Dear Corporates, Please Stop Idolising Creativity

There’s a dark side to creativity and you‘re only making it worse

Mark Starmach
Invisible Illness
Published in
5 min readJan 22, 2023


Artwork by Mark Starmach (and Vincent Van Gogh)

Van Gogh chopped off his ear.

It wasn’t an accident either — a clumsy slippage of his palette knife during a fun late-night painting romp.


It was a hallucination-induced attack on himself, of which he couldn’t remember once regaining consciousness. It was a manifestation of an intense inner instability — one that, the inescapability of which, eventually caused him to take his life. Because as much as Van Gogh was a creative GOAT, he was also a mentally-mired human being. You know, like most creative people.

This is something I think is tragically glossed over within the current corporate zeitgeist surrounding big-c ‘Creativity.’

There are a lot of CEOs and LinkedIn thought-leaders and modern, forward-looking companies talking up creativity right now. That the imagination is the key to innovation (or less cryptically, the secret to more unbridled capitalism). That creativity and technology make “fantastic bedfellows.” That ‘Creativity Bootcamps’ are worthy investments. That Steve Jobs was Corporate Jesus.

But I don’t see anyone talking about how Van Gogh chopped off his fucking ear.

Or that in 2018 and 2020, surveys by Mentally Healthy of 1,800 people working in the Australian creative industry found that the instance of mild to severe anxiety among creative professionals was 29% higher than that of the general population. It was a similar story for symptoms of mild to severe depression — 20% more than the national data. To quote the researchers, “nearly one in five of us showed severe or extremely severe symptoms of depression, compared to 12% in the national average.

As a creative professional who’s dealt (deals?) with terrible anxiety and bouts of depression, this math feels right. I can’t relay the number of anecdotes of mental ill health I’ve heard from others throughout my career or the volume of friends and acquaintances in my professional and personal spheres who’ve confided in me their inner turmoils. But it’s definitely more than two unchopped-off earfulls.

And yet, this is a reality I don’t see quite captured in the B2B bukkake over creativity.

I’ve long had a hunch that enough correlation tips over into causation. I think, creativity is the anxiety. Is the vehicle that generates the harmful fictions. Is the self-doubt. Is the self-criticism, and imposterism, and pressure, and overthinking.

Or perhaps more precisely: Creativity is the art of overthinking.

Think about it. The proclivity to overthink gets you over the cliche stuff and into the land of more novel, compelling ideas. Disciplined, that’s great. But undisciplined, that intense an imagination is a double-edged sword. Because the same mind that can get swept up in bright, company-changing visions of previously unimagined awesomeness is equally capable of getting lost in the darkest, most terrifying visions of futurelessness, worthlessness and failure. It’s the same tool, the same behaviour, just running at opposite poles. It’s nuclear energy, and a nuclear bomb.

“Creativity is king!” scream the cabal. “Unordinary thinking leads to extraordinary things!”, “The imagination is unlimited!”

Yep… unlimited in the suffering it can inflict on its imaginer.

Especially if the imaginer spends 40 years of their working life relying on that imagination for their financial income.

Over years, creative professionals learn to latch onto any wandering thought in the hopes it’s gold. In the course of that, very often, they also latch onto the mud. Mud about themselves, the expectations they imagine others have of them, and their quietly-held, solely self-perceived failures.

But I don’t see that in any cutesy Corporate Memphis-laden infographics of amorphous humans chucking around pie-charts like they’re volleyballs.

The tricky truth: What makes creative people special also makes them uniquely prone to mental ill health. And this is exacerbated by conventional corporate structures.

Think about that old metaphor of a donkey with a carrot, dangled in front of it via fishing line, but connected to its head by a rod so that no matter how much the donkey trots forward, it never quite claims the carotene.

That’s like a creative person under the constant pull of their imagination, the allure of ‘what could be.’ Now add in layers of bureaucracy, rounds of feedback, a wellbeing-illiterate workplace, office politics, time pressures, financial pressures, the natural flits of business, and generally speaking, reality — and that carrot’s kilometres away.

Far from buffering them, this only serves to exaggerate the sense of failure, self-criticism, and pressure that the creative professional feels — the yawning distance between their felt purpose and their perceived ability to achieve it.

They feel the duty to pull the cart by leaning into their carrot. But, very often, the normal corporate trappings coax out the cobras native to that carrot — turning it into a source of constant disappointment, a vector for pressure and self-critique, an object for rumination or worse, resentment and cynicism.

All the brainstorms and bubblegum-coloured Post-It notes on earth can’t mask the dark underbelly that creative energy often entails.

I want to make an important aside.

Creative people have a lot to do to keep their demons in check — for their own sake, not just their companies’. You don’t have to be a tortured 19th Century Impressionist. You can be like the 21st Century NYC-based artist Tom Sachs, who treats his creativity with caution — “Creativity is the enemy. Use only when necessary.” A creativity activated through discipline, but also confidence and play, is far stronger than one ruled by the tyranny of punitiveness and perfection. And this shift is eminently doable — I can attest it just takes time, self-awareness, kindness, and (likely) more than six hours of therapy over Zoom.

But the corporations that only sing creativity’s praises have some work to do too. If you really want to embrace creativity, you have to embrace its darknesses as well.

Take, for example, the workplaces cited in that Mentally Healthy research I mentioned earlier. Companies in the creative industries are generally more literate and supportive of mental ill health. They have open conversations, safe spaces, continual support, burnout warning systems, ‘Me Days’ built into leave negotiations, and contingencies for creative failure built into their business models, reducing pressure.

That’s what broader corporate culture still needs to learn. You can’t just pay lip service to creativity. You actually have to service it.

Offer wellbeing plans, not just beanbags. Cater for the whole pockmarked creative process, not just free quinoa lunches. Create a culture of kindness, openness, and vulnerability. That’s far more powerful than even the strongest masseuse’s monthly shiatsu.

But most importantly, please stop idolising creativity. Because by only saying how great creativity is, how creative people are ‘creative geniuses,’ you’re unintentionally heaping more and more pressure onto them.

Instead, when you see Van Gogh’s sunflowers, see the suffering in them too.

Strangely, it makes them even more precious.

Artwork not by Mark Starmach