Unbecoming an artist

Becoming an artist - article by Greg Alder

A few years ago psychologists walked into classrooms of 6-year-olds around America.

They asked the children in each classroom to raise their hands if they thought they were creative – if they believed they were good at drawing and singing and dancing.

Every child in the room raised his or her hand.

The psychologists asked the same question of 7-year-olds.

Most kids raised their hands. But not all.

They asked groups of 8-year-olds. About 90% raised their hands.

By the time the psychologists asked 14-year-olds, only a third raised their hands.

In a period of 8 years, children had gone from believing in their creative ability to mostly doubting it.

What happens when we start doubting our ability? We stop trying.

We no longer go to dance classes. We no longer take piano lessons. Whatever skill we possessed slowly withers. If as a child we doubted our creative ability, as an adult we are certain.

“I can’t sing.”

“I don’t dance.”

We stick to practicing the skills we still believe we possess – the ones our teachers or parents or peers or employers approved of and encouraged.

The shame of this is that today more than at any time, creativity is valued by business. 6,500 CEOs in 2 studies have ranked creativity and innovation as critical to business success – and critical skills for CEOs to possess.

So two-thirds of us have lost the very thing that business needs.

We have lost the chance to get more enjoyment from our work.

We have lost the chance to be more highly sought by the best companies in our field.

We have lost the chance to be healthier and happier.

We have lost the chance to climb higher and earn more in our organisation.

We have lost the chance to be more productive.

These are all documented benefits of staff whose creativity is fostered.

So what happened?

Firstly, schools are better equipped to measure literacy and numeracy than creativity. A school’s student performance (and therefore a school’s standing) is measured by achievements in maths, science, language and history. The emphasis is on memory – of formulae, syntax, dates. So it’s natural for schools to encourage excellence in these areas. Creative arts are an asterisk, an optional nicety.

We’re encouraged to participate in team events – mostly sports. Creativity at school is rarely a team activity. If we display prowess in a sport, it’s encouraged because it gives the school sporting success – another measure of a school’s standing.

There’s a pecking order amongst university degrees. Top dogs have traditionally been Law and Medicine, followed by degrees deemed commercially useful – Science, Economics and Engineering, for example. At the bottom is Arts, the degree you do when you don’t know what else to do.

Recruiters rarely advertise for creative directors. Businesses want scientists, engineers, analysts and managers. And yet, CEOs want creativity and innovation.

The big question then is, “Is it too late?” Can we regain the creativity we surrendered as kids?

Yes we can.

Creative thinking is a skill. Like bike riding, it can be learnt. We can quickly learn creative thinking techniques that allow us to generate ideas on demand – hundreds of them in a single short session.

If every business equipped its staff with these creative thinking skills, they’d enjoy the benefits described above. Their staff would be happier, healthier, take less sick leave, be more loyal and more productive.

These businesses would find it easier to attract the most talented staff. They would become innovation leaders in their field.

It’s never too late to undo the damage done in childhood.

Every child is an artist until he’s told he’s not an artist. – John Lennon

2 replies on “Unbecoming an artist”
  1. says: ben ball

    OK, my Aussie buddy. I rarely take issue with you. In fact, I often use your material (it’s called “taking creative license” here in the U.S.) with clients or even my kids. But this time I think you may have done us a disservice.

    It seems to me that your argument may hinge on semantics. “Creativity”, in the mind of a 13 year old American anyway, means things like singing and dancing and painting and — maybe at the margin — writing. But that is a very limited definition of creativity, and I suspect not the one the CEO’s mean at all. I think maybe what they mean instead is “innovation”.

    Now, you could easily rejoinder (and I am keenly aware of your vast capabilities when it comes to rejoinder) that I am being equally hair-splitting in my semantics. And my only defense would be “Master Alder — I agree!” I am.

    The word “creative” changes meaning when CEO’s utter it in wishful thinking. It really means “think outside the box”. I highly doubt they want artists on the payroll. (Except maybe in the Accounting department. I have found “artists” extremely useful there in my career.)

    So, what say you Master Alder? Do I have a point?

    Your Humble Servant “Poor Richard”
    (OK, Old Ben is my namesake but I sure as hell don’t write like him. But humor an old fart, will ya?)

    1. says: Greg Alder

      My dear Ben, well yes you are right. The creativity referred to in schools is different from the creativity expected in business. But I’d counter that the psychological barriers erected in school (the ones that stop us from painting or singing or dancing) continue to affect our later belief in our ability to address a problem creatively, to think outside the square, to challenge the accepted way things are done. So all forms of creative expression suffer.

      Interesting that in the two studies referred to (one by IBM and one Credit Suisse) 6500 CEOs named creativity and innovation ahead of skills such as people management, fiscal prudence, good governance or many other skills deemed valuable in business today. Also interesting that whilst business leaders claim to value creativity, in my experience very few (well a handful out of maybe 500 in workshops) have a formal idea generation/innovation program in place. They all believe it, but none practises it.

      Funny that you mention creative accounting. I am working with one of the big global practices on their innovation program. We might indeed see a lot more creative accounting as a result. About time we discussed semantics over a bourbon or two.

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