Steve Jobs, Positively 4th Street, and the Upside of Anger

Apple cultivates such a serene image, it’s hard to believe that the underlying corporate culture, […]

David Zahl / 8.31.11

Apple cultivates such a serene image, it’s hard to believe that the underlying corporate culture, at least if reports about the late Steve Jobs’ management techniques are to be believed, is one of confrontation, brutal criticism and threat. Then again, perfectionism tends to produce such fruit. Sort of the opposite of Pixar, which is ironic, since Jobs help found that studio as well. Not that either company has suffered creatively (Cars 2 notwithstanding).

Wired took the announcement of retirement as an opportunity to report on a few recent discoveries on the relationship between creativity and anger. Discoveries which frankly challenge the notions we often promote on this site, of encouragement and love breeding inspiration, and criticism shutting it down. It turns out that anger has recently proven beneficial in “thinking outside the box,” both in terms of volume and freshness of ideas. The Scientific American writes:

Though anger may be unpleasant to feel, it is associated with a variety of attributes that may facilitate creativity. First, anger is an energizing feeling, important for the sustained attention needed to solve problems creatively. Second, anger leads to more flexible, unstructured thought processes. This flexibility involves the use of broad and inclusive categories and the increased ability to find new connections between categories. People who feel angry (vs. sad, for example) are less likely to think in systematic ways, and are more likely to rely on broad, global cues when judging information. This kind of global processing tends to be associated with literally seeing the “bigger picture.”

Not surprisingly, the effect diminishes over time; anger is exhausting. There is a cost. But the managerial implication are pretty clear. If you want people to produce more, and more innovatively, you need to upset them somehow. You need to give them negative feedback. The piece quotes Modupe Akinola’s must-read paper, “The Dark Side of Creativity”:

Previous research has shown that negative feedback can lead to increased subsequent effort, as long as the task is not perceived as too difficult to be mastered (Locke & Latham, 1990). This is consistent with research indicating that when individuals experience negative affect in a situation that requires creativity, this negative affect may be interpreted as a signal that additional effort must be exerted for a creative solution to be discovered. In contrast, positive mood coupled with a situation that requires creativity may be an indication that the creative goal has been met, reducing the amount of effort exerted on the task.

So what do we make of this? First, it should be said that the effectiveness of “negative feedback” highly depends on the individuals with whom you’re using it. We all know that different people respond differently to criticism: “pleasers” tend to kick into high gear, while others who are perhaps more “type B” find themselves paralyzed. That “pleasers” would find their way to the top of the Apple food-chain isn’t exactly Earth-shattering news. And the research seems to confirm that, under the heading of “situation-sensitivity.” Theologically (or emotionally) speaking, neither is particularly laudable; there’s nothing righteous about doing right thing for the wrong reason or vice versa, at least not if  the Sermon on the Mount is being used as a reference point.

Next, the form of creativity being explored here is one that is fundamentally expressed in terms of productivity. It is quantifiable–measurable–which means we are unequivocally in the realm of achievement and Law. This represents a significant divergence from what we mean when we talk about Gospel-inspired creativity, which has to do with freedom from having to produce results. There are no brainstorming sessions on how best to love another person. Not if the love is real. Grace-related creativity is spontaneous. So perhaps these studies can be taken as a bit of wise “negative feedback” about linking creativity to (Christian) freedom too tightly.

But all that aside, anger clearly provokes creativity. The Law (condemnation, confrontation, etc) does have the power to inspire people, to get them moving – in the short-term, at least. It’s why we use the term “works of the Law.” It is also explains why the best rock n roll is always made by people in their 20s, kids who are both full of fire and out to prove something. Not the best music, mind you, just the best rock, which is an inherently angry medium. I’m thinking of “You Really Got Me,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Street Fighting Man,” to name a few fairly antiquated examples.

Still, anger does not have the power to inspire over the long haul. If you’ll forgive the pithiness, judgment drains while love sustains. The upside of anger is no upside at all–a truism that ironically might take a little indignation to recognize.

Fortunately, the Wired piece closes with a wonderful little statement from writer J.M. Coetzee, which captures a deeper truth about the creative process: “Always move towards pain when making art.” (Pain and anger being related but not synonymous). Coetzee’s words hint at what we call the theology of the cross, of suffering producing beauty, and it is another matter entirely. As Thornton Wilder puts it, “It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble in the hearts of men.” Or, as Elvis Costello, on my immaculately crafted iPod, sings:

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4 responses to “Steve Jobs, Positively 4th Street, and the Upside of Anger”

  1. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    An angry reaction can catalyze creative development but it does need to become sustained by something else. Claude Debussy began a revolution in his musical style and in Western art music in an angry reaction away from the music of Wagner, but he also consolidated his own style. As some evangelicals have been noting, we can have a problem of more clearly identifying what we’re against more than what we’re for.

    The thing that interests me about how people react to Dylan’s music is that a lot of people resonate with Dylan’s anger and vitriol but what I have found interesting in his music is that he frequently tempers anger with regret. The Bob Dylan in certain pop mythologies is the angry accuser but in many of Dylan’s best songs that anger and acsusation often has a second edge that touches his narrative voice.

    And at the risk of indulging in a tangent about my favorite pop culture character, Batman began his quest to fight crime out of unalloyed wrath but in every iteration of the character he keeps going helping people because he loves his parents.

  2. As I read the papers that these studies are based on, I come to a different conclusion. These studies have defined a ‘creative’ answer as something that only 1% of others thought of; however, there is no experimental control to ensure that this creative answer was a good or acceptable answer–just that it is different. It is entirely possible, then, that the anger did not generate creativity, but rather that it generated desperation–they were not coming up with creative solutions that no one else had thought of, but rather were coming up with solutions that others rejected as inappropriate using rational reasoning.

    This much better dovetails with my years of experience in engineering (which is a creative scientific field) and management of people: angry management pushes us to come up with desperate solutions that in our moments of calm we have rejected as either improbable or unethical.

    This is the danger of experimentation–if they are not careful, they are testing for the wrong thing. In this case they define a ‘rare’ idea as a creative one; that is not necessarily the same. It may well be that others thought of the same idea and rejected it internally, even subconsciously, for a variety of other reasons.

    What would be a much better option would be to take two talented artists or engineers, put one under anger and time pressure and the other not, and see who produced the more creative result.

    In short – I’m not sure that these studies truly demonstrate that anger produces more creative solutions that others failed to discover. But they well demonstrate that anger produces desperate ideas that others rejected.

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