It’s Not Creative if it’s Disruptive

The guy strode into my office  like Grizzly Adams without the smile. In those days, everyone wore suits and ties, but not this guy.  He stood in front of my desk dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, and suspenders.

The original Grizzly Adams, smiling.

His hair was wild and swept over his large, mostly bald head. The shoulder-length strands were unkempt. His beard was thick and tangled. I was the director of the writing department of an investment company that was very conservative in dress and conduct, he was the VP’s favorite “free spirit” writer, hired for his “wild man creativity.”  He played the wild man role to the hilt–booming voice, wild antics, outrageous conversations.

Getting to the point, I hated him. He delivered nothing on time and scolded me for sticking to schedules. He was a bully to my face and cruel behind my back. He told huge tales (none of them verifiable) of amazing deeds in the service of his country,  implying shadowy connections to black helicopters and secret missions. He had scars to show, both physical and psychological. The hand scar looked like a Sunday morning bage-cutting accident. He insisted it was from hand-to-hand combat is a dangerous country where even the air was deadly. And, of course, he was paid far more than I was.

Wild Creative got a lot of attention for being “creative.” His bad behavior and poor social skills didn’t matter because he created diversion for my boss. Confusion and havoc rained on every project the Wild Creative touched. My boss was ecstatic because he was not responsible for managing the mayhem. I was.

My boss got bragging rights as he told gape-mouthed employees the story of how the Wild Creative slept (he claimed) on the floor with a knife under his pillow, one eye open, ready to kill. War scars, you know.

Occasionally, I’d plead “Please let me hire someone who is not quite as ‘creative,’ not quite as brilliant, but a lot more reliable.” It never happened. No doubt the disruptive character was smart, but he was also devious, mean, and impossible to work with. He gave creativity a bad name. He’s long out of my life, but the incident was briefly revived recently, when a corporate client of mine defined “creativity” as “disruptive thinking.” In the way corporations have of diluting words (think of what has been done to awesome and passionate), maybe disruptive means, simply, different. But that distinction is huge.

Labeling creativity as disruptive because it doesn’t fit the corporate mold isn’t fair to the word “creativity” and mis-defines “disruptive.” Real creativity is not disruptive. It may create change, demand new solutions, invent new paths to a smarter answer. It may be uncomfortable, innovative, not easy, and from a totally different perspective.

But disruptive? No. Creativity is never vicious, uncontrollable, obstreperous, undisciplined, or truculent. All of those define disruptive. Creative deviates from the status quo, may shake up the existing corporate culture, demand a new perspective, but disruptive? No.

Using disruptive to describe creativity allows the creative to become the “other,” the “them” to the rest of the department’s “us.” Saying creativity is disruptive allows the belief that labels the creative as an outcast.

No doubt, creativity often looks stubborn, different and demanding of change. Creativity has deep roots in unhappiness with the status quo. With willingness to go against the grain. With certainty of purpose.   It’s hard for a corporation to admit that change is needed. Corporate vision and creative vision may have different horizons.

Creativity has roots in “other-ness,” not disruptiveness. There’s a lot of responsibility attached to it. While risking reputation for an uncertain result, the creative has to explain how the result is useful and why the risk is worthwhile. And, of course, sometimes the creative is wrong, and their are consequences. Still, none of that is disruptive. It’s growth, it’s exploration, it’s discovery.

Creativity is absolutely how change comes into the world, but it not driven by disruptive, vicious, irresponsible behavior. That’s personality, not creativity.

Quinn McDonald is a journal-keeper and a creativity coach. She encourages creativity without disruptive behavior.

Image: Light bulb from  Grizzly Adams from


17 thoughts on “It’s Not Creative if it’s Disruptive

  1. Too bad someone didn’t just call that guy on his sh–. Part of the problem is that no one confronts those folks so they continue their path of destruction.

  2. Hello Quinn, I just want to say thank you for inspiring me. This post did light a spark in me. I will be creating all week because of this. You didn’t write about Falling Apart but that’s the name of my first creation. Thanks again.

