It’s Okay to Fail: How We Can Learn to Be Better Creative Thinkers

FailOur culture has a problem. We’re scared to fail.

The reality is, much of what we do in life requires problem solving. And solving problems requires a certain level of opportunity for failure. It also requires some creative juice, which is made up of some concoction of ingredients that includes reflection, forethought, and, above all, some risk. Creativity doesn’t just happen, in other words. It emerges at the cliffs of failure. Yet so many times in my career—more times than I can count—I hear students pleading for answers.

That is, simply, the wrong attitude. Life, as we all know, doesn’t come supplied with a book full of answers. Rather, it comes with a laundry list full of problems. But when I tell my students that it isn’t my job to tell them all the answers—that it is my job to present them with problems—you can imagine the looks of bewilderment and, sometimes, anger that I get.

But what if I did give them answers? What if I told them how to write a paper? Or what if I prescribed the perfect method for giving a speech? What if I dictated the precise process for designing information? Could they do it? Absolutely. I could set up a fancy little rubric, a nice little checklist, and a thorough list of parameters and they would love me for it. Why? Because it’s easy. There’s very little room for failure there.

But let’s be honest: there’s also very little room for learning (outside of memorizing processes) and certainly no room for creativity.

In the defense of those who seek answers rather than problems, let’s be clear: society trains us not to be problem solvers. We learn, through most classroom experiences, that the teachers have the answers and we, the students, are supposed to absorb their knowledge. But clearly, teachers don’t have all the answers. Inside of us, we all know that. Educators, in a particular field of study have experience; but experience doesn’t mean answers. It means perspective. But who says that my perspective, as a teacher, is any better than what a student could produce, should they sincerely approach a real problem with some reflection, forethought, and risk?

Noting the now-famous example of scientist Barry Marshall here is worthwhile. Marshall had been taught, trained, and ingrained with the concept that stomach ulcers were a psychological problem and couldn’t be treated with antibiotics. Following the prescriptive methods of his scientific discipline, Marshall was unable convince his peers that some stomach ulcers were, in fact, caused by a bacteria known as h. pylori and they could be treated with medication. At the risk of being wrong, losing his job and his reputation, Marshall chose unconventional methods to make his point heard. And guess what? Not only was he right, but he won a Nobel Prize in medicine for it. Similar stories of failure and triumph are heard over and over again when we talk about some of the world’s best inventions and ideas.

What happens, at the risk of failing or being considered an outsider or a simpleton or a misguided dolt, for that matter, is that we inadvertently conform to the norm. We look to the answers that “experts” have produced and function within a system of memorization and information regurgitation.

It’s no wonder that so many people make the comment, “I’m just not that creative,” or “There isn’t a creative bone in my body.” Because creativity requires risk, and because risk includes the opportunity for failure, many people are stuck feeling unable or unwilling to learn to be creative. After all, with failure, we so frequently—yet wrongly—conclude, comes embarrassment, shame, ridicule, and the label of being ignorant or naïve or immature or flat out incompetent. We often get so caught up in the negative sides of failure that we shut out what failure actually provides us—creativity.

Daniel Pink, in his wonderful book A Whole New Mind, gives a fascinating anecdote. Interviewing and talking with hundreds of elementary children, he discovered that almost all young children without fail, at about the age of five, will insist that they are artists when asked. They’re enthusiastic about it. But that number slowly drifts off until, by sixth grade, you’ll only get one or two students who will raise their hands—and the ones that do are often a bit sheepish about it.

Why does this happen? Perhaps it’s because art, much like creativity, exposes our thought processes. And those thought processes don’t always jive with what is normal or traditional or prescriptive. And sometimes what isn’t normal doesn’t turn out all that well. But let’s not close our eyes to the other side of that coin: sometimes what isn’t normal also becomes the next biggest, most amazing idea.

I once heard the phrase that our students today are “failure deprived.” The underlying message in such a strange and pithy statement is that, as a society, we might be becoming creativity deficient. In education and in life, it seems that we need to embrace the opportunity to do something wrong once in a while in order to open doors into worlds that have not yet been tried. Like education champion Ken Robinson stated: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

I, of course, don’t mean to discredit educators for providing knowledge to their students. I am, of course, an educator. And I don’t do it right or do it well all of the time. But I think we, as a society in the last 50 years or so, have begun closing opportunities to help rising generations think for themselves. And I think that’s why America’s innovation is suddenly struggling to keep up with the rest of the world.

Too often, at the fear of losing government funding or accreditation or even our jobs, we teach students information. We dump knowledge on them. We don’t present them with problems so that they can discover solutions. Rather, we give them answers so that they can fill in the right bubbles on a test. And then we tell them that their failure in doing this correctly reflects poorly on them, poorly on us, and poorly on their generation.

But if it is killing creativity, then how does it really reflect on our society?