On a main street in Yonkers, New York, over one dozen of my college students “walked a banana” on a long red leash down the sidewalk. Several stopped to pet and praise the banana. Passersby stared, chuckled and pointed.
Even though I’d love to take credit for the banana exercise, I didn’t conceive it. Psychologist Albert Ellis did. In his book, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: It Works for Me – It Can Work for You, Ellis calls this a “shame attacking” exercise, which, in part, is intended to point out to people their tendency to defame themselves with the hope they will stop “rating” themselves universally.
Why did I assign this shame-attacking exercise to my students? My college freshmen weren’t tapping into their creative potential. The likely suspect: fear of appearing foolish.
Although not exactly on point with Ellis’ reasoning, I figured that if my students felt fearful of appearing foolish walking a banana down a main street, endured and survived their feelings, they could overcome their fear of producing creative solutions that others might judge as harebrained or incompetent. It worked, though one student whimpered a bit. That was the only time I ever asked students to do that and it was over 25 years ago. Subsequently, I delivered a presentation to an audience of over 1,000 people at a design conference imploring the attendees to carry a pineapple everywhere they went.
Since then, I have come up with exercises to alleviate fears that stifle creativity without wasting food and possibly causing a student to tear up (though I must say her work really improved).
Think of something you would consider humiliating. When I was twelve years-old, I wore new shoes to a big birthday bash, which was held in a large ballroom. The plastic lift on the heel of one shoe caused me to slip; I slid across the entire floor on my derriere. What a humiliating experience for a pre-teen in front of her peers!
The fear that interferes with creative output has several facets–one is connected to our egos, which alerts us that we’re putting ourselves out there, in peril by the pressure of having to be creative, of being judged and with the possibility of being emotionally crushed.
You might think, can I do this? Am I a creative person? The fear of self-judgment as well as others’ judgments are big ones that stifle your thinking unless you acknowledge it and deal with it.
One way to address this is to decide you will not judge yourself harshly or perhaps even at all–judging a creative solution is different from judging oneself globally. Of course, it’s natural to self-edit along the way but negative self-talk isn’t helpful at all.
Try this: Reframe judgment as constructive notes, the way a theatrical director would offer notes to an actor. Or, decide that you will aim for the most outlandish solution possible; that way you know what the outcome will be in advance–it will be way out or way out of your comfort zone.
Be an Astronaut. Another facet of fear is connected to the discomfort or anxiety associated with uncertainty.
The fear associated with avoiding the discomfort of uncertainty is fairly universal to all of us when thinking creatively for the creative process is an uncertain one. Again, acknowledging this helps. Some find such a voyage into the unknown fun; others find it intriguing; and others find it anxiety-producing. Creativity forces you to deal with the unexpected. (So do other disciplines, such as science.)
Try this: Reframe your fear as an adventure. Because creative thinking is one of the best adventures you can have without having to board a rocket ship–you don’t even have to leave your sofa.
Write It Out. Describe your feelings of fear and any other feeling related to the creative act. Getting it out in writing might alleviate the stress. If you prefer not to write, record yourself talking, as if you were speaking with a friend or mental health professional. Try to think about what’s at stake for you if you have to exercise creative thinking. Exactly what is the obstacle? Would it help you to know that, just like playing a sport or instrument, creative thinking improves with practice?
Try this: Create a mind map of your feelings, which is a visual diagram of the various ways words, terms, images, thoughts, or ideas can be related to one another. A mind map is a useful tool in understanding relationships and organizing thoughts. Mind mapping software exists but this exercise is easy to do by hand. 1) Position a sheet of paper in landscape position; 2) Write a keyword, topic or theme at the center of the page; this is your starting point; 3) Starting with the central word, draw branches (using lines, arrows, or any other type of branch) out in all directions, making as many associations as possible. (Just write freely without judgment.) Each subtopic should branch from the major central topic. Then, each sub-subtopic should branch out from the subtopic, and so on. Seek relationships. Generate branches among as many items as possible. Feel free to repeat items or cross-link items.
That humiliating slide at my friend’s birthday party stuck with me for many years. But here I am–so many years later with my ego intact and much more confident in my ability to think creatively, though now I always make sure to put masking tape on the bottom of new shoes.
Robin Landa is a distinguished professor at Kean University and a globally recognized ideation expert. She is a well-known “creativity guru” and a best-selling author of books on ideation, creativity, branding, advertising, and design. She has won numerous awards and The Carnegie Foundation counts her among the “Great Teachers of Our Time.” She is the author of twenty-five books including The New Art of Ideas: Unlock Your Creative Potential.