Mick Stevens for The New Yorker
Mick Stevens for The New Yorker
We recently ran a New Yorker cartoon showing Noah’s Ark filled with only giraffes. The suggested caption was “Mistakes were made.” Now The New Yorker has compounded its mistakes with Malcolm Gladwell’s latest piece The Gift of Doubt. It totally convinces us that in order to find the right path, you often have to take the wrong one.
Gladwell writes about the influential economist Albert O. Hirschman, “a planner who saw virtue in the fact that nothing went as planned“.  Hirshman’s belief, outlined in his famous essay “The Principle of the Hiding Hand” (with riveting examples in the Gladwell’s piece) was that mankind’s biggest achievements in economic, social or political progress have come about by STUMBLING rather than through careful planning:

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

In his critically-acclaimed biography, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, Jeremy Adelman, writes that Hirschman was greatly influenced by Italian intellectual Eugenio Colorni, who viewed doubt as an essential and very positive part of the creative process:

Colorni believed that doubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency. Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for action.

The very counter-intuitive views of Hirschman and Colorni turn commonly accepted ideas of productivity on its head. Stumbling and doubt are a big part of making ANYTHING.

We’re with them.

Jack Ziegler for The New Yorker
Jack Ziegler for The New Yorker

With thanks to David Saltman of The Houdini File.

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One thought on “the power of failure, doubt and stumbling

  1. Conc. “Creativity always comes as a surprise to us” –
    i feel that ideas and unexpected solutions come as a surprise to us ; creativity is already there -in all of us and all around us. We often try to avoid it , because we doubt our abilities or do not feel quite ready . Still we are always creative , in our own ways , even in trying to avoid a given task .

    Of course you have to factor in the ‘unknown’ part of e.g. a project or endeavor , that’s the challenge . Where too much thinking is involved there is a lack of heart and authenticity . Thinking is a tool , it needs good hands to work with it . Creativity needs room , you have an idea , you let it unfold, that’s what gives it life. Too much thinking will stifle it .

    Doubt is helpful when it leads to a change ; when there are limitations and you are ready to turn the world as you know it around, take a different perspective .
    Then there is also a time for things and sometimes when we do not feel ready, it might well be that we are not . Maybe something else still needs our attention ; maybe we will find out by trying . Luckily the trial and error approach is creative in itself, not just the result .

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