Day Seven: The #1 Creativity Killer

If you’re in Boston (or New England), you’re probably aware of the current stand-off between employees of Market Basket and the company’s Board of Directors. To briefly summarize: the employees are protesting the ousting of their beloved CEO by shutting down the delivery warehouse so the stores have no refrigerated foods (produce, dairy, meats), and banding together at all levels, from store managers down to baggers proclaiming they will not work until the CEO is returned to his position as head of the company.

This morning I was listening to an interview with a store manager who was passionate about his love for Market Basket (he’s worked there for 40 years) but equally passionate in his belief that the fired CEO needed to be reinstated immediately before he would work there again. He explained that he was not asking for more money, or more benefits, or anything financially driven. He just wanted his boss back. When asked by the interviewer why this saga has struck such a chord with people, he answered that people were sick of being pushed around by corporate types hellbent on profit. They were tired of being used as pawns and not valued.

I stood in the kitchen listening to this interview with goosebumps prickling my legs. He is right: it is incredibly hard to be optimistic about being valued in the workplace. Most employers are relatively open about the fact that you are not indispensable, which coincidentally provides them the additional benefit of getting you to work super hard to constantly prove your worth.

But this is not a missive about corporate greed. I want to talk instead about what it does to creativity when you work in environments that are toxic. This is a time in my life that I am extremely fortunate to not have to work for anyone but myself (another story), but from the time I graduated college until two years ago, I worked full-time for either hospitals or universities. For me, creativity ebbs and flows in direct proportion to the functionality and healthiness of my workplace. Maybe it’s the same for you?

When I started working at MIT, the Dean of Students was an intelligent, friendly, caring man who could greet you by name within a month of your being hired. During the four years that I worked under him, the various departments he oversaw had little employee turnover and a general belief in their own efficacy. He hired people to do their jobs and then let them do it. Sure, there were bosses who were difficult and coworkers who no one cared for, but by and large, people took care of each other and they were happy.

For me, this happiness during my 9-5 workday also led to my after-work life: I took an evening course in creative non-fiction, I went to yoga in the mornings, I tried new recipes, I read voraciously, I kept in touch with friends through drink and dinner dates. I look back at my writing during that time and see multiple stories and article ideas and journal entries, varied projects that speak to the freedom I felt to pursue any number of paths. My financial needs were being met with a minimal amount of day-to-day stress, which allowed my creative side to flourish.

This wonderful Dean of Students retired after four years of my knowing him and he was replaced by a corporate drone. Immediately, he began to micromanage the various department heads who were used to their own autonomy: he challenged them to defend their budgets and their practices and their methods of interacting with students. He didn’t listen to their answers. He fired a long-time, well-loved senior leader (who went on to become president of a nearby college). He reorganized various departments that led to department heads being demoted and forced to report to colleagues who had previously been their equals.

Almost imperceptibly at first and then with the speed of an impending avalanche, things began to change. Our bosses were tense so we were tense. We felt under attack about our work. We spent our days worried about who would be let go next. Our conversations with one another, previously about families and hobbies and vacations began to sound like a broken record: Did you hear what that asshole said today? Did you hear who he wants to push out now?

We met after work and drank together, sharing our sorrows. We deserved the release of happy hour since our days were increasingly tense and stressful. I talked about work incessantly with my partner, E. I stopped going to yoga since I could not rouse myself any earlier than absolutely necessary to drag myself to work. When I got home, I had a glass of wine immediately upon entering to release the stress of the day. When people began leaving for other universities and positions, one by one, my stress hit new highs. When my much loved and respected boss left, I assumed his role as department  head and dealt with the asshole head-on.

I stopped writing. There was nothing to say. I was drained emotionally and stressed out. I stopped reading for pleasure. I drank more. I ordered dinner in because I could not face the task of making dinner. I was perpetually angry.

It is very easy to beat ourselves up when we don’t pursue our creative passions. There is an entire industry of self-help books and workshops devoted to unlocking the inner artist. But art can’t blossom and grow when your soul is not nourished. We all hear the stories about artists and writers and musicians who worked their 9-5 jobs and diligently pursued their passions outside of work. They make it seem like a matter of willpower: If you love it enough, you will do it.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I had to go to work to pay my bills. You probably do, too. The place where I worked was an emotional minefield: I didn’t know if I’d be fired, I had no idea if my department would be downsized, all of my (previously respected) ideas were ridiculed by the new Dean of Students. Every day felt like a new trial by fire.

The sad truth is that the pursuit of creativity is a privilege. Like growing a garden, most of us need a minimal amount of nurture and care and respect to thrive. Most of us do not have the privilege of working in a soul-fulfilling job but for creativity to grow, at the very least, we need to have a work environment that is not actively soul-killing. It’s incredibly hard, if not impossible, to be emotionally beaten down for 40+ hours each week and then, through sheer willpower, create art or prose or music. I, for one, am not strong enough to do it and I see no need to beat myself up over that fact.

So the Market Basket stand-off: I am so impressed with these devoted employees and I hope they get their CEO back. I have no doubt if they are willing to risk their livelihoods for him, then he’s probably the type of leader who values them greatly. I can’t imagine the number of artists and musicians and writers and builders and PTA parents and community headers and devoted daughters and sons and husbands and wives who thrive and create and give back because they have a work environment that nurtures more than it hurts.

We should all be so lucky.