Being Wrong - 31 March 2012
Blackfoot Albatross in Rain - Midway Atoll, North Pacific, File # 1020870
Quote “Unless you’re prepared to be wrong, you won’t come up with anything original” Sir Ken Robinson
This is a quote by Sir Ken Robinson. He’s an educator from England that spent some time as a professor and has more recently transitioned to speaking about the education system in general. About five years ago, he did a talk at a TED conference with the theme “your education system is killing creativity”. The point was our education system is antiquated and doesn’t have flexibility to allow our children's natural creativity to flourish. He goes on to say this is wholly inadequate with the challenges we’re facing as a society in the 21st century.
In the middle of this talk, he made this quote “Unless you’re prepared to be wrong, you won’t come up with anything original”. It’s what I call a throw away in that the implementation of the quote is intended to create a stir. And, it created a stir in the audience and perhaps even with me. Why did it? Because it makes sense in so many ways.
If you’re familiar with skiing there’s a saying “if you ain’t falling you ain’t learning”. The concept here is by falling it’s a sign you’re skiing beyond your established skill level. Falling is a natural result of operating beyond your normal capabilities. When done correctly, operating JUST beyond your normal capabilities will result in a higher skill level eventually. Sure, you might fall--that’s a real possibility, but you’re doing more than your skills allow meaning you will adapt. The challenge is to operate beyond your skill level while being exposed to a reasonable set of hazards and risks.
Creativity is like skiing in that it benefits from exercise. Doing simple creative things tends to maintain or improve skills. Creatives like painters, composers, photographers, all know that exercising their skills tends to be beneficial. And, like skiing and falling, there’s the likelihood of creating something not so good and probably is bad.
Let’s go back to our skier.
Skiing off a cliff when you’re used to being on the bunny slopes will not make you a better skier. You’ll be dead or worse and all potential learning will be lost. But, skiing in slightly more difficult terrain requiring more focused attention for an extended period, that’s when learning is taking place. Of course, in that situation in a moment of inattention there’s the possibility of falling. You’d be foolish to not be prepared for that eventuality. It’s the nature of the beast when you’re operating beyond your skill level.
Let’s examine when you never operate beyond your skill level. You never take the risk of falling. What’s going on there? You are not exercising the brain or muscles to tackle new and varied requirements. You aren’t making yourself able to adjust to different and more difficult situations. You are not making yourself a more skillful skier. Learning is not happening at any measurable rate.
Can you ride that line--the line between falling and not falling---reliably and maintain a reasonable skill set? If you’re goals are to never fall and to never be less skillful, I think you have mutually exclusive objectives. By never being near the edge of the so-called envelop---the envelop being your skiing abilities--you will never have the opportunity to understand how your skills are maintaining objectively.
Let’s use this metaphor. Let’s assume the limits of your skills are represented by a room with walls you can’t see and maybe can feel on a good day--emphasis on MAYBE. Let’s say while wandering around in the room you know if you touch the wall you know you might suffer a fall. You know that’s not what you don’t want to do. You don’t want to fall so when you think you’re near the wall you stop or go the other way. Of course, you don’t know where the wall is meaning after a while you’re not moving around in this room representing your skills. Eventually you’re in one spot in the room doing the same thing time after time after time.
Let’s add to the mysticism of this room, the one representing your skiing skills. Let’s say the walls move inward slightly when they aren’t touched--i.e. objectively your overall skills are diminishing meaning the room is getting smaller. Or, they can move outwardly if they are touched--i.e. objectively your skills are increasing, though you are risking a fall but the room is getting bigger. This is an insidious thing because in this featureless room with limited feeling, it’s really hard to tell where you are in the room or even how big the room is. If you always stay away from the wall and move the other way when you might feel it, the walls will eventually close in--the room getting smaller--until one day you notice you can’t get anywhere without hitting a wall--i.e. you have little to no skills. You aren’t a skier because you can’t ski without falling
Here’s the real crazy thing about this. All the while you’re thinking to yourself you’re a skier, a safe skier at that. But, by taking this no-risk safe route you’re thinking this way until one day you realize you’ve lost the ability to ski. All the while you’re doing what you’re doing safely thinking what an awesome reasonable skier you are until one day, and with quite a surprise, you realize can’t ski.
Let’s look at the other angle, the guy that touches the wall on occasion. This is the guy that risks a fall every now and then. This guy might not hang on the wall all the time though he might. But, he absolutely is under no delusions that falling is inevitable eventually. By being there on or near the wall--remember, it’s hard to tell where that wall is--he knows he will eventually fall. A prudent person would be prepared for it. Of course preparation for such an eventuality is quite varied. It can be quite simple as simply acknowledging it by saying to yourself “I will fall!”
Back to talking about creativity. Everything related to the skier, skiing, and falling is directly applicable to being a creative, creativity, and creating something bad. It is the nature of the beast. If you are not prepared to create something bad--ride that line--you will never expand your skills. In fact, I assert if you never entertain the notion of being wrong (making something bad) and always play it safe, you will eventually get to the point where you can’t do your art. You can’t be that creative you always thought you were. You will eventually be stuck with no skills at all. The worse part is this, it’s inevitable. Without riding that line and risking failure, it is inevitable that you will eventually reach the point of no skill or ability.
If you want to be known for making truly creative things, you have to put yourself out there far enough where eventually you will be wrong. You have to be prepared to be wrong. Being wrong is simply the cost of doing business as a creative.
PS - The title image of this blog should be a complete failure. None of it really fits the standard rules. The bird isn't really looking at you. It's facing the wrong way. It's kind of a failure as a portrait. Yet, it is one of my all time 100 favorite images. Why, because there is a substantial feeling or connection with this bird. It's in the rain. The light is great. It seems contemplative. It just works. To me, it's perfect in its imperfections.
ORIGINAL FULL SIZED IMAGE: http://www.tom-hill.biz/Galleries/Birds/Seabirds/i-PccBVzC/A
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