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The Folly of Inaction

creativity, innovation, MacArthur Fellows

The research literature on creativity has not traditionally identified the predisposition to take action as a creative characteristic. However, turning a creative idea into an actual outcome is essential in the creative process.

Action is an essential part of creativity because original thought does not produce any meaningful achievement, and thoughts, alone, cannot have a positive impact on the human experience. Therefore, to be creative, individuals must be committed to turning an idea into an actual outcome.

History has documented the success of many creative individuals, but those who have failed to transform their creative ideas into action have generally not been remembered or celebrated. Their creative thinking has been lost because they failed to take the final step—action.

Since 1981 the MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program has made grants annually to about two dozen creative individuals in diverse fields. Each award is for $625,000. The grants represent the foundation’s reward for an individual’s originality, insight, and potential in a specific field. MacArthur Fellows interviewed about their creativity support the requirement for action in the creative process.

Aaron Dworkin, MacArthur Fellow Class of 2005, describes the need for action in this way. He says, “MacArthur [the MacArthur Foundation] isn’t awarding people because they sat around and had great ideas; it’s because they put those ideas into action.” Aaron is adamant; unless an individual takes action to implement a creative idea, there can be no measurable success. His final point is that dreaming without action represents “folly and waste.”

Aaron makes another point about the failure to take action. He says, “I think, too often, people don’t look at the risk of inaction.” In such circumstances, Aaron speculates that a failure to take action might lead to regrets later in life.

Dr. Saul Griffith, MacArthur Fellow Class of 2007, adds that his determination to take action is fueled by the understanding that there is much to be accomplished in life and that life is short. He recognizes that time spent without action is wasted.

Dr. Wes Jackson, MacArthur Fellow Class of 1992, emphasizes another point. He stresses that action is the only way that change can be accomplished. He does not want to be limited to pumping his fist and saying “ain’t it awful.” Rather, he is interested in taking action so that he can participate in change.

Susan Sygall, MacArthur Fellow Class of 2000, reinforces the concept that good ideas coupled with action can yield great successes, and she is unwilling to stall action without good reason. For instance, she doesn’t consider inexperience an excuse for inaction. She is also not concerned that others might be able to do a better job. Rather than being limited by the prospect that others might be more skilled, Susan says, “If someone has a better idea and can do it better, then so be it. Let them bring it on.” Susan’s overall message is that perfection, especially on the first attempt, is not required and should not be the goal.

Wilma Subra, MacArthur Fellow Class of 1999, also comments on the need for action. She focuses on both the need to initiate and the need to continue action. Wilma’s view of taking action is reminiscent of the adage by Brian Tracy (motivational speaker and author; born 1944) who discusses the buffet line of life where it is necessary to first get in line and, then, to be persistent and stay in line. He recognizes that individuals are responsible for their own success in life.

The general theme expressed by the MacArthur Fellows interviewed is that projects that are only thought experiments—not connected with action—are not very interesting. These creative individuals are unwilling to waste their talents on ideas or projects that cannot be converted—for whatever reason—into action. Moreover, they have the courage to take action apropos their creative ideas because they are aware that failure may mean that life goals won’t be achieved. Since action is the key to successful creativity, inaction—that which may be termed dreaming—represents only an idealized conception that will not result in success.

Note: All quotes are taken from Activating Creativity: Insights and Wisdom of MacArthur Fellows.

Hennessy, L. A. (2017). Activating creativity: Insights and wisdom of MacArthur Fellows. Colorado Springs, CO: Sherwood.

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