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CREATIVE RISK-TAKING
The Art of Designing Disorder

  Recently, I led an all day workshop for a variety of health professionals on "The Dynamic Principles of Public Speaking and Program Marketing." It was a rousing day. The most popular buzz-phrase on everyone's mind and lips was an expression coined shortly after my tortuous experience breaking into television -- "Confronting Your Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure." The workshop was a catalyst for two decisions:

a) this edition to share my retrospective writings on the FOE experience and

b) next edition to provide more information on my online "Dynamic Principles" coaching program. Enjoy! 

(Warning: This essay, written over ten years ago, may not be politically correct.)

What better way to start an article on "Creative Risk-Taking" than by turning to a modern day folk hero, a larger than life image of dash and daring, with a touch of Bogart's disdain I'm referring, of course, to Woody Allen. I remember a scene from the movie [Footnote #1; see footnotes on bottom of page] "Bananas." Woody and his co-star Louise Lasser are having a heated discussion. Woody can't understand why Louise won't get more involved with him and asks in disbelief, "Why won't you get closer to me? (a risky proposition if ever there was one). Louise, after a pregnant pause, turns to her suitor and says with exasperation, "You really want to know? Because you're immature intellectually, emotionally and sexually!" And after another pregnant moment Woody, with studied nonchalance, exclaims, "Yeah, that may be so But in what other ways?" (Note: In hindsight, Louise may have been on to something.)  [Of course, getting Las Vegas hotel deals can generate a lot of www -- wild, wacky and wonderful -- behavior;#2.]

Ah Woody's undaunted spirit. He's not going to let a bit of criticism dampen his resolve. Woody apparently is a fan of Dr. Hans Selye, the pioneer of stress research: "What matters is not so much what happens to us, but the way we take it." Of course, Woody not only doesn't take Louise's comments personally he doesn't take them at all. 

Can Woody be a double-edged hero? As a student [#3] of creative risk-taking, I may envy, sort of, Woody's imperviousness to rejection. However, by totally ignoring Louise's confrontation, Woody's character is revealing an Achilles Heel. It is the willingness to hear the boos, to let go of a "secure" image while recognizing gaps, unfilled needs and outdated rules underlying operating procedures both within and without Here are essential qualities for being creative and for being a productive risk-taker. 

The sphere of creativity and risk-taking is certainly not confined to Hollywood these days. It could be found in a home, motel, Paris Hotel [#4], school and business. There's a revolution going on in Corporate America as well. More than half of the country's 500 largest companies have some program in creative thinking or problem-solving. In a recent interview with American Express, Gifford Pinchot III, author of Intrapreneuring (the concept of releasing or generating the entrepreneurial drive and spirit inside the corporation) observed: "Many companies are realizing that "business as usual" is not as effective as it used to be. There are too many challenges from other countries with much lower labor costs. A constant flow of new ideas is essential for many American companies that want to be more competitive." Pinchot goes on to say: "Don't be afraid to take chances. Even if your ideas have been rejected by the head office in the past, try again. The climate for new ideas has greatly improved in the last few years."

Defining and Connecting Risk-Taking and Creativity 

No two variables are more influential to the climate and flow of new ideas than creativity and risk-taking. What are these two concepts and how can we harness their vital energy? Keep in mind, while they may be interactive, the two are not necessarily reciprocal. By definition, being creative involves taking chances and risks; being risk-taking may or may not be creative. 

Let's start with risk-taking. Taking risks means daring to try new approaches or ideas with no predictable control over results or consequences, i.e., taking action when the outcome is unknown. Dr. Marvin Zuckerman, psychologist and author of Sensation Seeking, distinguishes two kinds of risks:

1) "physical risk," the chance of sustaining injury or being killed and

2) "social risk," the "estimated likelihood of being embarrassed, shamed or of experiencing guilt or loss of valued affection or respect of others." 

As for creativity, according to Donald MacKinnon, long-time researcher in the field, it is "a process that is extended in time and characterized by originality, adaptiveness and realization." For me, the essence of creativity is "connection"  the ability to relate or combine, through flexible persistence and insight, seemingly remote, contradictory or irrational ideas and elements with an elegant, unified and complex simplicity. The creative concept, product or outcome is not only novel but has value and use" (Gorkin). 

What's the connection then between creativity and risk-taking? Pablo Picasso, the 20th Century's greatest artist, provides the penetrating insight: "Every act of creation is also an act of destruction." Only by breaking from conventional ways of thinking, exploring and operating can we put together new concepts, approaches and products. As Chrysler Corporation recently illustrated, breakdown can stimulate a climate for redesigning outmoded puzzles and assembling better models. One reason Lee Iococca was able to generate a dramatic turnaround was because the auto company had crashed to the bottom. There no longer was "one right way" or patented formula for success. 

