Would you like to be more creative at work and in your personal life? Would you like to run a more creative business? You should think about the number of mistakes you make. History shows that new thinking often comes from setbacks. Creative individuals are those who don’t view failure as an end point. Jonas Salk, who tried hundreds of vaccines for polio, reputedly said that he never failed, he simply had another opportunity to get it right. There have been plenty of accidental inventions, from Post-It notes (todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/11/post-it-notes-were-invented-by-accident/) to tea bags (tea.co.uk/the-history-of-the-tea-bag#invention). For every work of art, there are notebooks full of sketches and drafts, and even the Mona Lisa (bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-35031997) might be a second version of an original painting. It seems that mistakes are an important part of the creative process.
How do you react to the suggestion that you should make mistakes? Do you like the idea of being more creative, but feel wary about getting things wrong? You’re not alone. Particularly in developed industrial societies, mistakes are viewed extremely negatively. And when a complaint on social media can be shared thousands of times in a few minutes, there’s a lot of pressure for companies and individuals to get everything right, all the time. According to the European Journal of Innovation Management (emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/14601069810199131), organizational culture can stifle innovation. In other words, a drive never to get things wrong can lead in the end to lower innovation and competitiveness for companies. For you as an individual, a reluctance to fail might mean that you never develop your full potential.
If making mistakes enhances your creativity, what’s the best way to get things wrong? Firstly, and most importantly, don’t put your job or your significant relationships on the line.Unless you work for (or run) a company that promotes inventive ways of doing things, putting your wackiest ideas into practice without consultation is unlikely to get you anything except fired. And your spouse or partner won’t look kindly on you going from job to job because your “creativity” is unappreciated. You need to make mistakes safely.
One of the best ways to do this is to take up a new hobby. It can be a sport, an art form, or even learning a language, but it must be something you’ve never tried before. If you’ve always been fit and healthy, joining a running club is a great idea, but it won’t boost your creativity. Instead, try a drawing class. If you’re uncoordinated, try ballroom dancing. If you are an introvert, try public speaking or amateur drama. Learn a language you’ve never heard anyone speak, or try a sport where you don’t know the rules. The point is that you should feel challenged, and that you are guaranteed to get things wrong.
If reading the previous sentence makes you feel deeply uncomfortable, chances are that you need to be making more mistakes. Take a moment to think about times you’ve got things wrong in the past. Do you see those times as opportunities to learn and grow, or as never-to-be-repeated episodes when other people might have thought badly of you? If you’re more likely to focus on what other people thought of you than what you learned from your experiences, you are restricting your own creative potential.
Increased creativity adds a different dynamic to your relationships. Try new activities with friends or with your partner. Try a restaurant with an unfamiliar cuisine, go to a concert or a movie that you’d normally avoid. The worst that can happen is that you discover you don’t like Dutch food or Balinese music or Iranian cinema. The best thing is that not only do you have a shared experience to remember, you’re encouraging your mind to work in different ways by trying new things. Making mistakes changes your mind, or more accurately, changes your brain. New experiences, particularly when there’s an emotional component to them, make physical changes to your brain, boosting the chances of coming up with new ideas. You can improve your creativity by simply taking a different route home from work; you’ll boost it even more if you take a different route and get lost – your brain forms new connections, and the moderate stress of being lost reinforces them.
Enhancing creativity in the workplace can be more difficult. If you’re the boss, make sure that “blue sky thinking” isn’t just a meaningless phrase. Encourage and reward ideas that might be unworkable, or concepts that don’t seem to have any immediate application. Closing down ideas because they don’t make sense is slamming the door shut on your employees’ creativity. In the spirit of Lewis Carroll, a mathematician whose creativity allowed him to write Alice in Wonderland, try out six impossible ideas before your breakfast meeting. If you’re not the boss, try to sell the benefits of increased creativity to her. Make sure you have ideas that help, not harm, the reputation of the company. And if she doesn’t like your ideas, learn from what happened – and then try again.
To be creative, you need to make mistakes. No artist produced a masterpiece without sketches, no writer published a novel without a first (and second, and third) draft. Sir Norman Foster, the award-winning architect, says that only a few of his ideas ever get built. If you, or your company, become mistake-averse, your creativity will suffer. The solution is to see your failures as chances to learn, to incorporate into your daily life activities where you are guaranteed to get things wrong, and to shape your mind into new ways to see the world.