Q+A with Adam Grant: Does Our Calling Make Us More Creative?
Image: TED2016

A psychology professor at Wharton Business School, Adam Grant probes motivations and inspirations to get at the heart of work.

His research reveals unexpected glimpses of humanity and character, like how generosity can help leaders get ahead (his 2013 bestseller Give and Take) and how the rest of us are more like iconic innovators than we think (his latest book Originals).

Packed with the stories behind the success and failure of memorable projects from Seinfeld to the Segway, Originals was the basis for Grant’s top-ranked TED talk on creativity and generated acclaim from figures like author Malcolm Gladwell and director J. J. Abrams. It’s what inspired me to explore innovation among Christians for our July/August cover story, CT Makers.

Grant offers up his expertise in organizational psychology—how individuals behave in groups and in the workplace—to discuss different ways evangelical faith may affect how we think and create.

A lot of Christians express a sense of calling, the idea that they believe God has called them to work to solve a certain problem, help a certain group of people, or go into a certain field. How does this sense of calling help or hurt original thinking?

The idea of calling when it comes to creativity is a double-edge sword. On the one hand, when people feel called, they are often willing to work harder, smarter, longer than they would have otherwise. We know that persistence is so important to creative breakthroughs. The idea that you would keep going when you encounter a wall; calling can be a big part of that.

On the other hand, there is also this sharper edge of a calling that a couple of colleagues have studied… One challenge is that it’s associated much more with a sense of duty than intrinsic motivation. The problem with duty is that it often leads to a sense of pressure that interferes with creative sparks. The most productive creative processes are usually driven by curiosity and interest and enthusiasm in the work, as opposed to a sense that I’m going to be letting others down or letting God down if I don’t do this.

The other potential downside of a sense of calling is sometimes people who feel called to a certain line of work feel that some kinds of tasks, that they have a hard time connecting to their calling, are beneath them. We know also from a lot of research that some of our best creative leaps happen when we’re doing mindless work and we’re distracted a little bit from focusing all of our conscious attention on the problem, and that’s where we do this creative, non-linear thinking. If only certain tasks are aligned with your calling, you may not want to do some of the repetitive work that helps with creative thinking. [For more on this concept in action, see this study on calling among zookeepers.]

There’s also a moral dimension to what we chose to do, a belief that our work can help bring about good in the world. How does that come into play?

A few years ago, a colleague and I published a series of studies showing that when you take concern for helping others and add that to intrinsic motivation, people actually become more creative. If people are just curious in the work, they follow what’s interesting to them, and that leads them to over-invest in the ideas that are novel and fun, as opposed to the ones that are actually useful and beneficial to others.

When you add in the second motivation of, “Not only do I find this work fascinating, but I also really care that it helps someone, then you’re much more likely to select the most practical and potentially beneficial of your novel ideas, and that’s good for going from “I have a new idea” to “I have something that’s worthwhile.”

September
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Christianity Today
Q+A with Adam Grant: Does Our Calling Make Us More Creative?