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Learning to hold 'creative tension' #38

Quote of the Week

“The most effective people are those who can ‘hold’ their vision while remaining committed to seeing current reality clearly.” Peter M. SengeThe Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization
 

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This week we look at how all tension is not ‘bad tension’ and how ‘creative tension’ is actually a good thing. We try to pose challenges in our programs to help students to develop their ability to ‘hold creative tension’. In this post, conversations on this topic in an ‘evening adda’ and the experience of students in holding creative tension, in a week-long residential course are discussed.

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Learning to hold ‘creative tension’

In last week’s edition- Can brilliance replace the need for hard work?, we looked at some key points from Paul Graham’s insightful essay, How to Work Hard. We looked at the nature of real work as opposed to schoolwork, the importance of working hard, and the role of interests in hard work.

In an ‘evening adda’ at the GenWise Winter Program (which is currently on in Bangalore), our co-founder, Vishnu Agnihotri had a conversation about these topics with students. This post starts with some snippets from the conversations with students in this session.

The session with students happened after dinner- at the end of day 1 of a 5-day course on ‘Investigative Thinking through Forensic Science’.

I started the session by asking students to share examples of real work they had engaged in (in contrast to schoolwork), and students shared experiences like-


feeding a stray dog regularly over a year


handling the photography board at school- reporting on events


a bake sale at school


pursuing swimming competitively

The discussion then moved towards the difference between schoolwork and real work and elicited views like these-

There was more responsibility and stress in the dog feeding project, because somebody was actually depending on you.- Khushi The photography work did not have ‘one correct answer’ and gave us scope to be creative. So it was really enjoyable.- Neve Schoolwork isn’t such a big deal-you go to school for a few hours, come back and do some stuff. In competitive swimming on the other hand, I had to get up at 4 AM every day for years to practice and it was very intense, especially during the competitive events.- Pranav

So some of the students did have some idea of how the ‘shape of real work’ was different from schoolwork. I then emphasised the importance of building the ability for real work and not focus just on ‘how to succeed in exams and school work’. I shared Paul Graham’s experience with smart startup founders who were trying to figure out how to convince VCs to fund them and were not focused enough on the fundamentals of building a great product. (See the post Can brilliance replace the need for hard work? for more details).

We went on to discuss the importance of operating at the intersection of one’s interests, strengths and the needs of the world. See this past edition- How recognising aptitudes helps us go from good to great for more details.

The instructor of the forensic science course, Ritu Lamba, had told me how, earlier in the day, these students had grappled with a challenging task and had given up after a while, feeling frustrated. I had made a mental note of this at that point of time and had decided that I would bring up the importance of being able to hold ‘creative tension’ when pursuing challenging goals, in the evening adda.

In the class when students gave up on the task, Ritu had asked them what the reasons for their frustration and impatience were, and a couple of students responded, saying

“I wanted to be the first to come up with the answer and therefore didn’t want to spend much time on the task.” “I had come up with a theory and when the evidence I tried to get in support of it, contradicted my theory, I felt discouraged.”

It was heartening to see the self-awareness these students displayed because the first step in addressing issues is to become aware of them. In this past edition- Coaching for psychosocial skills- Pt.3 of Helping children develop talent, we spoke about how the development of executive function skills requires posing adequately challenge tasks; it is only in having to work on such tasks, do such skills and qualities develop.


In the last part of the session I brought up the mental model of ‘creative tension’ vs ‘emotional tension’ proposed by Peter Senge in ‘The Fifth Discipline’ and emphasised the importance of being able to hold creative tension when pursuing a goal.

Emotional tension is not a good thing- it drains one’s drive and motivation. On the other hand, creative tension- the tension created because of the gap between one’s current reality and one’s vision/ goals is actually a good thing. Creative tension can lead one to explore different possibilities, persist, seek help and engage in other proactive behaviours in working towards one’s goal. When we don’t realise this, it is common to lower our goals in order to reduce creative tension. (See the above video clip)

However becoming aware of the distinction between creative tension and emotional tension allows us to lose our fear of creative tension- now we can actively seek creative tension, while trying to minimize emotional tension. This is immensely empowering.

I visited the program again on the last day of the course and heard from Ritu that students had started persisting with tasks much more day 2 onwards!! This was very encouraging to hear- so much change is possible… when the right kind of challenges are provided, and the right mental models are adopted. (In this case, the mental model of emotional tension vs creative tension).

If reading this post has made you curious about the kind of learning challenges that were posed to the students, you can check out this past edition- Learning Through Inquiry and Curiosity: Forensic Investigations, in which Ritu speaks about her approach in some detail.

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