I envy writers who write fast and well, who don’t seem to have the creative issues I have. Two, three, four, five, six, or even more books per year for these folks seems entirely within their grasp. I can’t write that fast. I never have enough ideas; concepts don’t jump out at me. I’m not one of the writers who say, “I have so many ideas, I don’t know what to write first!” No. I say, “What can I write about next? Must cogitate.”
I’ve always thought that a person is either an imaginative thinker or not—that’s it’s a genetic trait, a gift. It turns out, that’s not true.
Researchers Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that people underestimate how many creative ideas they can come up with if they continue to work on a problem, rather than give up after mediocre initial results. In fact, the most creative ideas arise after many other ideas have been considered and discarded. People who give up too soon don’t allow the best ideas to emerge.
In the first test, university students were told to “generate as many original ideas for things to eat or drink at a Thanksgiving dinner” as they could. Participants worked for 10 minutes, took a short break, then worked another 10 minutes. During the break, they were asked how many ideas they thought they’d generate with the additional 10 minutes. They underestimated the number of ideas they’d add, and the outside evaluators found that the ideas in the second batch were “significantly more original than ideas generated initially.”
A follow-up test featured 45 performers from SketchFest, the largest sketch comedy festival in the United States. The performers were given a scene set-up and asked to create as many comic endings as they could. Participants worked on the task for four minutes, predicted how many endings they would come up with during an additional four minutes, and then worked another four minutes. Like the students, the comics underestimated the number of ideas they would develop on their second attempt.
The researchers believe that people doubt their ability to be more creative because coming up with creative ideas is hard. When a task feels difficult, “people decrease their expectations about how well they will perform,” they wrote.
We learn that attitude from taking skills tests. For example, if you can’t understand a simple math problem, you won’t do well at calculus, no matter how much time you spend on it. But that approach doesn’t necessarily hold true with creative work.
“Creative thought is a trial-and-error process that generally produces a series of failed associations before a creative solution emerges,” the researchers write. You never know when you’re nearing a breakthrough; it might occur right after a period of deep frustration. But we tend to interpret that struggle as meaning that we’re not creative and might as well stop.
The Ladies often talk about hitting the bottom of the well and what to do about boosting creativity. Many ideas have been floated—from attending cultural activities to exercise, meditation (or maybe medication!), and shifting gears to something else. Whatever works! But one more solution? Just keep at it.
Does persistence work for you?