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Creativity Beyond the Creatives

At the start of his book Art Worlds, Howard S Becker quotes the following passage from Victorian novelist [tag]Anthony Trollope[/tag]:

“It was my practice to be at my table every morning at 5.30a.m.; and it was also my practice to allow myself no mercy. An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid £5 a year extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy. During all those years at Waltham Cross he was never once late with the coffee which it was his duty to bring me. I do not know that I ought not to feel that I owe more to him than to any one else for the success I have had. By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.”

Anthony Trollope

Becker points out that the old groom played a vital role in the creative process that produced all those classic novels, even though he is far from the conventional image of a ‘creative person’. Trollope fits the Romantic image better: the solitary writer toiling away at his desk by candlelight. Yet without the old groom he would probably have overslept occasionally. That might not have seemed important at the time, but if we totted up the figures over a lifetime (something it would be fairly easy to do, given his famous habit of writing 1,000 words per hour) a lie-in once a fortnight could have cost Trollope several novels.
The myth of the Romantic artist still lives on in some companies, where creativity is the exclusive preserve of the ‘creatives’, who are separated from the ‘suits’ and carefully insulated from contact with the client. And the creative work suffers, because the thoughts of a collection of brilliant individuals are just that – the thoughts of a collection of brilliant individuals. Not the multibrained collaborative genius of a team.

Here’s my unromantic, unscientific formula for creativity:


In the [tag]Creative Economy[/tag], a brilliant imagination working on full power is not even the bare minimum. It’s a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. The thinking needs to be ‘joined up’, the brains need to be networked. Some companies think nothing of spending a fortune on computer networks, yet devote relatively little resources to facilitating the most dynamic network of interactions among their people. Ironically, some of the most glaring examples are found in the creative industries, which are more dependent than most sectors on collective creative talent.

Time and again when working with a coaching client, I find that the source of creative difficulty is not between the ears of ‘the creative’ but in the network of relationships in which the project is embedded. And the solution lies not in trying to stimulate individual ‘[tag]creative thinking[/tag]’ but in changing the way the client communicates with other key players.

Like the art director and copywriter who need to have a constructive face-to-face with the account manager and client to renegotiate a flawed brief. Or the director who could invest a little more time coaching junior team members, to pass on the benefit of his experience and create a more dynamic team. Or the artist producing great work but without the recognition she dreams of, who needs to learn how to present her work to galleries in a professional manner.

Trollope suffered for his honesty. When he published the Autobiography quoted above, the critics turned their noses up at a man who admitted writing to a schedule and for money. Citing an old manservant as a collaborator probably didn’t go down too well either.

We find it easier to love a writer like [tag]Coleridge[/tag], the archetypal tortured Romantic genius, composing ‘Kubla Khan’ in an opium reverie by the fireside. This masterpiece was famously cut short by an interruption from ‘a person on business from Porlock’, who has never been forgiven by the reading public.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

But the Old Groom and the Person from Porlock are one and the same. They are the World knocking on the artist’s door, with pressing business that is in danger of being forgotten. Maybe we should remember this the next time we are tempted to play the tortured artist or creative prima donna.

Don’t be a Coleridge. Be a Trollope.


  1. I need someone to get me up to write at five thirty, then I’d a a Trollope in a thrice, I dare say. Maybe there’s a demand for a new profession of getter-uppers.

  2. I know what you mean, where are all the elderly grooms when you need them?

    I suppose you could try an alarm clock, maybe invest in a fancy one that makes you coffee as well – but I don’t suppose you can get one that will give you the all-important reproachful look that says “I got up at 5 o’clock to make your coffee and you’re just going to roll over again?”.