News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

March 1, 2014

THOMAS L. STEIGER: Creativity requires freedom from the risks of failure

TERRE HAUTE — Last week I wrote about the themes that emerged from the panel discussion by five Wabash Valley members of the “creative class.” One question posed to the panelists was whether creativity can be taught. One panelist, Michael Tingley, an artist, affirmed that yes it can be and that it is easy, it’s a “simple process” and he gave examples of his success with that process with his students. I don’t doubt Michael’s success, but I suspect if it were as easy as he suggests, that the search for unlocking the incredible creative abilities of every human being would not be so hard.

Apart from certain personality features which seem to lend themselves to creativity, the research on creativity as well as my own biases toward cultural and social explanations leads me to a different, less individualistic explanation of why we find creativity to be so seemingly elusive.

Despite all the research into creativity, we really don’t seem to know very much. But it seems to me, what we know is profound. Creativity requires risk-taking, a willingness to fail — even an expectation of failure.

Last semester I made a presentation to ISU’s honors students. These are the best and brightest academic stars anywhere. These students could have attended any university they wished based on their academic quality. I spoke to them about the importance of failure. Before getting into the meat of my discussion, I asked them a couple of questions; I asked them who considered themselves to be creative? All but a couple raised their hand. I asked them how many of them were good at thinking outside the box? All but a couple raised their hand. Then I gave them a little diagnostic that taps into how comfortable they are with creativity.

It’s a very clever test, really. It asks the students what kind of assessment they would like to be used to grade their learning or understanding of different kinds of material. Everyone but two of the students chose a multiple choice test, the least creative option. This fit with the research I had read on high-achieving college students. Our best students, those who reflect the best that our education system produces, prefer the least creative option when it comes to testing and this suggests they prefer the conventional over the creative. Our very best students are pretty risk averse. Being right is more important than getting it right (eventually) or a unique solution.

A willingness to fail, even an expectation of failure, is something the research shows is a characteristic of creative people. I don’t think that is a personality feature. Rather, it’s the result of being in situations where failure is not punished or even supported. In today’s America, where is “failure” ever supported or encouraged? Parents begin lining their kids up for academic excellence from a very early age. And the pressure to make the grade is intense.

By the way, nothing in the literature suggests that “competition” fosters creativity. Indeed, it can reduce it. So, the competitive nature of our academics today is undermining rather than supportive of a culture of creativity.

Trying new things is also part of developing (or maintaining) creativity. But today, even in children’s play, we over-organize it and specialize. Today kids pretty much are deciding what sports they are going to “play” at very young ages, get into competitive situations and focus just on that sport. Why? In some cases because of scholarships, dreams of going “pro,”  and desires of being “the best,” a narrow hierarchical notion of success.

Books like Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” is popular and I know people who want to follow it. While doing so may be a recipe for success in an increasingly specialized and narrow economy, it’s creativity that is increasingly in demand and such specialization does not seem to be conducive to creativity. The reason why is the investment made in the prevailing conventions and standards of what is “good.” We need more people who can ignore the conventional and redefine things. That requires risk, a willingness to fail and a culture that doesn’t harshly punish failure.

As director of the ISU Center for Student Research and Creativity, my goal is to support undergraduate research and creative projects. Working on a faculty mentored research project or an artistic/performance project frees students from the “tyranny” of grades, allowing them the freedom to “be wrong,” to “take risks” and to “think some outside the box.”

Thomas L. Steiger is professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email thomas.steiger@indstate.edu.

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