Fertile vs. Fruitful – Does cash stifle creative experimentation?

How’s business?

I was surprised that this simple inquiry had stumped me.  Thinking that I’d not understood the question, the friendly pixelated face on Skype said “Are you busy?

I paused.  “I don’t know” I eventually responded, adding to the confusion.  I was currently immersed in a lot of activity but was this ‘good business?’  Trying to help me out, my fellow independent consultant said “It’s always feast or famine in this work isn’t it – you have periods of lots of paid work then periods of nothing –  but it all balances out in the end.”

“I think my work goes in a different cycle” I eventually said.  “Every time I seem to have found a ‘formula’ – a particular offering that people want to pay me for – I can’t help but want to change it, break it and take it in a subtly different direction that people aren’t going to want.  Well not yet anyway.”  To help make sense of my thinking I grabbed a pen and wrote down two words that I felt described my experience : FERTILE and FRUITFUL.  I then added an arrow between each word creating a cycle.  My constant restlessness and curious dissatisfaction with my work suddenly made a little more sense.  I realised that ‘fruitful’ phases, i.e. lots of exciting, paid work, always happen as a result of a preceding ‘fertile’ phase of experimentation, discomfort and curiosity that offers little or nothing in the way of payment.  I also realised that these ‘fertile’ phases were always provoked by a ‘fruitful’ period of playing with the new ideas with paying clients.  An ongoing symbiotic creative cycle of finding the form in order to break the form in order to find another form.

“That’s really nice” said the pixelated face “I guess the ultimate aim is to combine the two and do work that is both fertile and fruitful at the same time.  Isn’t it?”  I paused for some time, causing my friend to think that the Skype direction had dropped off.  “I’m not sure that’s possible” I eventually replied.

I have long been fascinated by the relationship between creative experimentation and money.  There is something about the transactional nature of cash for services that creates a concept of value for money that seems to alter the nature of our curiosity and our ability to wantonly experiment.   It seems that our willingness to immerse ourselves in our here-and-now experiences, with no aim other than to see what happens, diminishes the moment anybody is better or worse off in monetary terms.  And, in my experience, this dynamic is as problematic for those who are providing the services as it is for who are purchasing them.  I notice that I feel somewhat less willing to take big risks, to try out something spontaneous and experimental when I am being remunerated for it.  I notice that I feel a greater pull towards delivering tangible take aways for paid work than for unpaid work – colluding with the problematic pattern of valuing application over awareness that ultimately results in stuckness.  In conversations with others over the last few years I know I am not alone in these experiences.  However, I am yet to unravel how much of this is as a result of my own projections, how much is due to society’s agreed social constructions of what ‘valuable work’ is and I am yet to come up with ideas as to what an alternative approach might be.

I had these thoughts in mind when I began scribbling out some initial thoughts for The Lab earlier this year.  The initial idea behind The Lab was to create a place where people could indulge in wanton experimentation, to try out things that they’ve never done before and have a bunch of enthusiastic and willing people to experiment on.  The single most important dynamic to be created was that The Lab had to feel like a safe place to ‘fail happy.’   A place where participants and experimenters would learn from whatever happened, irrelevant of whether it was what the experimenter intended to happen.  A subtle shift from asking ourselves the binary question “did that work?” to instead asking ourselves the more curious question “how did that work?” on the back of each experiment.  One of the first conclusions that I came to was that, to create this dynamic, The Lab had to be not for profit*.

I scribbled out on a piece of paper the downsides of The Lab being a profit making initiative:

If The Lab is profit making it might…

  • …put a greater emphasis on each experiment ‘working’ and being ‘value for money’.
  • …put a greater pressure on me to make the overall concept ‘work’ and be ‘value for money.’
  • …place a greater value on ‘application’ and ‘take aways’ that match the amount of monetary spend.
  • …create some unhelpful status dynamics and unintentional ‘buyer/supplier’ relationships between experimenters, participants and myself.
  • …lead to us all over-thinking, over-scripting and finding a repeating formula for success that ‘works’ and is of value, unintentionally creating the very dynamic we are trying to disrupt.

As well as being a place to innovate and create, I now realise that The Lab is also an ongoing personal experiment in better understanding some of our dominant constructions about ‘value’ and the potentially inhibiting role that money plays in dampening pure, risky experimentation.  It is about providing a FERTILE environment where people can simply come out to play and see what they discover, knowing that even an absence of tangible discovery is in itself a discovery.  Some of these discoveries may lead to FRUITFUL experiences elsewhere but this is not a guaranteed outcome.

Back on the Skype call, the friendly pixelated face and I explored the idea of the FERTILE-FRUITFUL cycle and how holding it to be true seemed to shift the relationship we had with our work and how we spent our time.  We noticed that whereas the feast or famine metaphor brought an emphasis on money, the FERTILE-FRUITFUL cycle placed a greater emphasis on creativity, relationships and experimentation.

This blog has no conclusion.  If anything, I’m left with more questions than answers having written it.  Deeper questions as to how the transactional nature of our work inhibits creativity.  Questions as to how money can create unhelpful power and status dynamics, altering relationships and artificially splitting the responsibility for experimentation and discovery.  Questions as to how ‘buyer/supplier’ relationships accidentally reinforce stuck, stale patterns where we try to repeat the successes from the past in order to constitute ‘value’.  I’m pretty sure the answer isn’t simply that everything experimental should be free, nor is it that everything experimental should be paid for.  However, I can’t help but feel that there is a tantalisingly different way of creating, discovering and transforming together that is sitting just outside of my awareness at the moment.

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*Note:  Lab participants pay a minimal fee of £35 to attend The Lab which covers the hire cost of the venue and any materials required.  Any surplus is used to fund future Labs or to provide discounted or free tickets to those who wish to come but do not have the means to buy a ticket.