However, as noted earlier, a reciprocal relationship between risk-taking and creativity or "destruction as an act of creation" does not necessarily follow. We can all think of examples, though another from the auto industry comes to mind. John DeLorean and his sports car provides a classic symbol of a "risky business" that self-destructed. Clinging to false images and grand illusions while hooked on high risk is surely a lethal mix for the creative venture. 

The Creative Risk-Taking Nature 

While destruction may not be a catalyst for creativity, "constructive discontent" often is (McMullan). Disillusionment with all the b.s. - "be safe" - fertilizes problems that challenge accepted boundaries or limits. Dissatisfaction compels the search for broader and deeper solutions. Still, this period of rejection and disorganization is often chaotic and frightening. As noted author William Styron (Sophie's Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner) in an interview with The New York Times, observed: "The pain (of the creative process) comes from the 'extraordinary risk' from 'plunging into unknown territory' not 'really knowing whether you're going to come out alive (Sternhell).'" For Styron, clearly, writing is not only a "social risk."

What allows creative risk-takers to take the plunge and resurface from such turbulent depths? According to psychologists Dellas and Gaier, in their frequently cited review, "creative individuals have less fear than the average person of making mistakes, of social disapproval or 'the anxiety of separateness.'" They have a strong enough ego to admit when they're wrong or in trouble, and to analyze and learn from their errors. As Rollo May, well- known psychoanalyst and author (Courage to Create, Love and Will) observed: "Creative persons are precisely those that take the cards that make them anxious." Of course, they're constantly shuffling these cards; they hate standing pat. You could say these folks really do best playing with a loose deck. 

Creative risk-takers don't just tolerate contradiction, uncertainty and isolation; they seem to often invite them. But why? University of Chicago psychologist Salvatore Maddi posits three personality factors that, singularly or in combination, compel creative endeavor:

1) the drive to transform the tension of unresolved emotional conflicts from childhood into individual expression, vindication and mastery,

2) the drive of a "lonely crusader" determined to challenge the group's or the organization's need to preserve the status quo, and

3) the drive of profound self-awareness and alienation: "the person (must) construct a framework of meaning that is personal rather than imposed externally."  

Disorder is the catalyst for idiosyncratic order. Or, as a creative risk- taker from Brooklyn or New Orleans (my native and adopted homelands) might put it: "With disorder, I can make 'dat' order!" 

Perhaps we can say creative risk-takers neither cling to success nor tune out distress. To see the obscure and imagine "the obvious," to forge productively novel solutions, requires the will to leap from the familiar into the unknown. Creative risk-takers are set to disrupt rigid or conventional patterns, to tear down their world in order to rebuild with new vision and construct a new synthesis. George Bernard Shaw, I believe, said it best: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." 

Creative Cable Chaos or "TV or Not TV" 

At this point, let me tell you about a risk-taking experience that certainly seemed "unreasonable," if not downright irrational, at the time. Early in the development of a public speaking and organizational consulting business, I realized the potential of the mass media for marketing my services. I called the host of a radio interview show, gently bugged her on occasion and, finally, was given fifteen minutes air time. The piece aired at 6AM on a weekend. Not exactly prime time, but...She liked our "stress" session and put me on her half hour community service television program. While I was initially anxious, her straightforward questions and our established rapport helped me feel like a natural. I boldly called a television editor for our major newspaper to see if he would preview the taping. After grumpily saying he was busy, he told me to drop off the tape. To my surprise, I was listed in the highlights for the week. I was on a roll! 

With this track record, I was ready to spot an opportunity. Cable Television was just beginning to air in New Orleans. A startup position in the television industry - creative "Disorder" with a capital "D." I got to the Programming Director who seemed interested in my idea for a feature on stress. He told me to call back in two months...after the programming fallout. 

By the time I called, the shock waves had hit. Their health program was bombing and the station, unbeknownst to me, wanted to consolidate the show as a 5-10 minute feature for a TV magazine format. The next day I had a one hour meeting with the producer of the magazine show. A discussion that had started with my promoting a brief series on stress was sidetracked. Suddenly, I was the host of a weekly health feature. And none too soon. The producer was doing two other shows and wanted this feature off her back...and fast. (I suspect she was quite interested in my material on burnout.) Her parting words: "Be ready to shoot on Monday!" 

Oscillating between shock and elation, I quickly gathered some friends and colleagues to brainstorm potential topics. The first show would be about stress; I'd begin with my trump card. I kept reassuring myself: "Mark, you do public speaking, you've been in front of a camera...How difficult can it be?" I've come to realize the only thing more dangerous than taking a big risk, or not taking any risk, is taking a risk while minimizing the precarious reality of the situation. 

