“Thank you, ma’am. Have a good one.” Men and women behind the checkout counter tossed this farewell greeting at me each time I went grocery shopping in the US. ‘One what?’ I always wanted to ask, but the imperatives of sociability forced me to smile politely and respond with the predictable ‘you too’ instead.
It was just a meaningless phrase of courtesy, I knew, meant to lubricate the tedium of everyday interactions with a dash of affected cheer, but something peevish within me demanded better: a real interaction. A refusal to utter rote sentences, even churlishness would have fared better with me, for at least it would have had the ring of authenticity, but everywhere I went they all soldiered on with barely concealed resentment at their thankless and low-paying jobs, resolutely spouting stock phrases that would help them keep their positions. Good morning. How may I help you ma’am? Have a good one! Ding.
Customer service in the US is so standardised you would think salespeople are all sent to the same greeting factory from where they come out perfect little role models of sales perfection. At least in word, if not deed.
In Pakistan, by comparison, salesmanship runs the gamut from downright ‘take it or leave it’ to ‘Chhotay, hurry up and get a 7Up for baaji!’ When the service is bad, it’s very very bad, but when it’s good, it’s dazzling.
That’s what comes from lack of structure: failure, difficulty, but also singing success, unfettered by pre-determined notions of correctness. Structure creates the English cricket team: stolid, dependable…dull. Growing up laissez-faire on streets playing tape-ball cricket produces Wasim Akram: original, innovative…thrilling.
Much creativity depends on the freedom to travel unhampered on seemingly useless paths. My friend, a corporate man, thinks summer holidays are a left-wing conspiracy to hamper children from learning optimally all year round. I feel summer holidays are when children truly get to ‘learn’, by devoting themselves to pursuits that ‘structure’ otherwise never allows.
Ask a reader and they will pay their greatest debt of gratitude to languid summer afternoons of reading whatever they could get a hold of — a world where parental structure loosened up to allow for passionate indulgence, a life beyond a ‘time table’. More than school libraries and unorthodox literature teachers, the slow days of summer allowed for a deep dive into creative pastimes. It was this lack of structure that created the adventurous, the daredevilish, the fun.
The Greek philosopher, Socrates, did not have a university to aid his thought. He took his philosophy on truth to the common Greek public and sharpened his skills through seemingly endless, unstructured conversations. The tales of a thousand and one nights were started by one person, picked up by another and stitched together in a looping narrative that derives its magic from disjointed strolls through chaotic streets.
Over a hundred years ago, Frederick W Taylor’s scientific management inspired both Henry Ford and Vladimir Lenin to break down every job action into small steps that could be measured and analysed so as to create improved efficiency. That’s where structure works best, when human beings are needed for machine-like functions that require precision and repetition, but with the industrial and computer revolutions those tasks have been relegated to machinery. Human beings now need creativity to be relevant. And people who think only of becoming cogs in a machine are bound to become redundant.
The other great stifler of innovative thought is organisational structure. To stay within an organisation you have to fall in line with its ideals, or else get booted. These are the most fertile grounds for entrepreneurs and innovators, people who refuse to accept the existing structure for what it is, and set out to break the mould. Steve Jobs thought people needed computer machines to be more beautiful, more simple, yet Microsoft with its clunkers, was thriving. Nobody seemed to care for Jobs’ ideals of aesthetics and ease. What was there was selling, the structure worked, what was the point of reinventing the wheel?
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And yet through the force of will of just one individual the existing structure was smashed. Suddenly it seemed people had wanted simplicity and beauty all along. But there’s a catch-22 here, Jobs himself created the most well-oiled organisation with the most draconian culture. Every minion in the company had to know his place and wasn’t allowed to challenge the leader’s vision. You had to be part of the most rigorous structure in order to practically implement the great man’s innovation and creativity.
For all of creativity’s claim to free-wheeling spiritedness, in the longer run it needs structure to flourish. True innovation though, is the province of the fearless, those who stand apart and aren’t bogged down by outside ideas of what constitutes as normal.