Ask a dozen people what makes someone creative and you’ll probably hear answers like cleverness or mental acuity. But researchers Brian J. Lucas and Loran F. Nordgren of Northwestern University have been digging into what really makes creative people tick.
What they’re finding is that the most creative people – the folks with the truly novel and useful solutions – are the ones that don’t give up easily.
Persist, and then persist again
Lucas and his team are promoting persistence as a principle pathway to creative performance. There’s a load of historical research and anecdotal evidence to support this belief. Everything from Edison testing thousands of theories before inventing the light bulb to Csikszentmihalyi’s introduction of the concept of flow.
The researchers at Northwestern wanted to see if people actually recognize the value and importance of persisting when idea generation gets difficult. Their basic hypothesis: “People generally underestimate the value of persisting on creative tasks.”
After a series of 7 cleverly constructed creativity experiments, a few things are clear:
- People perceive being creative as difficult.
- The best ideas are often produced later rather than early in the creative process.
- People probably abandon the creative process before coming up with their best ideas.
Creativity: The generation of ideas and solutions that are novel or useful to a given situation.
On being creative…
Before we take a look at the studies and results, let’s examine creativity. Specifically, why it’s generally considered difficult to “be creative?”
The researchers identified two attributes of creativity that are illustrative of its perceived difficulty, and I think these are both fantastically insightful.
First, creativity is a two-stage, iterative mental process. In stage one, we scour our long-term memory for anything associated with whatever it is we’re trying to be creative about. In the second stage, we apply, break apart and reform associated knowledge to form new ideas.
People move back and forth between memory and idea generation in an attempt to create something novel and useful. If you think about it for a bit, there are four logical outcomes to this process.
- Booo… We fail, and no association is made.
- Yawn… We come up with something commonplace – an idea that lacks novelty.
- Meh… We make an association, but it doesn’t prove useful. (Remember our definition? We’re looking for creative solutions that are novel or useful!)
- Eureka! We’ve come up with a cool, new idea.
This is a grueling mental process. It’s hard to be creative because of all the false starts and unsatisfactory ideas. Perseverance is necessary to win the numbers game!
The second attribute pointing to the difficulty of creativity is that, unlike defined processes and procedures, it’s really tough to verbalize your progress toward a creative goal.
The example that Lucas and his team used to illustrate this is a math problem. Try adding two large numbers together. It’s pretty easy to figure how close you are to having the correct answer, right?
Not so for creative challenges. Think of the last time you were trying to come up with a creative solution for some problem. At any point, could you tell someone how close you were to a breakthrough moment of insight?
Probably not. That progress isn’t really something you can measure.
And because of these attributes, it’s easy to think that being creative is hard. The researchers at Northwestern put that perception to the test to see if we can be more creative if we keep working when others might give up.
I won’t go into each of the 7 studies in detail. I think the first experiment is the most informative. Also, the paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is available on Lucas’ website and it’s well worth a read.
Lucas and Nordgren invited participants to take 10 minutes to generate creative answers to a simple question. All they were asked to do was come up with a list of things to eat and drink at Thanksgiving.
After coming up with a list of ideas, each participant was asked to estimate how many more ideas they could make with a subsequent “persistence phase.” The researchers then compared the estimates with the actual number of new ideas produced.
The participants came up with nearly 22 initial ideas on average. When asked how many new ideas they could come up with if they kept working, the average answer was 10 more ideas. Interestingly, their predictions for performance in the persistence period was much lower than the number of ideas actually produced (15).
And here’s the coolest part…
The researchers ran all the ideas past another group of test subjects to determine which were the most creative. This shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point, but the participants came up with their best ideas when asked to keep going.
This shows us that:
- People tend to undervalue persistence.
- We are at our most creative when we keep working on a problem, even after we think we have all the answers.
- People who give up too soon or too easily miss out on their best ideas.
It’s worth noting that time has a very real cost. Sometimes – be it in school, work or with a personal project – it’s more important to be finished than to be creative.
But understanding that we tend to shy away from persevering on difficult challenges because it’s just plain hard to come up with new and useful ideas is a valuable bit of information. Knowing this, we can make conscious, deliberate decisions about when to accept an idea as good enough and when to go back to drawing board in search of more creative solutions.
The next time I’ve come up with a new and creative idea, I’m definitely going to pause and wonder if I’m leaving my most creative ideas on the table. And then maybe I’ll set a timer for ten minutes to see if I can come up with something even better.