How Embarrassing Moments Lead to Creative Genius

October 11, 2019

I still remember it like it was yesterday.

It was my first “real” job – I was the marketing director for a mid-size architecture firm.

Every Monday started the same, with a meeting in the conference room. Just me and the five partners of the firm.

I felt completely out of my league. They were well-traveled, experienced businessmen and pillars of the community. I was finishing college and scrambling to keep up with my new job.

One of them told a story about the quirkiness of someone he had dinner with the night before. Everyone in the room knew the person – except me. I also didn’t understand most of the partner’s dry humor. In my effort to fit in, as everyone else laughed, I did too.

And then it happened.

During one of my ladylike laughs I snorted. Not just a little thing, but like I was Rip Van Winkle finally getting some decent shut-eye.

All 10 eyes in the room locked on me.

I. Was. HORRIFIED!

If I could’ve pushed a button to make the floor open and swallow me, I would have. But it turns out it was better than I didn’t.

That one awkward moment bonded us all together. Little did I know that my five bosses had their own share of intimidation about feeling relevant with a 20-something woman in the room. My snort opened the door for them to tell their own embarrassing faux pas stories.

This whole scenario isn’t just an accident, according to researchers from The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. It’s a psychological response.

It’s not me, it’s you

We all know those people who do no wrong. They climb the corporate ladder like there’s a secret elevator, and are happy to tell the world of their latest success.

But, they make the rest of us feel…less than.

Less than smart. Less than accomplished. Less than ‘with it.’

While some people find the über-accomplished motivating, most are intimidated. And that holds others back from sharing their ideas because they don’t want to look stupid.

To make sure the researchers were on the right track, they conducted two experiments. They asked people to share either an embarrassing or boastful story in individual and team settings and then be a part of a creative activity. They found that both individuals and groups came up with more ideas – and a greater variety of novel ideas – after sharing their woes of embarrassment. 

We all want to look good. But our fear of looking bad hurts innovation. The researchers discovered that it’s the anticipation of being embarrassed – that someone will think our idea is stupid – that keeps us tight-lipped. So sharing an embarrassing story can actually counter the fear people have of looking ridiculous.

If you, like me, have more than your fair share of embarrassing moments, here’s how the researchers say you can take advantage of them:

1. Share them

As you gather together to do creative work, there’s a lot of value in encouraging people to share embarrassing tales early on. It’s not just about embracing failure or looking bad, but the willingness to bond over past foibles. This goes a long way in making people feel relaxed and super-charging their creativity.

2. Tell the whole story

Stories activate chemical reactions in people’s brains. But only if you give enough detail to make it real. Make sure that people get into enough of the nitty gritty so others see themselves in the narrative. Saying, “My client heard me yell at the kids,” is way different from, “I thought I had hung up the phone when I was done talking to my client. But I didn’t, and she heard me yell across the room to my son, “How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your dirty underwear?!?!” (Lucky for me, my client was also a mother with kids the same age.)

3. Keep it fresh

For people to really identify with you, don’t go back to the time you were six and answered the front door buck-naked. The more recent your stories – whether that’s the last six months or, better yet, the last six days – the more they feel relatable. (It’s also easier for you to remember the details.)

4. Take your turn

You may not want to go first, but you do have to take a turn. Once someone else shares their blunder, it’s time to step up. There really is safety in numbers.

The next time you come up red-faced, thank your lucky stars. You now have a potentially valuable story to share to boost your team’s and your own creativity.

Photo credit: Pixabay

About Carla Johnson

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Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.