Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. (It makes creativity happen.)

Posted on January 31, 2009

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“In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Eric Hoffer.

Being a learner is an attitude. A wonderful one at that. The attitude of being learned on the other hand is possibly the most powerful creativity-killer in the ad industry and elsewhere. It’s an attitude that results in a kind of retrospective tunnel vision, utterly detrimental to creativity and innovation.

In my experience, truly creative people all have a learner’s attitude. They are hungry learners, have boundless curiosity, endless motivation to discover, to explore and to tinker. They’re today’s crusaders of trial and error, never afraid of being ‘wrong’.

This fearlessness and courage are fundamental differences between the learner and the learned and a decisive factor as regards an individual’s ability to originate. The learner isn’t afraid of making mistakes, while in the mind of the learned, mistakes are the worst things that can happen.

This insight has been growing on me for a while. It points to a massive problem in the world at large, and one that’s endemic to a majority of companies and executive behaviour out there. And it’s precisely what’s holding the big ‘creative’ network agencies back: they’re full of people in leading roles who have the attitude of the learned. The consequence is management, not creation.

Problem is that it’s an attitude, a mindset that’s really hard if not impossible to change on an individual basis. The learned simply can’t see the problem let alone accept they’re it. They don’t understand how their inability to do so gets in the way of change and creativity…what ironically is what their companies are supposed to generate.

As I hinted earlier, I think it boils down to a powerful human emotion. Fear. Sir Ken Robinson would probably argue that these people, as products of a flawed education system, have actually been educated out of their creative capacity they once possessed as curious children. And I think he’s right.

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The learned are simply too scared – effectively psychologically prevented – to see the problem and to understand that they need a complete attitudinal overhaul: to unlearn in order to learn anew. Moving from learned to learner requires the courage to let go of certainty. It means venturing out of the familiar and into the unknown. It’s a humbling process of accepting that you don’t  have all the answers while befriending the uncertainty this creates.

The learned instinctively cling to familiar structure: ‘proven’ theories, models, logic and reason which in times of rapid change more often than not belong to a world gone by. They find refuge in repetition, what’s worked in the past and what they wrongly believe is something that will work in the future as well, not realizing it doesn’t help creativity but rather preserves the status quo. As a consequence, these people spend their ‘creative pursuits’, as futile as they are, merely reorganizing and repackaging existing thinking and ideas rather than originating.

For agencies to survive in tough times of rapid change, they need to understand the implications of this reality and make sure they fill their offices with learners, not the learned.

So how do you tell the learners from the learned in your agency? I think a decent indicator is to look at the time spent listening (wanting to learn) versus the time spent talking (lecturing others on how the world works).

Here’s a little piece of advice that may help. Convince (in my case ‘remind’) yourself everyday that you don’t know anything and chances are you’ll be blown away by what you’ll discover.

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