Non finito: how unfinished art helps scientists develop their growth mindset
By Alex Clark, PhD & Bailey Sousa, PMP (University of Alberta)
Being clever and well-qualified is insufficient for success as a scientist. This is why for 10 years we have led workshops in skills development for academics - and written a recent book on happiness in academia. This work is important because scientific work, as extreme knowledge work, is “supercomplex”- it’s extremely diverse, perilously demanding, and also boundless. While science can transform societies, half of scientists have challenges maintaining good mental health, as scientific fraud is increasingly common and workplace conflicts are rife.
Ongoing learning is integral to good science, not only in relation to technical learning, but also in relation to skills and behavior. Yet, ironically, this learning ethos tends to be the exception rather than the norm in workplaces. This follows because the entity theory of intelligence (the ‘fixed’ mindset) is enduringly prevalent and assumes that fixed aspects of the individual, such as talent, ability, or skills contribute to and are reflected in achievement. Conversely, the incremental theory (the ‘growth mindset’) posits that ongoing learning, effort, and progress improve one’s work. The dominance of fixed mindsets in any organization or individual is puzzling because the growth mindset is associated with higher wellbeing and more sustained success. Adopting a fixed mindset leads to self-doubt and confidence crises when failure inevitably comes. It also contributes to bullying and negative views of peers when attempts to make the self ‘feel better’ despite the failure result in unnecessary criticisms and harshness towards others.
Yet, it’s understandable why fixed mindsets are more common in scientific workplaces. Scientists, by definition, tend to be highly qualified and have long periods of educational preparation, with career entry usually only coming after doctoral or postdoctoral education. Consequently, scientists tend to be self-consciously smart, competitive, and have equated and often had consistently reinforced the relationship between personal intelligence and individual achievement throughout their schooling.
Academic workplaces reinforce such “talent narratives” in their physical, social, and digital cultures via cultural celebration of achievements, framed diplomas on walls, and institutional marketing that trumpets successes. While it may appear morale boosting that scientists’ successes are shared and celebrated, this also reinforces fixed mindset thinking. Organizations where the growth mindset is more dominant tend to celebrate and reward effort, creativity, good strategy, and hard work.
Based on nearly 20 years of research, both the field of science and scientists as individuals can benefit from adopting the growth mindset, yet awareness of the nature and benefits of this mindset are rare. Scientists that develop a fixed thinking mindset while in school are neither aware nor predisposed to alternatives. Because of these reasons we use unfinished art to help scientists to understand, reflect on, and use the growth mindset.
What is unfinished art?: 600 years of non-finito
Unfinished art is work which appears unfinished. This type of art has been evident since the Renaissance, when it was likely to be circumstantially unfinished, having been cast aside by the artist for various known and unknown reasons. Yet, over the last 200 years, art has been intentionally unfinished as artists reject definitive notions of completion to foster, what Thomas Campbell has called, a “more open, unresolved, and suggestive aesthetic.” The term non-finito was coined to describe the cohesive aesthetic of incompleteness of art left deliberately open.
This 600-year-long cadre of non-finito was celebrated in a major international exhibition of 195 works of unfinished art at the New York Metropolitan Museum in 2016 in the Exhibition “Unfinished: Thoughts left visible.” This exhibition curated a fascinating range of extremely diverse non-finito works from Titian, Neel, Pollock, and Warhol, to the conceptual art and sculpture of Gonzeles-Torres. The exhibition draws attention anew to the anxiety, hostility, and heresy of the unfinished as well as the rejection and bemusement that being unfinished often gives rise to. Ultimately, such works speak to unfinishedness - a sense or characteristic not just inherent in work but in a deeper human commitment, a practice, and a broader element of life itself. It is these challenging dimensions of unfinishedness that we explore with scientists in our talks and workshops in relation to the growth mindset.
How can unfinished art help scientists?
(I) Embodies theoretical growth concepts
For centuries, art has functioned as a language to both express and shape the human condition. We found that art was a vital bridge to connect abstract concepts of the growth mindset to individual scientists in often profound ways that defied words. The nature and implications of the growth mindset have been established using research evidence and disseminated in scientific papers and books. Yet, the reality and implications of living as a “scientist as unfinished” demands much more than mere intellectual comprehension of an abstraction or idea of unfinished.
For example: beholding and appreciating the unfinished self-portraits of Lucian Freud, a brilliant but notoriously slow methodical painter, whose self-portraits are characterized by self-scrutiny, intensely exposed openness, but also uncertainty and ambiguity. We can ask ourselves, “is this what it can feel like to see myself as unfinished?” - to let go of all the seeming firmness of one’s qualifications and success narratives. Freud’s gaze back to us reminds us what it takes to truly feel unfinished.
