I’m sitting at my computer right now clenching my fist. I would love to say that the problem is external – that some outside person is getting in the way of my creative work. I’d love to say that I just don’t have enough time to get things done or that I’m too distracted. However, that’s not the case. The truth is that I can’t get it right.

See, I’m working on a site design. I have no deadlines for this particular project. No one is breathing down my neck. So, the environment is pretty relaxed. This particular project combines two things I love — graphic design (something I tend to do well with) and coding. Still, I’m frustrated. There are some simple code things that I somehow can’t remember how to do. Then, there’s this wall I’m running into with the graphic design, where I know vaguely what I want it to look like but I’m not there yet.

The Greatest Barrier to Creativity

The truth is that this is when I am most tempted to give up. It’s not because it’s frustrating. It’s not because it’s too hard. It’s because in this particular moment, I’m afraid. I’m afraid that it won’t work out right. I’m afraid that I will waste a few days and have nothing to show for it. I know, I know. Mistakes are a part of learning. Revision is necessary. I’ve mentioned before that the design thinking process is all about testing and revising a prototype. And yet, in the midst of it, there’s this fear that creeps in.

Ultimately, it’s the fear, rather than the frustration, that kills creativity.

It has me thinking that this is why people give up on creative work. You grow older and quit dancing because you might look stupid. You quit singing because somewhere along the line, you started thinking your voice was bad and you’re too afraid to keep singing. You quit stopping and observing and wondering because you’re afraid of being unproductive.

I noticed this the other night when I was at a salon (it’s this event where people share their art – whether it’s poetry, short stories, visual arts, or music). People were nervous. They were terrified. I couldn’t help but think that there is a certain courage required in every part of the creative process — a courage to pursue an idea, a courage to make, a courage to keep revising even when you’re scared it won’t get better, and ultimately a courage to send your art off to the world.

Five Ways Teachers Can Limit the Fear of Creative Failure

1. Share your own fear as a maker. 
I believe that teachers should create their own genius hours so that they can experience the fear that happens in the midst of making. I actually think there is a value in being creative (especially in a new realm) around students. Last year, I worked next to a former art teacher who used to paint while her students painted. It was a strategic move. She wanted her students to see her make mistakes and get frustrated so that they would know that even veteran artists get frustrated.

2. Promote a growth mindset with students.
There’s a quote from Carol Dweck in Mindset that I think fits in well with creativity. “Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just ordinary skills, but the most difficult tasks of a lifetime, like learning to walk and talk. They never decide it’s too hard or not worth the effort. Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward. What could put an end to this exuberant learning? The fixed mindset. As soon as children become able to evaluate themselves, some of them become afraid of challenges. They become afraid of not being smart.” I think the same thing happens with creativity. Kids start saying things like “I’m just not artistic” or “I’m just not good at programming.” If you haven’t read Mindset, I’d recommend it as a top summer read.

3. Encourage risk-taking as a part of your classroom culture. 
I mentioned in a previous post that being goofy actually leads to positive risk-taking and a greater climate of creativity. That’s one of the many things teachers can do to create a climate where kids are excited about taking risks.

4. Switch to standards-based grading. 
Students become risk-averse when they are worried about grades. The traditional system of averaging grades (and placing completion above mastery) ultimately means students are less likely to take creative risks. However, when they know that they can revise their work and ultimately create something that is worth putting in a portfolio (feel free to download the free portfolio), they see mistakes and revision as a natural part of the creative process.

5. Keep the creative work meaningful to students. 
Part of why I am not giving up right now is that I love what I’m doing. I am making something that matters to me. So, both the product and the process are something I love (even when I’m frustrated). If that’s not present in a student project, it’s pretty hard to keep students intrinsically motivated.

Looking for more? Check this out.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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