CREATIVE TENSION: Ghost in the Machine

Culture Futurist®
19 min readJun 1, 2023

by Theo Edmonds

Culture Futurist™ | Creativity Strategist | Artist/Poet | Imaginator Academy | Social Brain Capital Builder | WHOAology™

Working together over the next decade, artists and scientists will ignite a new wave of transformational creativity in corporate America. But first, we will need to climb over the crucible of happiness and other corporate apparitions holding innovation hostage.

Crucible of Happiness

Every day I learn so much from the incredible scientists, economists, educators, business executives, and artists I am fortunate to work with. So, I fully appreciate the benefits that happiness offers. I like being happy. It feels good. But I’m exhausted from trying to “get happy right” based on a formula. Most days, I feel I’m failing miserably.

So, what makes such a good thing like happiness go bad? It seems to me that there is an increasingly vast chasm between what research shows works and HOW that knowledge gets applied as part of a patchwork of management feel-good fads — often gleaned from summer reading book lists, reductionists media approaches, and the like.

I spent some time this weekend getting my thoughts together on how we might do things differently in bridging the chasm between research and applied science. Lots to unpack here. But I hope some of you resonate with these challenges and will engage in the beautiful, messy, human dialogue that helps us all get to a better place.

It’s not us. It’s you.

Imagine it’s your first month in a new job. You’re excited to contribute to your new company. Then, via email, you get a “personality test” link from corporate headquarters requesting you complete the assessment. So, of course, being new and wanting to show you’re a team player, you fill out the form.

Then, in your second month, a virtual group meeting is called with all your new colleagues. A person from corporate headquarters who you have never met but is “trained” in the personality assessment model comes on screen and begins presenting. They put up a slide with everybody’s individual results (by name) mapped on a chart. You see 95% of your new colleagues clustered tightly in a category the trainer says is “good.” This category is characterized as “compliant and cautious.”

Then, based on your score, the trainer names you as a loner in the category on the opposite side of the chart. The trainer suggests you (remember, they are using actual names) will need to work on your “personality” to be more like everyone else because, again, that’s what the trainer says is “good.” Welcome to your new job!

This happened to me. Unfortunately, when it did, it mustered up a lifetime of being “othered” and bullied. First, as a queer, neurodiverse kid growing up in southeastern Kentucky in the 1980s, then for my accent when I entered college, my first corporate jobs, and so on. While being white in America afforded an immense privilege, the schools I was in and the companies where I worked were not made for people like me to be “happy.” So, I found ways to create meaning instead.

Today, my work as a Culture Futurist™ — mixing research, strategy, data analytics, and storytelling — helps me understand many things. Things I knew were not right then, but I didn’t yet have the words or insights to fully understand why. Now I do.

Happiness Pursuits

Let me restate that I like being happy. What exhausts me is trying to get it “right” based on a corporate formula. Which, if we’re being honest, is often promoted by leadership seduced by the formula’s inherent message. Namely, it’s not the company’s culture but the individual employee’s motivation that is the “problem.” The employee, not the company, is the thing that needs to be “fixed.”

This focus on the individual is dangerous thinking for leaders who need to innovate in a fast-changing environment. Why? A recent article entitled Cognitive Behavioral Soulcraft: Running into the limits of wellness culture put it this way: “In its attempt to give us control over our own stories, Cognitive Wellness Culture (CWC) impoverishes the stories we share and the meanings we make together.”

Perhaps this is why many corporate “happiness models” meant to improve individual employee engagement become deeply problematic. When not contextualized within the greater socio-cultural environment outside the workplace — where culture shifts and shocks are increasingly the norm — these models may inadvertently harm the trustworthiness and belonging they are meant to support. These models may also worsen other corporate conundrums, like purpose fatigue, while amplifying the “all aboard” call for the burnout train.

Does anyone believe Chipotle’s burrito can change the world? Since GEN Z is a core customer demographic for the company, I get the marketing impulse here, but that seems like a lot of pressure to put on a burrito.

Culture Shifts & Curiosity

Ostensibly for team building and creating a “good” culture, it seems we have many outdated corporate approaches hanging around these days. And, if you know where to look, there are data signals everywhere that our old (pre-2020) methods are reducing, not improving, companies’ creative ability to innovate.

