I left elementary school absolutely convinced I could not draw and, in fact, that I was no good at art. Any art. I’m not sure exactly when that happened. As a young child I enjoyed drawing, painting, clay, and creating all manner of things with boxes, sticks, etc. But a few years later I knew, if it was art, I could not do it.
Have you ever done that? Is there a creative activity you once enjoyed that you stopped doing, sure you were a failure? Perhaps you no longer dance, or sing, or invent. Beghetto (2014; Beghetto & Dilley, 2016) calls this creative mortification. Creative mortification is more than being temporarily discouraged. Beghetto distinguishes it from creative suppression. Suppression might happen if you were in a meeting and offered an idea that your colleagues ridiculed (shame on them!) If you were annoyed and stopped talking for the remainder of the meeting, that would be creative suppression. Creative mortification is more personal and more long- lasting. It happens when the response to creative efforts is so painful that the individual believes any future efforts are futile—when someone goes from thinking, “I’m a poet” to “I’m never going to be a poet” and stops writing poetry.
In initial studies, Beghetto and colleagues found that experiences that cause creative mortification can originate in comments by valued teachers and coaches. I suspect the collapse of my art interest happened that way. But all critiques and feedback do not have negative results. So, what makes the difference? If creative efforts don’t go well, Beghetto and Dilley suggest there three main variables that lead to creative mortification: internal attributions, fixed ability beliefs, and the experience of shame. These affect the way we interpret creative failures. If we believe that the problems come from within us—and that our abilities won’t change—we are more likely to believe our creative efforts are in vain and stop pursuing them. Somehow, I became convinced that I couldn’t draw and never would be able to draw, so what was the point in continuing? This logic is particularly damaging if we feel shamed. Shame is personal and painful. It is not surprising that we want to avoid things that might cause it.
Of course, all these things happen in a context. Individuals who have a strong commitment to their creative pursuits are more likely to continue after repeated failures. Professional actors typically audition over and over, experiencing rejection after rejection, just to continue working. In that field, rejection is the norm. Similar patterns are common for aspiring writers. Understanding that expectation is essential to survival in those fields.
But as teachers, one other variable is particularly critical to understand—the role of feedback. Negative feedback is never pleasant, but It can be helpful if it is clear, specific, and aimed at improvement. I wonder what might have happened if, at some point, an art teacher gave me feedback that helped me improve? As it turned out, I still don’t enjoy representational drawing, but my general feeling about arts activities was transformed, many years later, by a mosaic teacher whose mantra was, “Everything can be fixed.” No matter what we spilled or broke or dropped, we could find a way to make it better. Eventually, I came to believe her. And guess what? She’s not good at representational drawing, either!
Creative mortification is a tragedy, particularly when it cuts young people off from their own creative potential, whatever the field. And so many of the things that affect it seem part of our educational discussion today: growth mindset, formative feedback, learning communities. Here’s one more reason those discussions are important.
Beghetto, R. A. (2014). Creative mortification: An initial exploration. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(3), 266-276.
Beghetto, R. A. & Dilley, A. E. (2016). Creative aspirations or pipe dreams? Toward understanding creative mortification in children and adolescents. In B. Barbot (Ed.), Perspectives on creativity development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 151, 85-95.