The Carrot and The Stick
Relating an Often-Misquoted Metaphor to The Creative Process
You’ve probably seen the old carrot on a stick metaphor, perhaps in an illustration or a cartoon, or referred to in conversation. You know, there’s a guy on a horse, and he’s holding a stick with a carrot dangling from the end, on a string. He’s holding it in front of the horse, who, in trying to get the carrot, keeps moving forward. That’s how the rider gets the horse to move forward.
You might not know that “Carrot on a stick” is a malapropism. It’s not quite true to the original idiom. There wasn’t just this one apparatus involving a stick, a string, and a carrot. There were two things: a carrot in front, and a stick behind. These related to two separate things, reward and punishment, to motivate a desired behaviour. The carrot is the reward, the thing that draws the horse forward. The stick, I’m sad to say, is a tool of corporeal punishment if the horse stops.
Like it or not, we are all motivated by carrots and sticks. We prefer to be driven toward a reward, not running away from punishment, but a even just quick look into things will show that we need both. This is true in all of life, and no less in the creative process.
While there are many different factors at play when are are being creative, today I want to play around with the idea that perhaps there are two main motivators of creativity. And yes, these are the carrot and the stick. Except we can maybe move past the suggestion of bribery and cruel punishment by changing our terms. I’m proposing Pull and Push. Pull Factors are what drive our creativity from up front and are largely reward-based. Push Factors are what drive our creativity from behind and are largely consequence based. When you think about it, pull and push factors are at play in many areas of life.
The promise of payment from client to artist (on one hand) and the promise of work completed by a certain time (on the other) is really at the crux of every contract.
Take games (sporting or otherwise) for instance. Games always have a prize factor, some kind of trophy that makes both playing and winning the game desirable. A trophy might be a medal, a financial incentive, or a moment of glory. Aside from any of the rules of play or enjoyment of the game itself, or whatever it is that one must do to win, the prize is the thing that players envision as they struggle through the game. It’s what’s at stake. On the other side of winning is losing. It means the loss of whatever the prize is. The prize is what pulls us forward.
If the prize pulls us forward, what pushes us from behind? Time. Most games have a time limit. Hockey has three 20-minute periods. Basketball has four 12-minute quarters. Yahtzee comes with an hourglass. It’s hard to imagine any of these games without the element of time. What urgency would there be in scoring goals, or in putting in your full effort, unless you had to race against the clock to get the highest score? There are exceptions, I know. Like golf, baseball, or monopoly. Time seems to go on indefinitely. However, while these games have no direct time limit, time still factors in. You can’t play these games forever, and eventually, people will lose interest. Monopoly is famous for dragging on too long. Baseball is notoriously boring to watch (sorry). Jokes aside, for a baseball player, the time element is there, it’s just more subtle and lasts longer: undoubtedly, there is pressure (at least on professional players) to perform above a certain threshold, and to sustain this over time. Failure to stay over, too frequently, will result in the player being benched, and ultimately, dropped.
Why would anyone do anything hard right now when they had the option to do it later?
For creative professionals, time is always pushing us from behind. Without it, there is no sense of urgency on a project. Without a deadline, we would not feel compelled to push ourselves above a certain threshold. Ideas might come, art may happen, but when, who knows? Why would anyone do anything hard right now when they had the option to do it later?
Similarly, for us, an incentive is always pulling us forward. In professional creativity, that incentive is almost always financial gain (hence the term professional). Yes, there is also the joy of the creative process, and the passion for our art. But we must admit that creativity is not always a joy. It is often a struggle. It’s work. As creative professionals, making art is literally our job. Nobody can do anything hard over a sustained period without something pulling us forward. Even when time or fear is pushing us from behind, we need something positive to work toward. Without the pull factor, our experience would be too intense and negative. We would burn out.
These are the two main pull and push factors of professional creativity: money and time. Money promises us that if we do our job well, we will be able to take care of ourselves and our families. The better we do, the more likely we are to earn, and hence, the better the quality of our life. On the other hand, time tells us that we must do our job now, and not later. It gives us a reason to put in the required effort when it is needed. The only way we can push ourselves hard is by knowing how long we have to do it.
The absence of a reward and consequence is what makes self-initiated creative projects almost impossible for many.
I don’t think time limits should be unreasonably tight. And I don’t think we need to have unreasonably high expectations for remuneration. But both of these are important factors in making sure work happens, that it is done well, and that it gets done. Money and time are also important in keeping both client and artist invested in the project. The promise of payment from client to artist (on one hand) and the promise of work completed by a certain time (on the other) is really at the crux of every contract.
The absence of a reward and consequence is what makes self-initiated creative projects almost impossible for many (including myself). As there is no apparent prize for having completed a personal project, and no consequence for not doing it (on time or at all), personal work is almost doomed from the beginning. Those who are able to create their own rewards and consequences, however artificial these might be, are most likely to produce successful self-initiated projects. For me, when I create self-initiated work, I often have to treat it like a real job, setting it up and stepping through it just as I would a client project. I have to set up a timeline, and I have to have a reason, an ultimate destination, for the art. That usually means something to share on Instagram. A schedule at least gives me the sense of a time constraint, even if it’s totally up to me. Likes and comments (aka engagement with my audience) subs in for the financial incentive.
But really, when I talk about the creative process, I am talking about it in the context of commercial art. That’s where the highest stakes exist. If anything I write about, regarding the creative process, applies to personal work, it’s really in how we have to pretend there is the same kind of carrot and the stick factor we find in our commercial work. The bigger idea here, and the main takeaway, is that in order to produce our best creative work, and to do this repeatedly and reliably, we not only need a solid process; we need both motivation and pressure. We can’t just make art for its own sake. We are commercial artists. Our motivation for making art is making a living, and it is only time pressure that makes it seem important enough to do right now.