Can Abundance Kill Creativity?

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I’m reading the fantastic December 19th Rolling Stone cover story, Anchor Management, about the improvisational movie-making odyssey that’s become Anchorman and it’s recently-released sequel, Anchorman 2. At one point, co-writer and director of both movies, Adam McKay, shares:

The first movie, no one’s getting paid anything. For the second one, you want to do new shit, you need a little boost in production and everyone now gets paid 40 times what they used to get paid.

McKay asks Paramount for $80 million. They laugh. He drops it to $60 million. They settle, after much wrangling, on $50 million, which means cutting a ton and persuading all the stars to work for less. McKay continues:

Doing it for $50 million was exhausting but fun. I hate to give Paramount credit, but they probably gave us the perfect budget. Money can kill comedy. It made us get scrappy, it made us get clever…. All the making do is what the good shit comes out of. [emphasis added]”

I’ve found this to be universally true across nearly every creative endeavor, from writing to video production to art and entrepreneurship.

How many times have you said, I could do so much more or so much better, if only I had more money, supplies, connections, time, training, yadda, yadda, yadda. Meanwhile, some “snot-nose, no talent kid with empty pockets, no pedigree and no damn clue” drops onto the scene with an iphone, a screen of $1 apps and laps you in a city minute. WTF?

The production cost/minute for Good Life Project® TV is 1/1000th the cost per minute of a network television show. Sure I’d love a higher budget, but it’s just not there yet. So we get super-scrappy to make things happen with what we’ve got.

And I often wonder whether my desire to produce a next-level aesthetic is really just more about me than my viewers. Many of the top shows on youtube are filmed with one-camera, often the computer’s web-cam or an iphone with a $20 mini-LED light panel. Author, John Green, is a great example. Along with his brother, Hank, and a few webcams, he produces Vlog Brothers. With 1.7 million subscribers, each episode is watched hundreds of thousands, some millions of times. The format forces the essential ideas and delivery to be that much more exceptional.

Sure, you need enough to get the basics rolling. But often times, the difference between crap and craft isn’t more, but less.

Constraint forces creativity.

Fewer resources means the essential nature, the soul of your output, has to be that much better to break through all the noise.

Even more, constraint in one area of work or life makes you more creative in all areas.

There’s research behind this. According to a  study by Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam, and published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

…encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.

That’s fancy talk for the oxymoronic…

Limits expand potential.


Ya know how you’ve been saying I can’t do that thing on the level I want to do because I don’t have enough [insert bells and whistles] to make it shine? Just stop. Sitting here, reading this today, you very likely have what you need. You may need to get scrappy. You may need to get more real, to hone your ideas, voice, presence, ability to radiate. Your breakout move is to elevate the essence.

Question is, what are you going to DO about it?


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34 responses

34 responses to “Can Abundance Kill Creativity?”

  1. Diego Zaks says:

    Great article, really interesting points. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. I’m a designer who used to live and work in Venezuela, there or resources are very limited.

    While I was studying, if you wanted to bind a book, you probably were better off doing it yourself; so you learn how to build a book press out of scraps of wood and go about making your book the way you want it to be. You also learn how to maximize the value of what you do have, how to extract as much as you can from every resource be it material or human.

    This mentality of “I don’t have resources… well, then I’ll make my own resources” helps me every day in my professional life. I see so many people (here in the USA) with all the resources in the world struggling and waiting for all conditions to be perfect before starting.

  2. Judi says:

    Hey Jonathan … this is fantastic! Just what I needed to hear this morning! I actually have a project on my desk I want to produce … and it’s something the world NEEDS … and not having the money/resources has held me back from “starting” … this post gave me the push I need. Because I honestly think the “money / resources excuse” is that … an excuse … fear … THE RESISTANCE!

    I will push through it. I will prevail. I will give the world the gift of my project.

    Thank you for rocking.

    • Hey Judi,

      It’s been my experience that oftentimes the resources we “think” we need don’t appear until we take the first/next step. I believe we ALWAYS have what we need to take the very next step – but maybe the step isn’t the one we WANT to take (like asking for help, doing more research, sacrificing some other desire, etc). I think it was Martin Luther King that said “faith is taking the first step when you don’t see the whole staircase”.

