What is creativity? Can we develop it, or is it innate? Watch the conversation between Marc Mayer, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, and Dr. Jordan Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, which took place March 9, 2017 at the National Gallery of Canada.
creativity seems related to IQ in that more people with higher IQs are likely to be creative or if you take people who are noted for their creativity there’s a high probability that they’ll have a higher IQ but there’s more to it than IQ and and what what creativity seems to be associated with then again depends on whether or not on how you define creativity because you could define it as the sum total of creative achievements that you’ve made in your life which would be the actual production of say artifacts of one form or another performances or inventions or artworks or or what-have-you we’ll go over the dimensions in the middle in a minute or you could also define it as the proclivity to engage in creative thought and I think we’ll start with that first so what does it mean to think creatively it’s it’s sort of like it’s something like this you imagine that I toss you out an idea and there’s some probability that when I toss you that idea that that will trigger off other ideas in your imagination so you can think about it as a threshold issue if you’re not very creative I’ll throw you an idea and hardly any other ideals will be triggered and the ones that will be triggered are going to be very closely associated with that initial idea so let’s say I toss each of you an idea and I asked you to think tell me the first thing that comes to mind okay so what we would see first is that the first thing that comes to mind for you the first thing that comes to mind in life in all likelihood we’d be shared by many of you okay so then you can think about that as a common response right and so that’s a less creative response and then there’ll be some things that come to mind for you that are that they’re so idiosyncratic that you’re the only person that thinks that and no one can understand it well that’s also not exactly creative because the thing that you for something to be creative it has to be novel and useful at the same time that’s sort of a rough definition creative something creative is novel and useful and obviously you know there’s a there’s a certain amount of judgment that goes along with that clearly but if it’s too novel then no one else can understand it and it’s unlikely to be useful so there’s there’s a there’s a range of convenience so anyways if you want to decide if something’s creative like what we would do for I could say to you okay in the next three minutes I want you to write down all the uses you can think of for a brick so okay so someone tell me a use for a brick breaking windows yes okay what else can use a brick for build a wall it’s very small wall haha a wall for ant and what else paperweight okay okay well so you get the idea you’re not feeling very wealthy today obviously but so so you see that so if we gathered your responses say I said you have to think of 20 items that 20 things that that you could do with a brick then a bunch of the things that you thought would be the same and some people would come up with something different like yours was reasonably different than what about using it as a pumice stone for your feet but someone else might have come up with that but it’s it’s a good creative response because it’s unexpected and it you could actually do it you know so anyway so you’ll get a graph of probability of response right and the more probable the less creative roughly speaking it’s not the only criteria though because you also have to look at utility so if I said okay you’ve got three minutes to write down as many uses as you can think of for a brick I would score that in a variety of ways the first thing I would do is just figure out how many uses you generated that’s called fluency and we could also do that I could just say write down as many words as you can begin with the letter S in three minutes or that begin with the letter C or four-letter words that begin with the letter D no I can I can constrain it and if I counted how many words you generated if I had an IQ measure and I had a measure of how many words you generated IQ plus the number of words that you generated would be a better predictor of your creativity than just IQ so there’s a fluency element that’s in and so that’s something like the rate at which you can produce say verbal ideas and one of the things we do know about about the creativity dimension of openness is that it is associated with fluency and it’s also associated with originality and originality would be how improbable your use was compared to the uses generated by other people so so anyway so you can think of you get thrown an idea and there’s some probability that that will Co activate other ideas and if it co activates many other ideas that’s like fluency and if it co activates ideas that are quite distant from the original idea something like that and you could you could track distance by comparing it to to probability that other people have generated it then that’s also another indication of creativity so they have to be unlikely many unlikely responses that are useful that’s what creativity is roughly speaking and then you can fractionated into different dimensions so that’s creative thinking but then creative achievement would be the ability to take those original ideas and then actually to implement them in the world and that’s obviously much more different than merely being creative and so and then what creativity is depends on which of those measurement routes that you take now I develop the questionnaire it’s one of my students Shelley Carson about Jesus just about 30 years ago now 20 years ago I guess called the creative achievement questionnaire and I’ll show you that here and I’ll show you some of the things that are interesting about it you know you hear very frequently people say things like everyone’s creative it’s like that’s wrong okay it’s wrong it’s just as wrong as saying that everyone’s extroverted first of all you have to be pretty damn smart to be creative because otherwise you’re just going to get to where other people have already got and that’s not creative by definition so so being fast and being out there at the front of things really makes a difference and then you also have to have these divergent thinking capabilities and that’s part of your trait structure and creative people are really different than non creative people you know partly because for example they’re highly motivated to do creative things and to experience novelty in – and – and to chase down aesthetic experiences in to attend movies and to read fiction and to go to museums and to enjoy poetry and and and to enjoy music that’s not conventional music for example these aren’t trivial differences and so and so it’s a real it’s a real missed statement to make the proposition that everyone’s creative it’s just simply not the case it’s a matter of wishful thinking it’s like saying that everyone is intelligent it’s like well if everyone is intelligent then then the term loses all of its meaning because any term that you can apply to every member of a category has absolutely no meaning now that doesn’t and you know the other thing you want to be thinking about here is that
