When Unexpected Setbacks Become Powerful Catalysts for Creativity

When Unexpected Setbacks Become Powerful Catalysts for Creativity

Where does creative genius come from? It may lie at the crossroads between individual personality traits, and societal factors. Stoyan Sgourev, Professor, Management Department at ESSEC, investigates

Creativity is overwhelmingly approached – in scholarship as much as in daily life – as an individual attribute. An attribute, moreover, that is increasingly recognized and revered. Ironically, the tendency to glorify outstandingly creative persons, like Mozart, Einstein or Steve Jobs, goes hand in hand with the conviction that creativity is something that can be mastered by everyone, be taught and developed.

The growing use of the concept of creativity in popular and scholarly literature is based on an intrinsically “positive” definition, where creativity is the process of generating something “new and valuable”. Emphasizing the positive function of creativity inevitably draws attention away from the fact that any act of creativity is in its essence a deviation: from the established way of doing things, from the routines, norms or expectations that govern much of our social life. The process of creativity is inherently uncertain, as any act of deviation faces potential sanctioning and can be recognized as “creative” only after an evaluating audience come to judge it in those terms. The process is also inherently social, encompassing ideas, individuals, evaluating audiences and social norms, where ideas are formulated through (and not simply by) individuals, evaluated by one or more audiences and are then either integrated into or excluded from current practices and ideas.

In this logic, the defining feature of creativity is that it is jointly determined by individual and social factors. However, the nature of this interdependence and its role in shaping creativity remain poorly understood. Understanding this interdependence involves a dual process: showing how structural processes create opportunities and idea-conducive conditions for individuals and the how personality and identity make it possible for the individuals to harness the opportunities presented. From this angle, some apparent paradoxes become easier to understand.

Dangerous Liaisons: an unexpected combination of personality and circumstance

To illustrate the workings of this interdependence, let us consider the fascinating case of the book Dangerous Liaisons and its author Choderlos de Laclos, who has the dubious honor of being considerably less known than the book itself. Laclos was born in 1741 into a family that had only recently been granted the status of nobility. His social situation predestined him for a military career. An artillery captain by the age of 30, an able military engineer, a happily married “family man”, Laclos is the surprising author of the most extraordinary and scandalous books of all time.

However, his authorship is less surprising when considering the peculiar context of late 18th century France where there was a growing discrepancy between the professional aspirations of the bourgeoisie and the opportunities for career advancement available to them. Like many of his peers at the time, Laclos became increasingly frustrated by his inability fulfill his ambitions within his chosen field. His humble rank within the aristocracy and lack of means and connections limited his military career to a series of assignments to provincial garrisons.  

The stumped administrative reforms, low mobility and lack of opportunities at the time encouraged career transitions. Recognition was increasingly pursued not within but across professions. In this sense, the decision of an artillery officer to seek fulfillment as a writer is less surprising than it first appears. The fact, however, that there were few precedents for a career move of this kind meant that Laclos had the liberty and incentives to experiment, bringing completely new elements to fiction writing and revamping a tired literary genre. It is here that the essence of Laclos’s creativity is most apparent. The book is a testament to the importance of the core Enlightenment principle of Reason; it is shot through with references to a set of ideas that circulated within fashionable Salons, but the way in which they are articulated is specific to an author with an identity forged by a major career shift.  

The particularity of the novel is a result of the author's applying military expertise and language to fiction. An artillery officer responsible for military fortifications, Laclos is by profession, taste and education a geometer and it is the geometer – rather than the Enlightenment man – who wrote this book. Unsurprisingly, Laclos wrote a novel in a military format, about the assault of a fortress in an amorous game. The method used by the key protagonists is precise and premeditated, it belies the state of mind of a skilful general on a field of battle whose aim is not simply to vanquish but never to lose control of the enemy's movements.  

The story of an unusual sentimental novel, conveying Enlightenment ideas in a military format is a befitting testament to the warps and twists that accompany the creative process. That Dangerous Liaisons is an odd and unexpected, but utterly irresistible concoction, was already felt at the time it was published. In hindsight it represents an early illustration of the fact that most genuinely creative advancements are unexpected, a result of spontaneous, unpredictable amalgamation and permutation of ideas and biographical lines.

Creativity is never a solitary act; it is a complex social process where personality and identity at the individual level interact with structural factors at the level of the network and institutional field. It can be catalyzed by brokers operating in multiple contexts and by biographies that weave their way through networks and fields. It transpires in those unexpected combinations, such as when an artillery officer is denied routine career advancement and writes a sentimental novel or when a journal editor and failed theater director is pushed into exile, putting together, opportunistically the most revolutionary company in the history of the performing arts – Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets russes in the early 20th century. If it is widely believed that creativity is fostered by openness, blockage can prove an equally powerful catalyst, when inverting career paths and transposing elements across contexts. It is not always people who make unexpected combinations: these are sometimes made for them.

Unexpected transformations introduce contradictions, force individuals to improvise, take them out of established routines, and promote emotional ambivalence – factors associated with the capacity to discover and forge new connections and recognize hidden patterns. Of course, there is still much for us to discover about the nature of the socio-psychological triggers of exceptional creativity – and to what extent they reside within or outside the individual. 

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