The definition of creativity has long been debated. There was a fog of mystery surrounding the understanding of creativity during the eighteenth century, when it was thought to be a quality of an individual. This means that creativity is not something everyone has, and only those who possess it can invent or innovate, or think of novel ideas. In 1896, Francis Galton sought to demystify creativity, and developed a psychometric approach to study creativity. The assessment was based on the assumption that creativity is a fixed property of an individual—either you are born with creativity, or you aren’t. It does not take into account the experiences the individual has lived with, which was argued to have influence on cognitive development. However, Howard E. Gruber, a pioneer of the psychological study of creativity, argues that both methods of studies are generalist by nature, as it does not take into account the cultural and historical context of an individual. His solution was to conduct creativity research by case studies. Creativity to Gruber, then becomes a “theory of an individual”, as the focus of the study takes into account the development of an idea based on the lived experiences and circumstances. If considering one of the major influences in Singaporeans’ decision-making is the fear of failure, one can question the extent to which it will shape the development of our ideas.
While individualist cultures value independence and prioritise self over others, collectivist cultures stress on the importance of society. In Singapore, our societal engineering1 bears close semblance to Confucianism, a philosophy which preaches selflessness, harmony and obedience. What this entails is that the social configuration would value conformity and cultural tightness—the degree to which how closely a society adheres to social norms and boundaries. It was discovered that cultural-tightness impacts creative-thinking and innovation. In a 33-nation study, it was discovered that Singapore is one of the most culturally-tight Asian societies, alongside South Korea and Malaysia.
A South Korean researcher, Dr. Kyung-Hee Kim, studied how Confucian ideologies in Korea impact creativity. In her study, it was revealed that the internalised behaviour of obedience and self-lessness, can in fact extent out towards society. Kim posits that there are four conflicts between creativity and Confucianism. The first conflict is education, where in Confucianism, the pursuit for academic excellence is to drive national growth. Exposing children to a rigid educational structure at a young age deprives them of learning through play, and it affects their development of creative-thinking. The second and third point is the hierarchical family and social system and how Confucian societies value filial piety. This behaviour of obedience within the family unit can also extend to the society where one would have a tendency to avoid thinking differently. Last but not least, is the principle of expression. The repeated suppression of emotions at a young age develops the defence function, where during the later stages of life, it distorts experiences which is crucial to one’s way of thinking. Finally, the paper also revealed that Confucian societies have lower degrees of creative performance.
Yet, it is possible to work out these cultural limitations. While it is impossible to change a culture overnight, or to completely eradicate this fear of failure, it is possible to reduce the impact or fear. One way to do it is to demystify failure. By knowing how it occurs, how to work around it, we grow increasingly comfortable and confident working with failure. Another way is to detach ourselves from failure. While it is common for us to feel like failure is a direct result of our character, we need to learn how to draw the line between a failure due to inability, or failure due to experimentation. Thirdly, we should also be willing to share about failures. Having productive conversations about our failures enables us to know more about each other’s experiences, and build upon our own arsenal of predictive/preventive measures.