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Does security help or hinder creativity?

At one point in Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty (2011), which otherwise doesn’t have much to do with the topic of this blog, Ginsberg complains that university presidents speaking of the benefits of their university’s income from endowments “failed to mention that endowment income sheltered their institutions from being forced to develop intellectually exciting programs that might interest more students”. In another and much longer section of the book, Ginsberg argues for the value of tenure in protecting academics’ ability to follow up challenging ideas without fear of losing their positions. In general, it seems plausible to believe either of the propositions that having a secure income leads to complacency, or that having a secure income provides a base from which one can take new risks. So which is it?

I suspect that such a question could occupy economists, psychologists and others for years, and indeed a short search of the literature turned up the observation of one economist that “the body of literature on the relationship between risk aversion and wealth is extensive” with no indication that this literature has reached any particular conclusion. So I’ll only reflect on own experience here and leave the broader question to a behavioural economist’s version of A Little Research.

Ginsberg evidently has greater faith in academics’ abilities to come up with interesting new ideas than university presidents’. Being an academic myself, I’d like to agree that we can indeed produce interesting new ideas when left alone with the resources to do so, and might point to the papers that I’ve published and courses I’ve developed as evidence. But then again the managers in Ginsberg’s own book and senior management at the institutions at which I’ve worked are perennially telling of grand new adventures in learning and research too.

No doubt there are many variables that contribute to a decision to be remain satisfied with a secure income versus striking out in a new direction, such as how certain one can be that intellectually exciting programs really will attract new students, how intellectually or emotionally satisfying the current work might be relative to possible new work, and so on. I chose to have a bit of both by continuing part-time academic work in order to maintain a secure position while freeing some time to try new things.

Since working part-time, I’d like to think I’ve given myself some space to explore new ideas and take a chance on new projects, a step beyond churning out a new research paper on the same topic or a new computer program using the same technology as the last one. I’m not yet able to say these have been great successes, but I am writing more (and probably better), and I’ve had some initial exposure to running a business even if it’s yet to be thriving one. In fact, if I simply wanted income, the more obvious option for me would be to continue churning out those papers or programs—but this would be my own form of sheltering from the need to develop in new directions.

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