don’t be thinking that creativity is such a good thing
it’s a high-risk high-return strategy
so if you’re creative you just try this there’s creative people in this room man
you guys are going to have a hell of a time monetizing your creativity
it’s virtually impossible it’s really really difficult because first of all
let’s say you make an original product you think the world will beat a pathway to your door if you build a better mousetrap it’s like that’s complete rubbish it isn’t it isn’t true in the least
if you make a good creative product you’ve probably solved about 5% of your problem because then you have marketing which is insanely difficult and then you have sales and then you have customer support and then you have to build an organization
and you have to if it’s really novel you have to tell people what the hell the thing is
you know we built this future authoring program or anything with it so it’s available for people online how do you market that no one knows what that is and that’s a real problem if you wrote a book well then you have the problem that another million people have also written a book but if you produce something that’s completely new and doesn’t have a category people can’t search for it online how are they going to find it so you just have and then you have pricing problems and it’s really unbelievably difficult to produce something creative and then monetize it and even worse if you’re the creative person let’s say you have a spectacular invention you’ve got no money right you’ve got no customers those are big problems and so maybe you go and you find a venture capitalist we start with family and friends because that’s how it works you raise money for your product you raise money from your family and friends that’s assuming you have family and friends that have some money and that they’re going to give it to you and most people aren’t in that situation so it’s a terrible barrier right off the bat
and then of course you’re putting your family and friends at substantial financial risk because the probability that your stupid idea is going to make money is a virtually zero even if it’s a really brilliant idea and so then let’s say well you get past family and friends and you get venture capitalist capitalists involved because that’s often the next step or an angel investor that’s there’s their steps in building a business family and friends angel investor that’s some rich guy that you happen to meet some manner in some way who’s who’s into this sort of thing and is willing to provide you with some money to get your checked off the ground well how much of your product is that person going to take well most of it most of it and then if you get a venture and no wonder because you know you don’t have any money how are you going to bargain for control over your product he’ll just say well do you want the money or not and if your answer is no then he’ll go and do something else with his money it’s not like there’s no shortage of things that you can do with your money there’s a million things you can do with it so you’re not in a great bargaining position and then if you get venture capitalists involved they’ll take another big chunk and maybe if they’re not very straight with you they’ll just throw you out because maybe by that point in the company’s development you’re nothing but a pain in the neck because what do you know about marketing and sales and customer service and building an organization and running a business like you don’t have a clue so why do they need you so even if you’re successful at generating a new idea and you put it into a business the probability that you as the originator of the of the idea are going to make some money from it is very very low so don’t be thinking that creativity is such a is such a something you would want to curse yourself with now you know it’s not all bad because it opens up avenues of experience for creative people that aren’t available to people who aren’t creative but it definitely is a high-risk high-return strategy you know so the overwhelming probability is that you will fail but a small proportion of creative people succeed spectacularly and so it’s like a lottery in some sense you’re probably going to lose but if you don’t lose you could win big and that keeps a lot of creative people going but also they don’t really have much choice in it because if you’re a creative person you’re like a fruit tree that’s that’s bearing fruit so you don’t really have you can suppress it but it’s very bad for you you know the creative people I’ve worked with is if they’re not creative they’re miserable so they have to do it but and then you know there’s real joy and pleasure in it and and the end and end and psychological utility but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an intelligent it’s certainly not a conservative strategy for moving forward through life so and you know whenever I talk to people who are creative and you guys should listen to this because I know what I’m talking about if you happen to be creative if you’re songwriter are another kind of musician or an artist or or any of the other number of things that you might be find a way to make money and then practice your craft on the side because you will starve to death otherwise now some for some of you that won’t be true but it’s a tiny minority your best bet is to find a job that will keep body and soul together and parse off some time that you can pursue your creative things because then well as a long term strategy you medium to long term strategy it’s a better one but it’s got incredibly difficult for people musicians for example it’s incredibly difficult for new musicians to monetize their their craft even if they’re really really good at it so it’s it’s well so anyway so don’t be so I say well everyone’s not everyone’s not creative and everybody goes oh that’s terrible it’s like it’s not so terrible it’s not something it’s not self-evident that you would curse someone with high levels of creativity so alright so here’s how our creative achievement questionnaire works what we did essentially was we thought up how many domains there are in which you might be creative and this is remember when you’re designing a questionnaire you want to be over-inclusive because the statistics will take care of it right so you can you can take a big area of potential you can take a large area and aim your questionnaire at it and you can do statistics post talk to see if you’re covering the area if the things that you’re measuring are nicely correlated they’re this you know there’s something about them that’s similar if they’re not correlated then maybe you’re measuring two different things