Stephen King wrote, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” Go back and re-read that quote, but replace the word “write” with “create.” The message: creativity is not polite.
In spite of our tendency to associate creativity with inspiring and angelic images, the often overlooked reality of making art, building businesses, and launching innovative projects is that the expression of creative energy is inextricably obtrusive to some of our most cherished realities. The very act of making something happen, even if you go about it in the most diplomatic way possible, results in the destruction of some preexisting thing or condition.
The act of making music destroys the preceding state of silence. The act of building property destroys the preceding state of unobstructed space. Do you use an alarm clock or a smart phone to wake yourself up in the morning? Someone lost their job because of that. All our beloved amenities and conveniences have come at the cost of not only individual jobs, but also entire industries in some cases.
Using examples of innovation in the realm of transportation, Economist W. Michael Cox illustrates the paradoxical nature of progress:
The process of creating new industries does not go forward without sweeping away the preexisting order. Transportation provides a dramatic, ongoing example of creative destruction at work. With the arrival of steam power in the nineteenth century, railroads swept across the United States, enlarging markets, reducing shipping costs, building new industries, and providing millions of new productive jobs. The internal combustion engine paved the way for the automobile early in the next century. The rush to put America on wheels spawned new enterprises; at one point in the 1920s, the industry had swelled to more than 260 car makers. The automobile’s ripples spilled into oil, tourism, entertainment, retailing, and other industries. On the heels of the automobile, the airplane flew into our world, setting off its own burst of new businesses and jobs.
Americans benefited as horses and mules gave way to cars and airplanes, but all this creation did not come without destruction. Each new mode of transportation took a toll on existing jobs and industries.
Pick whatever example of constructive action you wish and the following observation remains true:
It is impossible to introduce new possibilities to the world without simultaneously disturbing the people and patterns that are forced to accommodate those possibilities.
Wherever there is evolution, there is always some form of extinction. Nothing new comes into being without something old first being defeated. For this reason, the creative process is inherently controversial and competitive. Your commitment to a creative undertaking of any kind gives someone else the occasion to perceive you as their enemy. For every creative act, someone somewhere will experience it as a threat. Zora Neale Hurston wrote “If you want that good feeling that comes from doing things for other folks then you have to pay for it in abuse and misunderstanding.”
Unless you’re destined to become the first person in history to have no detractors, it’s only a matter of time before someone makes your cause, your concepts, or your convictions their poster child for everything that’s wrong with the world. When that time comes, be gently unapologetic about the ungentle reality of creative destruction. You can neither make great art nor be a positive agent for social change if you refuse to step on the toes of inertia. If you want to move the world forward, you have to move yourself past the experience of being intimidated by those who are addicted to nostalgia.