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Creating Value without Worrying about Usefulness

  • Post category:Essays

It’s said that in order to succeed in work and business, a person must learn how to “create value”. Taken at face value, I agree. However, it’s very empty advice on its own that has been repeated ad nauseum, so it can lead to a lot of subjective misinterpretation. There is a tendency to assume other people see what we see as value as also being value to them. It leads to off-base solutions to problems that may not exist. It leads to presumptuousness. And it ultimately leads to an incomplete view of what value actually is.

Value is, simply defined, merely something of worth. And so it takes many forms. By applying this vague advice to “create value” as a model to work by, anyone can easily end up viewing all problems of value creation through a purely pragmatic lens. Such pragmatism can crowd out the discovery of solutions that aren’t at first obvious. And it is very easy to discount things of less apparent value, namely any creative, inventive, or artistic work. The focus shifts from crucial processes to a strictly predetermined result. The emphasis is on utility.

As an artist, I often wonder what kind of “value” my work can bring other people in the practical sense. It is usually a waste of time to do so because there is no clear answer. Undeniably there is value in the process. But no one can be sure from the outset what the resulting effect on others is supposed to be. But that’s not necessarily a problem. All creative projects have that in common.

The problem that arises is one that’s self-imposed (at least for me): a worry over utility. It isn’t because utility isn’t important in many contexts (it certainly is), but because it locks away the paths to divergent thinking and playfulness. And I think it’s safe to say that many things people think may be useful to others simply aren’t. So in that sense, not having any worry about the resulting “value” of your efforts is a very liberating feeling.

Having a predetermined outcome of value sought for a creative exploration will inevitably fail to generate the sort of sweeping results one could expect. At the mental level, preset expectations and openness to discovery are opposed to each other, as discoveries are by definition unexpected. So it may be best simply to start something new and see where it goes and what value might result. Evaluations of what is valuable and what isn’t should come after the work is done.

Of course, if you’re dealing with a clearly defined problem, it is much more appropriate and reasonable to have an end in mind. But the more ambiguous the details of the problem, the more you’ll need to trust the process of discovery and wait for the end to reveal itself. I think the majority of high impact work today involves more of the latter.

With all of that said, don’t get hung up on other people’s ideas about creating value or solving problems if they don’t happen to match up to what you’re doing. I certainly have, and it only gets in the way of making valuable things.

The takeaway here? Be at ease and contribute, in any way you see fit.