John Irving’s Lessons for Business

John Irving might seem an unlikely candidate to teach managers and business leaders how to foster creativity in their organizations. Not so, found HBS professor Teresa Amabile.
by Mallory Stark & Martha Lagace
photo of John Irving
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

At first glance, perhaps, the writer John Irving might not seem to have a lot to teach the corporate world.

As the author of such celebrated bestsellers as The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp, Irving has spent the majority of his work life engaged in the solitary pursuit of writing, not jockeying for advancement in a business organization.

Even so, according to HBS professor Teresa Amabile, a good look at Irving's life to date reveals fascinating lessons on how to think about the notion of "raw talent" — always a hot commodity in business — as well as how to nurture creativity, both in individuals and in organizations.

Amabile interviewed John Irving in 1986, when he agreed to share memories of his childhood as part of a research project Amabile was conducting on children and creativity. Their conversations later informed her book Growing Up Creative: Nurturing a Lifetime of Creativity.

More recently, Amabile drew on that interview and subsequent correspondence with Irving for an article she wrote for a special section on creativity in American Psychologist. "Beyond Talent: John Irving and the Passionate Craft of Creativity" is scheduled to appear in the April 2001 issue.

Asked by HBS Working Knowledge about her motivation for focusing on John Irving, Amabile replied, "I wanted to counteract a strong stereotype that people in business, laypeople in general, and even some psychologists have about creativity. The stereotype is that creativity depends almost exclusively on a person's level of 'genius' — their raw, inborn talent for doing what they're doing.

"Of course, talent is an important aspect of creativity," Amabile said. "But it's just one aspect. I think you can argue that it's not even the most important aspect."

Talent is overrated. That you're not very talented needn't be the end of it.
— John Irving, quoting his former wrestling coach

For the American Psychologist article, Amabile said, she used Irving's life and work, as well as his own views on his work and himself, "as a vehicle for thinking about the different elements that are necessary for creativity."

There are three basic components of creativity, Amabile believes. The first two are relatively straightforward: expertise in a chosen domain, and creative thinking skills (including risk taking, imagination, and plain old hard work).

The third component, and the one with the greatest implications for business environments, is what Amabile terms "intrinsic motivation."

Below are some of her thoughts on the topic, which she shared with Mallory Stark of HBS Working Knowledge.

Start With Passion And Sustain It

People are going to be more creative when they're passionate about what they're doing, when they feel personally involved in it, excited about it, and when they have a deep level of enjoyment of the domain. Even though at any one moment they might not feel like they're having fun because it's really hard work, they still have a deep level of attachment to their work.

And you see that repeatedly with Irving. It's obvious that he just can't imagine himself doing anything else. That's a hallmark of outstandingly creative individuals.

Intrinsic motivation depends not just on your basic love of the domain, however. It also depends on the social environment. This discovery, I think, is the most important contribution that my research has made. The work environment you're in, or the school environment you're in, can have an important impact on the intrinsic motivation you have for what you're doing.

If people are in an environment with a lot of these external pressures and motivators, they can actually become less intrinsically motivated. Many researchers have demonstrated this phenomenon. My students, colleagues, and I have extended this research by showing that, because intrinsic motivation is so important for creativity, people's creativity can actually decline in situations when they're under a lot of extrinsic control.

For example, tight deadlines do motivate people. They motivate people to get work done, often because they are trying to avoid negative consequences. As another example, people sometimes feel that they are going after some tangible reward that's being offered to them for their work, or maybe even some intangible reward like recognition. Or they may find themselves focusing on avoiding harshly negative criticism of new ideas, or on internal competition — trying to look better than other people. All of these forces are extrinsic motivators. They may get people to perform in the short run, but they lead people to feel that they're not doing their work because of their own internal motivation — even if they started out internally motivated. As a result, they don't get as deeply engaged in their work, and they end up not being as creative.

When Irving talks about his childhood, it's clear that these sorts of extrinsic motivators and external pressures were not much in evidence. On the contrary, he talks about the degree of freedom that he had growing up in his own household, with time to be alone to think, to make up his stories. He told me, "You know, I used to make up stories about my day and tell them to my family. They must have known that these were lies, but they never called me on it. They never said, 'What are you doing?' They loved listening to my stories. That's why I fell in love with storytelling and why I still love it so much."

I believe that Irving's childhood home environment played an important role in developing his strong intrinsic motivation and extraordinary creativity.

Lessons For Business

I think there are lessons here for people in business, in terms of managing themselves and trying to do their own best creative work, and also in terms of managing other people.

If you want to do your most creative work, you shouldn't focus solely on what your talents are and decide that you can't do creative work in a particular area because you see other people who are more talented than you. Yes, you do need to have some basic level of talent and skill for the arena in which you want to work. But it doesn't matter if there are other, more talented people. There are plenty of extremely talented people who never do anything, really.

Find out where your skills and talents lie, and then look for your "creativity intersection" — for those activities where your talents and your strongest intrinsic motivations come together. This will give you the opportunity to be involved in a "passionate craft," as I call it in the American Psychologist article. This is something where you can be really excited about what you're doing, where you almost can't keep yourself from working hard.

As John Irving has demonstrated repeatedly, it's absolutely essential to work really hard. It sounds so ordinary to say that. But you do have to persevere at what you're doing. Learn what you need to learn, and always try to improve in what you're doing. That can go a long way toward helping you to develop more expertise, and also toward helping you to explore new ways of thinking about what you're doing. Of course, once you have found your passionate craft, you must find the right work environment for practicing that craft, one where you're not going to be under excessive external pressures that could derail that intrinsic motivation.

Implications For Managers

Think about all three of the creativity components in selecting people and assigning them to projects. First, of course, expertise is important — talent and skill, experience and training. Unfortunately, that's sometimes all that we consider.

We need to also think about "creative thinking skills." Does the person show evidence of imagination? Of really knowing what it means to work very hard and persevere to solve problems?

And we hardly ever pay attention to intrinsic motivation, which is the driving force that actually makes creativity happen. Does this person seem really turned on by this job or by this particular assignment? Is there a spark in their eye when they talk about it?

Then, it's absolutely crucial to set up a work environment that supports intrinsic motivation and supports people developing their talents. It should be an environment that's going to give people a good degree of autonomy, as Irving had when he was a child.

Moreover, the work environment should be one where people at all levels feel that they have support, that managers and coworkers are open to hearing their ideas — rather than being consistently negative about new ideas.

Fostering Creativity

The structures you establish can make a big difference in fostering creativity. You should set up work groups so that people will stimulate each other and learn from each other, so that they're not homogenous in terms of their backgrounds and training. You want people who can really cross-fertilize each other's ideas. Assignments to projects can make a big difference, too. You want people to have work that they're going to find appropriately challenging — not so far out of their skill range that they just can't do anything, but certainly something that's going to get them to operate at the top of their skill level, allowing them to really stretch and grow. That level of challenge is very important for intrinsic motivation.

The overall company atmosphere should be open to creativity, from the highest levels. Strive for a collaborative atmosphere where people are continually sharing ideas and helping each other with their work, rather than competing with each other. You want an organizational culture that explicitly values creativity and innovation. Whatever reward systems are in place should reward and recognize creative work. In fact, I've seen companies that reward any good creative work, even if, ultimately, the project doesn't work out for whatever reason. Recognizing the value of creativity in that way sends a powerful message of support — and helps people stay passionate about their work, whatever it may be.

About the Author

Mallory Stark is the Career Information Librarian for Baker Library at Harvard Business School.

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.