Jeremy Dean, in a recent article on his site PsyBlog, Why People Secretly Fear Creative Ideas, notes that creative ideas are often rejected in favor of conformity and uniformity, and why this is so, citing several psychology studies (Mueller et al. 2011; Westby & Dawson, 1995) to back up his case. Dean asks rhetorically,
Does society really value creativity? People say they want more creative people, more creative ideas and solutions, but do they really?
The answer, sadly, is no, but why is that so? The reason, Dean writes, is that fear of uncertainty overrules the desire for creativity:
Across two experiments Mueller and colleagues found that when people felt uncertain they were:
- more likely to have negative thoughts about creative ideas,
- and found it more difficult to recognise creative ideas.
This supports the idea that people don’t like creative ideas because they tend to increase uncertainty. The thinking goes like this: we know how to do things we’ve done before, but new things are mysterious. How will we achieve it? Is it practical? What could go wrong? And so on…
People don’t like to feel uncertain; it’s an aversive state that generally we try to escape from. Unfortunately creativity requires uncertainty by definition, because we’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before.
People deal with the disconnect by saying one thing, “Creativity is good, we want more of it!” but actually rejecting creative ideas for being impractical.
And, the more uncertain people feel, the harder they find it to recognise a truly creative idea. So as a society we end up sticking our heads in the sand and carrying on doing the same old things we’ve been doing all along, just to avoid feeling uncertain.
Instead we should be embracing uncertainty because it’s only when we’re unsure that we can be sure we’re in new territory.
Creativity requires uncertainty by definition, because we’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. Dean is spot-on in his assessment, and a primary factor keeping people from embracing uncertainty is fear of failure. Adrian Savage wrote a great article earlier this year for Lifehack.org, How fear of failure destroys success, where he notes just how vitally important failure’s handmaidens, trial and error, are to achieving ultimate success:
Trial and error are usually the prime means of solving life’s problems. Yet many people are afraid to undertake the trial because they’re too afraid of experiencing the error. They make the mistake of believing that all error is wrong and harmful, when most of it is both helpful and necessary. Error provides the feedback that points the way to success. Only error pushes people to put together a new and better trial, leading through yet more errors and trials until they can ultimately find a viable and creative solution. To meet with an error is not to fail, but to take one more step on the path to final success. No errors means no successes either.
Savage goes on to illustrate various different ways that individuals and corporations allow fear of failure to block creative solutions to problems: a culture of perfection, clinging to past success, being a high achiever, or being unbalanced in any one direction (too over-achieving, too moral, too anything), and that finding a proper balance is the way out of this trap:
Everyone likes to succeed. The problem comes when fear of failure is dominant. When you can no longer accept the inevitability of making mistakes, nor recognize the importance of trial and error in finding the best and most creative solution. The more creative you are, the more errors you are going to make. Get used to it. Deciding to avoid the errors will destroy your creativity too.
Balance counts more than you think. Some tartness must season the sweetest dish. A little selfishness is valuable even in the most caring person. And a little failure is essential to preserve everyone’s perspective on success.
We hear a lot about being positive. Maybe we also need to recognize that the negative parts of our lives and experience have just as important a role to play in finding success, in work and in life.
Savor these two of Savage’s ideas, they are golden: 1) The more creative you are, the more errors you are going to make. Get used to it. Deciding to avoid the errors will destroy your creativity too. 2) We hear a lot about being positive. Maybe we also need to recognize that the negative parts of our lives and experience have just as important a role to play in finding success, in work and in life. The key is to remain open to new ideas, methods, and experiences.
This applies to all aspects of business, but resonates especially strongly for me in how it relates to the naming process. In our own work here at Zinzin, we live in permanent trial and error mode, because we accept the fact that on every naming project, we will ultimately create hundreds of “failure” names that will lead us to the one great name that defines a successful outcome. Savage’s description of trial-error-reiteration adroitly captures what our line of work entails. You can only find the perfect name by multiple rounds of experiment, play, questioning, red herrings, dead ends, trips down rabbit holes, self-criticism, debate, and chance. Be open to creative ideas in yourself and others, and embrace the trial/error/failure/try again process.
When you get knocked over by failure and fall down on your face, get up and repeat, over and over again. The good news is that once you make this process a habit, it becomes second nature and much easier to tolerate. Eventually you realize that the failures are not speed bumps on the road to success — they are actually catalysts, without which there wouldn’t be any success.