What we lose growing up (and how to regain it)

Reading the Presentation Zen blog recently, I came across several good things:

1. A reference to the TED conference – a great conference where various brilliant people get 20 minutes each to present their great idea. Loads of great stuff there.

2. A list of great presentations with some great insights.

A recurring theme in many of these presentations is creativity – and how we find it so hard to play and be creative. The importance of play in creativity is fairly obvious: Playing means reconfiguring, reworking, and reframing. It??s the opposite of taking things for granted. It is building new, exploring old, and trying on new roles, as Tim Brown, the CEO of the very playful design company IDEO, illustrates:

Brown argues that we lose this playfulness as we grow up. Play requires trust. It requires that we feel secure enough to risk breaking something through our play. Brown argues that as adults we become overly sensitive to the opinion of others. We fear their criticism, and we conform.

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson talks along similar lines in his presentation. He argues that our public school system is forcing us all to think alike, rather than cultivating creativity by acknowledging multiple types of intelligence:

We don??t grow in to creativity, we grow out of it?we get educated out of it.

Robinson says that if the school system had its way, we would all end up as university professors, living only in our heads. But that??s not how most of us think or live:

As Garr at Presentation Zen does well to point out, what we lose growing up is our beginner??s mind. Beginner??s mind is a Zen Buddhist expression perhaps best described by the zen master Shunryu Suzuki:

In the beginner??s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert??s there are few.

As children, everything is new to us, and we play with it to figure it out, to understand how to use it, and how not to use it. We learn from our mistakes as long as we??re willing to make them. As we grow up, we become experts, we don??t see the potential for play anymore – even in things that are new to us. We seek to relate to them according to our habits.

Another aspect of losing our playfulness is that as we grow up, we have to do what we??re told: Go to school, do your homework, sit still, stop fidgeting, write the essay, pass the exam, get a job, go to work – and so on. But, as Aaron Swartz has explored in his essay on procrastination (I suspect that you can guess what I was doing when I happened upon it), we have a deep avoidance to doing what we??re told:

Numerous psychology experiments have found that when you try to ??incentivize? people to do something, they??re less likely to do it and do a worse job. External incentives, like rewards and punishments, kills what psychologists call your ??intrinsic motivation? ?? your natural interest in the problem. (This is one of the most thoroughly replicated findings of social psychology ?? over 70 studies have found that rewards undermine interest in the task.) People??s heads seem to have a deep avoidance of being told what to do.

As Swartz goes on to note, the really weird thing is that the same applies when we try to force ourselves to do something! We kill our intrinsic motivation – our playfulness – when thinking of the goal or the consequences rather than the process of figuring it out. And yet we can??t allow ourselves to play because we might risk being wrong – and getting criticized.

So how do we regain our creativity, our ability to play?

One part of it is certainly to stop paying attention to what everybody else thinks. Blogger Hugh McLeod has written extensively on how to be creative, and his first point is:

Ignore everybody

But that??s only half-true. Remember when you were a child, what was the most fun you had? Wasn??t it when you had a friend over and you shared that playfulness together? That vision or dream that you made real through your play? A better way of putting it is: Ignore everybody who??re just trying to bring you down. In most cases that may well be everybody, but it certainly doesn??t have to be. At IDEO, they??ve managed to create a genuinely playful atmosphere where there??s daring in trying out new ideas.

You don??t have to start all over to regain a beginner??s mind. Just take the time to try and play with whatever you??ve doing for a bit. Explore it, take it apart and rearrange it. As Douglas Hofstadter has argued, ??variations on a theme is the crux of creativity.? Make some unexpected variations.

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