Yale University’s mission statement begins this way: “Yale aims to carry out each part of its mission at the highest level of excellence, on par with the best institutions in the world.” Mission statements of other universities reflect the same level of commitment to truth, discovery, and possibility. Whatever the cost, the goal is to produce excellence. Except, the cost is failure and failure is the opposite of excellence.
In an interview at an Ivy League university, Fareed Zakaria, editor at large of Timemagazine, was told by an administrator he had faith that people develop from failure. When Zakaria asked if the school admitted anyone who had failed, the administrator’s response was: “Of course not.”
What does it look like to promote failure? In the past 80 years, Israel has become a nation of innovators. How did a nation of 7.1 million, surrounded by enemies and short on natural resources, become one of the world’s strongest economies? Dan Senor and Saul Singer, authors of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, credit Israel’s success to a pragmatic industrial policy, well-timed market reforms and the influx of scientists, engineers and mathematicians from Russia. The authors additionally argue that it is the culture of audaciousness that Israel developed, that encourages leaps in thinking, setting a norm for what Israel calls “constructive failure.” For Israel, creation is supported enough to benefit progress, boasting the greatest concentration of high tech businesses in the world. In fact, in living out the idea of “constructive failure,” military service in Israel, where high-risk performance is the norm, is treated as a value.
Risk-taking takes many shapes on the road to creation. It took a few days, for instance, for Bob Dylan to adjust to the peace and quiet of a rural cabin after a frantic rock ‘n ‘roll tour. Dylan told his manager that he was going to stop singing and work on writing a novel. Just as Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a feeling: “A sense that you’ve got something to say,” as Dylan would later remark. Dylan did the only thing that made sense at the time: grabbed a pencil and for the next several hours found himself writing a 20-page piece of “vomit.” Vomit is precisely the word that Dylan used to describe, with vivid remembrance, his creative process.
The words that appeared on paper would later become lyrics to a song, “Like a Rolling Stone.” The “vomit”-like writing was important, in that Dylan threw away the serious composition of lyrics on a serious topic, and instead drew on frantic inspiration. He would later comment that this was his first “completely free song.” The discovery that saved Dylan’s career was the fact that his writing came completely out of possibility. Throwing caution to the wind, he did not know what he wanted to say or where he was going. The ambiguous lyrics and raw music would go on to revolutionize rock’n’roll history.
In the early 1980s Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, interviewed several dozen writers about their mental history. Andreasen hypothesized, like many before her, that creativity was coupled with madness and expected the interviewees to suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorders. What she found instead, was that 80 percent of writers that she had interviewed suffered from some type of profound depression. These artistic souls were not crazy, but they were incredibly sad. To her surprise, sadness was closely linked to creativity.
This finding makes perfect sense, in that the process of creation is not easy. For most, it requires years of attention, failures and mistakes. As a result, the ability to create, demands endurance of failure. To quote Andreasen: “If you are at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.” There is nothing romantic about the kind of creativity that consists of blood, sweat and tears. Nevertheless, this process is the only way towards progress. And so the creative keep on marching on, audaciously accepting failure and concealing the process.
In the cultural exhibition programs in Dublin, London and Paris, art is inseparable from the creative process. Works-in-progress are exhibited in these galleries and are proved to be equally valuable to finished products. Appraising art through the creative process is not exactly a mainstream idea. We know how to understand art as an outcome, but how do we ever really match the value as a process? The tedious and failure prone creative journey may seem like a footnote in comparison to the final creation, but is it investment worthy?
It is conceivable that cultures, environments, institutions and labs that support the value of the creative process may just be a fragile link to the future. Assuming that this could be the catalyst to discovery, it remains a challenge to take a risk and bet on a possibility.
So let’s return, for the moment to Fareed Zakaria’s question. How could a prestigious university, tasked with cultivating the brightest minds, accept failure in its students?
Building intrinsic acceptance of failure parallels to Maria Montessori’s approach to learning. Montessori defined a child’s “job” as that of discovering independence of thought. Montessori schools create environments full of toys and minimal guidance in order to launch children on a path to creativity. The method facilitates pursuit of self-directed inquiry that builds critical thinking and with that, tolerance of failure.
Plausibly then, we can take the Montessori approach and just make it easier for all of us to fail. There is something inherently scary about letting go of the standard for excellence. It means screwing up and relinquishing perfection. It means saying things we did not mean to say and feelings things we did not want to feel. It means being out of control and writing something with little idea of how to begin. It is Bob Dylan scribbling “vomit” on 20 pieces of paper, Israel investing into an idea of “constructive failure,” and cultures beginning to value the “process” more than the “product.” It is unleashing the mind to spontaneous disasters and improvising with audaciousness. Because creativity is what happens when nothing is holding us back.