and you can get rid of one of them that’s fine so we did start with a pretty wide rage we thought okay well what domains can you be creative in visual arts painting in sculpture then we had experts sort of rank order levels of achievement within those domains and so if you are a painter you can 0 gives you I have no training or recognised talent in this area okay so you really want to keep an eye on the zeros alright so then I have taken lessons people have commented on my talents I have won a prize my work is being critiqued in national publications alright so you get you get you get at zero to seven points but you can indicate more than know maybe that’s happened to you more than once so and what happens this is interesting is that higher you are up this hierarchy the more likely it is that those things have happened to you more than once and that’s that’s another example of this weird thing called the Pareto principle or prices law which is that it’s sort of as good things happen to you the probability that more good things will happen increases right so because once you’re famous people give you all sorts of opportunities to do other things right so your your success doesn’t go like this goes like this zero zero zero skyrocket that’s how it works but getting from zero getting from zero to one if you’re starting a business the hardest customer you’ll ever get is your first one and then the second hardest one will be your second one it’s virtually impossible to get a first customer because they’re going to say to you first of all you’re going to be selling to people who are basically conservative and they’re not going to be evaluate they’re not going to be willing or able to evaluate whether your damn product is good for anything and so they’ll say well who are your other customers and if your answer to that is well we don’t have any it’s like well then what they’re going to be the first one no because people don’t stick their necks out at all not a bit ever and so unless you’re well established in the market especially if you’re dealing with a big company you can just bloody well forget it it’s like a three year sales cycle anyways it’s rigged because big corporations move very very slowly and you might be able to find a small company that doesn’t have much money who would be willing to use your stupid product for nothing if you’re really nice to them and you can get one customer that way it’s very very difficult and so you’ll you’ll end up you know and what do you think the royalty just out of curiosity so I’ve written a book it’s going to be published by penguin Random House and in January what do you think the royalty is for an author on a book so you make something creative you get a percentage of the sale what do you think the percentage is just out of curiosity yes yeah it’s like 5% so think about that so that means that you make your thing and 95% of it belongs to someone else and that’s that things are going quite well for you and it doesn’t really matter what you manufacture or produce that’s about what you can expect sales marketing distribution it eats it all up so it’s all well anyways you need to know these things because they’re not self-evident okay so seems to be working well by itself all right so let’s take a look well how else can you have creative achievement well you can be a musician I have no training or recognize Talent recordings of my composition have been sold publicly that’s the top end my composition has been copyright and recorded critiqued in the local population publication I have composed an original piece of music well let’s try this how many of you have composed an original piece of music wow there’s lots of creative people in here that’s very impressive so there must be 10 or 11 people in here oh that’s cool so how about your copies composition has been copyrighted how about it’s been the recordings have been sold publicly and actually sold how many people – two okay well so what you can see is there’s a rapid drop-off in the number of people who say yes how many of you fit into category zero I have no training a recognised talent in this area yeah okay okay zero is the median score on all of these median is the score that’s the most likely for people to have or it’s different than the mean median score is zero so what’s the median score and the entire creative achievement questionnaire zero you you add up all over all thirteen domains the most typical score is zero so that’s how creative people are there’s zero creative not at all yes well the thing is you could say that people have people all people are creative and that all people could generate ideas but the issue isn’t whether or not you can generate ideas it’s whether or not you can generate ideas that are different from the ideas that other people generate that’s the critical issue because it mean it depends on how you define it you could you well the novelty is a huge part of it but that’s it that sort of built into the definition of creative it has to be novel and useful and if your idea that you generate is the same as the idea that a bunch of other people have it’s not it’s an idea fair enough and if you define creativity that way then everyone’s creative but it’s a foolish way of defining creativity because everyone does it
Could a plague of biblical proportions be America’s best hope for religious revival? As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there is reason to think so.
Three-quarters of a century has dimmed the memory of that gruesome conflict and its terrible consequences: tens of millions killed, great cities bombed to rubble, Europe and Asia stricken by hunger and poverty. Those who survived the war had to grapple with the kinds of profound questions that only arise in the aftermath of calamity. Gazing at the ruins from his window at Cambridge University, British historian Herbert Butterfield chose to make sense of it by turning to the Hebrew Bible.
“The power of the Old Testament teaching on history—perhaps the point at which the ancient Jews were most original, breaking away from the religious thought of the other peoples around them—lay precisely in the region of truths which sprang from a reflection on catastrophe and cataclysm,” Butterfield wrote in “Christianity and History” (1949). “It is almost impossible properly to appreciate the higher developments in the historical reflection of the Old Testament except in another age which has experienced (or has found itself confronted with) colossal cataclysm.”
Americans, chastened by the horrors of war, turned to faith in search of truth and meaning. In the late 1940s, Gallup surveys showed more than three-quarters of Americans were members of a house of worship, compared with about half today. Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Some would later call this a Third Great Awakening.
Today the world faces another moment of cataclysm. Though less devastating than World War II, the pandemic has remade everyday life and wrecked the global economy in a way that feels apocalyptic.