      If you truly believe that the world needs your gift, you’re not only robbing yourself of the money you could make, you’re robbing us of the benefits your gift provides. Get cracking, girl! We need you! 🙂

  3. Simon Sinek tells the story about Langley and the Wright Brothers from a tangential point of view. While he’s using the story to emphasize the point of understanding your “why” it’s never lost on me that Langley supremely outfunded the Wright Brothers…. but the Wrights beat him on total investment.

    It’s not just about the money. It’s about ALL the resources (time, money, attention, resources) you invest in something. When I talk about profitability with my clients & colleagues, it’s always from this point of view. Does the TOTAL investment of all your “resources” bring you a positive return on that investment?

    Money sometimes saps the joy from a project. How many people have you met who stay in a job because the pay is good, but are completely unsatisfied? Sure, you could attribute it to economics, but that alone isn’t the full equation…. again, because it’s about the total investment of resources. When you dig a little deeper, you often find that the crappy job that pays well is often a strategy that invests in/funds something else they love (a habit, a hobby, or a future career). When you don’t have money as a cushion, every little step forward becomes a major victory to celebrate – frugally, of course, but with lots of fist-pumping and high-fiving.

    I’ve bootstrapped five different companies, and my music career is no different. I’m proud that I didn’t invest a single penny in studio gear until this year – and last year I was able to record more than 50 songs toward my 300 song project. EVERYTHING was borrowed/bootstrapped for the first year – including all the musicians and artists who volunteered for the project. The result isn’t the most high-end of production values, but everyone is proud of what the project is becoming. Plus, the production values of last year’s work set a standard for this year.

    Raising production values raises audience expectations. As a busy mom, I’d love to have fancy lighting, a stylist, a 3 camera shoot and someone to edit all that footage, but (to borrow a phrase from Sweet Brown) ain’t nobody got time for that around here.

    So “getting dolled up” is a special event in any video I shoot and I make a point of telling my audience I got dressed up just for them. I want them to know I clean up okay, but I don’t want to raise a bar when I don’t presently have the resources (time, energy, money, etc.) to continually make that kind of investment.

    You can usually track that kind of evolution by the growth of the audience – it’s not the other way around. You get fancy once the audience starts following you. They don’t start following you just because you got fancy. Once you start down that road, you can never go back. People feel cheated if you produce something lower quality (unless you have a VERY good reason).

    • Adaeze Diana says:

      I love that you mentioned the Langley/Wright brothers example, Lisa. I remember it well from reading Simon’s book, Start With Why, which I LOVE.

      That story resonated with me because it will forever be a reminder that “the upper hand” and “bad odds” are yet another set of illusions we buy in to in life.

      If your desire is strong enough, if your faith(vision) outweighs your doubt, and you are courageous enough to step out on a limb and be called “crazy” for what you believe, the ONLY outcome is success – with or without an abundance of money, support, favorable circumstances, etc.

      p.s. Thank you Jonathan for yet another timely and thought-provoking post!

  4. Jonathan says:

    Necessity is the mother of invention. Things don’t happen until, unless it is needed. there needs to be a sense of desperation or urgent, which i associate with lack, not abundance. Fire because it was cold. Cars because horses weren’t doing it anymore (maybe the car and fire were created by rich people and cavemen, not sure). Interesting study to see the background of the greatest creators or inventors. Was Edison wealthy or come from abundance? Not sure why, but these are my thoughts.

  5. The short answer is no. Abundance does not kill creativity. It is more the attitude we carry about money and creativity that determines that. I have experienced wonderfully creative offerings that were well funded. I have experienced bootstrapped productions that were utter crap (and I do not mean their production values). Money is a result of alignment with our inner Source not a reward for hard or lucky action. Genius creativity is also about alignment. Using money as the excuse for doing poor work is a crutch, whether it is too little or too much. Either way, money is not the problem.

  6. Joe says:

    Nailed It Jonathan!

