Last Saturday night I saw a documentary on the Great Famine in Mao’s Red China (typical Sat. night, btw) and was struck by what societies and creative work have in common.
In Mao’s China, a culture of punishment for odd and unusual behaviour destroyed much of what existed in the form of free thinking. With free thinkers disappeared original ideas. A low tolerance for original ideas led to repetition of mistakes and and as most of us know, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting it to come out different.”
An often understated long-term problem that arises in repressive societies like Mao’s China is that the supply of good ideas dries out. With them die most forms of development: cultural, technical, spiritual, humane.
The same principles can be applied to creative work. In any organization where individuals can’t speak their mind because they fear being punished for it, people will keep their thoughts to themselves. And just as China suffered horribly from lack of original input, any creative work that has a hard time taking on deviant ideas is not worth its name.
Also, both societies and creative work benefit from a certain division of labor. If everyone involved can count on all aspects being covered, those who push the wild and original ideas are free to do their part, and can leave administration to those better geared for that.
One last thing Mao’s degeneration of China had in common with bad and unproductive creative work: they were/are both based on superstition and bad intel. Just as knowledge built on knowledge (what we know as science) is crucial to building a great society, amazing ideas usually can’t be found without first locating the the what, when and where.