In my own exploration with research partner Cameron Lister, there is one quantitative example that comes up often. We see companies repeatedly having 9 of 10 employees with the same curiosity profile. So while the overall company profile may differ slightly between industries, the concentration of employees around curiosity sameness is a consistent feature.

This tells me that companies are doing a “good” job hiring for historical culture fit. But, if something changes the operating environment, like a pandemic, despite earnest, well-meaning intentions, some companies might not have the organizational ability to think and act differently.

On the other hand, executive teams who intentionally create a diverse workforce ecosystem and lead with a paradox mindset outperform others. Why? They get good at effectively managing creative tension rather than rushing to feel-good solutions. As a result, these companies generate novel, high-value, multiple-pathway responses to opportunities and threats in the external operating environment.

Interestingly, this phenomenon can be understood by measuring group-level hope. Hope is different from optimism. Optimism is a belief that circumstances will have a positive outcome. No real action is needed other than holding the belief. However, hope measures the ability for action by a group toward future, uncertain goals. Hope is a proven, powerful predictor of clinical, educational, and entrepreneurial outcomes. Measuring hope helps an organization find the latent ability that exists within. Then, with this cultural intelligence, resources can be optimized and targeted toward human and economic growth across the myriad of different needs and assets in a well-balanced, diverse workforce.

But (and this is important), “positivity cheerleading” alone will not unlock the competitive advantage of a well-balanced workforce. In fact, this one-size-fits-all approach to positivity may block the creativity such a workforce can offer and tank the well-being of employees across the board.

As we transition to the future of work and experience a growing number of new culture shocks and shifts, we must imagine different roles, supports, and metrics for manager success. Ones that are more consistent with where things are going, more in tune with who employees are, and more aligned with what culturally-responsive research supports.

What if we trained, supported, measured, and promoted managers based on their success in unlocking creativity, wellbeing, and belonging in the workforce?

It’s an idea with real, measurable human and economic growth opportunities for those companies that get it right. And, a manager whose approach is “good vibes only” positivity is unlikely to deliver the goods.

I recently came upon a brilliant, digestible breakdown from Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD, BCC, on the relationship between creativity and toxic positivity. The article notes that toxic positivity can ruin creative efforts by limiting breakthrough opportunities arising from creative tension, stifling deep customer empathy, and shutting down psychological safety.

Reading through this insightful article, I thought about other storytelling challenges in management. For example, one of the most cited Academy of Management articles of the last decade note that when a company’s external stakeholder messaging (PR/Marketing to consumers and investors) is out of sync with internal stakeholder experience (employees), overall organizational capacity is negatively affected.

The Journey to Wonder: WONDER ECOSYSTEMS

As humans, our ability to wonder, perhaps more than anything else, makes us unique in nature. It’s also the key to sustaining groups as they stumble through conflict resolution, communication, creating shared language, learning to behave in trustworthy ways, etc.

Boiling science down to its most radical simplicity, the easiest way to think about wonder is like a plane. The plane is the vessel holding the cumulative creative ability of a specific group — a finite number of passengers.

On one end of the plane’s route is awe, creative reflection, and contemplation of each passenger’s place in the world and notions of their shared connection to each other. It’s like an expanding state that won’t ever be resolved. On the other end of the route is curiosity, the gap between what the group knows about something specific and what it wants to know about it. It’s like an itch that, with a little effort, can be scratched.

As the creativity plane travels back and forth on the route, new combinations of passengers come on and off. The group configuration is constantly changing. There are constants in the group, like flight attendants, pilots, and frequent flyers, and there are random passengers just passing through who will join the group only briefly as they travel through on their own journeys.

From a scientific perspective, wonder is the fuel that powers our creativity plane as it travels back and forth on its route between awe and curiosity.

Bringing together different areas of science, we see that wonder, and imagination are two distinct but interconnected cognitive processes. Both are supported by brain health. Wonder is often associated with a sense of awe, curiosity, and amazement in response to novel or unexpected experiences or information. Wonder involves a heightened sense of attention and a desire to understand and explore the world.

On the other hand, imagination involves mentally simulating or creating new experiences, ideas, or concepts that do not exist in the external world. It can involve visual, auditory, or other sensory experiences and can be influenced by a person or group’s memories and cultural influences.

While wonder and imagination are different processes, they work together to drive a group’s creativity, innovation, and discovery. Wonder can inspire and motivate the imagination, while imagination can help a group to explore and understand the wondrous things in the world around it.

