The following remarks were delivered in October 2016 at the invitation of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. The occasion was a fascinating symposium on the subjects of risk and failure bringing together museum professionals, academics, researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. With the benefit of hindsight, I had a lot on my mind at this point in time: a growing sense of unease about the direction of the 2016 presidential election (the election was just days away), and a dawning realization that it might be time for a major change in the direction of my career. The zeitgeist shows in the thinking, I only hope it still proves relevant today.
I’m going to start with a story. A few decades ago I was recruited as a team leader to create something new — a museum of creativity. It was supposed to be a museum devoted to the creative process rather than the products of creativity.
The supreme irony of this effort is that it failed. Yes, we utterly failed to create a museum of creativity.
With the benefit of hindsight, this was a transformational experience. I could not know it then, but our complete failure would inform my professional perspective for the rest of my career.
For one thing, this brief detour provided me with a crash course in creativity theory. We studied history, neuroscience, anthropology, psychology, anthropology, all manner of -ologies, in a desperate attempt to glean enough insight to render “the process” into meaningful and engaging museum exhibitions.
As the project went on, panic set in.
It was like trying to put a pin in an amoeba. Every time we thought we had creativity nailed, it turned into something else. The struggle got so stressful, that it haunted my dreams. I had a dream one night that I had reached a creative breakthrough. The breakthrough was that we’d do exhibits on people named Fuller. Specifically, the exhibits would be on R. Buckminster Fuller and Alfred C. Fuller, who, in case you don’t know, was the man who founded the Fuller Brush Company.
After fully feeling the elation of that creative insight, I awoke to bitter reality.
After a little inspiration and a lot of perspiration, our team was finally beginning to hit its stride at the precise moment our patrons lost interest. One day, after Christmas vacation, we were all canned.
In nearly every field today, experts talk about creativity as desirable. Economies are fired by it. Needs are satisfied by it. Entire regions are desirable to live in because of it. If you run a business or an institution, you better want it, or risk running aground on the shoals of relentless change.
Still, creativity is not a commodity that you can buy. You can hire creative people, but they will require care and feeding when they fail, and attention and resources when they succeed. Just as a creative person must be resilient and resolute in their pursuit of a problem, the complex system of support behind the creative person must also be resilient and resolute. Few are actually prepared to pay the full price of creativity and its uncertain rewards.
We talk about tolerance of risk and failure in the abstract, but little attention is given to the dominant attributes of risk and failure: the emotions of fear and shame. Let’s admit that we experience risk and failure as feelings — and those feelings can be crippling. Innovation nearly always swims upstream against a steady current of internal and external anxiety. Better get an appetite for ambiguity, or get out while there’s still time.
At the Museum of Creativity, one approach we took was to develop exhibits that were case studies. One of these cases was the Wright Brothers.
Superficially, you might think of them as risk-takers. After all, who in the world would trust their lives to a primitive flying machine?
But actually their breakthrough was due to a creative response to risk. While other powered flight pioneers like Santos-Dumont and Langley tried to hurl their machines into the air, the obscure bicycle mechanics put most of their focus on what they would do once they got into the air.
They’d watched their source of inspiration, Otto Lilienthal, plunge to his death in a glider, and they were anxious not to follow his example.
Their successful problem solving approach attacked the source of their anxieties head on. The secret to powered flight wasn’t merely how to get a technology off the ground, but how the hell you could control the thing once you got up there so you wouldn’t get killed.
Still, the native caution of the Wright brothers almost proved to be their undoing. They were so suspicious of others infringing on their patent, that for years after achieving flight, they refused to demonstrate their machine outside of the closest circle of trusted associates.
The Wright’s claims were widely derided by skeptics around the world. It took them five years of fruitless and stubborn struggle before they finally traded off their anxieties and demonstrated their aircraft to the public. The acclaim that followed was deserved, but in the meantime others had seized the limelight. Claims of who was first to fly have been contested ever since.
