To thine own self

by | Dec 6, 2013

The other day I was catching up with an ex-colleague of mine. We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time and after covering the usual candidates (babies, work) the conversation steered itself towards the content of my masters thesis.

It’s been a year since I submitted it, but just last week I pulled it down from the shelf, dusted it off (I speak figuratively, of course, as the literal action involved locating and opening a file on my computer) and read it through.

Doing post-grad research is like exploring secret underground tunnels (give me a few years and I’m sure I’ll be enrolling in a PhD). You start with a particular enquiry question in mind and follow your interests (and your nose) through endless journal articles and, in the process, discover what it is that you’re really trying to say (and a great deal about who you are and what you care about).

I set out to write about creativity. I wanted to understand it better – sociologically, neurologically, psychologically. I imagined that if I understood it better, I’d be able to turn it on and off at my whim like a light switch. No more wasted days achieving little or nothing. No more panicking about deadlines or whether I’d ever write another song in my entire life.

To my great frustration no one seemed to have any definitive ideas on how creativity works. In fact, researchers could not even agree on a common definition of creativity. However, there did appear to be a reasonable amount of consensus about what creative people are like (based on studies of those who have achieved eminence in their respective field). Researchers agreed – creative people are intrinsically motivated. They love what they do and they do it because they want to.

Researchers, Hennessey and Amabile conducted numerous studies in the 70s and 80s on motivation and creativity. Just as they found that intrinsic motivation was conducive to creative, so too they found that extrinsic motivation was detrimental. In their studies they presented participants with extrinsic rewards – good-player rewards, marshmallows, feedback. But in all cases, anticipation of the rewards blocked intrinsic enjoyment of the task at hand, which in turn reduced creativity. They even tried rewarding the participants beforehand, but to the same end.

But here’s the rub. On further investigation the researchers came to the conclusion that it was not the extrinsic reward itself that was solely to blame for the reduction in creativity (the marshmallow or feedback etc.), but rather how the reward was interpreted by the individual. Participants who exhibited strong self-acceptance seemed to be able to maintain strong levels of intrinsic motivation (and therefore, creativity) even when extrinsic forms of motivation were presented. In fact, they seemed to be able to interpret them in such as way as to increase their intrinsic motivation.  But pity the poor buggers on the flip side. For those without strong self-acceptance, the extrinsic forms of motivation merely increased levels of self-deprecation and hopelessness.

It is worth noting here that the extrinsic motivations presented in the study were all positive. And yet the effects were still detrimental. So much for giving positive feedback to the kid with low self-esteem. Not that simple, ay?

The person with a strong sense of self has it made when it comes to being creative. With a strong knowledge of who they are and what they love, the opinions, feedback and rewards from others are water off a ducks back. If anything, they validate what the individual already knows. But for those without a strong sense of self, extrinsic forms of motivation send a strong message – what others want and think matters. This is a powerful breeding ground for anxiety (“what if I let them down?”). And anxiety means not being able to take the risks necessary for creativity.

Here’s my summary:

Strong sense of self = creativity

Strong sense of self + extrinsic motivation = creativity

Little/no sense of self = impaired creativity

Little/no sense of self + extrinsic motivation = even worse

In 2011 I started doing my Masters in Music. I was with a cohort of some 20 odd students whose areas of studies were diverse and niche. It was in this context that I asked myself for the first time “What do I want to be doing?” The answer was obvious. I wanted to be a songwriter.

I say it was obvious, but only once it had occurred to me to ask this simple question: What do I want? Until that point no one had ever asked it of me. And I’d never asked it of myself.

My piano playing career had been a study in extrinsic motivation. I learned piano from age 6 because my parents chose the instrument for me. I practised because they paid me. I continued because they insisted until I reached a certain age. I sat AMEB exams each year because that’s just what my teacher did with her students. I played pieces that were dictated by a syllabus. I continued into late adolescence and adulthood because I received more praise, attention and encouragement for my piano playing than for any other quality or ability I possessed.

Acutely aware of my own limitations on the instrument (I had little knowledge of jazz and practically no ability to improvise), I felt a desperate “need” to improve lest I shatter the perceptions of others (or at least what I perceived them to be thinking). Ironically, most of the time I was too terrified to go near the instrument to make any progress (I didn’t own one for many years). I couldn’t experiment. I couldn’t take risks. So I didn’t improve.

I remember preparing for a piano performance just a few years back. I confided to a friend that I’d found a way to make practising bearable – a block of dark chocolate and a bottle of moscato. “So you’re drinking to get through your practice?”, she responded. It sounded awful when she put it that way.

I returned to songwriting in 2011 after not having put pencil to pad and manuscript paper in over 10 years and for some time my face remained in a permanent fixture of surprise (I fear I may need botox). I was surprised at how the hours flew by when I was writing. I was surprised at my capacity to work late into the night.  I was surprised that I wanted to devote hours of my life to reading every relevant piece of literature on the subject. I was surprised that I wanted to transcribe and analyse every song I liked. I was surprised that my songwriting journal and manuscript paper went with me everywhere, even on holidays (actually, I couldn’t wait for holidays because they meant more time to write!).

(Someone had once said to me that great musicians didn’t make themselves practise all the time in order to become great. They became great because they wanted to practise all the time. This finally made sense to me.)

But the two biggest surprises or all were:

(and now this is saying something!) The positive feedback I received for my songwriting far exceeded any I had ever received for my piano playing (how could this possibly be the case when I had no training and little experience?)
I simply couldn’t care less what anybody thought anyway (though, I confess, positive feedback is very validating and I welcome it!)
How ironic!

I sometimes wonder if “giftedness” is just an illusion. I wonder if we are “gifted” at something because we care about it enough to make an unconscious study of it every waking hour, and while we sleep. I certainly know that as I first come to consciousness in the morning my brain is piecing together melody (and has done so since I first fell in love with songs as a teenager) and all day long I am playing with words in my mind.

There are an awful lot of self-taught experts in this world.

And as an ex-teacher I cannot help but wonder what the implications would be if we focused on helping students work out what they want, rather than praising them for doing what we want.