Ghost in the Machine

You’re the CEO of a tech company that prides itself on being at the forefront of innovation. You’ve invested millions of dollars in cutting-edge technologies and data-driven approaches to ensure your company stays ahead. But, if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ve never gotten past tinkering around the edges of transformative ideas. Likewise, your team has invested significant time, talent, and treasure but has yet to create something that sets your company apart from the competition.

All the pieces are in place. You’ve invested in all the team training fads. “On paper,” things should be happening differently for your team. You’ve worked hard to create a happy, friction-free company culture where people find their strengths and focus on them. But there is something intangible holding you back. Has the focus on happiness and culture fit caused you to lose your ability to manage the creative tension between people and ideas? Does this cause your team to coalesce too quickly around a small solution when tension arises? Do you really believe that small, incremental solutions can hold the big challenges and deeply entrenched problems the company’s marketing says you solve? Does your burrito really change the world?

Then, you hear about the concept of a “ghost in the machine.” At first, it sounds pretty hippie-dippy and your tech company is in the business of building machines not promoting new-age-sounding nonsense. But the more you think about it, the more the idea resonates. What if there is an intangible aspect of human intelligence that machines cannot replicate? What if creativity and intuition are just as important as data and technology when it comes to innovation? After all, many of the world’s leading scientists, theologians, researchers, poets, and philosophers have long noted that our ability to wonder is one of the main things that sets us apart from everything else in nature.

How would you know if your company lost its wonder mojo? Of course, technology and data are massively important, but your company is only half-baked without the human element.

You challenge your team to integrate the “ghost in the machine” concept into its innovation process. Then, you start looking for ways to better integrate human creativity with machine processes. Finally, you encourage them to seek out and collaborate with neuroscientists, conceptual artists, and poets.

Your product may be about (fill in the blank), but how would product development differ if the team used each of the five senses — look, feel, sound, smell, and taste — to inform its innovation approach?

Is there a sixth sense, like beauty, that changes how the team thinks about the other five?

Before you know it, your company is creating transformational products and disrupting the industry. “Ghost in the Machine” may have sounded like a strange idea at first, but it was the missing piece for your company that connected your team back to their sense of wonder.

Before We Had Words to Name Flowers

“The understanding can intuit nothing; the senses can think nothing. Only through their union can knowledge arise.” — Kant

“Ghost in the Machine” has long been used to describe and critique the concept of our minds existing alongside and separate from our bodies. It’s a heuristic, or mental shortcut, for discussing how our emotions influence the intellectual part of our brains; and the emergent consciousness that may (or may not) exist in artificial intelligence.

Beyond the individual, though, what other ghost exists in the machines of our “social brain”?

How many of you reading this consider yourself to be artists? Scientists? Business professionals? Maybe, it’s a little of all three? Perhaps it’s none because all these words seem too small to hold your past, present, and future in a way that is meaningful to you. Who could blame you? After all, seeds turned in the earth long before we made up words to name flowers.

As it turns out, artists, scientists, and business professionals have more in common than not. Namely, all of us are stardust. Just think about it. Everything that we humans have ever made (from wars to nations to companies) and everything that we have experienced (from working to learning to innovating) comes from just two things: what the earth supplies and human creativity. That’s it. Both are made from stardust. Both are the stuff of wonder.

Perception vs Reality

No matter what you may call yourself — artist, scientist, or business professional — the human brain is everybody’s own “ghost in the machine.” It ciphers and defines our individual and collective human experiences. Understood this way, it’s easy to see that a foundational connection already exists between artists, scientists, and business professionals. The choice, then, is whether or not we choose to acknowledge and value the connection.

As wondrous as our brains are, wired to imagine and predict the future, they are also fallible. To make this more tangible, let’s continue with our happiness theme. Research shows, for example, that we overestimate the impact of significant life events on our happiness and underestimate the effects of small daily pleasures.

How our brains perceive a circumstance, more than the circumstance itself, is what shapes a person’s experience of something. Ten people can be working on an innovation project together, but each may be having a different experience based on their own memories and life path up to that point in time.

Our “humanness,” our emotional self, is the cause.

Art of Measuring Ghosts

I think of science as the art of measuring ghosts. At its core, science is all about understanding the world around us. This means that scientists need to be able to measure things. Some things are now relatively easy to measure, like the temperature outside or MRI brain scans. Other things are not so easy, but not impossible either.