Who will save us now that the monster has broken free?
“Men may live to a great age in days of comparative quietness and peaceful progress, without ever having come to grips with the universe, without ever vividly realising the problems and the paradoxes with which human history so often confronts us,” Butterfield wrote. “We of the twentieth century have been particularly spoiled; for the men of the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks and all our ancestors down to the seventeenth century betray in their philosophy and their outlook a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe.”
The past four years have been some of the most contentious and embarrassing in American history. Squabbling over trivialities has left the public frantic and divided, oblivious to the transcendent. But the pandemic has humbled the country and opened millions of eyes to this risky universe once more.
“Sheer grimness of suffering brings men sometimes into a profounder understanding of human destiny,” Butterfield wrote. Sometimes “it is only by a cataclysm,” he continued, “that man can make his escape from the net which he has taken so much trouble to weave around himself.”
For societies founded on the biblical tradition, cataclysms need not mark the end. They are a call for repentance and revival. As the coronavirus pandemic subjects U.S. hospitals to a fearsome test, Americans can find solace in the same place that Butterfield did. Great struggle can produce great clarity.
Could a rogue virus lead to a grand creative moment in America’s history? Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?
Mr. Nicholson is president of the Philos Project.
Since 1995, Dr. Terence Ketter has been at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he is Professor, and founder and Chief of the Bipolar Disorder Clinic. Dr. Ketter’s research, has involved studying bipolar disorder’s causes, symptoms, and treatments, and has included exploring links between creativity, temperament, and mood disorders. He has published extensively on bipolar disorder, including over 350 scientific articles and book chapters, and is editor of the American Psychiatric Publishing volumes “Advances in the Treatment of Bipolar Disorder” and “Handbook of Diagnosis and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder”. He serves on editorial boards for numerous scientific journals. Dr. Ketter continues to care for patients with bipolar disorder, for which he has been awarded the Outstanding Faculty Physician Award by Vaden Health Center at Stanford University.
BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev. — It was dusk on the opening night of Burning Man, and the makers and misfits were touching up their art projects and orgy dens. Subwoofers oontz-oontzed as topless cyclists draped in glowing LEDs pedaled through the desert. And Paul Romer, a reigning laureate of the Nobel Prize in economics, sat on a second-story porch at the center of it all, marveling at a subtlety of the street grid.
The roads narrowed as they approached small plazas around the impermanent city. How clever, he thought, this way of funneling pedestrians toward gathering places. And most Burners probably didn’t even notice — what with the art projects and orgy dens.
“It’s just like every other city,” Mr. Romer said. “Except in this other way, it’s like no city ever.” White-haired and 63, he was dressed in black gear he’d bought at R.E.I., figuring black was the thing to wear at Burning Man. It was the first time that Mr. Romer, the former chief economist of the World Bank, had attended the annual bacchanal.
A week earlier, there was hardly anything here, in the remote desert of northwest Nevada. Then tens of thousands of people had just shown up, many in the middle of the night. They had formed an instant city, with a road network, and a raucous street life, and a weird make-do architecture.
It was an alluring sight for an economist who has talked of building cities from nothing. And Burning Man has been more and more on Mr. Romer’s mind lately, as world politics have made him gloomier. He is ill at ease behaving like a traditional academic. He’s not particularly interested in publishing papers. He doesn’t want to give speeches cheerleading his field. But he believes winning the Nobel has expanded his possibilities. More people will listen to what he has to say, if he can just decide where he wants to direct our attention.
Maybe it’s here.
Mr. Romer came to the desert imagining himself as an objective outsider: de Tocqueville among the Burners. But Black Rock City started to rub off on him. One morning, a man who called himself Coyote, who was responsible for surveying the city’s streets, took Mr. Romer around. At the far edge of town, they found a roller coaster that looked likelier than most things at Burning Man to harm you. It was designed for one fool at a time, strapped into an oversized car seat that shot down one side of a 31-foot wooden U shape and up the other.
Mr. Romer, surprising himself, walked up to it.
“Should I do this?” he asked Coyote. “If you kill a Nobel Prize winner, it’s on you.”
Then he climbed the stairs to the top of a contraption that had been constructed just days before, in a city with no building codes. Heavy metal was blaring. Mr. Romer was trussed into place. A guy with “PEE HERE” painted on his back took his glasses. And then someone gave him a push.
Wild territory for a staid academic
Burning Man, to catch up the uninitiated, takes place for a week in the Nevada desert every August into early September. Thousands of avant-garde revelers come to bend their minds, shed their clothes and incinerate a large wooden effigy. The event is tamer than it used to be, with more Silicon Valley types and fewer anarchists, but it’s still wild territory for a staid academic.
Mr. Romer, who appreciates a bit of shock value, has been showing aerial images of the city in public talks about urban growth for several years. The world, he says, needs more “Burning Man urbanization.”