What we have in the Wright’s example is two approaches to risk, one productive and the other not. One channels anxiety towards curiosity, persistence and solutions, the other allows anxiety to block progress, recognition and results. Innovation can fail at any one of those stages.
When we look at today’s technology, one important way we work through our anxieties is through science fiction. Science fiction typically extrapolates from some worrying aspect of our contemporary society and imagines how that might be elaborated when taken to the extreme. Orwell looked at the rise of Totalitarianism around him and imagined Big Brother in a not-so-distant future.
Now Big Brother has arrived.
But what Orwell never anticipated was that our natural desire–our feelings–for human connection and community would compel us to sign up for Big Brother voluntarily.
I did. I’m sure most of you did too.
What Orwell also couldn’t imagine is that the natural restiveness of human beings would produce a vast, international subculture of renegade hackers and leakers, bitcoin, insurgent recruiting and The Dark Web.
He couldn’t imagine that the totality of available personal data would be scattered across an vast cloud of vulnerable server farms, that the power of Big Brother would be dispersed, pluralized, growing like a mold in the back of the fridge rather than held in the iron fist of one autocrat.
We now live in a world where all can be watched, and all can be watchers. As they used to say in high school, it’s all on your permanent record. Big Brother, it turns out, is all of us together.
What’s interesting to me is, not so much the rise of the surveillance aspect of the information society, but rather the incredibly blithe assessment of personal risk by nearly everybody who joins in.
We feel we need the purchasing power and legitimacy of credit and debit cards, the social cohesion and belonging of Facebook and Twitter, the convenience of Amazon, smartphones, the 24-hour news cycle, and online porn. And we need these things more than we need privacy.
Psychologists have noted that humans are generally terrible at accurately assessing risk. And this has everything to do with how we process fear. Terrorists and demagogues have made an art of this. We are distracted by the spectacular and limited act of violence, while the pot billions of us live in is slowly brought to a boil by global climate change.
Fear is a perfectly natural response to certain kinds of external threats. We are told that our fear response is an ancient adaptation for survival. It is prehuman and subcognitive, lodged deep in the animal part of our brains.
We experience fear before we are even consciously aware of it or put a name on it.
The emotion of fear cascades first from our amygdala, then through our central nervous system. and then our entire body. Our heart and respiratory rates climb. We grit our teeth. Our throat swallows hard. We flush and break out in a sweat. Our guts churn. The sensation overrides our rational faculties at first. We become aggressive or defensive, run away, or are simply paralyzed.
All of this is perfectly appropriate if you spend your days eluding sabretooth tigers. But this survival gear is hardwired into us every day, when we go to work in our office cubicles, conference rooms and executive suites. As creatures, these responses have evolved to become a critical part of our social interactions with other people. We experience fluctuating anxiety all day long to such an extent, that we are scarcely aware of it.
In my experience, it is not the rational assessment of risk or a considered aversion to failure that stops creativity cold.
Instead, it is the prevalence of fear in our response to the challenges creativity represents. When arousal becomes fear, it has the power to blot out curiosity, critical thinking, introspection, persistence, and resiliency…in short, all of the tools necessary for creative problem solving. Fear will always be with us. Fear can convert anticipation of success into a dread of public shame for failing. It is a part of being human. The question is, can fear be managed? Does it have to dominate our thinking, particularly when we seek to create and foster an environment in which creativity thrives?
Can we develop the insight necessary to identify and interrogate our anxieties so we can channel them towards the appropriate problems and problem solving strategies? Can we lean into anxiety instead of running away?
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes that a flow state occurs in a groove of deep concentration between anxiety and boredom. When our challenge is suited to our ability, we are not overwhelmed, nor do we find it tedious. We can concentrate, solve problems and be productive. Sheer terror might exist on the end of a continuum beginning with attention, arousal and anxiety, but, at some point, for certain people, arousal becomes deep curiosity rather than fear. For some people failure becomes an engine for renewed curiosity, persistence and resiliency rather than shame and discouragement.