    I’ve seen the same phenomenon in Christian Ministry which is my focus area. When people are hungry and deeply impoverished, they know their resource is God. They know how to pray, earnestly and without ceasing. But often, when just a little prosperity comes and they no longer need, they get lazy and can’t do the things that they formerly did to lift themselves out of their poverty. They then fall into a deeper hole than their initial poverty; dependence upon the charity of others. At that point it is game-set- and match.
    Love your stuff.

  7. Sean D'Souza says:

    I grew up in Mumbai, India. Most folks in the Western world don’t know it, but real estate is extremely high as 20 million people struggle to co-exist in a single city. At one point, if memory serves me right, the price of land in Mumbai was only second to Tokyo (which is exorbitant anyway).

    But what interested me wasn’t the price of real estate. What interested me was how someone would show up from another state, and then work their way up. I always felt they had an advantage.

    I always felt that having a house, parents, friends, backup systems etc. just made me a lot softer. So I moved to New Zealand. I knew no one here. Had never been here before. And in the 14 years we’ve been here, we’ve done well. Very well, far, far better than I suspect we could have (or would have wanted to) staying back in India.

    I think abundance of anything makes you soft. It’s 3:52 am now. I’m writing my latest book on the topic of “Pre-Sell”. I first wrote the book back in 2011 and completed 92 pages at one go. I’ve had since 2011 to complete the book. You could say that’s an abundance of time hasn’t helped. Yes, I’ve done a ton of stuff in that time, several courses, international workshops—but the book wasn’t complete. Now I have probably a month, but in reality, a week.

    Most days I mentor my niece. She’s 9 years old. Well, let’s just say she takes up half of my working day because we have a lot to do. This week she’s off to camp. I don’t have to pick her up. I don’t have to work with her studies. And I have three days of this “luxury” before she returns and we’re back.

    So you can say there’s this need, this necessity. But you can also say there’s abundance. Now I have focused time over the next few days that may allow the momentum to spill over into the week. By this time next weekend, the book should be done. It has to be done, because we have no choice. But both factors are working hand in hand, in a way: abundance and scarcity.

    The same applied to my move to NZ back in 2000. In India, I was running my business drawing cartoons. In NZ, I moved to marketing. But the difference was the public library and the system of payments. In India, I was lucky if I got paid (I was a freelance cartoonist) in six months, maybe a year. In NZ, I’d get paid in 20 days, sometimes less. When in India, I had to buy all my books and when you converted the dollar to rupees, there was a limit on what I could buy. In New Zealand I had thousands of books in the library. When I first started, I literally used to come home with 30 books at a time.

    So yes, necessity is the mother of invention. But when necessity creeps up, so does abundance. They both have to co-exist. They’re really both different sides of the same coin.

    We just have to see things for what they are.

    • Adaeze Diana says:

      I find the idea of abundance and scarcity acting as complementary properties interesting, Sean.

      Now that I think about it, I do believe that a seemingly scarce amount of resources paired with an abundance of desire, will, and sincere belief in the importance of one’s work to others, has and always will be the formula to successfully accomplishing any feat.

      • Sean D'Souza says:

        Well, it is easy to focus on just one side of the coin, Adaeze. I know that when I truly think about it, both factors exist side by side.

        When I was in university, for instance, I didn’t have a lot money. But I had an abundance of time. The same applies today at my business. I have an abundance of something and a lack of something.

        Abundance itself, doesn’t make you soft. It depends what the abundance is all about. And the same applies to a lack of things. It doesn’t necessarily improve creativity.

        You can, for instance, have a lack of knowledge. That is not going to help. You can have just two books in the library. Again, trouble. A lack of high speed Internet, water, lightning and you have reduced access to what the world considers to be quite normal. A lot of people live in those conditions and they don’t become more creative.

        What spurs creativity is the desire to overcome the lack. The desire to make maximum use of the abundance.

        The desire is what truly matters.

  8. Phil Webster says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Jonathan! While there is of course a level of constraint that makes doing *anything* impossible (e.g. utter poverty), generally speaking I think your statement that “Constraint forces creativity.” is accurate.

