The Myths of Failure In Creativity

For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
—John F. Kennedy, Yale University Commencement, June 11, 1962


When it comes to creativity, we have two competing thoughts on failure as it relates to creativity:

  • The idea that was immortalized with George Kranz’s quip in the movie Apollo 13: “Failure is not an option.”
  • The idea—now widespread in popular business literature—that failure is essential for creativity and it should be encouraged and embraced.

These two modes of thinking act as simple guidelines, but they both perpetuate a myth about failure’s relevance to creative success.

Failure’s relation to producing creative results isn’t the either or scenario above; its relation has more to do with how people perceive failure. It is related to what psychologists call goal orientation. Goal orientation operates at the individual level and is driven by both individual and environmental factors.

There are four dimensions to goal orientation:

  • Performance: Externally driven
  • Learning: Internally driven
  • Approach: Driven towards
  • Avoidance: Driven away.

These four dimensions can be combined in four ways: performance approach, performance avoidance, learning approach, and learning avoidance. For example, someone who is operating with an orientation of performance avoidance would avoid trying anything that may give them negative feedback, whereas someone operating with a performance approach orientation will constantly seek to prove their competence.

When it comes to creativity, the most productive individuals are those that display a learning approach orientation: inner motivation is stronger than external motivation and, obviously, moving towards greater learning is more motivating than trying to maintain just a current level of knowledge and competency.

In an environment where businesses have to adapt and look to the future or risk failing in the present, finding and cultivating individuals with a learning approach orientation is a key to creating a strong organization that is built for change:

  • Finding: When creativity is required, find people with a deep interest and passion in the goal, regardless of department.
  • Cultivating: Rather than build an environment where failure is encouraged and accepted—as many popular authors would have you do—build an environment that encourages constant learning.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a learning is integral to creative motivation: the biological underpinnings of creativity are rooted in learning.

What can you do to better select individuals for creative projects and encourage an environment of learning?

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