These people have the capacity for creativity.
I don’t think it’s a matter of vanquishing fear. Instead, I think we can look at anxiety as a perfectly natural–if not rational–alert system. The alert is trying to tell us something. It’s trying to tell us that, if we listen to it, and interrogate it, we just might learn something new. It might teach us something in the way of self-knowledge or something about the external world. It might teach us to pay attention to something we missed until that point in time.
Educator and philosopher John Dewey believed that learning was a byproduct of perplexity. When we encounter something new, it unsettles what we believe we know, or believe is true. Perplexity can feel like a threat. Many reflexively react to perplexity with resistance, hostility or denial.
When we look at museums today, we can talk about innovation, but in doing so we have to acknowledge something deep in the mindset of museums that makes innovation incredibly difficult.
In truth, the mission of every museum is a version of the Chicago Police Department motto: We Serve And Protect. As a cultural form, museums are designed to protect assets, and to provide cultural continuity. In this sense, our instincts are profoundly conservative. We love policies and resort to them in periods of uncertainty. Our fear that assets might be destroyed or that continuity might be disrupted drives our decisions far more than we consciously realize.
Why should this be so?
It’s not that we simply fear change. It is rather that we fear the loss that change represents. We can sense that creative destruction destroys the past. This engenders grieving for what is lost and nobody grieves loss more than museums.
Bob Dylan once said, “museums are cemeteries.” This might be unfair if it was just intended to describe a repository of dead things.
But another way of looking at this is the consolation the cemetery provides for those who are mourning. Museums in particular are a hedge against the obliteration of human meaning making, striving and achievement by the ravages of time. Because our inclination is to hold on to so much, there is terrific anxiety about what we might lose.
In museums, we grapple with technology in ways that betray our ambivalence towards technology’s change power.
We worry: Will it irrevocably change our relationship with the authentic object? Or with the public? Will it distract people from the important things? Will it undermine our authority? Will someone poke a hole in an artifact with a selfie stick? What about copyright infringement? Will people learn anything? What about, what about..?
Well, this conversation is already moving on without museums. We are living in the Anthropocene Age. This means that no matter who or what you are, you are living on a planet that has been irrevocably designed and changed by humans. A few years ago, an exhibit called Massive Change posed the question this way: Now that we can do anything, what will we do?
Fear of new technology is often revealed in the early forms it takes. An automobile first appears as a horseless wagon. A television appears in our living room disguised as a credenza. These nostalgic echoes give us consoling, psychic space for the new. It might take a generation or two before the technology is allowed to be what is really is in our lives. Until that time, technology masquerades as the familiar, a Trojan horse for change.
When it comes to technology in museums, we have to accept that it is here to stay. We have to push away our inclinations, driven by anxiety, to seek consolation in the familiar, to tack technology on as a glowing screen version of the hoary old object labels and audio tours. Or, conversely, to fall for its seductive siren song without really listening to our anxieties.
There is more computing power in my pocket right now than there was in the entire world I was born into 57 years ago. Think about what that means and ask whether an extended object ID label is a creative use of that technology in museums.
We forget that museums are themselves something relatively new. They have only become ubiquitous in the last century or so. In spite of their outward gravitas, there is no guarantee that they’ll be any more durable than department stores or newspapers. We might ask, what have they been masquerading as? What are they a Trojan horse for?
There is no turning back. As the slow-moving tortoises of the cultural universe, museums must ask: what is our niche? If we are eager to move forward, what will be give up? What can we destroy? Will that destruction be intentional or unwitting? Can we risk it? Can we see the promises ahead? Who are the leaders prepared to take the necessary risks? Can we support them in failure as well as in success? Can we bear the public shame of failure as a lesson for redoubling effort? Can we see our anxieties as avenues for exploration rather than as threats to be avoided at all costs?
Time will tell.