For example, many may incorrectly assume that feelings, experiences, or subjective states, like happiness, have no objective referent in the physical world to measure. But Daniel Gilbert, a CU Denver alumni (Go Lynx!) and current psychology professor at Harvard University, proposes that the most accurate source to measure happiness is the people who report being happy.

Physiological measurements such as muscle movement and cerebral blood flow can support or refute claims of happiness. Therefore, by examining thousands of people’s experiences of happiness, science can measure at least some aspects of this subjective human experience.

Measuring “ghosts” is difficult, but it’s not impossible. And what we measure is what we manage. If you’re a company executive, do you really want to get into the business of managing everyone’s individual happiness? If you’re an employee, do you really want to leave your happiness up to your employer?

Believing it can be used as a magic solution for increased productivity and profits, it seems that corporate America has become obsessed with happiness. However, happiness is not linear. It cannot be commodified or manufactured like a product. Moreover, corporate America’s implementation of happiness strategies often leads to a culture of toxic positivity, where negative emotions are not allowed. Employees are expected to be happy and grateful for their jobs regardless of their actual experience. This can lead to a gaslighting and emotional manipulation culture, where employees feel invalidated and unsupported in their struggles. Furthermore, the pressure to be happy and productive can lead to burnout and mental health issues. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Focusing solely on individual happiness can lead to a narrow and superficial understanding of what motivates people and drives innovation. While happiness is important, it is highly individual and situational. Organizations taking a more holistic approach to managing creative tension and collective wellbeing are more likely to drive transformational creativity. As we move away from hierarchy in a brain economy, we need to find better metrics and strategies for enabling ecosystems to thrive.

Science can’t do it alone. That’s where the art of business comes in.

A growing body of research suggests that measuring a group’s collective creativity, demographic and functional diversity, communications effectiveness, and the measurable ties between diverse groups is far better at predicting company-level outcomes than focusing on measuring an individual alone.

Innovation is not just an individual effort. It is the art of managing the creative tension that arises whenever individuals become a group. Innovation is a social process that involves collaboration, communication, and interaction among people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Social connections and relationships are key drivers of innovation. Because social connections ease the exchange of information, ideas, and feedback that shape and refine new products and services, they either diminish or liberate potential. This is why inclusion is important. Inclusion unlocks the latent ability already present within a company’s ecosystem.

Like science, business is interested in measuring things to understand how to find new opportunities for creating economic value. In today’s emerging stakeholder economy, business is also about creating value for stakeholder groups of all kinds. To create value for people, businesses must understand the fullness of our collective human experience.

This is where the art of art comes in.

Throughout human history, our artists (more than anyone else) have consistently proven to hold the pulse of our shared human condition. Artists create mirrors and windows — poems, stories, songs, theatre, dances, performances, rituals, visual languages — repeatedly showing us where new options are available. Artists make the invisible to be visible, actionable, and possible. While science can measure wonder and businesses can use it, our artists tend to it. Artists nurture our collective sense of wonder in ways that remind us of what connects us rather than separates us.

We have been taught that artists, scientists, and business professionals are separate from each other — inhabiting different worlds, speaking different languages, and having different priorities. But that’s a mistake. Because the truth is artists, scientists, and business professionals have more in common than not.

For starters, we all carry around human brains wired to be social. We crave connections with others, and we miss other people when we’re isolated. So, whether you think of yourself as more of an artist, scientist, or business professional, history reveals an interesting truth: recognizing and leaning into our collective capacity for being human together takes everything to the next level.

Art of Stardust

NASA’s Hidden Figures. Disney World. The iPhone. James Webb Space Telescope.

What do these four examples have in common? Beyond being the people, places, and projects that helped to shape the future, they also are some of the most culture-shifting moments of our last half-century. The teams working together on these projects effectively turned their work into wonder — harnessing their shared creativity, curiosity, and knowledge to advance our world. How thrilling it must have been to be part of these teams as they stepped back, looked at their accomplishments, and sighed collectively — Whoa!

Today, examples like these remind us of the limitless human potential found within our ability to wonder, imagine, and persevere when we hold steady through an uncomfortable creative tension — or the “gap between vision and current reality.” If we understand how to work with it, creative tension is the oxygen of innovation.

