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The unbearable loneliness of creative work

Toni Demuro for the Boston Globe

Creative geniuses seem to be imbeciles when it comes to relationships. Think of Lord Byron’s disastrous love life, or Ernest Hemingway and his four wives. Of the many complex reasons for their troubles, it’s easy to assume there’s also just something about being a great thinker that corresponds to being a bad partner.

But a paper forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal suggests an alternative explanation: People who exercise unbounded creativity on the job, it seems, spend less time with their spouses at home, and the time they do spend with their spouses is of lower quality. An associate professor of management and organizing at Boston College, Spencer Harrison, and his coauthor conclude that workers who spend the day doing things like generating new ideas have fewer cognitive resources left by the time they get home.

In other words, it’s not that creative people are simply hopeless at relationships — or at least it’s not only that. “When you read the big headlines about creativity, it’s touted as the golden key to success for businesses, whether it’s small entrepreneurial ventures or the big behemoths,” Harrison said. “But there’s a cost, and the cost is that because you’re so infatuated by the limitless potential or ideas at the beginning of development . . . you’ve chewed up a lot of brain space.”

Organizational researchers have long been interested in studying creativity. In the early 19th century, they focused largely on lone geniuses, trying to puzzle out the alchemy that produced Mozart or Michelangelo. It’s only been in the last few decades that academics have turned their interest toward how more ordinary creativity operates in group settings.


So far, there’s been much more research into the factors that produce creativity than on what Harrison calls its downstream effects. But with the recent renewed attention to work-life balance for both men and women, those effects are worth paying attention to. “Organizations have become really good at capturing the positive benefits of creativity at work and offloading the negative effects on families and relationships,” Harrison said.

In the new study, Harrison and his coauthor surveyed 108 workers and their spouses daily for up to 10 days. Workers were asked about the tasks they performed during the day, while spouses reported how much time they spent together that day. Workers completed surveys twice a day, and their spouses every evening. The surveys went beyond just the job description, to include a log of daily tasks. Creative workers aren’t creative all the time — there are still expense reports to file and other noncreative tasks that fill working hours during the week. The study allowed researchers to get a fuller picture of what time was actually spent on creative tasks and how that correlated with behavior at home.


Sure enough, the more the employee had been involved in generating new creative ideas on the job, the less time he spent at home. This applies not only to stereotypical white-collar cool-kid work, like editing a fashion magazine, but to anyone who uses broadly creative skills such as identifying problems or generating solutions. Harrison’s study, which cites Richard Florida’s research that identifies about third of all workers as creative in some capacity, tapped employees in industries including sales, construction, and education.

Results like this upend the way many people glamorize creativity as a purely positive, energizing force. In popular culture, creative workers are lionized: Steve Jobs, who is arguably the most prominent contemporary icon of corporate creativity, is soon to be the subject of the second movie in three years. In some academic research, too, creativity has been viewed as an almost purely positive force, particularly for the employers who harness it.


Yet creative workers often have a hard time in their careers. Burnout and frustration are big issues. In a 2013 study of designers at a toy company, more of the subjects who identified as artists left the company within three years. “There’s something to be said for the antagonism when you have someone whose ideas might be seen as far out,” said the study’s author, an associate dean and professor of organizational leadership at the University of California Davis Graduate School of Management, Kimberly Elsbach. “But so far I haven’t seen a good idea for keeping these people in large organizations.” In the case of the toy company, some of the ex-employees went on to become consultants, which means the company might get access to big ideas but miss out on the kind of casual innovation that sparks around a creative person in the office full time.

Harrison’s research suggests one solution, and it’s a deceptively simple one. Before a creative worker heads home, provide feedback that limits future choices and helps narrow options going forward. It could be as simple as saying, “Ideas A and B are good options, but C and D are probably not going to work.” It flies against the “no bad ideas” ethos of brainstorming. But “idea validation,” as Harrison calls it, provides some resolution for all those free-floating sparks and helps creative types mentally leave their work at the office.

For big thinkers, criticism and imposed limitations don’t always feel good. As Harrison puts it, “No one likes feedback.” But if both employers and employees knew that feedback was one key to a happier home life, it might look a lot more appealing.


Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.