Some Thoughts on Creativity and Economic Research
Mar 9, 2023
As of the fifth year of my economics PhD, I have published zero scientific papers, written a dozen short stories that no one has read, and sold precisely one painting. I am, therefore, one of the last people you should ask about creative success.
But, like many amateurs peering enviously into the inner circle, I have a mild obsession with what I cannot quite do. Economic research is more akin to the creative arts than is commonly admitted—certainly by the art people, who would like to keep economists away from their parties—and there’s much to learn from the habits of other fields.
Here are a few scattered, loosely connected thoughts on what seems to work well, at least for other people. Call it a collage.
Tricking the Hiding Hand
Let me begin, somewhat elliptically, with a parable from the great development economist Albert Hirschman. In the mid-1960s, Hirschman visited a paper mill on the Karnaphuli River in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The mill had been built around lush bamboo forests, which were intended to serve as its raw material—until one day not long after opening, when the bamboo flowered all at once, and, “poetically but quite uneconomically”, died.
The planners were sent scrambling for solutions: they created a new organization to collect bamboo from villages across the country, and began experiments on new plant species that could fill the gap. The result was a mill with a more diversified resource base, one perhaps better equipped to survive future shocks. (The mill still exists, though it has recently been accused of polluting the river with toxic chemicals.) Ironically, if the planners had known back in the ‘50s that all the bamboo was about to die, they would never have sited the mill where they did. Only by failing to anticipate the difficulties did they forge ahead—and end up creating a more resilient project.
Hirschman later expanded this nugget of developmental wisdom into a general principle of creativity:
Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task…
… since we necessarily underestimate our creativity, it is desirable that we underestimate to a roughly similar extent the difficulties of the tasks we face so as to be tricked by these two offsetting underestimates into undertaking tasks that we can, but otherwise would not dare, tackle. The principle is important enough to deserve a name… I propose the Hiding Hand.
In plainer English, the Hiding Hand conceals from us both the obstacles and the flashes of invention needed to solve them, beckoning us to try for goals just beyond our reach.
After giving a talk, when I’m in that delirious state mixing exhaustion and relief, I often go back through my slides—the same ones I’ve been laboring on for weeks—and find that the work feels like it was done by a stranger. It’s as if I fell asleep and woke up on deadline day, with the research finished and polished up by someone far more capable than lil mediocre ol’ me.
And that observation, at least the last part, is literally correct—because the work is not in fact done by me, but by a long sequence of mes, accumulating improvisations and micro-inventions to solve each problem as it is met.
The creativity of the Hiding Hand comes from a specific kind of predictive mistake: underestimating the difficulties that lie ahead. But we can extend this recognition—that creativity emerges under duress—to a broader principle for research. Start by picking a big question. One of the Big Ones, the kind that got you excited to study economics in the first place. Don’t worry so much about failing; the outside career options for a Economics PhD are very good. Pick something so large that even if chunks of it fall off as you pull it into harbor, it’s still impressive. Then, start today. Don’t try to exhaustively learn every tool before you begin, or you never will. Instead, be confident in your ability to learn and improvise solutions on the fly, remembering that there’s no stronger motivation to actually learn something than needing to use it.
Two caveats are in order. The first is that ambition is no excuse to become a tyrant, either to yourself or others. Being kind is more important, and more lasting. The second is that failure is very much possible. Impossible tasks will always remain impossible, unyielding to ambition. (See hubris.) But there is a satisfaction of its own to setting ambitious goals, regardless of success. Inexplicably, my mind drifts to the words of Tottenham Hotspur’s Danny Blanchflower: if you set your sights very high, “even failure will have in it an echo of glory”. You, too, could win two league titles in 140 years of storied history.
A final note, on failure. The dark mirror of the Hiding Hand sounds a lot like depression, or at least my experience of it. Losing faith in your capabilities means feeling unequal to the challenges that lurk in the day ahead. Much better to stay in bed, pull the covers over your face, and pretend you’re in a tent forever.
Since creativity seems to come in part from risk-taking, a sense of inadequacy can be self-reinforcing. But it also means that, with a little push, latent capabilities can be discovered, and this vicious cycle can be broken.
I write this as a spur to myself, but also those assumed by the academic tribe, by unspoken rule, to be incapable of feats of creative daring: if you’re a woman, or Black, or neurodivergent, or working class, or yes, another sallow-faced Asian clone, who is assumed by nature to be passionless, unimaginative, replaceable—
Go out there and prove them wrong.