(II) Promotes emotional engagement, critical reflexivity, and self-acceptance
Art demands human participation. Consequently, unfinished art promotes reflexive consideration of being and staying unfinished because it addresses the finality of our identity, biography, and fears. This critical self-reflection is seldom encouraged in scientific work spaces, including conferences and workplaces - yet is central to learning and leadership.
Unfinished art challenges scientists to be and stay definitively unfinished but also speaks to the emotional vulnerability of doing so and accepting, as Freud urges us, our inevitable imperfections. Unfinished art helps open legitimate spaces for scientists to bring themselves, including their emotion and vulnerability, back in and provides challenging personal considerations of the place and role of the “self” in science -“Are we strong enough to be weak?” “Sufficiently successful to accept our own failure and failings?”
(III) Leaves space for the contributions of others
The artists discussed in this article were unlikely to expect that their unfinished art would be finished by another in the physical sense. Art is often “finished” by those who behold it as we imagine how it would look if it were to have been finished this way or that, or what the artist might have been thinking if we could only see the whole thought behind the work.
As historian Vera John-Steiner documents in her book “Creative Collaboration,” over the last two centuries, when scientists consider their work, it is often in unfinished spaces where true collaborations emerge. When we don’t see ourselves as complete and perfect on our own, but when we see ourselves and our work as open to the expertise, ideas, and contributions of others, then we are able to leverage this unfinishedness in a whole new way. When famed artists - like Picasso, - with attendant kudos, ability, and international reputation, can openly - sometimes brutally - show and celebrate unfinishedness, this creates powerful inspiration for scientists to do likewise.
(IV) Questions cultural norms of success
Celebrating unfinishedness being unfinished and growth over success is important as many tensions exist between the seeming successes of other scientists with the daily failures most scientists personally experience.
Historically, the sense of being “finished” has dominated unspoken conventions in science and art. To be openly and deliberately ‘unfinished’ is to be deficient. Yet, the history of unfinished art offers inspiring examples of courageous artists who challenged the conventions of the establishment of their day - often at sacrifice of their immediate peer approval. JMW Turner, arguably, the most important British artist of all time, initially painted the realist scenes favored and celebrated in his day - with contemporaries, like Constable. Later in his career, his paintings were characterized by an unfinished quality that has led to him being identified as the most prescient precursor of impressionism and abstract expressionism. At odds with the realism, precision, and balance of the day, he used new sketching techniques (such as blotting his work with breadcrumbs) and color in totally new ways to capture light and water with a freshness that still stuns today.
Scientific conventions focus on ubiquitous success observed in journal publications, workplace awards/venerations, website biographies, and corridor conversations. Yet, in most high-income countries, funding rates are 15% to 20%, prestigious journals can reject up to 95% of papers, and all manner of studies, projects, relationships, and initiatives often fail. These tensions between personal failure and success narratives have harmful consequences. Around half of all researchers have concerning high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. Other implications include: inter-collegial conflict and professional jealousy, as well as fraudulent research practices that spin success from failure.
The concept of the unfinished in art - initially accidental or ambiguous - came to be legitimate and accepted and part of, even integral, to, successful work. Unfinished art helps scientists question the social norms of the cleaned-up, success-filled narratives that characterize scientific work spaces and publications, and navigate the many tensions between this mindset, careerism, and success. Like Turner, thinking beyond the immediate social context of science and focusing on developing techniques and skills over our entire careers, and thinking the unthinkable, offer inspiring examples of the growth mindset - and the necessity of not acquiescing to the approvals of the day.
(V) Pushes growth as a practice
People tend to have a mix of fixed and growth mindsets in their lives with particular mindsets dominating in certain situations. Thus, a scientist may be well able to retain a growth mindset when dealing with a rejection of a manuscript for publication but readily revert to a fixed mindset by relying on their status during a conflict with a colleague. As such, a person’s mindset should not be viewed as dichotomous and set - but prone to variation and flux over time.
Unfinishedness in art is as much a practice as an end. Similarly, a growth mindset entails a lifelong and deliberate quest to stay unfinished - in the midst of failure but also success and acclimation. Unfinished art reminds scientists that continuing to develop a growth mindset is less a decision than an ongoing practice in which life provides ongoing opportunities and challenges. Can we be open to learning and improvement even when an experience is personally difficult? Unfinishedness in science and art is never about arriving - but the ongoing process of staying committed to practicing being definitively unfinished.