
Recommended post: Unemployment and You.
Recommended resources: Gary Thorp’s Sweeping Changes and the training CD’s of Eckhart Tolle.