For the past several years, I have wondered why so many businesses seem to settle for mediocrity. Companies freely admit that one of the most sought after attributes they seek in job candidates is creativity. Executives know that in order for their companies to remain relevant in a challenging global economy, they need to inject creativity and innovation into the corporate DNA. For me, this has primarily been just a bunch lip service. We’ll get to why that is later.
The Death of Creativity
Enter Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston who specializes in shame and vulnerability. According to Brown’s research, 80% of children are so traumatized by an event in school they develop an “art scar.” This trauma, or pain inflicted by a teacher is so shaming, they shut down and keep the creative things that come so naturally for humans bottled inside—sometimes for the rest of their lives.
You see, creative expression (developing elegant code, designing a bridge, painting or drawing) by its very nature means that you’re creating something that has never been seen before. That requires a person to be willing enough to put themselves ‘out there’ for public scrutiny.
You have to be brave enough to let your work be seen… knowing that other people will judge you—sometimes very harshly.
You also have to be willing to fail because when you’re developing something that’s never been done before, failure happens. Sometimes it happens a lot before you finally get the result you seek.
So, what about the other 20%? What’s it like for those who don’t seem to develop these art scars?
I think I’m one of them, and I guess it’s just a matter of resilience. I received a lot of criticism, or shaming moments in school. They hurt. A lot. But they didn’t stop me from being who I am. These are three of the moments that stick out vividly in my mind.
“Those aren’t the colors in a stoplight, Marcia.” Kindergarten
“Turquoise, pink, green, and purple don’t go together.” 5th grade
“You can’t draw. I don’t know what you’re doing in this class,” Bjørn Issacsen.
Okay. That last one’s a stretch. Bjørn said it in Norwegian and I don’t quite remember the terminology.
Bjørn’s criticism didn’t so much hurt as tick me off. Bjørn means ‘bear’ in Norwegian. I got even by drawing a really fantastic cartoon bear and taping it anonymously to his door at the boarding school I was attending in Sandefjord, Norway. Bjørn raved about the drawing but could not figure out who had done it. I finally told him it was mine the last day of school.
The truth is, most days I really can’t draw. I totally deserved that D my college professor gave. But sometimes there’s a spark of competence and something recognizable comes out the other end of the pencil. I can paint. And write. And know that colors other people wouldn’t put together actually go really, really well together. So what does it matter that I can’t draw?
Bottling Creativity Up Produces Disengagement
If I remember correctly, Brown says that 40% of people recover enough from their art scars to allow creativity to resurface. That leaves a whole lot of people tamping down a human need to be creative. This has a huge cost personally and organizationally.
As a sample of one, I can tell you that when an organization’s culture constrains my ability to be creative in the workplace, I go stir crazy. There are thousands of companies that don’t allow their people to color outside the predetermined lines. It leads to frustration… then anger… and then finally to disengagement.
Why Creativity Gets Lip Services
Now, think about all of the other people who don’t recover from their art scars. They’re distributed along an organizational spectrum, from hourly employees to the executive suites across the nation. I believe this is why many of today’s leaders talk about the need for innovation and creativity but can’t get there. They’re no longer capable of being creative themselves. They’re too afraid of what others will say.
Corporate culture filters down from the top. If, as a leader, you’re not able to put yourself on the line and be open to being wrong, making mistakes, and cultivating your own ability to innovate, neither will your people. Even if you have creatives among you, they’ll become inhibited because the first response is often to shut them down. Eventually, they give up and find a different outlet for their creativity. Under these conditions, a company is doomed to mediocrity at best.
Next time we’ll look at the creativity crisis from a different angle—one proposed by Harvard Business Review.
In the interim, please check out Brené Brown’s Ted Talk below. She tells a compelling (and surprising) story. Ideas in her book, The Power of Vulnerability, influenced the ideas that went into this post.
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