Ignaz Semmelweis could be seen as a cautionary tale for creatives. In 1846, he advocated for washing hands before delivering babies, and Vienna General saw an increase in mother and new born survival rates in the clinic where he worked. However, because he didn’t know why handwashing worked, he was derided by the medical and scientific community. He lost his job and his life because the establishment didn’t accept what he saw as common sense. “My way saves lives; of course, everyone should adopt it, even if we don’t know why.”
He was dealing with saving people’s lives and the scientific community. Rather than someone jumping in to test Semmelweis’ theories and find out why it worked or if it was a fluke, Semmelweis’ doctors and colleagues continuously found fault with his idea, even when they didn’t do any experimentation of their own. Not only did Semmelweis end up losing his life, but thousands of women and children died because he couldn’t defend his hypothesis and no one else wanted to check it out to see what the hospital was doing differently. Semmelweis isn’t the only cautionary tale that creatives should think about.
According to Kevin Ashton in “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” Gaston Hervieu tested his parachute in 1909 by throwing a 160-pound dummy off the Eiffel Tower. The dummy floated down to safety. Franz Reichelt was not impressed. Reichelt was working on his own parachute and called Hervieu’s test a sham because he used a dummy. In 1912, Reichelt showed up at the Eiffel Tower, press in tow; he was ready to show off his own parachute, which he was going to test on himself.
Hervieu showed up at the Eiffel Tower to stop Reichelt. Hervieu said the parachute wouldn’t work for technical reasons. Reichelt went up the Eiffel Tower anyway. Experts at the Aero-Club de France had previously told Reichelt his parachute wouldn’t work. Previous experiments that Reichelt did with his parachute had ended in failure; he had broken his leg in one failed attempt to deploy the parachute. Reichelt didn’t listen to his rejectors, which are common when any new idea is presented, and he didn’t learn from his failures. He stuck with the same design and jumped from the Eiffel Tower to plummet to his death.
While Semmelweis would have been well-served if he could’ve ignored the slings and arrows of the ignorant medical community experts of his time and continued with his crusade to persuade them as to the efficacy of handwashing, Reichelt would’ve been better off listening to the critics of his invention and heeding his own failed experiments. Failure and rejection aren’t necessarily bad if we can learn the right lessons from them.
In these cases, one lesson would be to persist in the face of rejection, but learn from it. If Semmelweis had been able to get past his belief that common sense would prevail and started conducting experiments, he may have discovered the germ theory of illness before Pasteur. Another lesson would be to pay attention to your failures. If Reichelt had accepted the reality of failures, he may have been able to make a parachute that would’ve been better than Hervieu’s. Instead, both creators’ deaths can be linked to their innovations.
Being creative isn’t easy. You will be ridiculed. You will be rejected. You just need to keep going and change with every lesson that is dealt to you.
For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity: 25 Tips for Becoming More Creative.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories: Becoming More Creative for a Better Life and World.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”