“You do know this class is being given for a grade, right?” I asked the class.
It was as if all the air was sucked out of the room.
Everybody froze — fifteen deer in the headlights.
They glanced at each other. Could she be serious, they seemed to be silently asking.
We were part-way into day one of a three-day class I was teaching at an international calligraphy conference.
I waited a beat, then delivered the punchline:
“The only way you can get an A is if you make a mistake.”
The room erupted in laughter. All the tension drained away.
“Well, I’ll get an A+ for sure!” quipped one of the students. Several others chimed in that they’d be getting an A++—no, A+++!
And for the rest of the three days, there was much jesting and joking about mistakes and grades.
In fact, it became something of a competition to see who would make the most mistakes, in order to get the highest grade in class.
Which was exactly what I wanted.
The Problem with Judgment
As you may have figured out by now, there were no actual grades at this conference — it was an event people attended purely for self-fulfillment and joy.
But creative pursuits are tricky things.
We take on a creative hobby, like painting, or creative writing, or calligraphy, because it gives us joy.
At first, our skills are minimal — nowhere near the level of our taste — which may put a damper on our enjoyment, and send us on a quest for a higher level of mastery. Having more fluency enables us to do more, which brings more pleasure.
And that’s exactly where things get tricky.
Because whenever judgment gets involved in the process, it’s all too easy to let our internal editor drive the bus.
Judgment on its own is not a bad thing — it’s what creates our unique taste, after all.
But combine judgment with expectations and comparison, and it quickly becomes toxic.
Don’t Feed the Gremlins
Did you ever see the 1984 movie, Gremlins?
Mogwai are furry, big-eared creatures that are cute and well-meaning…
Unless they eat after midnight.
Then they turn into scary, malicious, evil gremlins.
Judgment about our creative work is a lot like Mogwai. Benign on its own, even helpful. We need judgment to discern how to make our work better.
But toss in some comparison (“So-and-So’s work is *so* much better”)…
Mix with other people’s expectations (“I should be more advanced by now”)…
And you’ve got an evil gremlin living in your head, dictating your next move. Or lack of one. (“I’ll never be good enough, so why bother trying at all?”)
We Need the Crap
Like any other art form, calligraphy takes a lot of practice to do well, and you have to let yourself make a lot of crappy work in order to learn to do good work.
That requires letting yourself be vulnerable in a class situation.
In order to get better, you have to show the teacher your crappy work for feedback, which, let’s face it, is scary.
As a teacher, I learned very quickly that my number one job was to make it feel safe for students to let themselves be vulnerable.
Today, we’d refer to this as psychological safety, though I didn’t have that language back in the late 90s and early 2000s, when I was teaching.
All I knew was that I had to take all the pressure off of creative risk-taking. And one of the best ways to do that is to simply acknowledge that initial efforts are always going to be crappy.
We need the crap to fertilize the good stuff. 💩➡️🌹
When we embrace the crap, instead of trying to avoid it, the fear goes away. Now we can focus on producing more, getting feedback, and learning from our mistakes.
Crappy Doodles and Bad Jokes
It’s the same reason why, when prompting people to make visual marks in my workshops, I never refer to it as “drawing.”
Too many people have been traumatized around the idea of drawing. They’re terrified of it.
But if I instruct everyone to make a “crappy doodle,” they have no expectations that they have to meet some level of artistic mastery.
Simply by the way I’ve framed the activity, I’ve lowered the bar, increased psychological safety, and helped people feel more willing to pick up a pen and take a risk.
Similarly I do another activity, called “185,” that requires participants to play with words to make a spontaneous pun joke.
I used to hate this game, because when I learned it, it was set up as a sort of free-for-all, where the most quick-witted folks who were good at puns got to shine and grab the spotlight, and the rest of us felt like wallflower failures.
I’ve learned to love 185, though, because now I frame it by saying that the goal is for everyone to tell a really bad joke. (Hat tip to my friend Gary Ware for this excellent reframe!)
And after each bad joke? We all cheer!
Crappy doodles and bad jokes free participants up to try what they otherwise might not.
So far I’ve talked about a whole bunch of creative pursuits that don’t seem to have a whole lot to do with business. You may be wondering how any of this is relevant to your company…
You’re probably not be engaged in making art, and maybe your company isn’t in the “innovation” space.
Still, if you want an environment that supports learning, where innovation flourishes, where you get the best out of your talent, you need to help people feel safe enough to speak up, share concerns, questions, or ideas.
So let me ask you: what are you doing to help shape psychological safety in your organization?
If you’d like to experience some brain-friendly exercises that activate learning while building connection, come to my next Non-Boring Virtual Meetings Learning Lab.
Interested to learn more? Message me to chat about how I can use my signature system to help your employees infuse connection, joy and delight into virtual meetings, trainings and events at your workplace.
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