Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Creative Segways

Sometimes in life – boardroom, living room or classroom – we get so scared of failure that we make it impossible for ourselves to succeed. In an economy in reset mode, the unreasonable power of creativity is what will set smart people and companies apart. But the thing about creativity is that it breeds failure as well as success.

That's the paradox. In a jittery economy, people suppress creativity to minimize the risk of failure, and companies often encourage that kind of insular thinking. But it's exactly the wrong approach – if allowed to set in, fear of failure will set an organization on auto-pilot, nose down.

Jonah Lehrer wrote on his blog in December about how psychologists are learning more about how the creative brain functions. He used the example of a simple but powerful experiment among college students. Two groups were told to list as many modes of transport as they could. The only difference was that one group was told the idea for the research came from exchange students in Greece, and the second group was told it came from classmates from down the hall.

Fascinating results. The 'down the hall' group came in with a predictable set of responses like car, bus and train. The 'Greece' group let their imagination run wild, generating far more answers, naming horses, ancient warships, spaceships and, yes, Segways.

The only difference was that one group was given the smallest permission to think fearlessly, and they jumped at it. Lehrer uses this research to argue in favor of the mind-opening possibilities of travel, and he's right. More importantly, it reveals the way the creative mind flourishes in the right conditions, and closes down in the wrong ones.

Fast Company magazine backed this up when they reported the findings of Harvard Business School research into the work habits of 238 creative professionals. The findings revealed that "creativity is positively associated with joy and love and negatively associated with anger, fear, and anxiety." The researchers argue that a fearful or negative workplace environment is an anathema to creativity and that "when people are doing work that they love and they're allowed to deeply engage in it – and when the work itself is valued and recognized – then creativity will flourish."

The lesson is obvious. We need to overwhelm tough times with our boundless and brazen creativity – not the other way around.


Dominique Elliott said...

Thank you for this great post Kevin. Even those of us who teach art and design do not always practice in the classroom what we pontificate about at meetings and in academic literature. We so easily get frightened by innovation when we are faced with it, because it seems unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Students are also so conditioned by the expectations we set forth that they resist pedagogical experimentation. I used Lehrer's "Proust was a Neuroscientist" in a visualization course this past year and found myself having to justify the textbook selection on more than one occasion. If we expect more creativity from students we must put more creativity into our teaching practices.

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