D-Day arrived. I was ushered into a studio reminiscent of '50s television: cramped quarters, no teleprompters, an air conditioning system that had to be turned off while shooting because of the noise level, and the like. Then, the overpowering light of a glaring sun abruptly appeared. Suddenly, I was the center of an unfriendly universe. As the cameramen's four fingers counted down to one, as his cocked index suddenly punctuated the unspoken command for me to "ready, aim..." I thought for sure I would expire at the hands of that one-eyed, fore-fingered firing squad. I got as as far as, "Hello. I'm Mark Gorkin, a stress expert," when I began giving, involuntarily, a live demonstration. Stage fright was manifested by oral paralysis. 

I'll spare you most of the gory details. Let's just say the rest of the taping was a script for high anxiety. I finally became audible in bursts. I would collapse in exhaustion after a minute or two of delivery. (Fortunately, through the magic of television editing, most of my panic and battle fatigue was erased.) Of course, the camera crew didn't make things any easier. As we played back the tape, one of them said: "Don't worry. We'll use this for our blooper special." "Thanks a lot fellas." 

I had jumped in water way over my head. I had no idea how self-conscious I would become, nor how automatic I had to be with the material. No beachhead would be gained this D-Day. In fact, it appeared the "D" stood less for "disorder" and more for "Disaster." However, even the most dramatic failures may prove less a final judgment than a painfully enlightening interlude. There was to be "opportunity" in this decidedly "dangerous" situation (to draw on the two characters the Chinese use to depict "crisis"): the mortal wound to my illusion of invincibility thrust into awareness my combat deficiency. And there was no rest for the battle weary. During the next day's editing session, my producer made a fateful pronouncement: "I don't expect perfection, just improvement each week." (Actually, the edited feature was not as deadly as I had imagined.) She also stated, "No more major cosmetic surgery." In other words, I no longer had the "luxury" of breaking down; there would be no post-production sessions to clean up my act! 

Being caught in the crossfire of crisis and confrontation triggered a novel adaptive response. For the second shooting, I memorized eight minutes of uninterrupted script - a dramatic breakthrough of one of my mind barriers. The performance tension, along with the internal pressure of punctured pride, generated a heretofore untapped level of persistence and concentration for writing and memorization. I also discovered another benefit of this heightened motivational state. My mind produced vivid images and rhythm and rhyme connections among words, phrases and sentences that evoked a more colorful style of expression. As if trying to survive this creative crossfire, my right brain was throwing out visual lifelines to support mental association and recall. 

The production crew couldn't believe the difference in my performance. They figured, "If he's crazy enough to do that, we might as well stick with him." In a way they were right. With "Creative Disorder," I really had been out of my (normal) mind!  By the third week I was getting smart. I invited a guest and used a short opening monologue. I won't claim the remainder of my twelve week stint was a breeze (though I did get another good review in the newspaper). Actually, the third feature was part of a Thanksgiving Special taped in the sunny outdoors - in gale wind conditions. Naturally, a palm tree prop fell on my guest and me in the middle of our interview. "Hey...Life's a beach." 

Creative Risk-Taking Strategies 

Here are some key steps and strategies for Creative Risk-Taking: 

1. Aware-ily Jump in Over Your Head.
Only by jumping into the fray can you quickly discover how adequate your resources are with respect to the novel challenge ahead. This approach precludes a strategy that significantly minimizes risk in advance. (Okay, check to see if there are any alligators in the water.) Be prepared for initial shock and subsequent sense of loss - from loss of an illusion to the loss of face and control. You may need to encounter feelings of humiliation, to confront your "Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure." But often the reward for the risk is a unique state of perceptual readiness to identify and build knowledge, emotional hardiness and skills for survival and mastery, perhaps even creativity. 

2. Strive to Survive the High Dive.
How do you know if you can survive the plunge? As William Styron observed, there's no guarantee. However, four fail-safe measures come to mind:

a) strive high and embrace failure, to quote the head of a major law firm. Let go of grand illusions and fantasies of perfection that typically compensate for deep feelings of shame or dreaded incompetence,

b) develop a realistic time frame which recognizes that many battles are fought and lost before a major undertaking is won,

c) be tenaciously honest with yourself. If the pressure is really getting to you, come up for air. The most productive systems, according to sociologists Morgan and Ramirez, "monitor and question rules which underlie (their) own operation, including dealing with changes occurring in the external environment, and within the system,"

d) establish a support system that can be rapidly mobilized to help you cope with the trauma and the post-traumatic effects or, at least, to bathe occasionally physical or psychic wounds. Support, however, is not only delivered with TLC. For example, while the producer's firm expectations regarding improvements and breakdowns initially heightened my anxiety, they actually proved reassuring. There were finally some boundaries to work with, not just studio walls to bounce off of. 

