A reader asked me to write about where the creative and the analytical intersect in business, and while I’m sure I’ve written around this topic before, I thought maybe I should try writing directly at it. Maybe by doing so I’ll hit on some things I haven’t covered or even thought about before. Maybe by doing so, I’ll express ideas in more concrete ways than I have before.

We do get better as we write more, after all.

Problem Solving is Creative.

What is creativity?
Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. Human Motivation, 3rd ed., by Robert E. Franken
This is just one definition of a concept that often defies such encapsulation. Creativity is often thought of as the domain of artists and writers, and while the creative ability is essential in these fields, it’s about so much more than art, music, and literature. Creativity is about experiencing the world in novel ways, looking at things differently, and using that experience to find and develop solutions to problems. This may seem sterile, but if your creative act doesn’t solve some kind of problem, it will never make it in the public domain. Even art, despite the rarified position we give it in culture, is a tool used to solve problems. In fact, one of the common ways to measure creative thought is the “unusual uses” test. This is a test in which a subject gives as many different uses as they can for a common object (a brick, for example). The more different uses, the more creative thought is employed. This test measures creativity, and requires the subject to come up with practical uses for an everyday object; in short, ways that object can be used to solve problems.

Business is About Solving Problems.

What excited me the most in my study of business was coming to understand the whys behind business. Before I get started, this is a sort of a starry-eyed description and is in no way intended to imply that all business is good or beneficial. There are obviously bad, exploitative businesses out there. Business at its heart is about solving problems.

No, no, you say. Business is about increasing shareholder wealth!

Okay, well the truth is more complicated than that, especially these days, but even within this Friedmanist view, the way to build shareholder wealth is to solve problems. Specifically, to come up with solutions to problems that people will pay you for. Successful business (okay not all of them, some of them are terrible) do this well. Solving problems, as addressed above, is not a purely analytical process. Problem solving skills are taught in an analytical way, though, so this is how we come to understand them. But the truth is, effective problem solving involves both skill sets: the creative and the analytical.

Not Every Job in Business is Creative, But Some Are.

This is why business often requires multiple minds. Not because analytical thinking and creative thinking are opposites (they aren’t), but because we’re taught about these skills in very different ways, and so we tend to specialize. So we end up with people who specialize in the creative, and spit out idea after idea regardless of their practicality. This is incredible, the ability to just generate solutions. It’s also one of the ways we now measure creativity in experiments and studies, actually. But people who specialize in the creative often lack the structure (again, not due to inability, but due to how these skills are coded in the culture) to organize and execute these ideas. So we also need structure specialists, and that’s where we have those who have specialized in the analytical. They can take those ideas, structure them, rank them, test them, and find the ones that are the best for any given situation. Then they can measure them and present the results in digestible and organized formats for the creativity specialists to iterate on. Because these skills are culturally coded as opposites, we have structured most businesses to have different roles for the creative and the analytical, although we do see this separation breaking down in modern, effective business workplaces.

Creativity is a Business Asset.

The ability to take a problem and come up with multiple solutions is a tremendous business asset. Sadly, most workplaces are built not to encourage creativity, but to discourage, even punish it, because creativity carries risk, and successful businesses have a lot to loose. We waste a lot of creative assets in this way,

because of how we handle failure

. Again, modern workplaces are getting better at encouraging their workers to practice creativity, but American business has a long way to go before they’re taking full advantage of this resource, in my humble opinion. There are still companies and roles in which creative workers are considered to be an unfortunate nuisance, a regrettable yet necessary part of the value chain. But business has its fashions, and if “creativity” was the buzzword of the previous decade, “business analytics” is the buzzword of the current one. Business today is looking for data, reams of it, and the charts and graphs that go along with it. Whole business realms are now data driven in a way that simply wasn’t possible ten years ago, and this is the root of a lot of innovation. Not just in terms of supply chain efficiency and service effectiveness, but also in terms of sustainability. But don’t let the data analytics buzz fool you; the people who are making new ideas out of that data are the same people that have always helped bring signals out of noise. Creative workers.

Creative is not the Opposite of Analytical.