By 2050, developing-world cities are projected to gain 2.3 billion people. Many of those people will move to makeshift settlements on the edge of existing cities, tripling the urbanized land area in the developing world.
“To be a little grandiose about it, this is a really unique moment in human history,” Mr. Romer told me last year. “We’re likely to decide in this time frame what people are going to live with forever.”
Urbanization in the developed world has largely come to an end; nearly everyone who would move from farmland toward cities already has. This century, the same mass migration will run its course across the rest of the world. And if no one prepares for it — if we leave it to developers to claim one field at a time, or to migrants to make their way with no structure — it will be nearly impossible to superimpose some order later.
It will take vast expense, and sweeping acts of eminent domain, to create arterial roads, bus service, trash routes, public parks, basic connectivity.
That prospect agitates Mr. Romer, because the power of cities to lift people out of poverty dissipates when cities don’t work. To economists, cities are labor markets. And labor markets can’t function when there are no roads leading workers out of their favelas, or when would-be inventors never meet because they live in gridlock.
Mr. Romer’s answer is to do with this moment what Burning Man does every summer: Stake out the street grid; separate public from private space; and leave room for what’s to come. Then let the free market take over. No market mechanism can ever create the road network that connects everyone. The government must do that first.From 2018: Take a look at how Burning Man has evolved over three decades.
The history of the Manhattan street grid, drawn in 1811 over all the land from Houston Street to 155th, offers similar lessons. But Mr. Romer fears that Manhattan sounds like a chauvinistically American example. And so when skeptics say that it will be too hard to plan for large new waves of urbanization, he says this instead: “Look at Burning Man! They grow to 70,000 people in one week.”
And then 70,000 people go home, and they do it all over again the next year. The planning requires no major expense, he argues. He’s not talking about laying sewer lines, or even paving the roads. Just draw the street grid on the open desert.
When he first proposed this to me — Burning Man as template for the next urban century — I asked if he had ever, well, been to Burning Man.
He had not. And so we made two trips there in August: first to see the city surveyed, then a few weeks later to camp in it. He would see firsthand if his provocative argument held up.
Mr. Romer’s logic is connected in a roundabout way to the work that won him the Nobel. Macroeconomists used to think about the world by tallying up quantifiable stuff: capital, labor, natural resources. They weren’t sure how to account for ideas. But Mr. Romer, in a seminal 1990 paper, showed that ideas were central to progress. His model of economic growth incorporating them enabled economists to ask entirely new questions about the modern “knowledge economy”: Where do ideas come from? How do they spread? Why are cities such hotbeds for creating them?
By the late aughts, Mr. Romer was sure that cities were the urgent subject of the 21st century. He had a new idea: “charter cities” that would be built in the developing world but governed by nations with more advanced economies and more rules protecting, say, property rights and independent judges. He was picturing British-era Hong Kong, replicated 50 times over.
Some developing-world politicians were intrigued. Critics cried neocolonialism. Libertarians largely misread Mr. Romer’s intentions: They saw new territory where capitalists could shrug off government rules. To Mr. Romer, the idea was about seeding the right government rules.
The proposal forced Mr. Romer to learn the mechanics of cities. He persuaded N.Y.U. to create a new institute devoted to them, and two planning experts gave him an education. Shlomo Angel taught him the foundation of good street grids. Alain Bertaud gave him a framework: Urban planners design too much, while economists cede too much to the market. The answer lies in between — in drawing the street grid on the desert.
“The beauty of the mind of Paul is that he sees patterns where we don’t see them, because he sees patterns across examples which have nothing to do with each other,” Mr. Bertaud said.
Mr. Romer looked at the Manhattan street grid, the imagined charter city, Black Rock City. He was doing this even in his short tenure at the World Bank, where he worked from 2016 to early 2018. He took the job quietly hoping to persuade the institution to back a new city. (It did not.)
In all of this, Mr. Romer has been creeping further from the economists toward the urban planners. By the time he got to Burning Man in August, he was thinking of himself as a University of Chicago-trained economist, once indoctrinated in the almighty free market, now in open revolt against his roots.
‘Anarchy doesn’t scale!’
Burning Man is an even better model for Mr. Romer’s purposes than he knew. The event began in 1986 as a rejection of rules: There was no central authority, no prohibitions, no assigned camping spots.
In the early years on the Black Rock Desert, after the event outgrew Baker Beach in San Francisco, people brought fireworks and guns. They raced through the desert night with headlights off. They fired hunting rifles from moving vehicles at vacant cars.
“A lot of people — and I was one of them — thought that Burning Man was about this crazy feeling you could have, being with really creative people that are all anarchists, and there is no order, and it’s just amazing what can come out of that,” said Harley K. Dubois, who attended those early years. “And what came out of that was some people getting hurt.”
In 1996, a man on a motorcycle playing chicken with a large vehicle was killed. Then a rave set up two miles north of the main camp got out of hand. Three people inside tents were run over and seriously injured.