    That having been said, I think it is also true that once one has worked under constraints for a while and learned the lessons of how to do only what is needed, then one can use additional resources to make something that much better. In other words, I think someone who *never* experiences constraints (e.g. the independently wealthy person) may never tap into the creativity that constraints inspire, but someone who HAS can go on to use greater resources with killer effect. 🙂

  9. Cathy Wilke says:

    When I’m not on the Bitch Train telling myself that my videos will never be as good as the Good Life Project because I don’t have your resources–I know deep down that everything you’re saying here is true. Constraint absolutely forces creativity. Thanks so much for the inspiring reminder.

  10. I love the word “scrappy” because it means street-fighting, but it also means leftover pieces that we can put together to make something beautiful and useful, such as a patchwork quilt. Using what we already have to create value can bring deep satisfaction as well as money. It’s the best combination of all.

  11. “Limits expand potential”. What an awesome and powerful statement. Excellent stuff Jonathan, thank you.

  12. Can someone say “bootstrap.” This is what it’s all about. You can’t fly into flying, you have to start somewhere.

    The abundance of projects working with within limits is endless. The abundance of projects not started because of limiting beliefs is endless.

    The first project is to form the entrepreneur mindset. These are the principles i live by and teach in my course. If you don’t start you can never end.

  13. Lizzie says:

    I absolutely needed to read this. I look at GLP and all of its film angle gorgeousness and immediately shut my creativity down with these thoughts that just reek of Pressfield’s resistance.

    Fewer tools, less whiz bang has always yielded something far more creative in my world. This is a much needed reminder. Thank you, Jonathan.

  14. I went through a period of convincing myself that I couldn’t do much of anything because I didn’t have much of anything to invest. Yet, even while I convinced myself I needed more bells and whistles, another part of me just got things done anyway, and yes, bootstrapped and got creative.

    As a result I’ve steadily built my client base who care little that my website doesn’t look the way I would like it to. What matters to them is what I deliver, that I select clients whose work I can deeply care about, and that we all end up doing more of what we want in the world.

    There are many more things I would like to do, new levels I would like to reach, and now that I’ve experienced what creative bootstrapping can produce, I’m confident that when I’m ready I’ll find a way.

    Also wanted to say that I loved the writing on this piece – one of your strongest.

  15. Wendi Huguley says:

    This can be applied to life in general. I don’t do cross fit at home because I don’t have the “right place” or the “right equipment,” when, realistically, all I need is a little space and the willingness to get “scrappy”. Great article. Thanks.

  16. We’re always looking for excuses – too poor, too busy, too old, too unknown but I guess it’s about doing things anyway. And also being hungry and passionate. Because no one would ever do anything otherwise 🙂

  17. Banu says:

    This was an awesome post and definitely needed. I find this to be true every time but I seem to get caught up in the “If I had.. then…” pattern for a while anyway. Really needed the reminder. Thank you!

  18. I once worked in a government department that maintained clients’ old files. The paper work in these files changed during WWII. Paper that had been typed on, was reused with hand written files between the lines, or perpendicular to the typing, or on the back. The paper files were small – suddenly not A4/foolscap, but just big enough for the message, and then trimmed so the rest could be used for something else. In normal times, it isn’t done to hand write official government correspondence on used paper, between typed lines. Lowered levels of abundance allowed those folks to change the standards, look at things anew and find perfectly usable white space between the typing. If creativity is about solving problems, then we need problems to solve. Lower abundance gives us more opportunity to exercise our problem solving.

    My favourite tool for challenging the assumption that we can’t do something because we don’t have the resources is simply to change the first half of the sentence and then sit with it, until the second half of the sentence emerges.
    For eg
    “I can’t go to the ball, I don’t have a dress.” becomes
    “I can go the ball. I don’t have a dress so…”

  19. Nick Brown says:

    This post was exactly what I needed to hear. I was feeling like I didn’t have all the prerequisite tools and skills needed to succeed at a specific project I’m pursuing. Thank you a 1000 times for sharing this!

  20. Great post! It’s the same thing we photographers hear: “If I had X brand of camera”, “If I had this device”, etc.

    Many great photographs (even mine) were taken with minimalist equipment (even cheap stuff); while crap was shot with the latest, zillion-dollar, ion-powered gear.

    To obsess over what we do/don’t have can keep us from taking that leap of faith and being creative. Sometimes when it comes to creativity, the old adage is true: “Less is more”.


