You Can’t Want Anything

When it comes to creativity, wanting something does seem to get in the way of actually achieving anything.

By David Intrator, president, The Creative Organization

A few years before his death in 2004, Charlie Rose interviewed Henri Cartier-Bresson at his home in Paris. For years, Carier-Bresson had been recognized as one of the greatest photographers of his time, having produced an uncanny amount of photographic masterpieces. Rose was curious as to how Cartier-Bresson went about his work.

“What’s the secret?”

Without missing a beat, Cartier-Bresson answered: “You can’t want anything. You just need to be receptive.”

Now, if anyone of lesser stature had said this, I probably would have dismissed it out of hand, thinking it was just another instance of pseudo-mystical New Age nonsense. But coming out of the mouth of one of the central artists of the last century, I had to take it seriously. I mean, this guy knows what he’s talking about.

You can’t want anything.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and applying it to my own work.

Cartier-Bresson is right: When it comes to creativity, wanting something does seem to get in the way of actually achieving anything. I’ve noticed this not only in my photography, but in musical improvisation, as well. Although a great deal of thinking, desire, and goal-oriented effort go into the development of jazz technique, when you’re actually creating an improvised solo, the “object,” if you can call it that, is not to think at all.

On a few occasions I’ve been fortunate enough to have enjoyed the experience of “desireless” non-thinking while playing jazz. When you’re in this call it “non-conscious zone,” you can reach heights of true authentic beauty, along with a deep sense of satisfaction and peace.

The problem is, once you become aware of what you’re doing, once you stop “receiving,” it all goes away. Once that voice in your head says, “Man, this stuff you’re playing sounds great, this is a blast,” the whole thing collapses. As Cartier-Bresson would say, it’s about being receptive, about just listening and letting the music go where it wants to go on its own.

In fact, great improvisers often talk about “the music playing itself,” which echoes something else Cartier-Bresson said in his Charlie Rose interview:

“I don’t take photographs. The photographs take me.”

There’s certainly something beautifully counterintuitive in this approach.

And I know from experience that it works, but it also poses a number of challenges. First of all, we’re just not wired to engage the world in a way that’s so passive, so out of our control. Added to that, it’s hard to get your head around the whole concept of not wanting anything. How do you reach the goal of not having goals? What possibly could be the path to fulfilling the desire of having no desire? Furthermore, the kind of “thoughtless” receptivity Cartier-Bresson proposes is at odds with the values of our modern capitalist culture.

In contemporary life we’re encouraged to have dreams, set goals, make plans and execute them. Contemporary corporate culture takes this to an extreme, with an almost obsessive concern for efficiency, rationality, and instantly measurable success. So, if not wanting anything is the key to creativity, how do we “achieve” it as individuals, and how can companies organize themselves in way that allows creativity to flourish?

As I’ve written many times in the past, for us as individuals, it’s all a matter of practice. The creative mindset can be learned. I don’t have the space here to go into it deeply, but the basic idea is simple: If you want to learn photography, take a million photographs. If you want to learn how to brainstorm effectively, spend countless hours brainstorming. If you want to learn to be creative, create things.

Don’t think about it. Don’t judge it. As Nike says, “Just do it.”

Now, for companies to be creative they need to establish of culture of creativity that allows—if not actively encourages—individuals to just do it. Chances are they’re not set up that way right now, and such a culture actually might be antithetical to their current corporate ethos.

But they could start small, creating “creative zones,” little oases within the company that allow for goal-less creative activity. The oasis could be a place, a room within the organization. Or it could be a time, let’s say a couple of hours each Friday, when employees can pursue any creative assignment they like without the pressure of instant success. In fact, that’s just what Google does, allowing its employees to spend 20 percent of their time pursuing anything that interests them.

Imagine if every corporation in America acted like that? Imagine if we were all as creative and innovative as Google?

It would make a pretty picture, indeed.

David Intrator, president of The Creative Organization, is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. He can be reached at

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.