Does Kindness Kill Creativity?By Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D. and Robert Biswas-Diener, Ph.D.
One of us attended a two-hour creativity workshop in 2011 where the workshop leader spoke about the various stages of creativity. He asked the audience to blurt out words related to their experience when working alone and generating new ideas. They yelled, “excitement,” “intrigue,” “joy,” even “love.” Basically, it is pleasurable to conjure up ideas. Next, the workshop leader asked the crowd to identify emotions associated with that next phase of creativity; the part where you share your ideas with the outside world. The crowd hushed and a few timid voices mumbled “fear” and “embarrassment.”
Thinking about a field of judges evaluating the sweat equity and inspiration that goes into our work feels wrong. What adult has the authority to claim that a kid's crayon drawn meatball-shaped house with watermelon-shaped, purple skinned parents is anything less than creative? If creativity is about originality and usefulness, how can anyone criticize never-before-used rhymes ("I don't like 'em figgity fat, I like 'em stiggity stacked/You wiggity wiggity wack if you ain't got biggity back")? As these MC Hammer lyrics suggest, actually, some ideas are terrible.
The experience in this workshop reflects a broader pattern in life regarding creativity: people tend to fall in love with their ideas. Research suggests that the easier an idea is to think of, the better and more correct it feels. This is why none of us can accurately judge the creative merits of our own ideas.
It is for this reason that creativity requires more than one person. Gifted authors still need editors. The best film directors rely on script supervisors to catch mistakes. Nobel Prize-winning scientists still submit their work to the scrutiny of peer review. The problem emerges in families, schools and societies that promote appreciation, compassion, and kindness over candor.
Make no mistake, we believe that kindness and other interpersonal virtues are admirable—just not when blindly applied.
Fortunately, little-known scientific research offers new insights into cultivating creativity.
You may be surprised to hear that politeness and kindness often inhibit creativity. In fact, researchers have shown that when groups adopt a “no-criticism/no-argument” ground rule, they produce far fewer creative solutions to problems. A culture that values debate, criticism, and quarrelsome discussions will be more productive, creative—and ironically—harmonious.
So how do we bring these scientific insights into the real world? For starters, before a single task is tackled at home, in school, or in the workplace, everyone should be educated about the microculture of the group. Microcultures can be thought of as the agreed upon ways of temporarily behaving, thinking or feeling in a small group of people within a limited geographical area or a small organization such as a school or business.
If you want to be educated about a particular group’s microculture, think like a journalist and start asking questions about how people are supposed to behave in different settings. Think like a scientist and observe the language people use, how people socialize with one another, how power is handled, and guidelines being followed about what is appropriate and inappropriate. For instance, imagine the typical person in a therapy session. The therapist and client sit in chairs that are far enough apart that they are not touching. The client rarely gets to ask questions of the therapists’ life, but without any segue, the therapist can probe any area of the client’s life. Thinking about microculture is important because only then can you intentionally change them. Why can’t clients and therapists talk while jogging around a track?
Now, consider the following microculture guidelines that serve as the foundation of our work teams in the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena at George Mason University and Positive Acorn in Portland, Oregon:
1) Conflict and confrontation are valued because they stimulate the best possible ideas
2) People should not take criticism of their work as a personal attack
3) People should not use criticism as a passive-aggressive way to attack somebody
4) More candor should occur in the room than in the hallways outside
5) There will be constant check-ins about the quality of relationships and how people communicate to each other inside and outside of think-tank sessions
In our new book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, we argue that attempts to protect people from criticism and arguments lead those same people to become psychologically weaker. The more often one avoids or hides from negative emotions and uncomfortable social interactions, the more stressed they get in these particular situations. This leads people to quit too soon, avoid difficult conversations, or blindly follow the life agenda laid out by the external world—parents, teachers, managers, the cool crowd, and popular media. Conversely, practice breeds comfort with the uncomfortable.
One thing that prevents people from contributing something akin to their potential is that they often ask the question, “Is this contributing to my happiness?” By asking this question, they're more likely to seek approval to feel good, and less likely to take the risks and pursue the challenges that invite discomfort. We suggest that you adopt a different question. Ask yourself, "Is this contributing to my wholeness?" and if you're getting constructive criticism, if you’re dedicating effort toward a meaningful goal, and you feel uncomfortable...it is.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, and Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a researcher and trainer. Both authored the new book, The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good Self” – Drives Success and Fulfillment.
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