Why fear drives creativity
A view from David Harris

Why fear drives creativity

We are living in an era of fear and uncertainty. But David Harris, executive creative director, Gyro, says this environment can drive innovative thinking.

The uncertainty of our times has left many of us feeling confused and wrong-footed. The social, political and economic unpredictability is creating a paralysis of fear among both individuals and organisations, with the next few years presenting an age of perfect chaos. At times overwhelming and holding us back, it also emotionally charges us. That is the nature of fear.

Like every human emotion, fear serves a purpose. The neural circuits associated with the emotion of fear provide us with the "fight vs flight vs freeze" framework  - which then fuels the story of what happens next. It is that next that has the scope to be disrupted in a creative way.

I never sit down to write an advertisement without thinking THIS TIME I AM GOING TO FAIL

As a creative, I know that the fear of failure runs high. David Ogilvy once wrote: "The copywriter lives with fear. Will he have a big idea before Tuesday morning? Will the client buy it? Will it sell the product? I never sit down to write an advertisement without thinking THIS TIME I AM GOING TO FAIL." A dilemma creatives are all too familiar with. But if the paralysing notion that a failed idea would make us unfit to try anything ever again were to be removed somehow, or the mistakes and failure as a consequence of trying something new, then fear could well be mastered to ignite creativity.  

Fear serves one of the most invaluable lessons of all time - makes us stop and doubt, because it essentially throws us off our game. It makes us want to survive and thrive, for which we need a new approach, to re-engage with our creativity and think our way out of a problem.

Read the following story from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland that so captures this thought so beautifully.

"A ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

Creativity is less a luxury and more a necessity when trying to create growth and innovate

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an "A".

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the "quality" group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

We need creativity not just as an indulgence, but to lead to intellectual curiosity. Curiosity to challenge fear, to determine new paths, nurture new motivations. In an era of fear, where the pace of change is hard to keep up with, creativity is less a luxury and more a necessity when trying to create growth and innovate. For business leaders, there is much to gain from analysing fear and riding that wave of fear to foster creativity through this period of unprecedented uncertainty.