Every Thing That’s Made Has An Author
Knowing who started something matters— and we need better words for talking about it
There are plenty of words for creative people, but I think we could do with a new one.
If you say ‘artist’, too often it suggests someone special and uniquely talented. Or someone who makes their living from sculpture or painting or one of the other fine arts. And it maybe has some unhelpful associations when used as a kind of opposite to ‘businessman’ — where one is rational and one is a lunatic, where one is responsible and the other is reckless. And it suggests a kind of permanent state: you’re either an artist or you’re not and when you’re an artist, that’s you stuck being an artist forever.
And we have plenty of words for the individual arts — painter, sculptor, actor, illustrator, designer — but really these are just limited to specific jobs that people do, specific disciplines people have mastered.
Sometimes people resort to talking about ‘creatives’, but it seems to me that’s normally limited to one half of an office talking about the other half of an office and is normally preceded by words like ‘temperamental’. ‘Creatives’ seems to the collective noun for a group of tamed artists working in a corporate environment.
And I like just saying ‘creative people’, but sometimes that reinforces the ever so unhelpful idea that ‘creative’ is something that some people just are and some people just aren’t. Like you’re born with it or you’re not.
But what do you call it when someone steps into the role of a creative person? For a particular period of time? For a particular project?
What do you call it when someone switches from following someone else’s creative lead to originating and leading something of their own?
What is the term that clearly demarcates the difference between someone mechanically going through the motions and someone actually bringing something entirely new into the world?
This role — of bringing something entirely new to the world — isn’t limited to artists or designers or ‘creatives’. And it’s a role that isn’t limited to one sphere of life: you can bring entirely new things to the world in science, arts, business, family life, relationships, sport, politics. And it’s a role that every person has the capacity to step into.
The word my friend Peter Koenig uses for someone who is playing this role is source. And I think it’s a useful word — a fitting word — because, unlike words like ‘maker’ or ‘ founder’ or ‘creator’, it explicitly references the nature of the creative process — and the nature of this specific role within that process.
When you bring something new into the world, you are the source of it. That’s not an unusual idea. When we talk about where things come from, it can be natural enough to say ‘Who is the source of this particular thing?’ When it comes to quotations and footnotes and photo credits and journalism, then it’s standard practice to talk in terms of who is the source of something.
But, strangely, and unfortunately, outside of specific areas of creative work, it’s currently quite out of fashion to talk about where (or, more specifically, who) things come from. Our terms for leaders tend to focus on rank or function or status, rather than focusing on provenance.
So we have ‘Chief Executive Officer’. Does anyone actually know what Chief Executive Officer even means? It’s totally ubiquitous and yet, it’s basically nothing more than three words for ‘person of high status’.
Then you have ‘President’ and ‘Vice-President’, which literally both just mean ‘the person who sits at the front’ (late Middle English: via Old French from Latin praesident- ‘sitting before’). Which is useful if you’re doing the seating plan for your tribal council, but doesn’t tell you much about the role.
Then there’s ‘founder’, which at least has some useful sense in it — naming the person who lays the foundations for something. And its etymology should have the bonus effect of taming any ‘top of the pile’ egotism (from Old French fonder, from Latin fundare, from fundus ‘bottom, base’). Really, you’d think more organisational charts would put the founder at the bottom of the page, rather than the top. But, as a word for a creative person, founder has its limitations. Firstly, you can only use it for people starting things when the thing they’ve started is an organisation — so it’s actually just another genre-limited term like sculptor or painter, rather than a good word for ‘any person bringing something new into the world’. Secondly, if you try to establish any formal definition of what constitutes a founder and what doesn’t, then you either end up in a technical discussion of the due process of company formation and things like ‘founder equity percentages’ — or a battle of egos over the right to share in the disproportionate hero status that the term has acquired in the world of start-ups. Both of which draw the focus away from the role itself: of taking responsibility for bringing something new into the world.
But the biggest sticking point when it comes to the word ‘founder’ is that the person who sets up an organisation is not necessarily the person who is bringing something new into the world. Because taking the initiative to bring something new into the world is not the same as being the person named on a legal document during the formation of a limited company. Having your name on the door doesn’t mean you have the vision. But taking the first step to bring something new into the world — off your own back, from your own inspiration, at your own risk — does.
And, this may feel like a slightly laboured linguistic investigation of a set of seemingly interchangeable words, but I genuinely don’t think its any exaggeration to say that the conflation of ‘founder’ and ‘holder of the vision’ can cause billions of pounds worth of damage, can lead to the most successful enterprises losing their way and can lead to catastrophically toxic environments emerging in previously healthy, productive companies.