3. Thrive On Thrustration.
Become more problem-oriented, not just solution- oriented. Don't rush to judgment. A vital part of creative decison-making is experiencing what psychiatrist and author Richard Rabkin calls "thrustration." This occurs when you're torn between thrusting ahead with direct action and frustration because you haven't quite put together the pieces of the puzzle. This intense psychological state compels letting go of a narrow, fixated perspective. Your internal pressure can also transform a dormant subconscious into an active psychic volcano -- memories, novel associations and symbolic images overflow into consciousness. You're in position to generate fertile problem-solving alternatives. Problems are not just sources of tension and frustration, but are opportunities for integrating the past and the present, the conscious and the unconscious, the obscure and the obvious. Here lies creative perspective.

4. Design for Error and Opportunity.
Innovative and risk-taking individuals and organizations are more attuned to a range of possibilities than to one specific framework, or to a set of proper procedures and fixed or ideal goals. Their projects and plans, according to Morgan and Ramirez, "specify no more than is absolutely necessary for a system to begin operation." During startup, these systems do not try to anticipate every possible mistake or deviation. They have reduced need for for predesign predictability; they are not seduced by perfection. Enriched learning and long-range mastery occur by floundering through a sea of novelty and confusion. A narrow, safe course, creates the illusion of achievement and control (often short-lived). The price paid is your inability to sense, grapple with and grasp the big picture. (Not to mention boredom and burnout when, over time, your niche of success routinely traps you into the ditch of excess.) 

Ambiguity and doubt allow us more freedom to connect and combine seemingly unrelated ideas and activities -- to transform the conventional into the original. Like the uncertain waters in which you have plunged, the optimally undefined startup system seeks its own level...and generates its own design. Of course, limited predesign means opportunity for error. Actually, in open systems, startup misplays are vital signs for self-correcting and self- challenging feedback. "Open-ended systems have the capacity to create new ways of seeing and acting (for) they are continuously self-organizing" (Morgan and Ramirez). 

Remember, errors of judgment or design rarely consign one to incompetence; they more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness. Our so-called "failures" can be channeled as guiding streams (sometimes raging rivers) of opportunity and experience that so often enrich - widen and deepen - the risk-taking passage. If we can just immerse ourselves in these unpredictable yet, ultimately, regenerative waters.  

References  Dellas, Marie and Gaier, Eugene L., "Identification of Creativity: The Individual," Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 73, No.1. 1973, p. 55-73  

Gorkin, Mark A., "Creativity Connection: Reflections on Mardi Gras and Creativity in the City of Dreams," Uptown Magazine, Vol. II, No. 4, 1985, p. 14-15 

MacKinnon, Donald W., "IPAR's Contribution to the Conceptualization and Study of Creativity," in Taylor, Irving and Getzels, J.W. (eds.) Perspectives in Creativity, Aldine Publishing Co.: Chicago, 1975 

Maddi, Salvatore R., "The Strenuousness of the Creative Life," in Taylor, Irving and Getzels, J.W. (eds.), Perspectives in Creativity, Aldine Publishing Co.: Chicago, 1975 

May, Rollo, "On the Imagination," The Symposium on Imagination, New Orleans, January 14, 1984 

McMullan, W.E., "Creative Individuals: Paradoxical Personnages," The Journal of Creative Behavior, Vol 10, No. 4, 1976, p. 265-275 

Morgan. Gareth and Ramirez, Raphael, "Action Learning: A Holographic Metaphor for Guiding Social Change," Human Relations, Vol.37, No. 1, 1983, p. 1-28 

Rabkin, Richard, "Critique of the Clinical Use of the Double Bind Hypothesis," in Sluzki, Carlos E. and Ransom, Donald C. (eds.), Double Bind: The Foundation of the Communicational Approach to the Family, Grune & Stratton: New York, 1976 

Sternhell, Carol, "Bellow's Typewriter's and Other Tics of the Trade," The New York Times Book Review, Sep 2, 1984, p. 1, 21-22  Zuckerman, Marvin, Sensation Seeking: Beyond the Optimal Level of Arousal, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, NJ, 1979

 

Footnotes:

1. What We Learned: The Yale Las Vegas Studio and the Work of Venturi Scott Brown & Associates combines two independently organized exhibitions which feature the teaching, research, and design work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery from October 29, 2009 to February 5, 2010.

2.  Hotels.Com: Searching for hotels in Las Vegas.

3.  Le Cordon Bleu: A Commitment to Excellence since 1895: a World-Wide Leader in Gastronomy, Hospitality & Management.

4.  Hotels.Com: Hotels in Paris.