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Creativity, Mistakes, and Being Good Enough

Creativity, Mistakes, and Being Good Enough

I recently ran across a TED Channel YouTube by Sir Ken Robinson from early 2007 called, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” His talk was both funny and insightful, and certainly worth a listen. But his comments about the relationship between mistakes and creativity caught my attention, and go beyond a simple discussion about education.  In particular, he said:

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. By the time most kids become adults, the’ve lost that capacity. We stigmatize mistakes (to the point where) mistakes are the worst thing you can make.  The result?  We’re educating kids out of their creative capacity.”

Beyond just the education system, we do stigmatize mistakes to the point where making one is the worst thing you can do.  Consider your favorite sports team after losing the big game. You won’t have to look far to find someone saying something like, “With the game on the line, you have to make that play. You can’t miss it.” From an early age, and from every angle, it’s drilled into our heads that you have to be right, never wrong, and you simply cannot make mistakes.

I also I think you can expand Robinson’s comments about being ‘wrong” or “making mistakes” to include the idea of “not being good enough.” The thinking would go something like this:  “If I can’t sing like an American Idol winner, I’m not going to sing at all.”  Or, “If I can’t dance like John Travolta (for “experienced” blog readers) or Moose/Adam Sevani (for the younger crowd), I’ll just sit on the sidelines.” It’s the fear of being wrong, making mistakes, or not being good enough.  It’s the fear of failing.

As people discover that I’ve begun to write professionally, a surprising number of people have told me that they too would like to write and publish a book. The vast majority also tell me either that they’ve started but then stopped, often repeatedly, because they didn’t think what they’d written was good enough, or that they never started in the first place because they just don’t think they could ever pull it off. Their fear of writing poorly (of being “wrong”) has overtaken their fear of not fulfilling their dream.

I suppose I struggle with the same thing. I’ve decided to publish a collection of short stories, and have a number of them in various states of completion. But somehow, I keep coming up with new ideas that might be a little bit better than what I have so far. And more reading to do, just so my perspective is just that much sharper before I put my work out there. Or maybe, like the other aspiring writers I mentioned above, somewhere just beneath the surface I know I’m protected as long as I can keep coming up with reasons to postpone publishing.

Math is concrete. Two plus two. One answer. As long as you know how to solve the equation, you can come up with the one right answer. Art offers no such certainty. And despite efforts to categorize and grade from every direction, art is ultimately subjective. There is no single “right” answer. Given a culture that wants to give everything a Pass/Fail grade, knowingly putting something out to the masses for subjective review is understandably unnerving. Then again, that brings us full circle to Robinson’s initial comment, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong (or judged, or not good enough), you’ll never come up with anything original.”  (OP 4/1/2014)