I’ve posted a ton of research about how conscientiousness may be the most important personality trait out there.
What’s conscientiousness? Having your act together. Neat and tidy. Organized and on time.
Which can be really depressing because, frankly, I’m not all that conscientious.
But this begs the question: are there benefits to not being conscientious?
Yes, as a matter of fact, there are.
My Spaghetti Abilities Are Unstoppable
Peter Skillman created a design exercise called “The Spaghetti Problem.”
Groups get 20 pieces of spaghetti, tape, some string and a marshmallow.
The group that creates the tallest freestanding structure that will support the marshmallow’s weight within 18 minutes, wins.
He tested groups of engineers, managers, MBA students, etc.
Did tons of planning help? Nope.
Really thinking things through provide an advantage? Nope.
You know who outperformed everyone?
Who crushed the engineers and decimated the MBA students?
Skillman explains. (Watch from 1:17 mins to 4:04 mins):
Conscientiousness correlates with a lot of good things — butcreativity isn’t one of them.
Teachers rewarded repressed drones, according to Bowles and Gintis; they found that the students with the highest GPA’s were the ones who scored lowest on measures of creativity and independence, and the highest on measures of punctuality, delay of gratification, predictability, and dependability.
There are not many best practices for constructing freestanding spaghetti structures. No planning was going to help here.
What was the kindergarteners secret?
They just jumped in. They started failing immediately — and learning quickly.
This was their system: Prototype and test. Prototype and test. Prototype and test — until the time was up.
The engineers had years of schooling and work experience to teach them how to build sound structures. But the kindergarteners had something even more powerful: they were not afraid of failure. By trying and failing, they learned what didn’t work–which, it turned out, was all the knowledge they needed to figure out what did.
This also works for people over four feet tall. Like you.
All Geniuses Use The Same System
All creative people arrive at greatness by the same system: trial and error. Prototype and test. Just like the kindergarteners.
How does Chris Rock create great comedy? By bombing repeatedly onstage to see what works before he goes on TV.
Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, explains:
The term for these people is “experimental innovators” – those who learn from each little mistake and piece together what ends up being something great, whether it’s a comedy act or a building or a piece of music. It just doesn’t come without lots of setback and toil.
And that’s exactly what Skillman found. Multiple iterations win in the end.
“Multiple iterations,” Skillman told the audience, “almost always beats single-minded focus around a single idea.” The people who were planning weren’t learning. The people who were trying and failing were.
“If you have a short amount of time, it’s more important that you fail,” he said minutes later. “You fail early to succeed soon.”
If I read one more article about how companies can’t innovate I’m going to throw up.
You can’t be risk-averse, prone to punishing failure and expect creativity.
In his acclaimed bestseller The Lean Startup Eric Ries makes it very clear:
…if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.
I’ve seen this myself.
When I was writing in Hollywood no one ever told me “Don’t make mistakes.” They told me to make my mistakes early.
One very successful writer told me: “Every writer has three bad screenplays in them. Get those out of the way as quickly as possible.”
Failing Is Dangerous — Here’s How To Do It Right
We’ve all read articles that say “Don’t be afraid to fail.” Yeah, that’s BS.
There are very good reasons to be afraid of failure. You can look stupid. You can get fired.
There’s a reason why conscientiousness is prized, but it’s an inherently conservative strategy.
How do you bridge the gap and fail well so you can be creative and improve? Here are 3 tips:
1) “Little Bets”
Baby steps. Test theories with experiments that aren’t too expensive or risky.
A small experiment that tests a theory. It’s just big enough to give you the answer you need but not so big that it wastes too much precious time, money or resources.
2) Give your ideas time
Many of the greats used notebooks to let their ideas evolve and grow until they were perfect. Eureka moments are a myth.
A great idea comes into the world by drips and drabs, false starts, and rough sketches.
Creativity started with the notebooks’ sketches and jottings, and only later resulted in a pure, powerful idea. The one characteristic that all of these creatives shared— whether they were painters, actors, or scientists— was how often they put their early thoughts and inklings out into the world, in sketches, dashed-off phrases and observations, bits of dialogue, and quick prototypes. Instead of arriving in one giant leap, great creations emerged by zigs and zags as their creators engaged over and over again with these externalized images.
3) Hide From The Boss
When you’re testing, avoid situations where you’ll be judged. They can be paralyzing.
…when a group does creative work, a large body of research shows that the more that authority figures hang around, the more questions they ask, and especially the more feedback they give their people, the less creative the work will be.Why? Because doing creative work entails constant setbacks and failure, and people want to succeed when the boss is watching–which means doing proven, less creative things that are sure to work.
Megan McArdle quotes Alain de Botton as saying:
Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.
How To Get Started
Maybe you’re already an impulsive risk-taker. Congrats, you’re a born innovator.
What if you’ve had that whipped out of you by years of schooling and performance reviews? Where do you start? How do you get a little of it back?
All you need to do is remember who ruled at the spaghetti experiment: Children.
Research shows that merely pretending to be a child again increases creativity:
Individuals imagining themselves as children subsequently produced more original responses on the TTCT. Further results showed that the manipulation was particularly effective among more introverted individuals, who are typically less spontaneous and more inhibited in their daily lives. The results thus establish that there is a benefit in thinking like a child to subsequent creative originality, particularly among introverted individuals.
When you need a breakthrough, when planning and preparation won’t help — it’s time to act like a kid again.
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.