Creativity Can Be Dangerous and Why We Shouldn’t Normalise Startup Failure

Creativity is encouraged by most.

But it can be dangerous and come at a real price.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr Alice Flaherty on my podcast recently.

Dr Flaherty is a neurologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and an associate professor of both neurology and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

In the podcast, she detailed the cost of creativity that we sometimes don’t hear about:

“There’s a lot of evidence that most creative ideas fail, and so if you are in a situation where you can’t come out of that failure then you’re going to end up being a janitor somewhere, and we don’t see those people. So there’s actually some evidence that populations need to have a huge mix where there’s a few creative people — but those are the people that are getting themselves and other people killed with new ideas. So you have to have a lot of other people who are just kind of, I don’t want to say the drones, but the people who are more sensible.”

I asked Dr Flaherty, can one be both analytic and creative?

“It’s certainly not an opposite thing — you can be both analytic and creative. The important thing about CEOs is you’re looking at a big selection bias.”

Dr Flaherty said a way for CEOs to reduce the repercussions of some failures is to go to a Think Tank or a University:

“The reason they’re so known as hotbeds of creativity is because there’s a lot lower risk, but then there’s another approach that people can do to deal with dangerous business environments, which is to redefine what’s dangerous. So the classic example is the student who’s terrified that they might fail if they write an out there paper. All they have to do is redefine how important grades are. Like people have said if you get straight A’s you’re not working on the right things. So if they say: ‘Actually it’s important that I take this risk and if I get a B in this course it’s not going to matter.’ That’s a way of reframing the environment and realizing it’s not really that dangerous.”

The Myth of the Dangers of Less Money

Dr Flaherty added that people stress over the diasters of not having the income they think they need; before realising they actually don’t need that much to survive:

“People will say: “Well if I don’t have enough money to send my kids to private schools and to have a great house, and make a lot of money, that’s going to be a disaster.’ So, they might play it very conservatively because they have high-income needs. It’s pretty easy actually to redefine your needs in that way. I feel like half of my happiness and success as a creative writer is that I sent my kids to an inexpensive public school where they actually got a great education. And it certainly has not hurt them that they weren’t keeping up with the neighbors who send their kids to really expensive schools. So that’s another supposed danger that’s not really a danger. You don’t need all that much money to survive.”

Dr Flaherty finished on our desires for approval:

“We all want the approval of our boss. We want the approval of a larger population. And at some level that’s what we’re working for; we want to make something that’s useful to people. But in the short term sometimes you just have to say: ‘People aren’t going to like this. I’m just going to work on it for a little bit longer and I’ll keep below the radar and not feel hurt when no one cares.'”

Celebrating startup failure as a rebrand

Dr Flaherty agrees that normalising failure can come at a cost to employees, and we should be careful when CEOS celebrate it:

“In a way it’s been a clever rebranding on the count of these people who’ve had big disastrous fails. That they can say: “Look how creative I am, I failed so spectacularly!’ And that’s not always that encouraging.

Do you create danger by seeking any of these three things? Have Dr Flaherty’s comments made you reconsider some?


For my full interview with Dr Alice Flaherty, take a listen via this link.

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