Malcolm Gladwell on why we need to embrace creative chaos

In my experience as a creativity educator, fear of chaos presents one of the biggest barriers to becoming more creative in the workplace. Non-creative types especially need to embrace chaos, and not run away from it. Chaos is part of the creative process, and you miss out if you avoid it.

Malcolm Gladwell has wise words to say about creativity, chaos and the messiness of imagination. He speaks from experience as a best-selling author of “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference,” (2000) , “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” (2005), and “Outliers: The Story of Success” (2008) all of which were number one New York Times bestsellers and “What the Dog Saw” (2009) — book links will take you to Amazon. He was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005, and I admit to being proud that he is a fellow Canadian.

This is Gladwell’s advice from a Big Think interview to aspiring writers, but it applies to anyone who is, or wants to be creative:

You have to reverse the normal human tendency, which is to edit.  So a lot of… and occasionally this is, I think, a source of  a great deal of frustration that exists between people in creative and non-creative universes, which is that creative people I think are trying to… their lives and their brains, their brains are messy. Their imaginations are messy.  Why, because they don’t want to throw anything out.  Why don’t they want to throw anything out?  Because they believe on some level that there is always something of interest or value in whatever they encounter.  They know enough about how mysterious and serendipitous and unpredictable the creative process is that they realize that it’s dangerous to kind of make too hasty a judgment about the value of anything that they come across.

People in non-creative universes have exactly the opposite relationship to information—or to experiences is a better way of putting it.  They’ll see something and they’ll say “Is it relevant to what I’m doing?” And if it’s not they should push it aside and focus on what they’re kind of task is.  If you’re at Proctor & Gamble and you’re the head of Ivory soap you’re job is to sell more soap and if you get distracted by some interesting, but ultimately marginal subsidiary issue you won’t sell as much soap. And that is an extreme example, but that’s a world that demands focus.  If you’re a surgeon and you’re operating you cannot let your imagination wander about some idiosyncrasy of the operation.  You have to kind of zero in.  So I think that is a kind of… That embracing of messiness and understanding its contribution to the creative process is something that writers and creative types, artists, whatever have got to cultivate, have to learn to be comfortable with. Because it goes against a lot of our kind of instincts and training as kind of educated people.

From BigThink interview with Malcom Gladwell Dec 16, 2010

Gladwell on creative leadership

I think that innovation and creativity flourish in environments that are messy, that permit mistakes that allow people to step outside of their roles that involve people who wouldn’t otherwise be thought of as natural teammates… Just when there is an acceptable level of chaos I think that good things happen. The trick in encouraging creativity is being willing to tolerate chaos and that’s very difficult for us to do. It’s not first on our impulse.

First of all I’d say leadership needs to be tolerant. It goes along with my earlier point of chaos and how creativity comes from mild levels of chaos, acceptable chaos and leadership needs to be tolerant of that to shoulder all of the inconveniences and stresses that come from mild levels of chaos… Leadership in the same way needs to be tolerant of failure as creativity necessarily requires people to make mistakes and leadership has to accept that going in, or there will ne no real innovation and inspiration.

From The Art of Leadership Jan 05, 2015

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