The anxiety was overwhelming. I wouldn’t be able to do it. The pressure, the judgment, the vulnerability. No, it would be too much.
Except it wasn’t me. It was a group of elementary school kids. And it turns out they could. They did. And really without any reservations at all.
They were putting on an Improv show. Then they painted paintings and wrote stories, all of which they presented to the group. Then there was a trivia contest with no shortage of guesses and wild ideas.
No hesitation. No holding back. And no limits to the creativity.
And as I watched it all from the safety of the audience, I wondered if I could show that same courage. That same reckless abandon and thrill. But I already knew the answer.
And it wasn’t encouraging.
We Were All Unafraid At One Point
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” warns Ken Robinson in an incredibly entertaining TED talk on education. Telling the story of a child’s Nativity play, as the three kings come in bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh,
“The three boys came in, four-year-olds with tea towels on their heads, and they put these boxes down, and the first boy said, ‘I bring you gold.’ And the second boy said, ‘I bring you myrrh.’ And the third boy said, ‘Frank sent this.’”
Kids aren’t afraid to be wrong. They’re happy to take a shot and see where it leads.
But at some point they stop. They go from the kids that are excited to be on stage to the adults that are relieved to be in the audience.
George Land developed a test for NASA to identify the most innovative scientists and engineers. It worked so well, he decided to use it to test children as well.
After testing 1600 children, he found that 98% of five-year-olds would be considered in the “genius category of innovation.”
Continuing the test to older age groups, he saw the results drop to 30% for ten-year-olds and 12% for fifteen-year-olds. And when the test was given to over one million adults, the average score was 2%.
As George Land eventually concluded, “non-creative behavior is learned.”
Are we really taking these kids, now happy to stand up and take a chance, and turn them into the adults who think it’s safer to stay quiet and watch from the sidelines?
Is this really what we want? And is there any way to turn this around?
Maybe It’s Unavoidable
One of the reasons why mature people are apt to learn less than young people is that they are willing to risk less. Learning is a risky business, and they do not like failure. – John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society
Some say its evolutionary programming. That we’re conditioned to seek acceptance so we’re not cast out of the tribe and eaten by the next tiger that wanders by.
Maybe. I don’t know. And I don’t think it really matters.
I do know that most of us like being right. Few enjoy being wrong. And we’re quick to pass judgment on everyone who falls into the latter category.
Kids don’t have this luxury. Most of what they see and do is new. So they’re often wrong. You can’t learn through trial and error without the errors.
Imagine learning to talk or read without making mistakes? Should we ask kids to stay silent until they can master the language of their choice? Or study a procedure on how to write before ever picking up a crayon?
Most of us have the scars from learning to ride a bike, figuring out how to climb trees, and realizing that it’s not a good idea to pet stray dogs and Tea Party supporters.
We learned through these mistakes. Through these failures. With failure came learning. With learning came growth.
Now, being wrong is not creativity. Our recent political situation has demonstrated this point repeatedly. But unless we’re willing to be wrong, our ability to create anything original is at a severe disadvantage.
If you’re afraid of falling off a bike, it’s difficult to get enough speed to actually do it. And if you’re afraid of being wrong, you’re unlikely to take on new challenges and try new things.
Ed Catmull, a man whose resume of encouraging creativity has few equals, writes in Creativity, Inc.,
“By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new. The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.”
Everyone falls at some point. It’s the price of moving forward. It’s what we do next that matters.
Flawed is Human
“Whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.” – Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth’s 2011 Commencement Address
In a culture of social media highlight reels and strength-based coaching, we forget that people aren’t great all the time. Sometimes people succeed. And sometimes they don’t. This doesn’t make them losers. It makes them human.
In a tremendous TED talk on leadership, Stanley McChrystal recounts a failed training exercise. He led his team into a dawn attack and they were wiped out immediately. After reviewing his failed exercise in detail, he says he walked out “feeling as low as a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.”
He sees his battalion commander. And as he’s about to apologize for letting him down, his commander says, “Stanley, I thought you did great.” In McChrystal’s words,
“In one sentence, he lifted me, put me back on my feet, and taught me that leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.”
Failing sucks. Let’s not pretend we’re all going to start celebrating the idea of failing. If it was that easy, we’d already be doing it.
But we can recover from failing. Failing’s just one result. One that we can modify and improve for next time. And one that causes enough psychological discomfort to encourage meaningful change.
Being a failure, on the other hand, is an identity. One that doesn’t lend itself to recovery. One that, instead of leading to growth, often leads to stagnation and depression.
Fundamentally, we all know this. And the reason we hold back, hesitate, and play it safe, is not because we’re afraid of failing. It’s because we’re afraid of being a failure.
So this becomes our challenge. To let people fail without letting them be a failure.
And as much as anything else, this includes the conversations we have with ourselves.
Failing is Inevitable. Failure Doesn’t Need to Be.
“Bravery is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion.” – Nicole Krauss, responding to Vincent Van Gogh’s 1884 letter on fear and risk-taking.
Yes, most schools and organizations will preach learning from failure in the same sentence they punish it. And there’s no doubt that we need to improve these areas to reverse our current trend.
But before we can help drive meaningful change externally, we need to do it internally. For us to help other people survive failing, we first need to extend this luxury to ourselves.
Most of us are our own worst critic. We say things to ourselves that we’d never tell other people, even those we actively dislike.
I could talk about the power of optimism. I could cite studies on the importance of positive self-talk and practicing gratitude.
And all of that is important. But I don’t think it’s enough.
Because ultimately, we are what we consistently do. As Navy SEAL Eric Greitens wrote in a letter to his struggling friend,
“We become what we do if we do it often enough. We act with courage, and we become courageous. We act with compassion, and we become compassionate. If we make resilient choices, we become resilient.”
We can seek all of the reassurance we want. We can read posts and books and watch videos on the importance of recovering from failing. But until we put ourselves out there and do it, none of these words truly grow into actions.
It’s in the act of doing that we learn all those things that made us hesitant and afraid, rarely come to be. In doing, we can realize that while those fears may be real, we’re giving them far too much influence over our choices.
In his letter On Groundless Fears, Seneca cautions us against allowing misplaced fears to drive our choices and our lives, giving a quote from Epicurus,
“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.”
So start living. Give yourself permission to make some bad decisions. See that it’s rarely the end of the world.
In Tribe of Mentors, activist and actor Jesse Williams asks, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
Would you be up on that stage, living in the arena? Or watching from the sidelines?
At some point, the choice isn’t about any particular moment. It’s about whether you’re going to be ruled by that fear for the rest of your life.
Where do you want to be?