This is something that took me a long time to learn, and I still think it’s something I haven’t fully internalized yet. While there is a degree of chaos and risk involved in creative work, the structure of the analytical and the mess of the creative are not opposites. You do not sit on a spectrum between analytical and creative. You in all likelihood have both skills, and have developed one in preference to the other due to how you were socialized as a child. This is something I’ve struggled with most of my life. I was recognized early as a creative kid, an artsy kid. My parents encouraged me to develop that skill, and made allowances for my deficits in the maths and sciences. The message I received was clear; I was not supposed to be good at those things, because I was already good at this thing. And I labored under that belief for most of my life. It wasn’t until I got to college (the second time) and pursued a business education that I came to realize that I did have analytical ability. It is not as developed as my creative skill, not because I lacked natural aptitude, but because I had not developed those skills. I had never been told I had those skills, or that I had the option to develop them. During my second stint at college, I had the opportunity to undo some of that. I had opportunities to develop analytical skill. I was still behind where I thought I should be, because I had not been practicing these skills for the last twenty years. But I could get better. And I did. And the secret is, gaining more analytical skill did not make me less creative. Because these two things are not opposites.

Business is Creative.

One of the things that stunned me most on entering the study of business was how very bright and interesting and creative my instructors were. Granted, I entered a focus (marketing) that tends to collect more creatively skilled people, but still. The use of creative skills in this field had to be structured by research, by process, by data. Even classes outside of my concentration that required analytical frameworks only bolstered the usefulness of my creative skills. I went from planning to be an art major to being a business major, and I never felt a single qualm about it. No sense of self-betrayal, and after I was embedded in the program, no sense that I was a poor fit for the field. And that’s because business is creative, and creativity is business.

The idea of the “self made man” is a common one in American culture. It’s the idea of someone (a man, typically) becoming successful simply through their own grit and hard work and natural ability. Though the phrase seems to be less common now than it was in my youth, you’ll still hear it, mostly from older folks or from those on the political right. The idea persists in the culture, however, and that’s a problem.

Because the self made man is a myth, and it always has been.

Where Does this Idea Come From?

This idea has been around since the early days of the United States. The phrase was coined in a speech by US Senator Henry Clay in 1832, but there are those who regard Benjamin Franklin as the first self made man. At that time, the concept of the self made man was a man who divested himself of possessions so that he may then go on to build his own fortune; in the 1950s, the success of the self made man was considered to be strictly success in business.

As the term has been used over and over again, it lost the divestiture meaning, and came to encapsulate anyone who had come up in business, the assumption being that the success this person (again, a man) enjoyed was the fruit of their own hard work, grit, and natural talents. These days there are those who would apply the self made man label even to those such as Donald J Trump, who has little experience at all with divestiture of wealth.

When the phrase was used by Clay in his speech in the Senate, it was in reference to leaders of manufacturing industry regarding tariffs that were being debated at the time, and this is a subject matter that causes people to invoke the self made man quite often: taxes. The idea that it is immoral to take money from those who have worked hard to earn it on their own, with no outside help, is used to inveigh against wealth taxes, business taxes, high marginal rates, and even estate taxes (the irony is palpable) here in the United States.

Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned abolitionist, said in one of his lectures that there were…

no such men as self-made men. That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist … Our best and most valued acquisitions have been obtained either from our contemporaries or from those who have preceded us in the field of thought and discovery. We have all either begged, borrowed or stolen. We have reaped where others have sown, and that which others have strown, we have gathered.

Frederick Douglass

Success Comes From Community and Society.

The flaws with this view of success, particularly success in business, should be obvious immediately: nobody runs a wildly successful business on their own.

Even if you started the business on your own, with no business loans, no small business grants, no material inheritance at all from one’s family (even I got enough of my parents’ estate to buy a Playstation), business simply does not work that way. Especially in the context of post industrialization manufacturing business, while you may have worked to get the money to buy the plant and the equipment, your business requires the labor of employees.

This is vital. We often think about how much employees need their jobs (and we do) but we neglect how vital employees are to the businesses they work for. Tesla could not function without employees, and nor could Kellogg’s or GE. If they could, they would.

We’re nearing a point now in which business without labor may become a possibility, but even then we will have relied on the work and advancement of generations of scientists and engineers to make that possible. Scientific advancement in the fields of automation and artificial intelligence doesn’t just fall from trees.

