Taking a Risk on Terrible Lizards

From “When Was the First Dinosaur Discovered?”

Way back in 1676, Robert Plot, the curator of an English museum, described and drew a thigh bone that he believed belonged to a giant man. Although that fossil disappeared without a trace, the surviving illustration suggests that it may well have been part of a “Megalosaurus.”  Later, in 1822, large teeth discovered in England by Mary Ann Mantell and her husband, Gideon, were thought to be the remains of a huge and extinct iguana. It wasn’t until 1841 that British scientist Richard Owen came to realize that such fossils were distinct from the teeth or bones of any living creature. The ancient animals were so different, in fact, that they deserved their own name. So Owen dubbed the group “Dinosauria,”which means “terrible lizards.”

My friend Sara hooked me up with this TED video that explores issues of schools and creativity – more specifically, does our educational system and prevailing philosophy create such a fear of failure that children are dis-incentivized to take the very risks of failure that lead to break through discoveries?  It’s a really good watch and listen, but my favorite part was this simple concept:

If you are afraid to make a mistake, you will never create anything original.

My child is deeply in love with dinosaurs right now.  As we were playing the other day and I explained the first dinosaur discoveries, how they were made, what people first thought, etc.,  I was overcome with how absolutely insane the first people to publicize theories about their paleontology must have appeared.  Talk about risk!

OK, we found these bones.  They are really big.  No, bigger.  A bit bigger.  Right.  That’s what I said, yes.  No, more like reptiles.  Not really sure yet.  Uh huh.  No, pretty sure they were in the air and water too.  Looks like just about all over the world.  How long ago?  OK………are you sitting down?

Creativity is not just about art.  Creativity is, as Sir Ken Robinson explains in the video, at its core about the willingness to be wrong; maybe more than a little bit wrong.  It’s that risk that leads to new discovery, to shifts in our understanding of what is real and possible that have the potential to change everything we think we can do.

This year, let’s support more students in their willingness to take risk, and to be wrong.  We may say that’s not what we expected, is it?   Way to go trying to figure it out on your own.

I’m proud of you for taking that risk.

Image credit: Land Use History of the Colorado Plateau

The Creativity Crisis, or Where Have All the Grown Ups Gone?

Newsweek magazine has a great piece out right now on The Creativity Crisis.  It makes many excellent observations that go beyond the scope of this post, but one particular concept keeps hovering in my mind, and I wonder if anyone else ever thinks about this kind of thing: Is it possible we aren’t really growing up at the same rate we used to?  Could it be that even as technical adults we are parenting with an adolescent mentality that is smothering our kids’ capacity to develop their creativity?  Children model what we do, not what we say.

Getting older doesn't always mean getting wiser.

“The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful, and that’s what’s reflected in the tests. There is never one right answer. To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).”

The article talks about how children today are scoring lower on creativity tests, and ponders if too much TV time is to blame.  Surely our lock-step consumer culture that feeds conformity and insecurity to children must play a role, but I think who’s spoon feeding that culture might, uncomfortably, be a bit closer to home.  A lot closer.

“Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. ‘It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,’ Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is ‘most serious.'”

I am very frustrated by my own experience with a negative environment around divergent thinking in some of my adult peer groups.  These are not necessarily my friends, but sometimes they are.  And oddly I think I could also track the beginning of the end of comfortable disagreements between social friends and colleagues back to about 1990, the year the creativity tests started showing significant declines in our children’s abilities to think like innovators, inventers, and problem-solvers.

We used to be able to hash things out, have a drink and move on.  But there is an edge to many conversations now that feels a lot less open and trusting and confident.  I’ve come to identify what I call simply “The Look.”  It’s what I get every now and then when I express too many thoughts or ideas on a subject I thought was open for discussion, and apparently is not.  It could be mountaintop removal, or marriage, or art, or even whether or not this french toast is as good as it used to be.  The Look says you’ve crossed a line.  I am now suspicious of you.  You are saying things that open cans of worms and you really should stop now.  But it’s too late.

Things are never really the same after The Look.

I have an unprovable theory that since as a species we are living longer, we effectively have extended our developmental adolescence.  Growing up takes longer.  Taking on responsibility is delayed.  And in this murky man-child world, we are more insecure than generations before us about openly exploring divergent thinking well into our adult years.  As a group, we are more susceptible to bringing an adolescent mindset to disagreements, and therefore more easily pressured into squashing down the divergent thinking process as soon as it hits a peer pressure wall.  If this is true, it’s wreaking havoc on multiple up and coming generations in ways new and unpleasant, with consequences we have yet to discover fully.

Clearly, there are other dynamics at play.  International anxieties, the economy, the rise of the political far right, and the counter energies of the far left — all come together, then apart, then reconnect over and over again as they have around the world for centuries.  Except this time it’s us.  The good ole U.S. of A.  And it’s a really bad time to be inadvertently raising a generation of conformists who are afraid of the shadows of their own thoughts. 

Let’s have that drink and move on.  I’m buying.