Kids who make things happen are different from you and me. Imagine for example, that you’re twelve years old and you decide that you want to give a TED talk to some of the world’s best and brightest teachers, technologists and designers. What’s the first thing you need to do? My recommendation: have parents who’ve adored you from birth and who taught you how to … grow some axons. Here’s what you might look like if they did.
Adora is different in ways happily, that research has begun to identify. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we’d all have a much easier time with producing creative results if we’d been trained and supported in practicing making things happen at a much earlier age, the way she obviously was.
Long May They Run
We don’t really need to teach kids to be creative. As this well-known Hole in the Wall experiment by Dr. Sugata Mitra shows, mostly we just need to make it safe, provide a creative environment and get out of the way: Minimally Invasive Education. Creativity is an ever-present, emergent property of childhood (some say “of life”). It’s in the DNA: life requires flexible adaptation in order to be sustainable.
According to Scott Belsky, founder and CEO of Behance, Inc. and author of Making Ideas Happen, once we’re comfortable getting out of kids’ way, there are only three things we actually need to repeatedly expose them to so that their creative ideas ultimately become real in the world.
The first is “mental loyalty.” The need for mental loyalty emerges from practicing organization and execution – managing creative projects with a bias towards action. Mental loyalty is akin to mindfulness. It is a practice of “paying attention to the relevant dimension,” to use a maxim from house building. It also requires us to train kids in the practice of not being distracted by any of ten thousand daily alluring absorptions. As you might suspect, we’d also do well as parents to model mental loyalty for our children.
Related to mental loyalty is the practice of reducing “insecurity works.” Insecurity works are the things we do out of misguided concerns for what others might think, or out of inner concerns that we might actually fail. This is where effective anxiety management practices come in, where social neuroscience holds great promise with its Golden Rule: more organized brains can help us organize our own. And what other people think of us is none of our business. Most of us have enough difficulty managing the thoughts coursing through our own head on any given day; how high is the probability of being able to successfully manage others’ thoughts for very long?
Leveraging Like and Unlike Minds
Few creative results show up in the world as the result of completely solo efforts. If we want our children to bring creativity into being, we need to teach and model the next aspect of Making Ideas Happen: how to “play well with others.” (In fact, Josh Shenk writing in Slate, argues compellingly that there are few configurations that beat the creative intimacy arising from the neural duet of “mutual muses”).
But playing well with others doesn’t mean that kids or adults get along wonderfully. In part, it means learning how to be “supported by the commons.” It also means that creative collaboration is placed as a priority such that working through the inevitable differences is worth the time and energy required. Much innovation takes place “against the grain.” The three most successful building projects I was ever involved with found me collaborating with people I regularly disagreed with. Differences of opinion repeatedly arose, like which architect to use and which realtor to list with. These different desires and opinions needed to be resolved before the project could move forward. It is the working through conflict that brain science teaches us works to strengthen neural connections and thus our resilience and grows our capacity for creative collaboration even further.
Practicing as the Point Person
The final component Belsky identifies that would serve our children well in their creative pursuits is practice with being the leader. Leaders need to effectively inform and engage others who can play a crucial role in their efforts, to help bring their visions into reality. This is often a challenging transformation that many creative independent visionaries fail to make. One reason is that we grow into leaders only by leading. And that growth is often a messy, anxiety-filled operation.
Leaders learn to be the stewards of team chemistry. The most successful among them also learn how to trick and transform the reward system that motivates many of us. They find creative ways to keep energy high, and creative focus maniacally directed once the novelty of the honeymoon phase inevitably dissipates. One way to do this is by designing incremental rewards for progress made – something to stand in for the psychological equivalent of the grades we received in school, or the paychecks we receive at work. For example, at Zappos, the online shoe store, Tony Hsieh, the CEO, decided that maximizing happiness rather than pay would be the company’s primary focus. Happy employees, it turns out, are quite ready and willing to make customers happy. Each employee is empowered to be a Happiness Leader. Of all the ways Happiness Leaders creatively practice being happy, I resonate most with these 15 offered up by Educational Psychologist Kyung Hee Kim: Creativity Practices.
I can think of worse things for our children to practice becoming.