The Bureau of Land Management kicked the event off public land. Longtime participants split over whether a more organized Burning Man could be Burning Man at all.
Today, the event’s six “founders” are the people who reconstituted Burning Man after 1996, including Ms. Dubois. The anarchists drifted away. And the founders created a street grid, an early version of what would become a semicircular city with all arterial roads converging on a giant, flammable human figure in the center.
They “invented a sense of superordinate civic order — so there would be rules, and structure, and streets, and orienting spaces, and situations where people would feel a common purpose together; where people could become real to one another,” Larry Harvey, one of the founders, recounted in an oral history before his death last year.
“It had gone beyond a bit of pranksterism in the desert,” he said. “We had made a city, and no one wanted to take responsibility for it.”
To Mr. Romer, this was a teachable moment. “Anarchy doesn’t scale!” he said.
Most of the structure that has been added since feels invisible to the people who come: the streets that are surveyed to be exactly 40 feet wide, the plazas that steer people together without crowding them, the 430 fire extinguishers around town, each tracked by its own QR code.
The goal now, one planner explained to Mr. Romer, is to make Black Rock City just safe enough that people can joke about dying without actually dying.
“It’s a metaphor for my sense of economics,” Mr. Romer said. “I picture an economist showing up at Burning Man and saying: ‘Oh, look! This is the miracle of the invisible hand. All of this stuff happens by self-interest, and it just magically appears.’ And there’s this huge amount of planning that actually is what’s required beneath it to make the order emerge.”
On this point, the economist and the Burners kept converging: Freedom requires some structure, creativity some constraints. But it was becoming clear there was more to the structure and constraints at Burning Man than Mr. Romer imagined. As he learned that, he inched even further toward the urban planners.
After 1996, the founders also began putting up a fence around the city, a pentagon with perfectly straight sightlines. Nominally, it is a “trash fence,” catching debris before it blows into the desert. But it also defines the edge of the city, so that it is possible to stand at the boundary line and stare out into an open desert uncluttered by tents or plywood art. The fence is an urban growth boundary. It is as much about keeping out interlopers as keeping people in.
‘It’s the market which is the danger, not the city’
The Black Rock Desert is one of the flattest places on earth. The land demands that you drag race. It is the perfect setting to shoot off rockets. The desert then returns any mischief right back, playing tricks on people who come.
Three weeks before Burning Man began, Mr. Romer and I drove 100 miles north from Reno to the tiny nearby town of Gerlach, then 15 more miles north onto the parched mud of the playa, arriving, at last, at precisely the spot in the middle of nowhere where the man statue would stand.
Over the city’s center point, Coyote had set up a theodolite, a surveying instrument he used to locate 6,000 small red flags that marked the city’s street grid. The flags made their own mirage of disorder in every direction. But if you caught them at just the right angle, future streets came into view.
It had taken a crew of about 20 people, sleeping under the stars, a week to survey the city. “I wake up in the middle of the night, and I’m staring into the Milky Way, and I realize that it’s moved — oh wait, I’m the one who moved,” Coyote said. “Some people come out here just for the survey.”
When I had first explained this spring that I wanted to come out to the desert with a famous economist to see the parts of Burning Man people take for granted, no one was surprised. Two years ago, word of one of Mr. Romer’s talks at the World Bank mentioning Black Rock City had found its way to people here. They were equally curious about him.When Reporting an Economics Article at Burning Man, Be Prepared for Things to Get Weird
Mr. Romer’s nerdy interest delighted everyone. He recited details of their city plan, photographed their traffic cones and accepted one of their wooden street pegs as if it were an honorary degree.
“I think they have some experience in doing this that’s maybe unique in the world,” he said the next day at dawn. He was watching a crew raise the trash fence, their pile drivers ringing like cowbells across the desert.
Mr. Romer was beginning to incorporate these characters into his thinking. What they do here is a model for any place with few resources but just enough volunteers to survey new neighborhoods on the urban periphery. But on a grander scale, if he ever persuades someone to build a new city, maybe the people to call are at Burning Man.
Before we left town on that first trip, we visited Will Roger and Crimson Rose, two other Burning Man founders who have a home in Gerlach. In their living room, Mr. Romer sat in a leather armchair opposite Mr. Roger. A lineup of small animal skulls looked over his shoulder from the shelf behind him.
Mr. Roger warned Mr. Romer that he had decided he didn’t like cities. At least, not those in what he called the “default world,” away from Burning Man.
“All the energy and the helter-skelter and lack of connection to the earth, the energy of all those humans compressed into one space implodes on my own spirit, on my own sense of who I am,” Mr. Roger said.
This is a funny thing to say to an economist. Helter-skelter is a decent description of the force from which economists believe ideas emerge. When people live close to one another, rather than close to the land, they hatch plans, they trade services, they discuss terrible ideas until they eventually arrive at good ones.
This is more or less what happens at Burning Man, too. But other cities have become symbols of greed and consumption, Mr. Roger said. And that greed is killing our Earth Mother.
