Calculated risks and the creative life

“The greater the risk, the greater the reward”, many of us have heard this or something similar to this line multiple times. It is often assumed that those who break new ground – entrepreneurs, innovators, revolutionaries – in any field do so after exposing themselves to huge amounts of danger and uncertainty. Surprisingly, after closely examining highly creative personalities in business, sports, arts and other areas, Wharton professor and organisational psychologist Adam Grant came to a different conclusion. In his bestselling 2016 book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Grant notes:

Originals do vary in their attitudes toward risk. Some are skydiving gamblers; others are penny-pinching germophobes. To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk. But the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, “Many entrepreneurs take plenty of risks—but those are generally the failed entrepreneurs, not the success stories.”

In other words, original thinkers and actors always carry a balanced risk portfolio. That is, if they are taking extreme risks in one arena, they will offset them with extreme caution in another. Take Bill Gates, we all know him as the “Harvard dropout”. But consider this—when Gates sold a new software programme as a sophomore, he waited an entire year before leaving school. And even then he didn’t drop out, he actually applied for a leave of absence that was formally approved by the university, and then he asked his parents to bankroll him. He was ready to go back to college if things didn’t work out.

In the realm of the arts, T S Eliot is a great example of measured risk. Hailed as one of twentieth century’s most significant poets, Eliot continued to work for a bank and later, a publishing house even after gaining wide recognition for his creativity. Far from distracting us, having some kind of stability, fixed attitude and sense of security in one area of life allows one to be freer in another. Grant continues: “By covering our bases financially, we escape the pressure to publish half-baked books, sell shoddy art, or launch untested businesses.”

So that’s about risk in the general sense, at the level of one’s profession/occupation. How much risk should one take within their creative work, particularly artists? Just how familiar or how novel can they afford to be? How can they best communicate their literary or visual narratives? In my view, Man Booker prize-winning New Zealand author Eleanor Catton has a very interesting point to make in this regard. In a Guardian article from 2014, she writes:

Creative influence can have a positive or a negative charge, either imitative (“I want to try that!”) or defiant (“I want to see that done differently”). Both kinds of influence are vital for the health of an idea. Too defiant, and the idea will be shrill; too imitative, and the idea will be safe. For me, the moment when these two charges first come together – when I connect, imaginatively, something that I love as a reader with something that I long for as a reader – is the moment the idea for a story is born.

Scene from Battleship Potemkin / Head VI, 1949, Arts Council collection, Hayward Gallery, London (Fair Use)

The space between “imitation” and “defiance” is again carefully calculated risk. The simple pursuit of what has already been tried and tested before can make one seem stale. On the other hand, being wildly unique can cause one to appear incomprehensible. It is useful, therefore, to pick up some pattern from the past that the intended audience can easily recognise and then present the narrative in a way that has never been attempted before. A small example that comes to mind here is the painter Francis Bacon, who developed a whole series of screaming mouths (in his own style) modelled after a famous image from a scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin. Memorable signs, symbols and structures, however tiny, within a seemingly innovative work of art make it more accessible to the viewer/reader and reduce the likelihood of loss for the artist.

Written by Tulika Bahadur

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