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Why We Create

A recent article in New Scientist discussed the “odd phenomenon in modern consumer societies,” suggesting that people place greater value on things they make themselves. This would seem to contradict the precept that we are willing to pay more for the convenience of prepackaged goods. As evidence of this, the Do-It-Yourself trend has exploded among young people today, with many opting out of our impersonal “consumerist” culture and engaging in the more satisfying art of self-subsistence. Yet, in some respects the article misses the mark. While we like the idea of making things ourselves, nearly all of our economic behavior is based on exchange, and always will be. DIY usually isn’t worth the effort. But that doesn’t mean our creativity lies dormant. The examples used in the story highlight an important truth: It is our human nature to take pride in our work. When we invest our time and talent into something, it becomes more meaningful—somehow representative of the value we offer the world. But numerous factors are considered in our decisions, and the pleasure derived from one’s own innovation is just one. So to state the claim more accurately, we should say thatholding all else constant, we prefer to play at least a supporting role in providing for our own needs and wants. This, and all other factors, can really be distilled to one: whether or not we have the ability to create something at an equal or greater value than what we would otherwise pay. The term, “value,” is a highly subjective moving target, but it generally depends on weighing the sum of benefits and sacrifices experienced by oneself and others as a result of the thing in question. For some items we buy, we can produce our own version of it at equal or greater value. Growing certain foods in your own garden, patching a hole in a shirt or brewing your own coffee can mean big savings over time. When we take advantage of our more specialized talents, we can create value in much larger blocks: A mechanic can fix his own car and a baker can bake her own wedding cake. Suddenly a few bucks here and there becomes a few hundred here and there. By finding a way to do this all the time for other people we turn hundreds into thousands. It seems elementary when put that way, but that is exactly what we do for a living. We have jobs because we create something that someone else values. And we learn to specialize in order to maximize our most valuable creative contributions. Too often, when we talk about achieving material success, we focus on hard work and education—those are certainly important—but a person’s income is really only a reflection of how much measurable value they are producing for others. As beings made in the image of God, who is himself a creator, we sense a need and responsibility to create and accomplish. Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute pointed out that the bread and wine of the Eucharist cannot exist without the application of man’s labor and innovation. There is something sacred about creativity, and it is not limited to painting and sculpting. Only in the last century or two have we reduced “the arts” to the visual and literary sphere. The accountant’s art is making sure a business is in sound financial standing. The mailman’s art is getting the right package to the right place in the fastest time. Whatever our vocation, it is our art, and we should pursue it with excellence. But since most people have various talents and hobbies, we also direct our creativity toward making things to enjoy ourselves or give to friends. In such cases, we haven’t the same time, talent and resources that a professional would, so the final product rarely reaches a professional quality. Sometimes it even requires a larger financial commitment if we forget to calculate opportunity costs—losses incurred by not doing something more valuable. But we like DIY projects when the personal satisfaction of using our own creativity and industry outweighs other cost factors. Creativity helps us express ourselves and explore greater depths in our relation to God, nature and one another. Yet, we don’t always prefer our own work. If that were the case, we would never exchange goods at all. Indeed, most of our needs are met by the creative contributions of others. Without exchange we could never make our own iPhones, light bulbs or even Cheeseburgers (yes, it’s true). When we see value in the product of someone else’s talent and labor, we exchange it for something of ours that they value, and society is strengthened in this ongoing process. But before we can become active in the vast network of mutually rewarding exchanges, of course, we must first create.