The new year gives us all a time to reflect and to renew ourselves, using our recreation and family time to re-create ourselves. All of which seems to be a uniquely human ability. Even though we think of creative people as a special breed, the instinct to create new things and rebuild old ones is the continuous thread that runs through our lives.
As children, we create imaginary worlds. We define our own personalities. We build things with blocks and construction paper, building blocks and fabrics. As our world enlarges, we create friendships and communities. Over time, we create children and families, careers and companies. We make houses into homes and gardens out of forests. We build cozy nests and skyscrapers, primitive sleds and rockets.
Ask someone who loves their work what they do, and it will almost invariably involve creating something of value, whether material or personal. While some have called humans the naked ape, or the intelligent ape, we really are the creator animal.
Our ability to create, however, is tied closely to our willingness to accept risk. When we create children, we do not know what the future will bring us. We don’t know how long a new structure will last. If we create businesses or organizations, we have no guarantees of their success. Nor do we know if a new idea or product will work or be well received.
Every time we create something we’re called upon to step into an uncharted space, and to allow some degree of chaos and uncertainty into our lives, including the risk of failure. But without creativity and failure, which go hand in hand, neither our democracy nor our economy can flourish.
Thomas Edison was a creative and compulsive man, but, by some measures, also a dismal failure. On about 9,999 occasions, he failed to produce a viable filament for the light bulb. On his 10,000th try, however, he became a great man. Edison lived in a time of widespread and desperate desire for improvements in the quality of life of ordinary people. It was a time when failure was better accepted as the price of learning how to do better next time.
We’re fortunate to live in a country that, more than any other, was built by risk-takers, adventurers, explorers and innovators. People with energy and courage who looked across the sea or the forests and mountains and left their known worlds for a chance at a better one. Each of them — your ancestors and mine — went forward across a thin wire with no safety net below, knowing that throwing themselves into an unknown future was their best and perhaps only hope.
In the world of politics, some of our greatest leaders were relentless failures before they became famous. Abraham Lincoln was a failed and unhappy congressman. George Washington was a somewhat inept and frustrated military man. Franklin Roosevelt made trial and error a trademark of his leadership style.
In the depths of the Great Depression, with the country in danger of sliding into extremism of the left or right, Roosevelt responded with a restless and relentless tinkering, creating a dizzying array of programs and policies that continue to shape our world today. His approach was the same as Edison’s. Try something. If it doesn’t work, get rid of it and try something else. If it works, expand it.
If there is one key measure of the underlying health of an economy or a democracy, it is the degree of risk-taking it produces. When people are taking chances on new businesses and new ideas, they are growing jobs and incomes. But they are also failing, learning and trying again, in what amounts to a cycle of creation, where failures nurture the soil to feed future successes.
In some ways, we’ve begun to lose some of that spirit and courage as a society, as we’ve become more comfortable with watching others taking risks. But the world that we now find ourselves a part of, and the future that awaits us, will demand of us more creativity and more risk rather than less. It also will require that we support leaders who are not afraid to try new things.
I’m optimistic about 2014 because I believe it will be a year of inventive thinking, new ideas, innovation and action, both to move the Maine economy in new directions and to reinvigorate our democracy for the challenges ahead. All of that is in our hands, of course, if we’re bold enough to create the future we want.
Alan Caron is the president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at [email protected]