The Primacy of Risk

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Over the last couple of years I’ve been working in collaboration with MethodKit to develop a bundle of card-decks for far-reaching educational change. This involved researching the factors which promote or inhibit creative thinking in school-settings. I found forty-eight of them but there are probably far more.

The most insightful question I’ve been asked about this deck came from Anthony Barrett, Operations Manager at Asia Pacific Adventure HK. As a leader in an industry that thrives on all things outdoorsy and dangerous-looking, Anthony knows far more than most about controlled and managed risk, and more importantly, about the Dweckian connection between risk-taking and personal growth.

The question he posed was “Do you think there’s a hierarchy of factors”? I was stumped for a bit, and still haven’t unpacked this fully but my belief is that, as far as creative endeavour is concerned, there are definitely ‘One or two cards to rule them all”, and both relate to ‘Risk Taking‘. These are them…

Kaufman and Beghetto’s Four C model of creativity helps make sense of this:

At the smallest, quietest and most personal level of creative thinking we have what Kaufman and Beghetto call ‘Mini-C creativity’. It is creativity that is meaningful only to the person participating in it. This could be a thought, or a learning experience. It happens, but it is goes quietly unexpressed to any sort of audience. I see this all day, everyday in learners who do the thinking, but choose not to stick up a hand and do the sharing. Mini-C is very safe, because of the absence of the opinions of a critical audience. If you have a team of Mini-C thinkers who don’t trust each other to be critical friends, this hamstrings attempts at co-creativity.

Above this is ‘Little-C creativity’ which shares the value of our creative products with others, and here is where risk begins to become an issue for many. This is where you let someone read your awful teen-angst poem, or stick your Grade 1 artwork on the fridge. Hopefully a child’s potato-prints will be admired and they will feel safe and encouraged to continue. This is where narrow-minded assessment practices begins to kill creativity in schools. I remember being told at in a primary school choir, that I was singing out of tune and told to “Just mouth the words”. I can sing in tune today, but you won’t catch me doing it in front of an audience. Too risky.

A level above ‘Little-C’ is ‘Pro-C’ creativity and this is where we share our creativity at a professional level. We have training in it and can make a living from it. The risks get bigger. We are open to criticism. This article sits somewhere between Little-C and Pro-C. There is a feedback mechanism and I will feel encouraged, or not, depending on the article metrics and reader comments.

Finally, we have the seriously big guns who produce ‘Big-C creativity’. These are the creative endeavours which have a profound impact on others. TThis is the sort of paradigm-shifting creativity that goes down in history – The oscar winners of creativity. Big-C is the domain of the Edison’s, the Picasso’s and Dali’s, the Curie’s and Kahlo’s. It is incredibly risky and often not understood, or even condemned at the time of creation.

We all do Mini-C quite a lot of the time, and perhaps some Little-C. Not everyone does Pro-C and very few achieve Big-C.

The only way to move up through the C- levels is by making creative products public and that entails the risk of rejection, scorn, humiliation, being misinterpreted, being judged and not being good enough. The paradoxical nature of creative personalities means that we are completely, tenaciously, convinced of the value of our products, and desperately afraid that the world won’t see it that way. Real creatives happen when tenacity wins out over fear. We have to make friends with fear, and failure.

Sweden’s Museum of Failure is a wonderful testament to human creativity and risk. Most telling is the example of the Apple Newton, a product that tanked, but paved the way for the iPad.

Is Sharknado a piece of ‘Big-C’ cinematic history? Probably not, but who knows? Maybe it will be viewed as a masterwork of awfulness? Was it creative? For sure. I like the meme at the head of this article, because it marks the transition from Mini-C through to Pro-C. It might not be Tarkovsky or Spielberg, but in 2013. it looked set to earn production company ‘The Asylum’ USD $19 million. It was a new genre-splice that enough people saw some sort of value in. This makes it a creative, if not a critical success.

Our appetite for risk underpins all creativity. If we have been educated to fear criticism and failure, the real risk is that we’ll remain stuck in mini-C, depriving the world of our private creations. If we find ourselves in approving environments where mistakes are recognised as stepping stones to better things, and are useful learning opportunities, our creativity is far more likely to thrive.

What does your workplace have to say about failing in the open?


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