Most of the many works I’ve read on creativity and innovation acknowledge the importance of feeling stuck, even of experiencing failure. Most recently I came across this passage in Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works:
Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next. (Kindle edition, Loc 203)
In some ways this is rather obvious, necessity-as-the-mother-of invention stuff. I also could go on one of my this-is-why-we-need-to-let-kids-struggle screeds. Maybe another time.
Instead, I want to consider why this idea is true not just for creativity, but also for learning, particularly in human relationships.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the greatest success I ever experienced as a soccer coach. Sometimes I really miss coaching. It’s nostalgia triggered by a spring break visit to my first school, where I hadn’t been in around 15 years. Our host kept introducing me as the guy who started the soccer program.
My first few years we were terrible, and double digit losses were not uncommon. It was a new program, we were a very small school, I sometime used middle schoolers on the varsity, and we had to play giant public schools. We kept our chins up and had fun, although the constant losing hurt. Gradually we improved to where we could put up a fight. In the fifth year, I thought we finally could be a team to be truly competitive. I had high hopes, and the players were excited. Maybe we even could make the play-offs!
We began the season badly, and things grew worse—mainly because of my response. I berated the players, and I kept trying to force them into my system rather than make any adjustments. Never did I question my approach, and my mood grew darker and darker. Finally, after one particularly disheartening loss, I sat alone for hours and suddenly asked, “Mark, what in the world are you doing? This isn’t the way you want to coach.” Practice the next day was very different. It began with my apologizing for how I had been treating them as players and as people. In turn, they accepted their responsibility for certain things. We had a long, pretty intense and honest discussion. Training sessions became fun again. We won four of our last five matches.
Two years later I had a fabulous squad, with many of the players returning from the team mentioned above, along with some strong new boys. Expectations were sky high. A ref told me after a pre-season scrimmage, “Mark, you are loaded for bear!” That created pressure and tension, and I had the problem of not being sure how the pieces were going to fit together, especially in the way I liked to organize a team. I could see the potential, but it wasn’t gelling. I knew I didn’t want to repeat recent history. So I rethought my tactics and designed a team concept based on the players’ talents rather than a standard formation. We kept practices light, with lots of fun and games and laughter. After the regular season we were undefeated. To remove that pressure, I scheduled an extra match against a team I knew would probably beat us. We lost, and it was a relief for all of us. After all, we’d never even had a winning record before, and now people wanted us to go undefeated. We won the first three playoffs games, which put us in the championship match. Everyone was tense. So in our final practice, we had our team meeting, and I sent everyone out not to train, but to play in the mud left over from some recent rains. The next day we won state.
While I’m incredibly proud of that state championship, it’s not the greatest success to which I referred above. That team was so talented many coaches could have won the title. However, I don’t think I could have without having sloughed through the muddy trenches of two years before…and certainly not without having been able to work through that frustration and re-create the season. Doing that necessitated asking myself some really hard questions and accepting answers I didn’t like. Then I had to change my behavior accordingly. If I hadn’t, a bunch of boys would have had miserable experiences mainly because of me. In both seasons I think I taught some important lessons, but mostly in the first. That experience also taught me a great deal about the never-ending process of learning and growing and self-improvement.
In many ways, coaching and teaching—and I guess most human activities—ultimately depend on relationships. When one isn’t working and we’ve hit that wall, then if it matters to us, we have to get creative. Sometimes that involves reinvention of the self.