Creativity Comes from Risk and Effort, Not Going to College

CreativityAs a college professor by trade (if I dare call my profession as such), I’m frequently asked a very compelling question: can creativity be taught?

I’ve mulled this one over and over (and over some more) because it seems that in the answer to that question comes a very powerful opportunity: if creativity can, indeed, be taught, and if there is, truly, a formula for teaching it, then within the educator that possesses the formula lies the ability to change the world.

A bit dramatic? Perhaps. But if we educators could master the art of teaching creativity, couldn’t we, in all reality, have the potential to spawn the world’s greatest innovations and insights in the minds of our students? Couldn’t we help people develop incredibly innovative ideas that, surely, exist in every human’s brain?

What a flowery thought.

But, of course, we educators–especially those of us in higher education–are frequently lambasted by the education non-believers: didn’t the world’s greatest innovators drop out of formal education? Wasn’t college blockading their creativity?

As much as I hate to hear it, there is an argument to be made there. The list of amazingly creative people that didn’t go to college (or dropped out of high school) is long and striking: William Shakespeare, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, William Faulkner, Winston Churchill, Ansel Adams, Jane Austin, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, James Cameron, Jimi Hendrix, and hundreds upon hundreds more of highly successful and recognizable creative people you can see on this website.

The reality is, highly creative people often do find the formalities of contemporary education to be stifling. Caught in a world of academic structure, rubrics, grading, GPAs, exams, and other standardized “learning” methods, they prefer to do things their way, where their minds are free to explore and to triumph.

That doesn’t mean, however, that creativity doesn’t and can’t exist in college classrooms. What it might mean, though, is that those highly creative people who struggle in the classroom have two unique personality traits that they’re unwilling to relinquish (that perhaps too many college students are unwilling to exercise or that too many college professors are unwilling to applaud): risk-taking and effort. Creative geniuses, it seems, aren’t afraid of societal ridicule or consequences and they are willing to push and work until their ideas come to fruition. After all, didn’t Thomas Edison go through over a thousand concoctions before the light bulb worked (or so the story goes)? Or what about the crazy story of Barry Marshall, who broke all the rules of modern science and lost the respect of most of his peers, in order to lead to the causal discovery of peptic ulcers and stomach cancer?

I have noticed over my years in the classroom that the difference between creative types and those who don’t consider themselves creative isn’t a matter of birthright or genetics; rather, the those who don’t think they’re creative don’t typically have that unique pairing of personality traits. It isn’t that they weren’t “born creative” as many seem to believe, it is that they either aren’t willing to or are afraid to take risks and put in the effort. And this, I believe, can go for anyone in or not in college.

Frequently–perhaps far too often–I hear people say, “I’m just not that creative” or “I don’t have a creative bone in my body” or “I wish I were more creative.” I’ve come to hate these kinds of phrases. While it might happen occasionally in moments of serendipity, creativity doesn’t typically just burst out of a can. It comes after intense reflection and understanding of a concept, repeated trial and error, and the willingness to try something new at the risk of being wrong. It takes, in other words, the willingness to fail and the required effort to try it again.

Educator Ken Robinson has a wonderful mantra that speaks directly to this: “If you aren’t prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” The idea is that creativity comes through trial, failure, reflection, and the effort and determination to try, try again.

How many people (including yourself) have you heard tell you that they want to write a book but never do? Or say that they wished they knew how to paint or use Photoshop or play the guitar? Well, it ain’t gonna happen by coincidence.

In college, I have many amazingly creative students. But they’re always the ones who are willing to try something, to push themselves, to be the student whose project isn’t like they others’. They attempt, struggle, fail, and attempt again until they get it right–the way they envision it without settling for less. They revise, redo, rework, revisit, rebuild. They resist the temptation to do it they they’ve always seen it done and they get great pleasure out of doing something that none of their peers will do. They don’t take the minimalist approach to please the teacher and get the grade. They do something “wow.”

College, of course, has the ability to present opportunities for creativity. But it can’t directly make people more creative. As an educator, I have learned that it isn’t my job to regurgitate information or to tell students precisely how to do things. It isn’t productive for me to tell my students how to learn technologies or content that they can read on their own in a book or on YouTube (much to the dismay of many of my students). Rather, it is my job to give them exposure to new ideas, to provide them opportunities to learn and to produce, and then to let them find their own path to it. Surprisingly, many students struggle with (and dare I say hate the ambiguity in such a pedagogical model). And those who do, those who fear the failure and want to be given the answers–rather than embrace the challenge and face the consequences–struggle with creativity. They produce very standard, very formulaic projects. They get through school, and many of them get good grades. But they really aren’t that creative.

So can creativity be taught? I’m not sure that, directly, it can. But if we can encourage an atmosphere where risk-taking and effort are embraced, I’m confident that creativity will emerge in so many more unexpected ways. Strangely, it seems, to do that, my job isn’t to provide all the answers and give all the tools: it is to create strategic ambiguity, to encourage failure through trial, and to applaud repeated and persistent effort toward a student’s vision.

As a sort of axiom for life, it seems that if we want to generate something truly creative, we have to push ourselves to try something at the risk of total failure and even embarrassment. Then we have to do it over and over and over again until something amazing happens.

One thought on “Creativity Comes from Risk and Effort, Not Going to College

  • October 6, 2015 at 4:53 pm
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    This really struck me. I am so creative. I love to think outside the box and innovate by pulling different things from different fields together. But school is stifling. At my college, teachers want that methodical formulated response. We sit in lectures being told what we can read in the 100 dollar textbook. The goal is to pass the next exam. This year, I’m trying to get by with minimal effort so that I can put more time into my creative pursuits. There is no creativity in college. I’ve created two businesses, I’ve made spoken professionally in front of classes about child abuse, I’ve already published articles. And college just doesn’t provide any opportunities to be challenged or think critically. I can’t even apply the knowledge I’m learning to much of anything. College depresses me and I have seriously considered dropping out, but I only have one and a half years left, so I’m trying to just push through it.

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