Creatives Fail. They Don't Fear Failure.

“Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” James Thurber

I've been thinking lately about the importance of curiosity as a habit of mind.

Over time many IdeaFestival presenters have spoken anecdotally about the psychology of creativity, and of risk and failure and fear, of the characteristics of successful creators and what "success" in that context means. I'm thinking specifically of the many artists that Creative Capital and Art Without Walls have brought to the festival, as well as "Little Bets" author Peter Sims. For artists and entrepreneurs a certain psychology must prevail in order to create. Successful artists and entrepreneurs think differently, and one of those habits of thought, I believe, is an ability to entertain doubt and fear without being immobilized by doubt and fear.

In a recent article, psychologist Douglas Eby, who often writes about the psychology of creativity, talked about recognizing fear for what it is.

[Robert] Maurer [a UCLA clinical psychologist] notes, 'If you find the right relationship, does fear go away? No. You publish your first novel, does that make fear go away? No. So your skill at being able to nourish yourself and give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them is your single greatest attribute as an artist and as a human being.'

Fear is good. We view fear as a disease. It’s not a disease.

Insofar as it tells us that something is amiss, fear is just information. The danger for creatives, or for anyone else for that matter, is when it becomes a pathology. Elsewhere, Eby quotes the late actor Jack Lemmon, who said that "Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is the fear of failure." What successful artists and entrepreneurs do so well is to become comfortable with failure, by which I mean they recognize that failure is a temporary state and that efforts to avoid that state not only don't work, they stifle the curiosity needed to create in the first place. Worse, if failure has become a feeling, those efforts may well shut the door on a different self-understanding.

Creatives manage perhaps to cultivate a skepticism about their own doubt. Recognizing their fear, one of the habits of mind of innovators is to avoid ruminative thought and to focus, when they're stuck, on the answers they can provide. They work on the ability to re-frame the situation or, simply, to ask a better question.

Related, comedian and writer Ruby Wax talks about practical steps toward "taming" the anxious mind beginning about the 8:30 mark in this RSA video. Give it a watch.

A psychology of creativity would also include, as Jonathan Fields so aptly put it, an ability "to live in the question" long enough to avoid the easy outs.

Thanks for reading along this year! I'll talk to you in 2014.

Stay curious.


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