From the Desk of Julia Brown – January 2018
FROM THE DESK OF JULIA BROWN
When Wilbur and Orville Wright finished their flight at Kitty Hawk, Americans celebrated the brotherly bond. The brothers had grown up playing together, they had been in the newspaper business together, they had built an airplane together. They even said they “thought together.”
These are our images of creativity: filled with harmony. Innovation is often thought to be something magical that happens when people find synchrony together. It’s why one of the cardinal rules of brainstorming is “withhold criticism.” We want people to build on one another’s ideas, not shoot them down. But there is some evidence to suggest that is not how creativity really happens. And the Wright brothers are an example of this.
When the Wright brothers said they thought together, what they really meant is that they argued together. One of their pivotal decisions was the design of a propeller for their plane. They squabbled for weeks, often shouting back and forth for hours. “After long arguments we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other’s side,” Orville reflected, “with no more agreement than when the discussion began.” Only after thoroughly decimating each other’s arguments did it dawn on them that they were both wrong. They needed not one but two propellers, which could be spun in opposite directions to create a kind of rotating wing.
The skill to have a good argument that doesn’t become personal — is critical in life. But it’s one that few children are taught. We obviously want to give children a stable home, so we stop siblings from all quarreling and we have our own arguments behind closed doors. Yet if children never get exposed to any sort of disagreement, we could end up limiting their creativity.
It turns out that highly creative adults often grow up in families of a bit of tension. Not fistfights or personal insults, but disagreements. When highly creative architects and scientists were compared with their technically skilled but less original peers, the innovators often had disagreements in their families. As the psychologist Robert Albert put it, “the creative person-to-be comes from a family that is anything but harmonious, one with a respectful ‘wobble.’”
If we rarely see a spat, we learn to shy away from the threat of conflict. Witnessing arguments — and participating in them — helps us grow a thicker skin. We develop the will to fight uphill battles and the skill to win those battles, and the resilience to lose a battle today without losing our resolve tomorrow. For the Wright brothers, argument was the family trade and a fierce one was something to be savored. Conflict was something to embrace and resolve. “I like scrapping with Orv,” Wilbur said.
The Wright brothers weren’t alone. The Beatles fought over instruments and lyrics and melodies. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony clashed over the right way to win the right to vote. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak argued incessantly while designing the first Apple computer. None of these people succeeded in spite of the drama — they flourished because of it. The most creative ideas in Chinese technology companies and the best decisions in American hospitals come from teams that have real disagreements early on. Breakthrough labs in microbiology aren’t full of enthusiastic collaborators cheering one another on but of skeptical scientists challenging one another’s interpretations.
Children need to learn the value of thoughtful disagreement. Sadly, children are frequently taught that if they disagree with someone, it’s polite to hold their tongues. It disrespects the other person’s ability to have a civil argument — and it disrespects the value of your own viewpoint and your own voice. It’s a sign of respect to care enough about someone’s opinion that you’re willing to challenge it.
Instead of trying to prevent arguments, we should be modeling courteous conflict and teaching children how to have healthy disagreements. Four rules that will assist in developing this are:
- Frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict.
- Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.
- Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.