Creativity and the Real Power of Saying ‘No’

One of the most persuasive kinds of mendacity occurs when a misleading statement is, at face value, true. There’s a reason why it’s not just ‘the truth’ we ask for, but also ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.

An article I saw a while back (but have now lost*) argued that a key indicator for creative success is the ability to say ‘no’ in order to refuse distractions and focus on work. The particular trigger for this was that a researcher had approached a bunch of creative people to find out what made them tick and had been struck by how many of them either didn’t get back to him or refused on the basis that they were too busy being creative. The implication is that by refusing to get involved with other stuff you maximise your creative time and keep your focus, ergo saying ‘no’ is good for creativity. Well, kinda. You have to have a lot else going on besides saying ‘no’; you need decent ideas, high standards, tenacity and the rest.

Another fault with the argument is that the lack of responses to the researcher may not be because the creative professional was focused on their work but because in reality they were having to do additional jobs to make ends meet, as many in the creative sector do, or they’d said ‘yes’ too many times to other people or projects, or they just weren’t interested. So it’s an odd conclusion to draw. But there is, as I say, truth in it. The ability to say ‘no’ is a massive help. I know this for a fact because I’m bad at saying ‘no’ and it’s definitely reduced my creative output, although it’s helped a great many other people increase theirs. And that’s why I want to unpick this argument. Well, it’s one reason. The other is because I think it’s symptomatic of a wider tendency to claim that success is intrinsically deserved, a deeply flawed ideological position that colours our entire culture, from the demonisation of the poor to the cult of celebrity.

Now, before I go on I should point out that there is another kind of saying ‘no’ which is highly commendable. It’s saying ‘no’ to jobs that are exploitative, to behaviour that is abusive, to practices that are harmful or unhealthy, and so on. To be clear, I’m not talking about that kind of a ‘no’; I’m talking about the ability, described in the article, to say ‘no’ to anything that detracts from one’s personal creative practice. That said, even here there’s a matter of balance to be considered. Saying ‘no’ to protect yourself can mean other people being pressured to say ‘yes’ to fill in the gap, potentially harming themselves. Sometimes, rather than saying ‘no’, we need to say ‘How can we do this better?’ or even ‘Should we be doing this at all?’

But let’s get back to the people who are good at saying ‘no’ purely to defend their own creative time. What’s the problem? Well, it’s because success in the arts world is very much dependent on a large amount of other people saying ‘yes’. Just like in wider society where charities and the third sector provide essential services and pick up the pieces when the state fails, much of the infrastructure of the strange and fragile ecosystem of the creative sector (where the state is very small) relies on those who, sometimes paid but often voluntarily, or working way beyond the hours they’re paid for, help young talent, organise community projects, campaign for better working conditions, help out their colleagues… In the money-poor and time-poor world of the arts as it currently (dys)functions, such activity is essential. Even more so at the moment, in the context of the double blow dealt to the sector by the malign conjunction of Tory cuts and a pandemic. But, even in less strange times, this good work is almost impossible to do without neglecting one’s own creative output. 

This imbalance often has a seriously deleterious effect on well-being too, which, in turn further reduces creativity. Not being able to be creative when it’s your job, is also bad for mental heath, creating a vicious circle. So those who say ‘no’ are often benefiting from – but not contributing to – the huge web of linked activities which sustains their work. Denying this is awfully similar to the Tory strategy of spinning privilege and freeloading as fair competition and should I suggest, cast a more critical light on how we measure success in the sector. 

Of course I’m generalising. There are many exceptions. And of course a great many people say ‘no’ sometimes and ‘yes’ at other times. If there were some kind of giant yes-no Venn diagram for everyone in the sector, I have no idea how big that overlap would be, although it’s where we should all heading, weighing up each yes/no decision individually, to balance kindness towards oneself with kindness to others. But I do know that I’ve given up a lot of my own time, unpaid, for the general good of theatre design as a profession, because I see it as the right price for having a vaguely not-disastrous career as a theatre designer. (I’ve given a lot to environmentalism too, because I see that as the right price for being a human in general and a human with a decent standard of living in particular, but I’m going to stick with the creative sector for this blogpost.) I know that I have sacrificed time that I could have spent pursuing my own projects and building my own career, and while I don’t regret the giving per se, I do regret the consequential loss. Not because of what it is but because of how it’s distributed and the consequences that has had for my career. It can feel like a mug’s game, especially as, I think it’s fair to say, the relationship between success and talent in the creative sector is, shall we say, not always linear.

Helping other people gratis isn’t all about sacrifice, of course. It’s often rewarding. It’d be even more rewarding, however, if it wasn’t so direly needed, and if it didn’t feel like constant firefighting. Until we have fiscal and cultural policies that understand how the arts work (a topic for another time) our sector is, sadly, such that it would fall apart without this generosity. Because for one thing, that’s how society is, and, for another, we just don’t fit properly into the commercially driven economic system that surrounds us. 

I also think it’s fair not only to ask why the distribution of volunteering is so unequal but also why we praise people’s ability to say ‘no’ when what it often really means is ‘let someone else do it.’

The idea that saying ‘no’ in this sense is a cause of greater creativity is therefore the truth but not the whole truth, and so of no real value as an observation. It is, however, a very convincing example of confirmation bias for those who’ve bought into the poisonous conservative myth that success is always deserved. That, in a nutshell, is the specific point I wanted to make in this post but I’m not quite done as there’s a general one too.

In the light of these observations (which highlight just one of many, many injustices in our sector) it suddenly becomes apparent how the ecology of the creative sector is a kind of politics; there’s a complex interplay of work, value, power, hierarchy and constructed notions of success which, in order to survice, needs to be negotiated, and which, to extremely unequal and inequitable extents related to privilege and character, can or cannot be confronted, avoided or exploited.

By analysing this we can ask what kind of politics we want our sector to have. I don’t think many people would say it’s what we have at the moment.


*I started this post several months ago, then forgot about it. I came across it again recently and it felt relevant. I don’t remember much about the article that inspired it, but I do clearly remember my reaction to the article’s conclusion.

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