One of my favourite comedians, Jack Dee, was once interviewed on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs about how he found his vocation. He said he had always worried there was something wrong with him. He felt a misfit in society. Then one day an experience revealed his true vocation: riding home on his motorbike (I picture him with his ears flapping in the wind like Snoopy’s), he shouted joyously into the ether: ‘Now I know what’s wrong with me! I’m a comedian!!’ I laughed considerably at this (that’s why he’s one of my favourite comedians), but I also perceived the deep truth in it: our ‘developed’ economy is structured in such a way that many creative people are not only barred from fulfilling their talents, they are made to feel seriously deficient.
You have heard of structural dismissal. Well this is structural ‘othering’ (to use a hip phrase). Structural denial of identity.
Of course there are exceptions: those whose talents either (a) find favour with an influential opinion former (Hirst/Saatchi) or cause célèbre (Evaristo/Booker) or (b) happen to coincide with an economic opportunity that involves mass-production (e.g. singers who get ‘signed’; costume designers for a fantasy movie). The mass-market economy does rewards these few talented creative people who were in the right place at the right time; but it offers little opportunity to the much larger number of (often equally talented) individuals who were not.
This is bad enough, but to make matters worse, the very characteristics that make these creative people tick are often rejected by the prevalent economy, since they lie outside its norms and expectations. Instead they are diagnosed as disorders.
Here are some examples.
Two of my Facebook contacts, one a talented musician and one with a talent for words and acting, recently posted on their timelines about having ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). They listed the symptoms and sought to promote understanding. At first I thought this was a good idea. Finding that the symptom lists resonated with me, I wondered whether perhaps I might ‘have’ the same ‘disorder’. Then I stopped in my tracks. During my career I’ve become increasingly aware that the type of working environment prevalent in our economy is not one in which I flourish. But to struggle with the norms imposed by a particular environment is not a disorder. This is just an alternative way of being normal, and potentially a creative one that has many potential benefits for society at large.
The term ‘attention deficit’ begs the question: ‘To what we are expecting someone to give their attention? A rules-driven, process-driven environment, where a cascade of pre-ordained actions line up like dominoes to produce standardised outputs and outcomes? This is indeed an efficient way of operating a complex assembly line (for example), but it is unlikely to get the best out of a creative lateral thinker, a strategist, an ideas person, a maker, a craftsperson.
The modern workplace (rather like its harbinger, the school classroom) requires a person to sit in a particular spot, at a particular ‘work station’ with a ‘line manager’ (at the end of a metaphorical production line), and work through a series of prescribed tasks and procedures. Is it any wonder that a creative person, craving permission for the holistic approach needed to reach the goal in their own way, displays ‘attention deficit’? The ‘hyperactivity’ presumably follows as the pent-up creative power bursts out in a tumultuous rush of rebelliousness.
The diagnosis of a ‘disorder’ may promote understanding (perhaps patronising sympathy too) but it is also a condemnation: ‘You are a misfit. Your approach to life, your way of thinking, behaving and achieving goals has no place in our system. The only solution is to label you, signpost that you need support, and have a plan in place to get you to do things our way.’
Similar conclusions could be drawn about other ‘conditions’ such as dyslexia and autistic spectrum ‘disorders’. These are extremely common, yet it does not seem to have occurred to the Disorder Labelling Committee that any extremely common phenomenon in a human population has survived natural selection for a reason. Blue-grey eyes? They let in more light during a gloomy northern winter. Strong limbs? They let you run away from a predator. Thinking in a holistic way? Well surely that has advantages that outweigh a few misplaced letters. Liking patterns and regularity? Well now, couldn’t we find a use for that can in an organised society?
These are not disorders, they are part of the pool of talent that makes up the human race.
Recently, while trying to find time to be an artist, and perpetually swimming against the tide – indeed the tsunami of the pandemic – I ended up doing temp work in a warehouse. The other people I met were far from talentless or unintelligent. Somewhat like me, they were individuals whose disposition and emotional constitution did not chime with the ritualised and institutionalised approach to work that is a prerequisite of many regular in-house jobs. They tended to be free spirits. Some were dyslexic or artistic, thoughtful or philosophical. Most preferred to be practical and active rather than static and passive. It made me feel frustrated that those talents were so undervalued, including my own. That said, we were at least doing something useful – boxing up fizzy drinks to be enjoyed by thousands of couples on a cosy night in.
Still, this conundrum requires a solution. I do not have a magic answer, but I do know that helpful ideas emanate from certain organisations, such as the Royal Society of Arts (thersa.org) and the New Economics Foundation (neweconomics.org). If I have any brainwaves of my own, I will write part two for this blog post. In the meantime… my creative vocation has been put on hold again, as I do other things to bring in the bacon.