Ten years ago, British educator Sir Ken Robinson presented his widely hailed TED talk entitled Do Schools Kill Creativity? The recording has now been viewed close to 40,000,000 times. Buried inside his many points is a simple statement – “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” To me, this encapsulates much of why some people make better decisions than others.
The willingness to be wrong is, in many ways, a key to success. Andy Griffith joked that he tried to make twice as many mistakes each year as the year before. To him, this was a measure of creativity and the willingness to take risks. In spite of claims to the contrary, trial and error is still the best strategy for mastering problem solving. But beyond the primal fear of risking and failing, we are now confronted by other insidious factors.
One of these factors is information overload. This ranges from the three gazillion links we have to navigate through with every online search to the underlying manipulation we face in trying to do something as simple as purchasing tires. Is it any wonder that 97% of people never look past the first page of a search engine result?
A second factor is our present climate of polarization. When was the last time you hesitated to express an opinion for fear of being demonized for your beliefs? We’re kidding ourselves if we believe that these practices don’t infect our thinking and actions in the workplace. A business colleague for whom I’ve had a lot of respect looked at me with shock and distain recently when I expressed a different opinion from hers about a particular social policy. “Oh Bob!” she said. “How could you possibly believe that?” as if I were some sort of Neanderthal. It was enough to make even thick-skinned me hesitant to express my opinion going forward. Sadly, it’s also compelled me to re-think my relationship with this highly-talented woman.
A final factor is the unreasonable expectations we place on our youth to behave perfectly all the time. There is abundant research demonstrating that adolescents and young adults sometimes make poor choices simply because their brains are evolving at twice the pace of an infant’s. Along with trying to process this intellectual and emotional roller coaster, they have to navigate hormonal imbalances and the transition to adulthood. When kids did stupid stuff in the past, parents, teachers and authorities may have yelled, but they also reasoned. They taught them lessons, but they didn’t expel them, charge them with felonies and accuse them of being deviants. How do these practices contribute to a young person’s maturity and the strengthening of society? This, by the way, is not to excuse the behavior patterns of the relatively few who act in a manner that reasonable people find inappropriate.
Policymakers and institutional leaders have invented safe spaces, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and other euphemisms in a futile attempt to protect everyone from anything that might cause discomfort. Faculty members and students, for instance, are forbidden from saying or doing anything that anyone on campus might find offensive at any time for any reason. Organizations failing to publicly endorse the current flavors of political correctness receive veiled threats from government officials and media scrutiny that paints them as out of touch with society or worse. Attempting to enforce most of these well-meaning but unenforceable rules and regulations is a fool’s errand, of course. Activists shout down those with opposing views without tolerating what this nation used to consider healthy debate. My favorites are the so-called straw man arguments because “everyone knows that your belief is abhorrent and my belief is common sense.”
But . . . we have to speak our minds. We have to express our opinions. We have to suggest out-of-the-box solutions. We have to argue our beliefs. We have to debate the controversies. This is hard to do when you have an underlying fear of being vilified for simply stating an opinion. We will be wrong sometimes. We will unknowingly offend sometimes. We will apologize sometimes. And we should also expect civility and respect from those with whom we disagree.
This is the only way a society remains healthy. We have to be creative. We have to create original ideas. We have to embrace visions that others might initially find uncomfortable. We also have to accept that we might fail. We have to express our beliefs with the understanding that others might disagree. We have to take risks in order to become better thinkers and decision makers. These are the only ways to contribute to the greater good.
In the face of the present civil chaos, we still need to think, to make decisions, to solve problems and overcome the resistance or even bullying of others. We need to do it at home, with friends, in the workplace and in the public square. And what to you get out of all this? Peace of mind, knowing that you tried to solve the problem, make the best decision, and contribute to the common good. In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt said it well, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”