Keep a Clopen Mind
The great comedian John Cleese, who is sadly turning into one of the billowy old farts he used to mock, recorded a wonderful talk on creativity back in 1991. His main idea is that the creative mind seems to have two modes, open and closed:
By the “closed mode” I mean the mode that we are in most of the time when at work. We have inside us a feeling that there’s lots to be done and we have to get on with it if we’re going to get through it all. It’s an active (probably slightly anxious) mode, although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable. It’s a mode which we’re probably a little impatient, if only with ourselves. It has a little tension in it, not much humor. It’s a mode in which we’re very purposeful, and it’s a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic, but not creative.
By contrast, the open mode, is [a] relaxed, expansive, less purposeful mode… in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful. It’s a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.
It’s an important skill to observe how your brain switches between these modes. Desperation, whose natural habitat is midnight before a deadline, is the ultimate closed mode—great for finishing up projects, but terrible for coming up with ideas. The languid summer months are the home of the open mode—when the sky stretches with potential novels, paintings, and research papers—and of course very little actually gets done.
I would add a twist, however, to Cleese’s formulation: the closed mode for one task may be the open mode for another.
There’s often no better spur for creativity than being forced to do something else. With the conscious mind stuck in the closed mode, the unconscious mind is quietly bubbling in the background with ideas—the “wouldn’t that be interesting?”s that, with luck, solidify into research questions. Seminars are good for this, as are long meetings. Classes, too.
But the very best research ideas, I find, come when I am working on other research projects. One reason is that, quite naturally, the mind finds it easier to invent new forms when it already has raw material of the same type in hand. Though I occasionally get painting ideas while researching, or writing ideas while painting, most often like comes with like.
But the most important reason, one that I have learned through hard experience, is that the kind of intellectual play that generates interesting research is only possible when one feels secure. And for “knowledge work” (such an odd phrase), perhaps the deepest insecurity comes when one feels like one has nothing to work on at all.
It is an odd, deeply vulnerable, almost naked feeling—call it researcher’s block. This, I think, is why so many PhD students find it difficult to get started once the formal coursework of the program ends. One is in a PhD program to produce research, but for the moment one doesn’t have any. One suspects—hell, I suspect—that I am a fraud, an admissions mistake—that, like a spent lemon, there is no juice left to be squeezed out. Ahead, the blank page looms.
To combat this, it’s helpful to try and start a project (even a small one) in the second year of the PhD, while one is still busy with coursework. Getting that first project going starts a virtuous cycle. It gives you something concrete to work on throughout the Third Year, even if you have little ambition of it becoming your job market paper, and gives your brain the sense of security to start playing with ideas. Later, with this first project under your belt, one can jump more readily between the open and closed modes—a virtue of having multiple projects at different stages of the research process.
After learning to recognize the open and closed modes, it’s remarkable how much boredom starts to seem more like an asset than a curse. In long meetings and seminars, I always keep a pen and paper at hand to jot down stray thoughts and doodle in the margins, to see what my subconscious bubbles up. Most of what comes out is dreck; but occasionally I get whole blocks of pseudocode, a proof concept, a nugget of a research question.
Though, on second thought, one should always be mindful of what one puts down. I still remember, in eighth grade, having to turn in a Geometry worksheet on which I’d absentmindedly doodled a phalanx of Spartans with bulging muscled breastplates. It was returned, mercifully, without comment.
Business Secrets of the Beatles
We’ve made it around a thousand words in a self-indulgent personal essay on creativity, and while I’ve worked in Albert Hirschman, Monty Python, and Tottenham Hotspur, I somehow haven’t yet mentioned the Beatles.
The new Beatles documentary Get Back has spawned a whole sub-industry of think-pieces on the creative process, and by now the basic facts are well-known: how the Beatles set themselves a crazy ambitious deadline—compose an album of fourteen songs to perform live in two weeks—and how that pressure unleashed stunning feats of genius—like Paul McCartney creating “Get Back” from nothing in two minutes on his Hofner Bass.
It’s not hard to see the connection with the Hiding Hand, and the old observation that creativity does best under artistic constraints. But there are two smaller points I haven’t seen mentioned.
The first is how the Beatles were happy to bend the rules to make success feasible. Far from the proposed fourteen, Let It Be really only has nine new songs (“Dig It” and “Maggie Mae” are just jam session fragments, while John Lennon wrote “One After 909” as a teenager), and the band only felt confident enough to play five originals in their famous rooftop concert. Of course, given the strength of the final product, it feels lame to point this out—which goes to show that when you set lofty goals, people will happily forget the gap even when you fall a little short.
Another is to observe an absence: it struck me how little the Beatles discuss external expectations of their work. Here are the four most famous men on the planet, their every lyric analyzed for Nostradamic significance, and over seven hours there’s hardly a word about critics or sales. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the Get Back project only really blossoms after the band moves from Twickenham Studios—vast, cavernous, filled with strangers—to the more intimate confines of Abbey Road. The band exists first and foremost for its members. George craves the artistic recognition of John and Paul, who share a private language he cannot decipher; Paul tries to hold the attention of John, rapidly checking out, through dazzling displays of musical creativity; and Ringo plays the drums.
