As a creativity coach I get to see a lot of interesting correlations and connections between creativity as an activity and motivation, what enhances it and what dampens it. I’ve often spoken about how creativity is fragile and how a new idea, a fledgling concept, must be handled with care. Furthermore, it’s very easy to create an environment that’s toxic to creativity; a place of judgement, blame, fear and pressure. Where failure, crudely framed, is not an option.
This past weekend I noticed that ambition and motivation can suffer from some of the same environmental factors; especially a crude fear of failure.
My niece is a smart young lady. She’s fifteen year’s old and has just achieved an A in her GCSE German a year early. But her real passion is for illustration and design. She draws constantly, largely Japanese style cartoons, and even runs a little business customising plimsoles with hand drawn character art for her friends.
This weekend I went to visit my niece and the rest of my sister’s brood and we got to talking about what sort of future she wanted for herself. Being fifteen she’s at an age when she is being asked that sort of question a lot. She will soon do the rest of her GCSEs, then choose A Levels and probably consider Higher Education. That will happen within the next three years.
It’s hard for me, looking at someone so young who knows so little about the world, to see how she will do this well. I know I didn’t. She may well be wiser than I was at her age but the fact remains that her horizons are so narrow right now, her awareness of the world so meagre, that any good choices made at this point are surely to be more luck than judgement, no matter how well guided and thoughtful she may be.
But a more insidious problem came up in our conversation, something related more to the type of socio-economic class she belongs to.
My sister’s family isn’t poverty stricken but nor are they wealthy. She has four children to take care of on her partners income and they, like most families, have to watch their spending on a daily basis to make ends meet. My niece, being a smart and sensitive child, is very aware of this. She knows that money isn’t something to be spent lightly. She understands that anything spent must lead to something useful.
After talking about her desire to learn more about graphic design (she’s mostly interested in fashion design and computer game graphics right now) we went out to Waterstones where I had said I would buy her a book or two about design to help her advance her learning. This is when I realised that the idea of spending money on her interest immediately began to dampen her ambition.
Books about design aren’t cheap. They’re full of colour images and fancy typography and they tend to be limited run books – not the sort of thing you can order half a million copies of. When I offered to buy her two books at a combined cost of about £30 my niece started to get nervous. She worried about what would happen if she didn’t find them useful or if she decided that she didn’t like design after all. As soon as investing even a relatively small amount of money became an element of the conversation she immediately felt a pressure to ensure that something tangible would result from it.
I compared this with how a child from a wealthy family might think. To them the idea that pursuing an interest, even investing heavily in one, might not lead to a tangible outcome wouldn’t be an issue. They wouldn’t feel the pressure that comes from investing a little money here and there because for them money is not a concern. They would, therefore, follow what interested them without fear that their passion would change, as passions often do at such a young age.
Finding your element, like creativity of all kinds, is a messy process with lots of dead ends and false starts; a circuitous path. If you feel the need to wait for a sure thing before investing in something even a little then you’ll never get started.
My niece may well not become a graphic designer. Chances are she won’t because at the age of fifteen few people really know what they will do for the rest of their lives. But unless she feels able to explore freely this impulse she has then she will never know. Her fears about spending and, to her mind, wasting money, could lead her to not even dare to dream.
When we think about how people from well off and less well off backgrounds approach their lives we often note the differences in the types of schools they attend, the network they find themselves connected to and other practical, tangible differences in access to information, people and experiences, but I’d never before considered that fear of wasting money might lead a child for whom money is a precious resource to curtail their ambitions to the point that even wishing to do something wonderful like become a great designer would seem like too great a risk.
I found this realisation heartbreaking and I want to do something about it. I believe that every child should have the right to dream, to feel able to explore any impulse without fear of being seen to waste money or feel the pressure to ensure success no matter what. I don’t know how but I will do something about this.