(reprinted with permission from ArtBeat Volume 1, Issue 5, May 2009)
by Missy Hancock
It seems that creativity has been “schooled” out of us in so many different ways. The “pass/fail” method of modern education has undermined the natural instincts of curiosity, exploration, and discovery.
Naturally, we wonder about things. We ask questions, we seek answers, we experiment. And naturally, we find dead ends, things that don’t work– in other words– we fail. But what the natural process of “failure” breeds in us is more exploration, more experiments, more questions. by adding the “extrinsic” stamp of approval or disapproval by an outside source (i.e. the school), we are robbed of the natural intrinsic motivation of failure.
Failure has been deemed unacceptable, something to be scolded. So rather than experience chastisement, we simply begin a process of “toeing the line.” We memorize only what they tell us to memorize. We learn what we’re told to learn and we answer questions in the way “they” would want us to. Never mind the fact that some of the most interesting discoveries have been made accidentally or with an entirely different goal in mind. The sense of adventure, creativity, and exploration is gone for fear of “failing.”
The tragedy is that this mindset does not end when we graduate. Upon university graduation, we do not suddenly take into our hands our diploma along with a renewed passion for discovery. No, instead we carry with us a fear of what the neighbors will think, what our boss will say, and where we “rank” in society as a whole. In other words, we continue to “toe the line.” It is this “line” that continues to lower the standard of excellence, encourages mediocrity, and limits human potential. And it is this line that we must cut in order to move forward as a creative society as well as individuals. This “line” has become a noose around our necks suffocating creativity and ultimately breaking the spirit of discovery, not to mention “progress.”
Occasionally, I stumble across that great old quote by Thomas Edison, we’ve all heard it: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” It is spouted off to us by the mouths of teachers and professors operating in the same system that perpetuates this grand theft of human potential– the same system that by the way, deemed Edison “not teachable”. They were right, I suppose. He couldn’t be taught that their answers were the right answers and he could not be convinced to stop asking his own questions.
The truth is that the stamp of “failure” is a lie. Failure was never intended to be a label or a grade but simply a part of the process of learning, creating, exploring and discovering. Failure is more like “step 4” right before steps 5, 6, 7, and 8 where you find the answer accomplish the goal, walk out your idea, and enrich the world! “Failure” is a natural part of life, not an identity.
Thankfully, world thinkers are beginning to question this pass/fail system that leaves the world at a loss for new ideas, progress and creativity. Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we’re educating our children. He champions a radical rethinking of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence. A visionary cultural leader, Sir Ken led the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, a massive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements. His latest book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything provides a deep look at human creativity and education.
It is interesting that the people who think for themselves and make real progress in technology and art were often the “failures” in school. the are often declared “difficult,” “unreasonable,” or “hopeless” by the system. George Bernard Shaw said it best when he said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. All progress, therefore, depends upon the unreasonable man.”
There are many things set before us to accomplish in this life. Each of us are driven differently, each called to a unique purpose. Personally I am plagued by a fear that the things I start will fail. Recently I saw things differently for just a glimpse. It seems that is how the truth works. We have brief moments where the clouds lift and the sun shines brightly on the truth, but mostly we walk in a fog trying desperately to catch those glimpses and savor them and memorize every detail in hopes that they will carry us to the next moment of truth. I saw life as a beautiful page of music being played by a master musician. Each note representing another pursuit, some of the notes were long and clear, others short and staccato, but altogether a beautiful melody. And I realized that it is only vanity that makes me want my endeavors to be whole notes, but it takes ALL the notes to make the music right and beautiful and just as it is meant to be.
Renowned writer, Jean Rhys said, “Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.” Be it to the world of music, dance, theatre, art, literature, or crafting; let us all contribute to the lake our “trickles” feed and let us not fear failure. For it seems that failure, as we fear it, is a myth. It is the monster that lives under our beds and the moment we dare to pull the covers off our heads, hang upside down off the edge and shine our flashlights in the monster’s face, all we will find is that creativity that we misplaced so very long ago.