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Why creativity requires freedom

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In a knowledge and innovation economy, new ideas matter a great deal. But it seems to be a lot easier for existing companies to come up with sustaining, incremental innovations, than it is for them to come up with new, disruptive innovations. 

New can be hard.

That’s why I was interested in a recent New York Times article by Wharton professor Adam Grant called, How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off.

The article starts by arguing that many “child prodigies” rarely become adult creators who go on to the change the world:

The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own. Research suggests that the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet, and in response, many learn to keep their original ideas to themselves. In the language of the critic William Deresiewicz, they become the excellent sheep.

To become creators Adam argues that children need to be given the freedom and independence to develop their own sense of self:

When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.

I firmly believe in this approach. But of course, this doesn’t just apply to children; though that is certainly an important takeaway. I also think that if you want the best work out of people in the workplace, you also need to: back off.

Creativity needs freedom.

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