One of my favorite morning commute radio segments is NPR’s “The Hidden Brain” with Science Correspondent Shankar Vedantam. This week he talked about the theory of The Ikea Effect, which uses the experience of buying and building a table from Ikea as a metaphor for the pride we take in the things we make, no matter the quality. The example given was of someone assembling a table and having it come out crooked. Others see it for what it is—a shoddy piece of workmanship. But if you built it, it looks perfect.
Immediately I thought, oh my God, he may be talking about putting a table together, but he’s really talking about my novel. I wrote it and despite its not yet being published I still think it’s a great work of literature. I’ve often had this idea about other people’s writing—that it’s truly awful but they’ll never realize it because they wrote it and can’t bear the thought of facing the truth. This explains why so much bad writing persists and why self publishing has grown hyperbolically. But now I am forced to look at my six years of effort on this book and consider whether I’ve merely been fooling myself into believing it has literary merit—I put all that work and passion into it, so it must be good. But maybe it’s not.
How deflating. How ego crushing. Have I wasted all that time on an exercise in futility and self-absorption?
A theory like this has much validity, but it can also cause people who actually do have talent to doubt themselves too much. Removing myself from the argument for a moment, I can’t help thinking about the many great writers and artists who took years/decades/lifetimes to achieve acceptance because the public and the critics couldn’t recognize the value of their work. The Ikea Effect didn’t apply to them, but to their critics, whose ossified opinions of artistic merit wouldn’t let them see a different form of creativity.
Then, of course, there are the people who never stopped believing in their art, but never achieved success.
I’m not sure what the message is here. Maybe the Ikea explanation is the pop culture theory of the month, just another attempt to homogenize us into a bland mass of underachievers. Perhaps what this theory really says is that it’s human to take an inordinate amount of pride in the things we personally produce, be they windshield wipers on an assembly line or a field of corn or a novel. Maybe that means we can learn to do better by recognizing our shortcomings and improving them. Or maybe it means we should accept imperfection and failure as an integral part of being human, and move on to acceptance of the boring mediocrity that passes for a lifestyle in our society. Hallelujah!
I’m curious. Many of you are writers or artists. What’s your take on this?