Speaking for myself, it’s when I find myself doing things solely to satisfy the demands of the economics profession that research feels most like a job. Of course, concessions must always be made to reality—on the margins, it doesn’t hurt to reframe a finished paper to increase your odds of gainful employment. But if the PhD turns into just a bunch of dreary number crunching to make a bunch of senior people happy—well, you could probably be doing dreary number crunching for senior people in a proper office, who will pay you oodles more money for the privilege.
Be like Ringo. Show up on time, try to tune out as much of the drama as possible, and bang away happily at the drums.
Watch Someone Else Do It
One of my mild obsessions is how creativity, which we are raised to think of as feathery and ethereal, interacts with the grubby, mundane questions of daily routine. Whatever your belief system, at some level you must admit that that mysterious source from which creativity springs—call it your soul, your muse, your katra—is housed inside a meat bag, which insists on rest, nourishment, and amusement.
For a time it was fashionable to pretend that these biological needs didn’t exist, or could be overcome with sheer willpower: Bill Clinton said he slept five hours only a night, Kim Jong Un claimed he never pooped. Now perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, with mid-level VCs poring over their Apple Watch data to compete over who can sleep the soundest. But I think a moderate embrace of the fact that we are all meat bags, beyond being inherently healthy, is good for creativity.
The meat bag demands maintenance. It wants seven to nine hours of quality sleep. Occasionally in a deadline-induced panic the meat bag can pull an all-nighter; but that cannot be the foundation of consistently good work. Its eye balls want more than the fluorescent prison of the Excel grid—they want to see mountains, and fields of green, or at least the open sky. The meat bag moves through space, doing groceries, picking up dog poop, and of course parking its butt at a desk eight hours a day.
But how exactly is butt-chair contact converted into finished output? How does that mysterious transfiguration happen?
At one level I think that’s part of what a successful research assistantship is supposed to teach you. Like an apprentice of old, you sit with a skilled artisan each day and peer over their shoulder as they work. You learn to see the twists and turns of their research process through their eyes—its disappointments, its victories, its disappointments, its disappointments, its disappointments.
Through this you learn that the research process, like a typical Mets season, consists much more of failure than success. What matters is showing up each morning, grinding it out, enduring the daily defeats while somehow leaving yourself vulnerable to those rare flashes of inspiration. Apprenticeships are so helpful because you can learn this lesson at one layer of remove, through borrowed experience; it can be much more painful (and time-consuming) to learn it firsthand.
Short of apprenticing yourself to the nearest stonemason, I’ve also found it enormously helpful to find art that is itself about the creative process. (The Beatles: Get Back is one example.) This works for me less as a direct source of ideas about how to structure my work, but more to dwell in a mind alien to mine, and to use the strangeness of that terrain to reflect on my own practice.
One such book—that I say, without irony, changed my life—is the compiled letters of Vincent van Gogh.
In some sense, it’s an odd recommendation. The letters are, of course, mostly about painting—though Vincent first tries working as an art dealer and then a preacher, and finds that neither stick. Many of the letters are filled with banalities, like requests for paints and gripes about the weather. But there’s something cumulatively powerful about these these details.
I first read the letters when I worked as an RA. Every night, I advanced a few pages, or a few weeks of van Gogh’s life, such that it felt like I was living alongside him. Over the course of just a few hundred pages, you can see as maybe the best-loved of all painters makes the journey from beginner drawing to the eternal Sunflowers. It’s astonishing. It feels like a transformation that should not occur in human time; but it really happens, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the result of dogged persistence. For his part, Van Gogh maintained that his best work came not from flashes of inspiration, or (as the myths go) flurries of absinthe-fueled passion, but from the unglamorous work of taking his easel out every chilly morning and planting it amidst the manure.
Five years after I read them, there are two passages that I still have marked with faded Post-Its, which I return to in lonely moments. The first asks:
What is drawing? How does one come to it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How is one to get through that wall—since pouring at it is of no use? In my opinion one has to undermine that wall, filing through it steadily and patiently. And there you are—how can one continue such work assidu without being distracted or diverted, unless one reflects and orders one’s life by principles? And as it is with art so it is with other things. And great things are not something accidental, they must be distinctly willed.
And the second paints in words, far better than I ever could, that collision between the harshness of this weird, constrained meatbag life, and that mysterious, most unmeatbaglike yearning—the creative spirit?—that we sometimes hear call out from deep within:
When you are in good health you should be able to live on a piece of bread while doing a full day’s work and have enough strength left over to smoke and have a drink, because you need that under those conditions. And yet be clearly aware of the stars and the infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.
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