How Money Destroys Creativity

By now, almost everyone is familiar with the old maxim that says if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Money, it turns out, is a very big and powerful hammer. If you have it, it’s easy to use. If you use it, it’s easy to ignore other potential solutions. In doing so, you can often overlook solutions that are not only superior, but more fun and satisfying to come up with. You can miss the joy to be found in the discovery and creative process itself.

During a recent lengthy sabbatical journeying first around the globe, and then crisscrossing the continental United States, I conducted an ongoing experiment that resulted in a more interesting, enlightening and fun trip. Some of the subsequent discoveries I found also had parallels in my professional career as a Creative Director. One of my bigger takeaways was that the amount of money used to solve a given problem is  often inversely proportional to the amount of creativity (and sometimes effort) required. By this, I mean that the more money I spent for things like food, accommodation, exploration and travel, the less creativity was often necessary to accomplish a given task.

This observation may seem somewhat obvious or slightly irrelevant, but I think it has profound implications for all kinds of things personal, experiential and professional. For example, if I had only stayed in more expensive western style hotels where everyone speaks English, the food and furnishings looking  like every chain place in America,, where  you get a nice little mint on your pillow for bedtime turn-down, I can’t even imagine all the incredibly cool, novel and amazing experiences I would have missed. I remember all the wonderful people from every corner of the globe that I never would have met. I would have been robbed of so much richness in experience that I now ultimately carry with me for the rest of my life. I would have experienced the whole journey more as a spectator than a participant.  That would have been a terrible tragedy, and such a wasted opportunity.

Not only that, but I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about myself or my own capacity for survival and problem-solving. These are all things that have value for me personally and professionally.  Generally speaking, the solutions I found using an absolute minimal amount of money were vastly superior. What I decided to do during my travels was to make something of a game out of it. I wanted to consciously stretch myself and not simply spend myself out of trouble, reach a destination, have fun, or explore my surroundings.

For example, consider my voyage from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka to the southern coast. On the way down, I dug around, did research on the ground and made the trip using a combination of shared local transportation and a very inexpensive train trip down the coast. For this, I purchased the least expensive tickets available. My “seat” on the very crowded train ended up with me literally sitting on my backpack in the doorway with my feet hanging out over space. This turned out to be the best seat I could have ever asked for, even though I had to be somewhat vigilant and “interactive” in order to keep from falling out onto the tracks. While this is certainly not for the faint-hearted, I found it perfect for me and one of the most memorable experiences in my voyage.

I was treated to fresh cooling air, and met some of the most amazing and generous people you can imagine. By sitting there in that train doorway, people felt more comfortable approaching me for conversation – asking me about America, where I’d been and where I was going etc. They offered to share whatever wonderful homemade food they had brought along for the roughly 4-hour trip, even though I knew most were desperately poor. They told me stories and pointed out local attractions you’d be hard pressed to find in any guidebook as the train rolled through the countryside. We all enjoyed cooler air at the door and by using grab bars outside the doorway, I was able to lean far out of the train to take pictures and videos from very unusual and arresting perspectives. By contrast, when I returned a week later, I hired a private car to ferry me back to Colombo. Although fast and relatively expensive, I found the ride extremely uninteresting and uninformative by comparison.

I’ve had similar experiences virtually every day all around the globe, even when not traveling. Whenever I’m tempted to just take the easy way and spend myself into some kind of comfortable solution to a travel (or any) challenge, I try to take a step back and see if I can find a different, more creative solution to the problem. This approach is probably just a variant of Robert Frost’s poem about taking the road less traveled, but I have always found truth in his words. This is no exception.

As a long time Creative Director, I have seen this same scenario played out countless times professionally. I have worked with brands ranging from Lilliputian mom and pop startups, to some of the largest and most successful Fortune 500 companies on the planet.  In my experience, hurling gargantuan mounds of money at a campaign is no guarantee of success at all.  In fact, while smaller in scale, loads of extremely innovative and creative work has emerged from small clients with microscopic budgets. The results have been many campaigns that widely exceeded industry standard performance metrics, delighted audiences and provided huge ROIs. I cannot always say the same about campaigns with humongous media spends on poorly conceived or executed creative where money was the primary contributor.

I’m not advocating anything like that old chestnut that “money is the root of all evil,” because it’s patently not. I like financial abundance as much as anyone. What I am saying is that money can too easily be a crutch that robs us of real innovation, better solutions and richness of experience, among other things.



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