We’re all born creative; we’re at our most inventive during the first few years of our lives when we’re less concerned about criticism, looking foolish or making a mistake. I think of my children on birthdays or at Christmas; within a few moments the shiny new toy is set aside in favour of the box it came in, because the box can be anything they want it to be. The box becomes a castle, a spaceship, a car, a robot or anything else their imagination conceives. They don’t see the box, they see the possibilities.
As we get older our natural creativity becomes constrained by criticism and conformity; maybe we’re led to believe that our ideas aren’t very good or maybe we don’t want to appear foolish in front of others. But worst of all we’re assessed; we become aware that we can fail, that we need to impress and that we are continually being evaluated in some way. And that kills creativity.
We perform some tasks better when we’re being measured; hard physical tasks such as moving stones, or tedious tasks which don’t demand much cognitive effort, like sticking stamps on envelopes, respond well to the pressure of assessment. In such tasks, measurement actually improves performance. But in tasks which require creativity we do better when we’re not being evaluated and so are less afraid of making mistakes.
The negative emotions associated with assessment constrain our ability to be creative. Assessment creates the risk of failure which is seen as a threat, and threats, whether real or imagined, cause our brains to react in a way which stops us from being creative. When faced by a sabre toothed tiger we want to react immediately (fight or flight), not find the most creative solution for escape..!
Studies conducted by Professor Teresa Amabile at Harvard University sought to identify the factors that enhance or diminish creativity. In some experiments she asked participants, a mix of children and adults, to produce something creative; a design, a story or a picture. Half of the participants were told that their products would be assessed and that the best would win a prize, the others were told nothing. At the end of the experiment all the products were evaluated by creative experts and without fail the products judged to be the most creative came from the group who didn’t believe they were being assessed. This research has been repeated time and time again by different researchers and the results remain consistent; when participants think they’re just playing rather than somehow being assessed, they invariably reach higher level of creativity.
So the second rule for creative thinking is simply to play, make it fun, and try to remove any “risk”, perceived or otherwise, associated with failure or criticism.