And this is because in any creative undertaking its vital to keep account of who started what. Because when something is in the process of being made, only the person who initiated it actually knows what it’s meant to be at the end. When JK Rowling was halfway through writing Harry Potter, only she knew what was going to happen at the end. And she knew because she was the author. And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the thing being made is a book or a company or a sculpture or anything else at all — every thing that’s made has an author.
Authors, authority and authorship
I like the word author. It’s such a helpful reminder of the true meaning of authority. Because true authority resides with the author. True authority is the same as authorship. JK Rowling has the authority to say whether Harry lives or dies because she’s the author (I haven’t finished reading it — don’t tell me). The story is her creation. It came from her mind, her experiences, herself. And, whether it’s JK writing Harry or me writing this, the author is writing to meet a need that only they can feel. As I’m putting these words down, where are they coming from? How do I know which trail to follow? How do I know when I’m done? The only way I can know is by listening inside. Feeling my way to the impulse that led me to start typing. Clearing a path for the creative energy that is moving my fingers. Focusing on that misty vision of ‘the finished thing’ — that desired result, that promise of fulfilment, that imaginary destination. And everyone who has ever made anything knows how hard that can be. But, ultimately, however hard it might have been for JK Rowling to tune into whether or not she should kill off her little wizard, it was easier for her than for anyone else because only she could possibly actually know. The rest of us can have opinions. The rest of us can offer perspective and bring insight. But, in the end, no one but the author actually knows.
It can be tempting to think that you know someone else’s vision better than they do. And there is a certain kind of clarity that can come from being able to look from the outside: the benefit of perspective is detachment. And when an author is all fogged up and preoccupied and distracted, it may well be that an outsider can temporarily have a more insightful take on the author’s vision than the author herself. But, in the end, it takes the author to confirm whether your insight is accurate. Because only the author actually knows.
(It’s the same with choosing what I want for dinner. I might have no clue what I want for dinner — and you might be way better at coming up with menu suggestions than me. But, in the end, it’s my belly and it’s my appetite and only I know. You can tell me what you’re cooking — but you can’t tell me what I want.)
And — sure — it’s easier to point to the author of a book than the author of, say, the entire oeuvre of a multinational company, but the principle still stands. If you look at the work that is done at Apple, it’s clear that it is (largely) a coherent whole. There is a creative undertaking underway that is ultimately no different in nature than laying a garden path or writing an album or designing a space rocket. It may have more moving parts than a book, but it’s still ultimately a creative piece of work — and there is an author.
And while individual designer may be the ‘author’ of individual parts, it’s clear that they are contributing to a larger project. Their work is not isolated, but is rather an attempt to manifest the vision of that larger project. And that larger project has an author.
But it’s not always self-evident who the author is. Because when we talk about companies we tend to fall into a stilted vocabulary of rank and status: Vice-President of this, COO of that. And we tend to talk in terms of legal entities and formal organisations. And we tend to overlook the actual creative undertaking. And we talk about ‘authority’ like it’s something that can be assigned. We talk about people in authority as if they’re interchangeable: swap out one VP for another and what does it matter?
But this way of talking leaves you blind to the fundamentals of work as a creative process. Because we know that only JK Rowling knows whether Harry has to die or not. And, if we stop and think, we know that authorship extends further than the front door of a bookshop. We know that every thing that’s made has an author. Companies, zeppelins, churches, pencils, operas, cigarette lighters, theories of linguistics: everything. They all start somewhere. And they all start with a person. And that person has the authority of the author.
And — sure — it gets more complicated the more people you involve and the more complex the thing being made. And it gets more complicated the longer it takes for the thing to be made. Sagrada Familia is still being built, but Gaudi died 90 years ago. How does that work? If Gucci make 5000 products, who has authority to say whether they’re the right products or not? Because they’re not all being made by the same person. (You can read Tom Ford’s explanation here.) What if someone new takes over an old company and takes it in a new direction? Are they the author now, or is it still whoever started the thing in the first place? There are plenty of questions to be answered. But there are answers. And they’re kind of straightforward. The important thing is that it’s only when you start looking at work as a creative process that you start asking the right questions. It’s only when you start trying to track down who started what and who actually has authority for what that you start getting the right answers.
Even the biggest companies in the world can get bogged down in conjuring together bland and meaningless reverse-engineered purpose statements. Because if you don’t consider the whole thing a creative undertaking and if you don’t acknowledge the existence of an author, then you’re lost before you begin.
And even the smallest companies in the world can get bogged down in petty squabbles and politicking and energy-sapping struggles over who gets to decide what. Because if you can’t hear the difference between the true voice of authority (when an author is articulating their vision) and someone just talking loudly, then you will inevitably get lost.
So, I like the word author. Because it points us in the right direction, reminds us that authority and authorship are the same, and has the potential to save us from never-ending circular arguments about what we all think our company purpose should be. (We don’t need to think about it. We just need to ask whoever started it why they started it — then we’re done.)
