We Learned Early How to Kill Innovation

This post is an excerpt from the upcoming Special Report, Innovation Essentials: The Four Greatest Ways We Stop Ourselves…In Business and in Life. Watch this space for details on its release.

Every one of us is a born explorer and experimenter. Just watch any small child to see how naturally those tendencies come to us—and how frustrating it can be when someone (mom or dad) stops us. A child hates it when someone interferes with this impulse and will frequently throw a tantrum. So as parents and teachers we feel a need to socialize our children and keep them safe by demanding that they respect the limits we impose. This is all well intended and perhaps necessary, but one unintended side effect is that from a very young age we learn to suppress those impulses. We learn to stop ourselves. We stop exploring and experimenting with new possibilities and instead begin learning the skills that enable us to function effectively in the world as it is, but necessarily as it is becoming.

When as teenagers we again feel the impulse to explore and experiment, we’re bombarded by messages that tell us how dangerous and immature that is, and that again we must suppress those urges. We’re told not to engage in “risky behaviors” (which admittedly some are), but rarely does anyone give us any alternative way to exercise what is obviously an entirely natural tendency. So again we learn to stop ourselves.

Throughout our education we learn that knowledge is important, so we emphasize what we know and discount the importance of what we don’t know. We’re taught to find the one “correct” answer to a problem and reject any alternatives. So we become increasingly assertive about our knowledge and disinterested in hearing anything that might prove us wrong, gradually losing our sense of genuine curiosity. When we encounter an idea that contradicts what we’re learned previously, we immediately stop ourselves from seriously considering it because it’s not the “right” answer.

In his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie, who was once known as the “creative paradox” at Hallmark cards, tells how much he enjoyed visiting schools. He would typically set up in the gym and lead sessions with each grade level, beginning with the first graders and working up. When he spoke, he would note all the student art work he saw on the walls of the school and say how nice it was to be among so many other artists. Then he would ask how many artists were in the room. With the first graders, every hand would go up enthusiastically. By the second grade, about half went up, just shoulder height. By the sixth grade, only a few would sheepishly raise their hands, apparently fearing the judgment of their peers.

That’s what we’ve done to ourselves, and continue to do to our children—with the best of intentions. We’ve been conditioned to suppress our creative impulses and with them our capacity to innovate. When the world was stable and predictable, this may have been adaptive. When we could learn a trade or a profession and get a job for life, having a fixed skill set and a head full of ready answers was the path to success. But none of us lives in that world anymore. We live in a much more dynamic place where we need to constantly learn and unlearn and relearn, where imagination and insight are now our path to success and fixed ideas are almost certain to be inadequate. The behaviors we’ve been taught to suppress are now exactly the ones we need most!

Throughout history, the artists and eccentrics and creatives have often been viewed with skepticism, even shunned, and perhaps for good reason. Maybe it was appropriate in a slow changing world. It may be that we’re living in the first era ever in which those talents have become so important—for everyone. And the sooner we recognize this shift, the sooner we can respond to it effectively. But thanks to the long-ingrained habits conditioned into us, this is unlikely to happen by chance. It requires that we make conscious choices to think and behave differently and stop suppressing our own creative genius.

 We need to stop stopping ourselves.

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