In art, philosophy or management, we only ever remember the artists, authors or entrepreneurs who showed their creativity. They may have shown artistic, conceptual or organisational creativity, but what stood out in each case was their ability to create something new. If Edgar Degas, Blaise Pascal and Steve Jobs had never existed, we would not have Le Faux Départ (the false start), Les Pensées (thoughts) or the iPhone.
In management schools, we have such little doubt about the importance of this key success factor that almost all courses include, to varying degrees, organisational theories of creativity as a way of stimulating this core asset. Whether the aim is to discover a new solution, design innovative products or dream up original systems, creativity is required at every turn. But rather than focusing on theories, should we not be studying practices, particularly those of artists themselves, whose primary calling is being creative?
One artist on the international music scene has stood as the gold standard in this game of style and renewal for almost forty years: Australian singer Nick Cave and his band The Bad Seeds. Since his early days as an experimental rocker – watch the 1981 video Nick The Stripper on YouTube –, this incomparable performer has co-written more than 20 albums, as well as novels, exhibition texts, film soundtracks and critically-acclaimed series (Peaky Blinders, Blonde, Mustang and The Snow Leopard etc.). This makes the former punk in a suit, who has survived the worst things life can throw at you, the most original artist of his generation.
But what is his recipe for success? Nick does not talk much, and even less about himself. But he did recently make an exception in his memoir Faith, Hope and Carnage, in which he gives some valuable advice to those who are striving for creativity and looking for, as he puts it, “the cherished idea”. Make no mistake about it, beneath the crazed exterior this tall, lanky man in heels is essentially a hard worker with an approach that can be broken down into these four points:
- The first is that the creative impulse is mainly a struggle against oneself. “It chips away at your own cherished truths about things,” he says. A new song starts with the same thorough reconsideration: “I start with a new, blank notebook, an idea-free mind and a considerable amount of anxiety.”
Because “writing a good song […] is an act of self-murder […] it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness.” Essentially, what an artist is doing is “constantly stumbling forward”; it is fundamentally about keeping an argument alive, as Montaigne said.
- The second point is about the team. Nick Cave and his alter ego, the equally excellent Warren Ellis – a great lover of France, by the way – form a formidable pair who have been developing special ways of working together for several decades. In which love and dissonance reign. Two very different sensibilities, then, a literary writer and a composer, who approach songwriting in almost opposite ways, but who come together through their love of two-person improvisation and a unique way of putting themselves at risk. Both agree to take what they call “the walk of shame”: when their improvisations fall flat, they slide down the slippery slope and then climb back up again together, trying something entirely different.
- The third piece of advice is work hard, but be disciplined. It is hard to imagine Nick Cave living his life at the same pace as philosopher Immanuel Kant, getting up and going to bed at the same time after a leisurely stroll. However, this is more or less what the Australian performer describes. He only works office hours and never turns up at the studio in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, preferring instead a well-tailored suit. Kant used to have a stranger over for lunch every day, whereas Cave replies directly to those who ask him about anything on his website The Red Hand Files. In fact, after watching Nick The Stripper, you could write to him, and he might just reply.
Nick Cave’s view of creation is quite simple: know how to be in control while letting go, and vice versa
- The fourth and final piece of advice is to never be afraid of getting bored. The creative process is the opposite of working on a production line. You need to know how to laze around. How to do nothing. You need moments to breathe, to let your “spontaneous unconscious” come to the fore. Nick is keen on pottery, for example, small figurines for which he has an unabashed passion. And now and then, he even takes the time to light a candle in church.
When it comes down to it, Nick Cave’s view of creation is quite simple: know how to be in control while letting go, and vice versa. All you have to do is put these ideas into practice, and if you find you cannot, you can always listen – or listen again – to Into My Arms, his finest work to date.
This review was previously published in French by Xerfi Canal.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the position of ESCP Business School.
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