Culture shocks, transformative innovations, and even fame often feel like they happen overnight. This is rarely true. Disruptions that suddenly shock us into a new kind of awareness brew on the periphery or under the surface well before they break through. I call these “wonder points” — when long-forming constellations of ideas break through together and come into sight. Like the recent images coming back from the James Webb Space Telescope, it feels like we have seen old things anew, causing our assumptions about what we thought we knew to change.

The good thing about wonder points is that they can be anticipated before they appear. We must increase our ability to “see around corners” to do this. This can be done by getting reconnected with and embracing creative tension. Placing ourselves into direct contact with our broader environment and including different perspectives. What might be foreign and invisible from where I sit could be very present from where someone else is. The core of how an artist brings an idea to life might only be at the edge of awareness, or non-existent, for a Fortune 100 CEO who is grappling with a similar challenge but within a different context.

I heard famed choreographer Bill T Jones on a podcast recently (quoting, I think, Yates McKee) that art happens when something is pushed up against. In today’s world, it feels like there are many things in our cultural, political, and economic environments we are pushing up against. Somedays, our systems seem out of transformative ideas and have resolved themselves to tinkering around the edges while doubling down on the status quo and hoping for the best.

I’ve heard world-class economists often say that the thing which changes the status quo is the best possibility for growth. As long as we can track back, artists have proven to be a catalytic force shaping and influencing our human experiences of working, healing, learning, and exploring. Through a lifetime of experience and practice, we artists work to stay tethered to the human potential for collective creativity and to make new possibilities visible and feasible.

By engaging in a lifetime of skill-building and communion with the unknowable, we artists hold our creative work between awe and curiosity and intentionally position our lives to be lived in courageous imagination.

We never forgot what the Webb Space Telescope images are reminding everyone of today as the cosmos blasts across our social media feeds. Namely, every human experience, ever, is nothing more than stardust.

Perhaps most importantly, we artists find limitless possibilities through humility and reverence. But, we have learned an important truth, the limitless possible only shows itself when we stay grounded in being human, and brave enough to embrace the ghost in the machine — wonder.

Moving from Work to Wonder™

A new reality gets born a little bit at a time. Until one day, almost unbelievably, the world as we know it seems to have changed overnight. Of course, this is not true. Whether we are paying attention or not, culture is always changing. We are both the consumers and the producers of culture.

Are you ready to shake things up and truly embrace the ghost in the machine? Buckle up, because here are three culture shifts challenging everything corporate America thinks it knows about creativity. And, in the process, fueling the next wave of disruption across every industry.

  1. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will never be a true match for human creativity. Stop worrying about robots taking over and start harnessing the unique power of the human mind. Risk-taking and experimentation are not just for rebels and misfits, they’re the only way to make a real impact. Adaptability and flexibility are survival and thrival skills in a world where the rules are constantly shifting. #BrainCapital
  2. Democratization of creative tools is more than an evolution. It’s a revolution to upend gatekeepers who used to control what was considered “worthy” of being creative. In this revolution, diversity and inclusion are not just nice-to-haves, they’re prerequisites for unlocking the true power of human creativity. Collaboration and collective creativity are not just important, they’re the only way to solve the complex, multi-dimensional problems that we face today. For companies, creativity is not just a luxury, it’s the only way to stay relevant in a world that’s changing at warp speed. #CourageousImagination
  3. Leaders take note, the boundaries between creative disciplines and science are not just collapsing, they’re being obliterated. It’s time to smash the boxes or someone else will do it for you. Emotional intelligence is needed to effectively manage the creative tension of diverse teams. It’s not just a “soft” skill, it’s a core brain skill that will set you apart in the future of work. Continuous learning is not just a buzzword, it’s a survival skill that will keep you relevant in a world where everything is constantly evolving. #EmbraceWonder

This moment in time is unlike any other that any living person has ever known. We’re standing at the intersection of unprecedented technological advancements, global crises, and societal shifts. We have a choice: we can either cling to the old ways of thinking and risk being left behind, or we can embrace the future with all its challenges and opportunities. It’s time to step up, take risks, break the rules, and unleash the full power of our human creativity and imagination.

This is what it means to move from Work to Wonder™



Culture Futurist®

Rockies-based Culture Futurist ® from Appalachia. Pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life at intersection of Arts, Science, and Business.