  3. Oh my this brought me back to when I worked at a school for visual arts where some artist teachers were of the opinion that because they were an artist they could:
    1) pretend not to understand the computer after you explained it to them 300 times, but hey they were artists, they couldn’t be bothered with such mundaine stuff
    2) yell at you, scold you, or just be plain obnoxious because they had ‘artist temperament’
    3) be arrogant as hell if you didn’t know their name (I’m sorry I’m not an artist psychic, I can’t tell you’re a famous artist just by looking at you, even if I have seen your work I have never seen you)
    4) throw a total fit if something didn’t work within ten seconds (again temperament, yeah yeah) and then be all overly apologetic after fifteen when it did actually work after all. The types that just threw fits because they knew they would be able to apologize later.

    I feel creativity and artistry was used by some as an excuse to just be anti social. Not by all mind you, most were just really cool people, even the ‘strange’ ones, but with some you could just tell they were exploiting their artist status. I don’t mind people being different if that’s just who they are, I hate it when they play the part of being different as some sort of image they are building of themselves. There’s a difference between someone who is extravagant or extreme by nature and someone who thinks he/she should act that way because they are an artist.

    I also remember going to a party once and telling someone I worked at a school for visual arts and they would say “wow, you really don’t look like it”. I guess I was dressed too normal and unflaky or something to be the creative type. I told him that in general I prefered to dress like myself. 😉

    • You made me laugh. And then I realized, that experience is not so unique. Like you, I’m all for different temprament, but not excuses for bad behavior. You have been through a LOT!
      On a different note–loved your blog post this morning. I couldn’t leave a comment (blogger hates wordpress), but I did love the mail love you got!

  4. Lila is a continuation of the ideas Pirsig laid out in Zen (etc.). It takes place on a boat sailing down a river (the Hudson?) and instead of a troubled young boy there’s a troubled young woman (that is, the two books share much the same form). It’s also about Quality, but I think attempts to lay out Pirsig’s thinking in the years after his first book. I found the ideas more complex and difficult to understand. Instead of classical and romantic Quality, here he discusses static and dymanic quality and shows how Dynamic quality has to be held undefined (this part I don’t really understand).

    Both of Pirsig’s books are among the very few I’ve ever reread; Lila more so because I keep trying to figure it out.

    I’ve always suspected the title is a subtle joke; just as Zen… wasn’t really about Zen, Lila isn’t really about anybody named Lila (assuming there IS somebody named Lila, which it seems like there is or was).

    • Oh, yes, the quality discussion. I think I read the first 50 pages three times and then abandoned it because I couldn’t move ahead. I remember thinking, “Why did I love the first one so much and don’t get this one?” I was young then.

  5. Couldn’t agree more – great article, and fascinating comments. Incidentally, I can’t recall what Lila was about either! Did I even finish it? Do I still have it stashed away somewhere? Not that I want to go back and read an unmemorable book but maybe a quick flick through. Curiosity . . .

  6. Separate comment for a separate issue: I’ve heard that story of an unusual, creative-but-difficult person uncomfortably encountering “normals” elsewhere, and the associated “dark past” that can only be alluded to seems to OFTEN be a part of it. There’s definitely a pattern to stories like that, and maybe people like that. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s some recognized kind of personality disorder.

    It’s commonly recognized; so much so that I’ve used it as a gag — I once explained a cast on my leg as “I was rounding a corner at 120mph on my motorcycle when on the side of the road I saw one of the agents that tried to kill me in Budapest 20 years ago, and I lost control as he pulled his gun again…” I ended up by explaining that really I had just slipped on a patch of ice in a parking lot. Come to think of it, that knee is starting to bother me again, but it’s probably that old injury I got in a black ops episode in Moldavia back in the Reagan administration… 😀

    • That kind of alluded “dark mystery” with encouragement to dig deeper into the past of the speaker has lots of scary elements that I’ve seen in more than one person. It seldom ends well, as the best relationships are built on trust, not thrills, especially made up thrills, that can leave the other person exhausted, confused, and angry at the perpetrator.