  21. Beth Barany says:

    As someone who has been bootsrapping both a business and an author career for years, I agree that constraints force creativity. But I don’t think of it as constraints, but structure. Creativity absolutely needs structure, even if you have lots of resources. I don’t think abundance kills creativity if you have structure, if you have discipline, and a clear purpose and mission.

  22. Thank you Jonathan for the swift kick in the pants. I do often wonder though, how much plain old intelligence and innate creativity is critical to making strides, vs baby steps. I know that you are extremely intelligent, as are many of your peers, with all of your academic accolades.

    I’m no slouch, but there seems to be an edge for the creative geniuses of the world. This causes me to insert into your equation” if only I were [more creative/more intelligent]”. What if you just aren’t all that creative to begin with?

  23. The timing on this is perfect for me! I’ve been hemming and hawing over how I will be able to afford to do the research for and write the book that I believe will be my inciting incident for my tribe (in Revolution U speak…), and this post totally stopped me in my scarcity tracks and got me brainstorming on some great ideas to raise the money, rally and provide value to the tribe, and do some research simultaneously. Thank you!

  24. Rich Gittens says:

    Hello Jonathan,
    I don’t know who you are; I don’t know where your email came from; and I certainly don’t recall signing up for anything like what showed up in my inbox 2 days ago.

    I’m a 69 year old man who considers himself a fairly creative…even eclectic sort of guy. I have a suitcase full of ideas, mostly, I suppose, bad, some good, a few pretty good and 2 or 3, fantastic. I’ve researched, thought about, written about, and developed the hell out of many of them … then put them into the suitcase where they’ve been for much of my life. They live in that suitcase because of all of the reasons that you and many of those who have responded mention and a bunch that I’ve come up with myself. So nothing has been done with my ideas, my thoughts, my dreams, my life, my 69 years.

    Then, 2 days ago, this thing about creativity shows up in my inbox and somehow escapes my goal of mass deletion of ads and offers and advice and free upgrades. And something, I don’t know what, makes me read it…and it sings to me. It sings to me!!!

    I saw a movie many years ago, “Cry the Beloved Country.” There was a line delivered in that movie, I don’t remember who delivered it, that said, “I wish I didn’t cry so easily.”

    I wish I didn’t cry so easily.

    Your post has shown me a spark. I don’t know if it will become a raging flame … but it’s a spark. Your post hasn’t said anything that I didn’t know but it dimly lit something that I, all-to-early in life, lost sight of.

    This thing that showed up in my inbox 2 days might very well be the driving reason for my current idea, the latest in a long stream of ideas, actually seeing the light of day … outside of my suitcase.
    Thank you!

  25. John Zay says:

    Kill it….no but it certainly has a lot of potential to stifle it. If the Beatles recorded Sgt. Peppers on today’s technology instead of a 4-track machine it may not be the sonic masterpiece we know it to be today. In fact many of the creative innovations they pioneered are now part of standard plugins in music software and dare I say taken a bit for granted:-) Rock on Jonathan, love the new look on the site.

  26. Tamara Jones says:

    Great article Jonathan, this one really resonates within me.
    It’s really interesting how limitations can have a way of expanding our viewpoint, and in more than just one area. I have no real experience of my own about the other way around, but I think the problem solving parts of our minds are the engine, so as long as we have problems to solve, we also have many ways to think of about doing it.
    Limits do expand potential, I like the way put it about the difference between crap and craft. 🙂
    Thanks for writing this!

  27. Scott Asai says:

    Fully agree. I think this applies to your lifestyle too. When you live “lean” you’re able to be more creative and not depend on being entertained. It’s the same reason why athletes play better in their contract years, than after they get paid. It’s like the incentive/motivation is gone.

  28. […] Can Abundance Kill Creativity? – Jonathan Fields (I’ve often considered this issue – when you’re comfortable, do you become less creative?) […]

  29. Mark says:

    I don’t think abundance kills creativity, but scarcity creates innovation.

    What I love love love is when I’m doing something where I don’t think I have the resources to take of something, but I find some innovative way to do it that even surprises me. It is such a rush!

  30. […] blog post was called: Can abundance kill creativity? and it explored the idea […]