Why we create

Last night my wife shared with me an experience that her younger sister was going through. As a 15 year old girl who writes a public blog, she can be verbose and bold about her opinions — as most 15 year olds are inclined to be — and recently came into a conflict with a reader. The reader commented on her blog things that she found hurtful and personally insulting.

As we talked over the situation, it led me to reflect on the reasons that we create. What motivates people to publish those creations to the world, often at personal cost, and to little or no financial gain?

Let’s discuss the matter in the context of needs

I hope we are all familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In theory you can trace every human action back to a desire to fulfull one or more of these basic needs.

Physiological & Safety

I guess to some extent, this is a great motivator for many of us, myself included. As a creative professional, I use what I create in that environment as a trade for the ability to care for myself and family. But it is not why I went into this industry, why I identify myself strongly with the idea of being a creator. There are numberless ways to earn a paycheck, being a creative professional is not my only option.

Belonging

This is an interesting one, I think it played a large role in my early development as a designer/creator.

When I was young I fronted a hardcore metal band, as the frontman and voice for our band I ended up finding myself in a very dynamic and resource-rich community. Not just the band members, but the fans and throngs of talented people who would “support the scene” and so forth. I learned a lot from them, about the DIY ethic, and getting things done no matter what. Trying to distribute demo tapes, print shirts, make websites, posters and other swag was what led me to teach myself to design and code on my moms computer. The motivation then, for me, was to contribute — to belong.

Esteem

As a member of any tribe you are upheld by your peers opinions. The idea that you are only as good as your latest work comes from here I suppose. When you create something new and publish it to the world there is a big gamble. The adverse reaction that my sister-in-law met caused her to retreat emotionally and be angry with her reader, damaging her ability to create, to connect. Esteem can indeed be a powerful motivator. Often it becomes the highest reason (in context of the hierarchy) that people attain in their creative lives.

People often engage in a profession or hobby to gain recognition. These activities give the person a sense of contribution or value. Low self-esteem or an inferiority complex may result from imbalances during this level in the hierarchy. People with low self-esteem often need respect from others; they may feel the need to seek fame or glory.
Wikipedia, Suckers

Self-actualization

According to Maslow this is the highest motivator there is for human action. This level of need refers to what a person's full potential is and the realization of that potential. In terms of creation, this is when you can genuinely create for yourself, beyond what anyone thinks of it, positive or negative. You create for the journey, the learning, and the pure joy of shipping. I don’t know if you can create this way exclusively, I know I can’t. I still beam when someone appreciates something I make. But the difference is that now, as a more seasoned creator, I don’t need it. I can create for myself, for the joy it brings me. In my experience this is the most fulfilling mode of creation.

Kudos, appreciations, retweets, likes and comments are all icing on the project cake. They definitely make it sweeter, but in no way determine personal success as a creator.

In the same vein, if someone throws some stink my way because they don’t like what I did, it is much easier to deal with because my motivation is creation itself. I still have my identity as a creator intact and I don’t need to go into crisis mode. I can actually turn it into a learning experience and do better next time.

Maslow awesomely coins the phrase “What a man can be, he must be” in his work Motivation and personality (1954). This idea thrills me. It really does. In a recent job interview I was asked about what motivates me. After a thoughtful moment, I replied: “Birds fly, and I create.”