On Being Challenged, and Being Challenging

So, I read this thing, and couldn’t believe that someone finally said it out loud:

“We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect,” says Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity.

Staw says most people are risk-averse. He refers to them as satisfiers. “As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform,” he says. Satisfiers avoid stirring things up, even if it means forsaking the truth or rejecting a good idea.  

(from “Inside the Box” by Jessica Olien on Slate.com)

Reading the article made me think about how much of a satisfier I am, and have been.  Less and less as I’ve gotten older, I think, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not, but like most people, I’ve made far too many decisions based on what was expected of me, or what I perceived to be expected, or on what I thought would create the least conflict and rejection in my life.  I’ve wanted to fit in, and to be liked, and to be smiled at, more than I’ve wanted to be original, and to be iconoclastic, and to be self-directed.  I know some people probably see me as quite willing to go out on a limb for what I believe, or to reject the restrictions the outside world would like to impose, but that’s just it:  only I know what a tamed-down version of my real self I show the world.  Only I know how many times I hold myself back.

Don’t read this as a plea for reassurance.  It’s not.  Reassurance is what causes the problem in the first place.  Or needing reassurance is.  I’m not looking for that here.  I’m not looking for anything, I think, except the clarification of my own thinking, which has always mostly happened for me through writing.  Of course publishing the writing, even on a blog that few people read, is an act of communication, so I suppose I do have a purpose beyond self-examination.  Maybe it’s to have an honest conversation with other creative people about all the ways we capitulate.  Maybe it’s an attempt to own my individuality, however difficult,  and to stop trying to fit into a world that keeps me smaller than I could be, and does so with my full permission and cooperation.

Part of this is fear of success.  If I reach some of the goals that I have in my secret heart but that I would never talk about, will I still have the life I’ve grown comfortable in?  Will the people around me be happy for my achievement?  The simple truth is, sometimes they’re not.  I’ve already seen that, even with the modest level of success I’ve had in my life.  Everybody who has accomplished something has.  It’s easy to say “just don’t worry about those people,” but I worry about people.  It’s what I do.  It’s what I’ve been taught to do.  It’s what I’m expected to do.  And you do it, too. It’s an integral part of the system in which I must live. Or the system in which I have lived. Whether I must continue to or not is the question.  Whether I am willing to sustain the losses I will sustain is the question.  Whether the gains will be enough to make up for the losses is the question.

That is what is revolutionary to me about the line of thought in this article: it tells me that it’s not just me; that the system is schizophrenic–saying it wants creativity and originality, but punishing those who take it at its word.

You will read this and you will think, the people who aren’t happy for your successes are not people you want in your life, anyway.

You will read this and you will think, change is hard, but a person will never move forward into the future unless they let go of the past.

You will read this and you will think, no one should make themselves smaller to fit in anywhere, ever.

And then you will go back to your comfortable life, to think your comfortable thoughts, to bite your tongue when you think it’s prudent, and to answer your “crazy” dreams with silent admonitions to be realistic and to focus on achievable goals.

You will do this.

Maybe I will, too.

Or maybe neither one of us will.

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