  7. I wonder if your corporate friend was using “disruptive” in a systemic sense. There’s a field of organizational study of disruption originated by Clayton Christensen, who wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma in the mid-90s. A systemic disruption is something that “changes the playing field”, so to speak, so that established, successful competitors’ activities, which served them well for however long, suddenly no longer work. The iPhone is the most popular recent example — it changed the nature of the mobile phone business and suddenly Motorola, Nokia, Erickson, etc. were failing fast, even though they were doing everything they had collectively learned led to success. Horace Dedieu (once a Nokia analyst) delivers really deep analysis of all this at

    The Innovator’s Dilemma is also a really good read. The popular conclusion when companies rapidly fail in these situations is to blame corporate management. But most people don’t make stupid decisions on purpose, and management teams who were performing well at one time don’t generally turn into poor performers overnight. So it must be something else.

    It’s a pretty important field of inquiry, I think; organizations (business or otherwise) are not good at coping with systemic disruption, and the results can be catastrophic. Tens of thousands of people have lost jobs in the cell phone industry in the past couple of years (including me!) and probably more have lost their savings as the value of Nokia, for one, has dropped by about 80% or more. Beyond just one industry, I think you could make a good case that the current global [depr]/[rec]ession is another example of large organizational structures failing in the face of systemic disruptions. And you MIGHT be able to make a case that wars can start that way too.

    • Your answers are always thoughtful, Pete, and it pains me that you got let go–you are way too innovative not to be thriving in a creative environment. So let’s see if I can add a small shred of insight to your interesting viewpoint. I’ve read part of The Innovator’s Dilemma, and found it interesting.

      But (you knew that was coming), I have a bone to pick with almost all organizational development books. And that is: to be remembered, they have to have a catchy title or a catch phrase that can be easily used by readers of the book. That’s how organizational development authors market their books–a CEO or manager uses the title, and other people, hearing a word they are not familiar with (and wanting to be just like management) Google the word, and the book title comes up. It gets clicked on, and voilá! book sales go up. So we have “paradigm shifts” and “collaboration” and “proactive” and “sharpen the saw,” and now, “disruptive” –all made popular by organizational development books. Using a word and giving it an alternative meaning to promote your book is reprehensible. There are great words to be used, and used correctly. And being exact is often not as valued as being popular.

      • “Paradigm shift” was, of course, originated by Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions — one of the works I based my thesis on! Even in science it’s probably overused; there haven’t really been that many. I haven’t come across “sharpen the saw” before, but there was a brief period recently when it wasn’t unusual to hear “who moved my cheese”!

        But I sort of think “disruptive” is pretty apt when applied to organizations and markets. The normal order of things is suddenly changed. “Discontinuity” might fit, but to me connotes a more abstract event, while “disruption” suggests more action (this might be just me, as my referent for “discontinuity” is a mathematical function). Maybe it ought to be “systemic disruption” to distinguish it from individual behavior, which is something different.

        You’re right about titles needing to be catchy. “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” wouldn’t have sold nearly as much swag if it had been called “Some Activities Successful People Tend To Engage In.” But it’s not all bad, I think. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has virtually nothing to do with Zen (or motorcycle maintenance for that matter) but it’s a great book. And much more memorable than Lila, Pirsig’s follow up,

        As for proactive, I just “antipassive” instead.

        • Disruptive has some really bad connotations and the denotation is specifically destructive as well. Which is my gripe. It’s a “power word” –a word that will grab attention. And I resent that, because it has no follow through. Somewhere on p. 43, the author will define the word the way s/he meant it, and by that time it’s too late. The idea that creativity is disruptive is already in our culture. The same thing is done visually, when we put a nearly-naked woman in boots and a motorcycle jacket in front of a product we want to sell.

          Related to nothing: I loved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance beyond all reason. I don’t even remember what Lila was about.
          Vaguely related to your original idea: I once had a course called “Creative Problem-Solving,” and it never sold, although I marketed my brains out. Then I changed the title (and only the title) to “Problem-Solving for Leadership,” and Presto! popularity!

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