A curious thing happened at my final high-school exam. “ Why don’t we skip the questions”, smiled the literature teacher “ You’ve worked so hard, I don’t even need to test you. Just read me your favourite poem”. A straight A student with a mousy demeanor, I happily recited a beautiful piece by Sergei Esenin. I will never forget the teacher’s eyes turning wide and slightly scared, as the final verse went something like this: “I cherish a dream that one day… I too will slit someone’s throat… They will lead me in chains up the rocky slope, where the free mountain air will cure my sadness…”
I’ve long forgotten my teenage years in Soviet Latvia, but this memory remains, next to random glimpses of other moments that stand out of the ordinary. There was the time when a secret agent tried to recruit me and the only way out I could think of was to propose a joint CIA/KGB brigade, which I’d be happy to join. That bought me time, leaving the agent speechless and his superiors impressed. There was the time when a local Communist Youth Committee appointed me to create an environmental newsletter, and I found a young cartoonist who was really quite funny. Next time the Committee gathered in its impressive boardroom, our samizdat magazine lay on the mahogany desk in front of each member. I don’t think they ever got to the second page, where three-eyed cows grazed on radioactive grass, and naked green girls swam in the Daugava river.
The common thread that runs through these memories is a strange kind of freedom, a sense of self that is not afraid, the ecstasy of seeing the dumbfounded faces of the establishment get longer as you unveil in front of them a world they refuse to see. These must have been the first glimpses of the creative impulse, which eventually propelled me out of that world and into the disruptive choices of my life.
I thought of those days when leafing through “Dangerous Ideas”, a book by a Scandinavian professor Alf Rehn. The bad boy of business management, Rehn basically goes around telling big companies that with all their lip service to creativity, they are incapable of it. The fact is, true creativity is subversive, its nature is to break through the boundaries of the box – and no box could ever promote that. “We often imagine creativity as something that is pleasant, fun and lovely,” he writes, ”but this is a lie…. Real creativity tends to be a little dangerous, threatening, in your face.”
Rehn goes on to propose a 5-step method to develop true corporate creativity, moving away from Imitation (step 1, which most organizations mistake for the creative process) and finally arriving at “Dangerous Thinking”, the stage at which truly new ideas can finally emerge.
Come to think of it, I am happy I grew up in a communist state, for it was the best way to learn dangerous thinking — no one liked the regime, and it was an easy moral choice to be subversive. The capitalist democracy has many advantages, but one great downside: it is much harder to make fun of. There’s a certain righteousness that comes with a belief that you have the best system in the world, a desire to defend status quo that feeds stagnation. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of big business. If you have reached a certain success, built a structure that works and delivers recurring revenues, will you really let in an idea that will mess up your figures, upset your flow-charts and scare your board members? And if you tame this idea, weigh it down with numbers and projections, can it still take off like a space rocket?
Rehn’s thesis left me with many questions: are we only truly creative when we are down and out, up against the system, with nothing to lose? Do creative ideas only happen in the beginning, and never in the end? Is there a way to stay permanently creative? Will major corporations “get” the message of this book, and jump on the dangerous thinking bandwagon?
Then again, as Neil Aspinall, the late Beatles manager, told me one day: “Here’s my rule: If you see a bandwagon, you are too late”.