In addition, all business require the support of society to succeed. This ranges from simple access to markets (markets are made of people, something we often also overlook; no business succeeds without customers) to basic infrastructure, from roads and utilities that are provided or regulated by society collectively, to high speed data connections, cloud storage, and other necessities of modern business.

Land and Labor.

So if we assume that, of the four factors of production, Capital and Entrepreneurship are both taken care of by our self made man alone (they weren’t, but let’s assume), Land and Labor are still unaccounted for. Land includes natural resources that become raw materials that finished goods are manufactured from.

Where do land and labor come from?

Here, in the US, they’re stolen.

Every business, every factory, every office in the United States stands on stolen land. Every natural resource we extract is extracted from stolen land. Resources once regarded as common pool resources, some non-excludable, are made excludable and captured for the pursuit of profit.

But even if that weren’t the case, even if we didn’t steal this entire country and engage in a (continuing) campaign of genocide against its original inhabitants, one could reasonably say that it’s impossible to extract an industrially significant quantity of a resource from a given parcel of land without it impacting neighboring parcels. One could say that the industrial processes necessary for industrial scale production cannot help but pollute land, air, and water that impact those on neighboring parcels. The land, at the risk of sounding a bit new-agey, is all connected; by plants, animals, water, and air. You cannot plunder land, even land you own, without impacting those around you, the society in which you operate.

But what about Labor?

Okay, it may be fair to have a conversation about whether or not labor is stolen in the current day (although it certainly isn’t traded on an open and fair market), but this nation from its very beginnings was built on stolen labor. And the early mercantile and agricultural success enjoyed by the fledgling US may never have been possible without it.

It’s worth noting that Henry Clay himself, who stood in defense of the self made men of manufacturing, was a slave owner. As was Benjamin Franklin.

So when you take advantage of US markets, of an economic system predicated on cheap (or stolen) labor, you’re benefiting from the legacy of slavery, even if you don’t currently own slaves yourself.

I’m not making a moral judgement on this. I’m just acknowledging this as fact. There’s no way that a business benefiting from our system does not in some way benefit from our past use of slavery.

Capital and Entrepreneurship.

The two remaining factors of production are capital and entrepreneurship. Capital refers to the machinery, tools, buildings, and other equipment needed to produce goods. Entrepreneurship is the spark that most people associate with the self made man; the grit, the willingness to work hard, and the intelligence that makes the self made man successful.

Capital does not spring fully formed from the hands of the entrepreneur. Though the self made man, without any material inheritance from his family, may have worked sufficiently to acquire the capital needed, there were employees that manufactured or built the capital. Inventors who created the machines. A society that has gone before that left fertile ground for the creation of this capital in its wake.

Surely entrepreneurship is the domain of the self made man, and his alone. Surely he is responsible for his intelligence and work.

Not so fast. Even with a lack of material inheritance from his family, the self made man benefits from the education he received throughout his life. He benefits from the cultural education that he received from his social standing (early examples of self made men were born to landed gentry almost exclusively, and were white, ensuring that they understood how to move in the world of moneyed whites. This persists today. I am a beneficiary of such cultural privilege). They benefit from not having to scrape a living from the unforgiving land with their crooked fingers, the benefit of which is the ability to think of things grander than one’s next meal.

These days, even those who have been educated only in private schools benefit from curriculum developed by the broader society (often in public schooling systems) and we all benefit from public schools as they produce workers of a sufficient education level to perform the work needed in our companies and factories. Public education also mitigates a wide range of societal ills, making a society that is more stable and more able to direct energy toward consumerism. A society that produces both workers and customers.

The Blindness of the Self Made Man.

I am floored whenever I hear someone talk about self made men in this day and age. The sheer blindness of it, to not be able to look behind you and see the hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of people who participated along the way. Schoolteachers and road builders, laborers and mentors.

It is a blindness that doesn’t see the connection that every business has to the land, to the communities that live on that land, to those that historically lived on that land. To the communities in which they do business, to the workers in those communities and to the customers that are the eventual end users where the chain of production terminates.

All of us are connected. All of us come from a place and a people, and we all carry the benefits and disadvantages that those origins provide.

This profound blindness impacts all of us, wherever we live, wherever we work.

Why it Matters.

