A lot of the TED talks are great, but I connected to a recent one a bit more than usual. The topic is creativity and where it comes from, which is something I spend a lot of time reading about and trying to conjure up for myself. It talks about how being a “creative type” isn’t really something you’re born as, more something that your thinking has been conditioned to be. The parts on the educational system and how it has mostly trained people for the industrial age (which is mostly over now) and often stifles creativity resonated with me. It talks about how the people who tend to be less afraid of failing, tend to channel more creativity. It’s probably why young kids and the cliched reckless rock stars are seemingly so creative. They tend to care less about what people think and are less afraid of failing. It’s through failing at things that we test boundaries. And testing boundaries is certainly a key action in creativity and innovation.
I generally feel through most of my schooling, I was programmed to think failing at things was a terrible thing that needed to be avoided at all costs. And I still feel like that more than I’d like to. I think it made me more risk averse, an enemy to creativity. As a result, in school I was often less focused on doing good work and more focused on just getting a passing grade. The usual tactic was to cram as much information in my head to score well on a test/paper/whatever, then hit the purge button afterward. Usually not truly interested in learning something. At least not most of the things they were teaching us. I was mostly concerned with just keeping the wolves at bay. Afraid to disappoint parents and teachers. Afraid to be ridiculed by my peers. And I think it’s reasonable to assume that’s how most kids in traditional education are conditioned and tend to operate.
That education experience carried on into much of my working life also. Doing work to a level that avoided scorn from bosses, clients, etc. I know for much of my time in the IT field, I’ve mostly run things to a satisfactory level. Well enough to not catch heat from anyone. Sure, occasionally a project would come my way that got me more fired up to perform at a higher level but by in large, most were about just getting through it at an adequate level. And in most companies I’ve experienced, this level of work is perfectly acceptable from its employees. I’d argue it’s the level that most of the management either knows how to motivates at, or is the level they themselves are motivated to motivate, so to speak. But is “satisfactory” really what we want to strive for? I think that tends to create a middling, unstimulating environment for people to spend their days in. Now fear can be a good motivator, so for the most part, I’d say myself and most people do relatively OK in school and jobs out of fear of being reprimanded or fired. But is fear a good place to do excellent, creative, innovative work from? Probably not. Just keeping “the wolves at bay” isn’t likely to result in any work of very high value.
So the last few years I’ve been trying to train myself to be a bit riskier. It can be difficult after a lifetime of programming the other direction. This can also be compounded by the age of fear we live in. There’s seemingly a lot to be afraid of if you watch the news. We have more external input than ever before. Sometimes you even need to turn off the advice and examples set by people like your parents. Parents naturally want their kids to be safe and secure, that’s what they are instinctively programmed to do. So their advice will often err on the side of caution and safety. Although being a risk taker also comes easier to some based on their parents behaviors. Actions are louder than words. If the parents exhibited risk taking and it’s benefits, the kids will pick up on it. Of course, “risky behavior” can manifest in some very negative choices but I’m not talking about risks like throwing back 10 beers and driving home. Or forgoing a condom with that one night stand at the local bar. Educate yourself and look at the facts of a situation, just don’t take too long to pull the trigger. Or even worse, don’t ever pull the trigger at all.
I find myself often looking to the ideas of others for guidance on things like business models and even making music. Which for me can seemingly result in unsatisfying, derivative work. That’s not to say we shouldn’t learn from and emulate those that came before us that have valuable things to teach. There’s just a point where you need to separate yourself and add your own creativity to the equation. It’s easiest for me to spot this in my music because I’m so close to it. Like many artists, I battle with the mindset of making music I’m comfortable with and that I think people might like vs. creating something perhaps more bizarre sounding that people may not care about or even deride. The creative gold is in the latter of course, you just have to come to grips with the notion that no one may ever care about those creations. Conversely, someone could think it’s the greatest thing ever and that’s where innovation is recognized. It goes back to the whole high risk/reward thing I suppose. It’s tough, we live in an information age of highly programmed people, including ourselves at some level whether we admit it or not. That’s why it’s important to seek out people more open to creativity who are willing to allow their boundaries to be pushed along with your own.
I’ve heard some say that we can’t have a whole population of risk takers. That it’s reckless and the world can’t function with everyone behaving like that. What then? Guess we’ll just have to wait for one of those “creative geniuses” to come along before we can move forward then? Negative. I think it’s more likely that we’re all potentially creative geniuses, if we deliberately cultivate our minds in that manner. We’re all made of the same stardust, right? Also, keep in mind that the institutions that hold a lot of power/money in the world have a vested interest in people playing it safe to keep their systems running and their money/power rolling in. These institutions can include our educational system and many of the industries we are being prepared for through it. I don’t mean to get all tin-foil hat here, I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist. To be honest, I think most people who overly buy into conspiracies are operating from a place of fear, a state of mind I’m arguing against in this post. That said, I do believe in naturally self-organizing systems and it’s reasonable to point out that the current power balance of the systems at work in the world are self interested in creating the worker bee mentality for the sake of efficiency and improving their bottom line. If you’re not thinking creatively, you can’t compete with them.
So here’s the link to the TED talk that sparked this ramble. It’s a good listen, I encourage you to check it out. If anything, perhaps it can spark you to deliberately live life cultivating a bit more of your own creativity.