Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Inspiration! Forget innovators - it's all about maintainers


From TED Talks to tech conferences to the requirements for any arts grant, innovation is our current obsession. No, it's not an obsession. A requirement.

If it's not innovation, it's a "creative leap", "big idea" or "game changer", words I'm pretty sure we invented to avoid the word innovation getting repeated so often in a presentation that it starts to sound like a foreign language.

And why wouldn't it be everywhere?  Innovation is what brought us Golden Delicious apples and phones that suck the life out of every moment of our days (while keeping us from getting lost - thank goodness).  Soon it will bring us cars that drive themselves.  We love that stuff!

Innovation is a lot more fun to talk about than maintenance, that's for sure.  Maintenance is grunt work.  Maintenance is going through and making sure your records are up-to-date.  It's proofreading, securing operating funding, replacing old water pipes, repaving roads, cleaning behind the couch (again), and making sure your database is correct.

So what keeps our society going?  What gets things done?  Big leaps, or all the incremental non-glamorous work that keeps everything safe, clean, and functioning?

I'm not going to ask why we value innovation so much more highly than maintenance because it's obvious: innovation is fun!  It's new!  It's exciting!  Innovation means you get to buy a new toy and spend the months leading up to the purchase imagining how much better your life will be once you have it.

That's all fine.

Here's what's not fine, though: we assume that innovators are smarter and more valuable people than maintainers.  The innovators came up with a new idea, sure, but it probably happened on the back of a lot of maintenance work, and so the fact that we don't care at all about maintenance work is a problem.

Recently I listened to an episode of Freakonomics where they broadcast an entire conversation they had with Malcolm Gladwell.  One thing he brought up was how his 10,000 hours rule has been completely misinterpreted by the world.  He wasn't trying to say that you just need to throw 10,000 hours at something and then you'll be an expert and change the world.  The point he was trying to make is that you can't put in that kind of dedicated practice without a lot of outside support.

Young Bill Gates was not only lucky enough to have access to a computer long before other people did, but he had people who would drive him around, cook him food, and otherwise take care of "maintaining" life around him while he did it.  Most Olympic athletes have the same: parents or partners who basically give up their lives to support the regimen of training and nutrition and mental fortitude required.

When I was in university learning about the big innovators in theatre, I would often marvel at these people who devoted every day for years to developing a new theatre practice.  My wonder wasn't at their dedication (although that was impressive) but at the question of maintenance: "How did they afford to live?" I would often wonder.  "Who payed their rent and cooked them food?  How am I supposed to devote my life to creating art if I have to have a home and food and the ability to get myself across town?"

The answer, it always turned out, is that they had someone who was taking care of that for them.  They devoted their entire lives to their "creative leaps", because someone else was doing the maintenance work needed to support them.

Today this seems to still be the way it works.  Most people I know who work in the arts and don't do (too many) side jobs have partners with high paying "regular" jobs.  Non-artistic innovation is a bit different, since people are willing to pay money up front for promising tech innovations, yet it's really only the source of funds that changes.

Maintenance is on my mind right now as I head into summer.  My work is very seasonal and summer is when things go from crazy to virtually dead.  These are the months where I am supposed to catch up on all the things I didn't have time to do all year: clean up my mailing lists, make sure I've got proper records of everything that happened over the past year, research new contacts, set up infrastructure for the coming year so that I can be more organized, and so on.  It's work that can be satisfying once it's complete, but is hard to be motivated to start.

Of course, going from 10 months of hard deadlines and a steady onslaught of new projects to "I need to make sure I have three printed copies of all of last year's programs and it needs to be in place sometime before mid-August" doesn't exactly light a fire in me.

I want to be an innovator.  Most of us do.  But we can't all have teams of people to do the maintenance on our behalf.  Most of us have to be both innovator and maintainer.  We need to come up with the idea and do the work to make it happen, while keeping things orderly, clean, and properly recorded.  We need to whip up some dinner before we sit down and solve the next problem, and then eventually we'll have to tidy up and clean behind the toilet before going to bed.

A part of me thinks that this is the way it should be, at least until we can start valuing the work of the maintainers as highly as those of the innovators they support.

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