“I think I have some of the same anxieties, but I’m coming to the view that it’s the market which is the danger, not the city,” Mr. Romer said.
“I’m afraid economists have really been serious contributors to this problem. This whole ideology of ‘government is bad, government is the problem’ has I think provided cover for rich people and rich firms to take advantage of things for their selfish benefit.”
He has been trying to figure out how to atone for that. As Mr. Romer’s conversation with Mr. Roger took on the air of a therapy session, I got the impression that he had also come to the desert to work through his angst with economics.
Mr. Roger, sympathetic, poured him his first taste of kombucha.
Levi goes in for a hug
Three weeks after the survey, Mr. Romer and I returned. The dusty streets were now clearly defined as the space between what people had invented: at one intersection, a “passport office” for Burners who wanted to record their adventures around Black Rock City. On another corner, a troupe of fire performers from Canada was camped, and on another a half-dozen drivable pieces of art were parked. There was also a row of 36 portable toilets, and behind that, “Brand-UR-Ass N More,” a camp where it was possible to get both a drink and a faux branding of the Burning Man logo.
While we were standing at the intersection, a man in a great beard and a blond wig approached with a hug. Levi, 35, was part of a camp running a 24-hour bar up the street, and we learned that he had lately been riding motorbikes across Africa but was about to apply to graduate school to study cognitive science.
Levi, who did not know whom he was talking to, mentioned to Mr. Romer that his hero was Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 winner of the Nobel in economic sciences.
“Well, I won the Nobel prize last year,” Mr. Romer said. “So Danny is a fellow laureate.”
Levi’s face lit up, and we then spent the next 45 minutes wandering around the neighborhood talking about economics and human behavior and scarcity. Nearly everything in Black Rock City is effectively free. But you’re supposed to respond with some type of gift to the people around you: a piece of advice, a turn in a hammock, a hot dog.
At Levi’s bar, we were given cups of something cold and orange and alcoholic. Mr. Romer, in a comparable act of generosity, then offered Levi his email address. He would happily write a recommendation for grad school, he said. Levi, floored, went in for another hug.
Theirs was exactly the kind of encounter that a city generates, over and over again, until someone gets into grad school, and someone else finds a job, and someone else begins to earn more than $2 a day.
In Mr. Romer’s Nobel lecture, he implored people to think of cities, especially in the developing world, as places where people get the benefits of interacting with one another. A global economy built on ideas no longer has to be zero-sum, he argued. Everyone can use ideas at the same time. Someone living in America benefits if someone in India becomes better off and invents a vaccine.
But we have to make the cities viable first, in this moment when it’s still possible to draw what they might become.
“If we take a pass on this,” he warned, “the opportunity will be gone.”
He did not mention Burning Man. But that was before he saw the place in person.
Navigating the tension between work and relationships.
Soren Kierkegaard asked God to give him the power to will one thing. Amid all the distractions of life he asked for the power to live a focused life, wholeheartedly, toward a single point.
And we’ve all known geniuses and others who have practiced a secular version of this. They have found their talent and specialty. They focus monomaniacally upon it. They put in the 10,000 hours (and more) that true excellence requires.
I just read “You Must Change Your Life,” Rachel Corbett’s joint biography of the sculptor Auguste Rodin and his protégé, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and they were certainly versions of this type.
The elder Rodin had one lesson for the young Rilke. “Travailler, toujours travailler.” Work, always work.
This is the heroic vision of the artist. He renounces earthly and domestic pleasures and throws himself into his craft. Only through total dedication can you really see deeply and produce art.
In his studio, Rodin could be feverishly obsessed, oblivious to all around him. “He abided by his own code, and no one else’s standards could measure him,” Corbett writes. “He contained within himself his own universe, which Rilke decided was more valuable than living in a world of others’ making.”
Rilke had the same solitary focus. With the bohemian revelry of turn-of-the-century Paris all around him, Rilke was alone writing in his room. He didn’t drink or dance. He celebrated love, but as a general outlook and not as something you gave to any one person or place.
Both men produced masterworks that millions have treasured. But readers finish Corbett’s book feeling that both men had misspent their lives.
They were both horrid to their wives and children. Rodin grew pathetically creepy, needy and lonely. Rilke didn’t go back home as his father was dying, nor allow his wife and child to be with him as he died. Both men lived most of their lives without intimate care.
Their lives raise the question: Do you have to be so obsessively focused to be great? The traditional masculine answer is yes. But probably the right answer is no.
In the first place, being monomaniacal may not even be good for your work. Another book on my summer reading list was “Range,” by David Epstein. It’s a powerful argument that generalists perform better than specialists.
The people who achieve excellence tend to have one foot outside their main world. “Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer,” Epstein writes.
He shows the same pattern in domain after domain: People who specialize in one thing succeed early, but then they slide back to mediocrity as their minds rigidify.
Children who explore many instruments when they are young end up as more skilled musicians than the ones who are locked into just one. People who transition between multiple careers when they are young end up ahead over time because they can take knowledge in one domain and apply it to another.