And I really think that reconnecting the words authority and authorship has the potential to change the world. And, maybe nothing would make me happier than if, after reading this, every time you hear the word ‘authority’ you hear the word ‘author’. And you feel compelled to check whether a figure of authority is actually an author, speaking with the voice of true authority — or if it’s just someone talking loudly.
But I’m also quite aware that if you say the word ‘author’ basically every English speaking person will think of someone crouched over a desk, surrounded by screwed up bits of paper, chewing on a pencil, staring at the sky, waiting for inspiration to strike. So, much as it is a helpful word to deploy, I suspect it’s not likely to supersede the word ‘founder’ or ‘CEO’ anytime soon.
“So, who’s the author of this whole enterprise?”
Sources, resources and being resourceful
My friend Peter favours the word source. And he uses it to describe the research he’s doing, looking at how founders materialise their visions.
And what the word source does that words like founder and CEO and artist and President don’t is make the underlying nature of the creative process explicit.
When you bring something entirely new into the world you are ‘sourcing’ it. You are getting it from somewhere and bringing it to the rest of us.
Because everything that is made starts out as an impulse to bring something into the world. And when you follow that impulse, plucking one idea out of the constant stream that drifts past in your mind, and you take the initiative to turn that idea into reality, you become a source. Because you have become a bridge between something not existing and something existing. You have become the channel through which something that exists only as a feeling in your belly or a thought in your mind turns into something that other people can see/hear/touch/experience. The unseen world of intangible material finds expression in form in the visible world of tangible things.
And your role is like that of the source of a river. You are not more important than any other part of the river. In fact, arguably, you barely exist at all. The water underground and the water overground and the point where they meet — it’s all river. It’s just helpful to turn ‘the point where they meet’ into a concept and give it a label — because knowing where a river starts can mean the difference between life and death.
As the source of something your job is to move what’s inside you to the outside. To listen for what needs to happen next. To see the vision and to articulate it. To translate something you can only see in your mind into physical reality through saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to ideas and opportunities that show up — until the thing exists.
And the unique challenge for the source is that out in the world people oftentimes find it easier to relate to physical objects and concrete actions and things they can see than relating to invisible things that exist only in the mind of one person. But anyone who has painted a painting or written a song or built an extension knows: the whole thing that you build out there in the physical world existed already in your imagination. Just look at the Sagrada Familia again. That whole wonderful, lunatic, genius, staggering, sublime and holy mountain existed as a vision in one man’s mind. And over a century later people are still climbing up the scaffolding every day to make that vision into a physical thing.
And your role is like the power source in an electrical circuit. (And my understanding of electrical circuits is basically limited to GCSE Physics 22 years ago and an afternoon reading a brilliant 1950s Basic Electricity textbook in a hostel in Amsterdam a couple of years ago.) We totally understand the concept of current flowing from a source through a circuit. And we totally understand that, along the way, the current may find very conductive material or may encounter resistance. And we know that that you can do more with a very powerful source — but that if the resistance is too great, then the force of the source can lead to burn out.
And basically every other metaphor for electrical flow can also be transferred to talking about how working together creatively actually works. Or every metaphor of water systems. Whether you’re talking about voltage or water pressure or the gap between ‘vision and reality’ when a creative person sets out to recreate the world in their image, the underlying mechanism is the same. We already know everything we need to know about how creative energy is expressed in the world. And we can learn everything we need to know about effective creative collaboration from skim-reading a wildly dated schoolbook about electricity.
But we’ve written that understanding of the process of creation out of our story of work. The inner life — everything underground in the river metaphor — for all intents and purposes doesn’t exist in an industrial story of work. Vital, energised, creative sources have been overshadowed by interchangeable administrators. And fascination for all the intricacy and subtlety of the natural human creative process has been replaced by an obsession over formulaic theoretical models of people stacked by rank and status. And the result is that creative work ends up being much harder than it needs to be. Because we’re pretending it doesn’t work in the way it actually works.
It’s time to write that process of creation back into our story of work. To look for the sources, not just the CEOs. To look at the creation-in-progress and the personal motivation that initiated it, rather than invented corporate structures and purpose statements conjured up out of whatever. To see how we step into the river and become electrified — charged up — by the motive force of something imaginary being brought into the real world. To see when we fall out of the flow, when we stand in its way, when we get overpowered by it.
And we can start to write creativity back into our story of work by starting to talk about sources. By starting to talk about authority as authorship. And by remembering that every thing that’s made has an author.
I write regularly about how to be clear. If you’d like to be clearer on your purpose or more creative with money or better at collaborating, I can teach you all those things. You can read more here or just get in touch and we’ll sort something out.
Have a look at my website: www.charlesdavies.com