Understanding where your business comes from and where it’s going confers a long term advantage. Understanding the community where your business comes from and in which it operates currently is incredibly valuable. But it matters on a much smaller scale than that.

Understanding the webs of, for lack of a better term, value, that connect us all gives one a unique view of the market, of strategy, and of marketing. It lets you see strengths and weaknesses that the blind self made man simply cannot see.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my life is that, without significant material inheritance, what little success I’ve achieved has depended heavily on a complex web of relationships, without which I would be nothing at all.

Understanding that allows for further success, and gives you opportunities to help others succeed.

I’ve been offered an opportunity, and I’ve decided that if I can accept it, I should.

As a part of my MBA program, I have the chance to take a course on competing in a global environment at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. This is a very highly regarded school in China.

Of course, taking advantage of this opportunity isn’t free. While Western Washington University will cover accommodations and meals, I still have to pay for tuition, airfare, and visa and other expenses.

Before I break down my situation, let me tell you a little about myself:

I lost my last permanent, full time job in 2010, at the beginning of the “recovery” from the Great Recession. After that I exhausted my unemployment and my paltry “retirement” savings, leaving me completely broke. I worked part time and temporary jobs, and in fact, I haven’t had a full time permanent position since then.

Desperate, I filled out a FAFSA and found out that yes, funds were available for me to go back to school. This was a revelation to me; my parents said they were setting aside money throughout my childhood to invest and save for my college career, and yet somehow that money evaporated when I was an adult.

So I went back to school. I had no idea at that time that my passion would be in business.

I graduated with my degree in business administration in December of 2018, and made the decision at that time to pursue my MBA.

And that brings us to today. I still have no savings, and am still scraping by month to month.

But the opportunity to take a course at a prestigious foreign university is too huge to pass up if I can make it happen.

It will look great on my resume.

Having studied overseas, especially at Shanghai University, is going to look wonderful on my resume. It will open doors for me, someone who has spent ten years living in poverty, in terms of getting a good job and beginning to save for actual retirement. It will indicate my dedication to learning about my work and an ability to work well with those who are different from myself.

It will be a valuable educational experience.

I am passionate about the study of business in a way I never thought I would be. If you had told a younger me that in middle age, I would be furiously studying business and loving it, she would never have believed you. I’m fascinated with how business is part of the fabric of society and indeed of human nature. This is an opportunity to study how business impacts foreign economies, and the world economy. This will give me a more well-rounded view of my place in the world and the ways in which I can improve it.

It’s a chance to conquer fear.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m terrified to go. The idea of traveling to a foreign country on my own, going through customs and immigration on my own, navigating a foreign city on my own, is frightening to me. But my (former) therapist always told me that it was important to confront these anxieties in ways that are safe and constructive. This would be made more safe because I am traveling with classmates and our instructor, and thus less likely to become hopelessly lost in a city where I don’t speak the language.

My class needs enough people for the trip to go forward.

If we don’t have enough people committed to go, the trip may be cancelled, or the cost of it inflated until other classmates of mine can no longer afford it. It’s not a large cohort, only twenty people, so every one of us counts. If I get to go, not only does it benefit me, but it also benefits my classmates, who are people with the potential to get into business and change things for the better.

But I don’t have the money.

I presented this problem to my friends, and they suggested that I try to crowdfund it. I started that process and raised around $300 from my nearest and dearest, and I’ve started putting away my meager freelance income as well.

I’ve decided that if I can scrape together the $1000 deposit before the November 15th deadline, I will commit to going. This doesn’t cover the airfare, the cost of the visa, nor clothing expenses, etc. The reason I have to raise tuition costs for the course is that my partial tuition waiver from my work as a research assistant for the university doesn’t cover this course.

I’m almost halfway there.

After I get the deposit covered, I’ll start worrying about airfare and visa costs, and some wardrobe pieces so that I don’t look like a begpacker while I’m there.

I know you don’t know me well, dear reader, but if you have a few dollars to spare, every little bit helps. In terms of funding, I’m not using GoFundMe, I’m simply using my PayPal link. You can donate here.

I know it’s a lot to ask for people who may not know me, but I have to try. I have to try to make this happen.

If you’re not willing or able to donate, sharing this post with people would also help.

Thank you for reading.