A tech entrepreneur who is 50 is twice as likely to start a superstar company than one who is 30, because he or she has a broader range of experience. A survey of the fastest-growing tech start-ups found that the average age of the founder was 45.
For most people, creativity is precisely the ability to pursue multiple interests at once, and then bring them together in new ways. “Without contraries is no progression,” William Blake wrote.
Furthermore, living a great life is more important than producing great work. A life devoted to one thing is a stunted life, while a pluralistic life is an abundant one. This is a truth feminism has brought into the culture. Women have rarely been able to live as monads. They were generally compelled to switch, hour by hour, between different domains and roles: home, work, market, the neighborhood.
A better definition of success is living within the tension of multiple commitments and trying to make them mutually enhancing. The shape of this success is a pentagram — the five-pointed star. You have your five big passions in life — say,
- faith —
and live flexibly within the gravitational pull of each.
You join communities that are different from one another. You gain wisdom by entering into different kinds of consciousness. You find freedom at the borderlands between your communities.
Over the past month, while reading these books, I attended four conferences. Two were very progressive, with almost no conservatives. The other two were very conservative, with almost no progressives. Each of the worlds was so hermetically sealed I found that I couldn’t even describe one world to members of the other. It would have been like trying to describe bicycles to a fish.
I was reading about how rich the pluralistic life is, and how stifling a homogeneous life is. And I was realizing that while we’re learning to preach gospel of openness and diversity, we’re mostly not living it. In the realm of public life, many live as monads, within the small circles of one specialty, one code, no greatness.
Listening to shame | Brené Brown (2012)
- Vulnerability is not weakness. It is our most accurate measure of courage.
- Vulnerability is the birthplace of
- creativity, and
Shame: has focus on self. Guilt is focus on behavior.
- Shame has two scripts:
- You are never good enough.
- Who do you think you are?
- Shame is correlated with:
- eating disorders.
- Shame is organized by gender:
- For women is not being able to do it all perfectly while never letting them see you sweat.
- Shame for men is appearing weak.
- Shame is fed by
- silence, and
The antidote to Shame is Empathy.
The power of vulnerability: TEDx Houston (2011)
(Jan 2011) Brené Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk at TEDxHouston, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.
Brené Brown: Create True Belonging and Heal the World with Lewis Howes (2017)
Whenever there is not love and belonging there is suffering.
- Belonging is being part of something bigger than yourself, but belonging is also the courage to stand alone.
- Belonging never asks us to change who we are.
- Fitting in can mean betraying yourself if it asks us to change who we are to belong.
Teams and Groups can deliver the illusion of belonging.
If you become so adaptable that the goal of adapting is to make you like me, you betray yourself.
There are two kinds of kids:
- Kids who ask for help
- Kids who don’t
Lewis: my way was of asking was getting angry, mad, and lashing out, turning fear into rage and ploughing over others
- In 3rd or 4th grade, Lewis was shamed by getting picked last in a dodgeball game
- He turned his loss into fuel for athletics, eventually playing football in the NFL.
- He felt like every loss was an attack on his life because he feared he couldn’t be accepted.
- Involves: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure
- You can’t be a courageous leader if you aren’t willing to be uncomfortable
The ability to opt-out of talking about Charlottesville and having it “not affect her” is the definition of privilege.
- Charlottesville is about powerlessness
I can’t imagine a way though the next decade that doesn’t involve dealing with pain. (34 min)
James Baldwin: people hold on to their hate so stubbornly because once they let it go their is nothing but pain.
After a difficult breakup while at college, Lewis took out his rage on the football field.
Every social crisis, almost without exception, is about our inability to deal with our pain:
- Opioids: physicians
- Medicated, addicted, in debt, obese.
Our inability to deal with pain and vulnerability is what leads to many problems.
The football team that acknowledges its vulnerabilities will be more successful.
Charlottesville comes down to identity, belonging, and power.
- This is the concept of “power-over”‘s last stand
- last stands are violent, desperate
- nostalgic: “It was so much better when people knew their place”
We can’t solve the next issues with national solutions
Vulnerability is not weakness. It is about the willingness to be seen when you can’t control the outcome.
When you experience shame:
- Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love.
- Talk to someone else: shame can not respond to being spoken
You either own your story or it owns you.
What is Greatness?
- Greatness is owning your story and loving yourself though that.
Brené Brown Shows You How To “Brave the Wilderness” (2017)
(Warning: There is swearing in this video)
Dehumanization is not a social justice tool (15 min)
Police-Protester Dichotomy: shaming us for not hating the right people.
I’m not going to let my imperfection move me away from the conversation because its too important
I contributed more than I criticized.
There is a difference between holding people accountable and shame.
Shame is not a strategy. It will hurt them and you. Shame begets shame.
Holding people accountable is not as much fun as raging against them.
There should be more tools in your tool bag than shame and coddling. (25 min)