Tolerating the Uneasiness of Not Knowing the Outcome
The composer Morton Feldman wrote in his essay The Anxiety of Art that being creative means living with uncertainty and tolerating the uneasiness of not knowing the outcome.
In Feldman’s view, the only way to ensure success is to copy a proven model---thus his observation, “That’s why Ives, Partch and Cage are dismissed as iconoclastic---another word for unprofessional. If you’re original, you’re an amateur; it’s your imitators, those are the professionals.”
Right now, in a culture in which assessments and metrics often play an outsize role in curricular decisions, the arts in schools are often forced to reduce risk to ensure acceptable outcomes. We’re constantly measuring student performance---both individually and collectively---in tests, competitions, and more.
It is very important to be able to answer one right answer questions and to perform to measurably high standards. But that should not be the only way we teach the arts. Creativity most fully flourishes when the goal is to constantly find new solutions, to treat questions as open-ended---to not know the outcome. That requires a culture of risk.
Taking risks can be chaotic and scary: For the student, who may be surprised and shocked where his or her imagination may lead; for the teacher, who may not be able to anticipate what a classroom full of risk-takers may come up with. But the rewards can be extraordinary---in student motivation, self-expression, and self-discovery.
When you go to an investment counselor, the first thing they want to know is your tolerance for risk. Generally that’s tied to your age. The younger you are, the more you can ride the waves of financial ups and downs; as you approach retirement, the counselor will narrow the risk so that you can rely on a satisfactory outcome.
For a similar reason, teaching kids to take risks when they’re young is extremely important. Later, out in the world, with a job at stake and a family to take care of, it is much harder to put oneself on the line. School should be one of the safest and most enjoyable places to take risks.
If students don’t learn to take chances there, it’s hard to imagine them learning to do so later when the stakes are much higher and the consequences of failure more dire. As we invest in children’s minds, one of the primary roles of school is to teach kids to learn to celebrate and manage risk.
We need to reward risk in the same way that we reward high achievement on test scores. There needs to be a place in classroom learning where the search isn’t for one right answer or even the best answer but for as many great answers as possible. Put in a position to invent as many plausible solutions as they can, students will naturally take risks.
Mature creativity requires self-assessment and careful critique.
That’s why artistic training requires teaching two sets of skills: The creative side; and the most trusted, honest, direct, devoted listener or viewer the creator will ever have---themselves. Our role as instructors and parents is, in part, to model that ideal spectator: To be supportive but rigorous, to be open to whatever the student wants to say and to be clear and constructive in our responses. If we do our job well, the student internalizes our behavior and ends up doing it for his or herself.
Taking wild chances may not always the best strategy. When is the right time to go for broke? When is it wiser to do something more secure? This is important in sports, in personal relationships---in virtually everything we do.
Managing risk is a powerful and necessary skill: Because risk-taking is an inherent part of creativity, the arts are a fantastic laboratory for studying it.
We live in a crowded, cacophonous world with painfully difficult problems of poverty, famine, political conflict, environmental crises, and struggles for human rights. It will take extraordinary creativity to address these problems; there are no guaranteed solutions or sure outcomes.
If we want the youngest generation to be able to compose their future with innovation, foresight, and courage, we must encourage risk.
The arts are of among our best means for doing so.