How to Be More Creative

Breakthroughs are the product of persistence, not magic.

Excerpt – About 10 years ago, the management professors Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren encountered a paradox. On the one hand, we recognize that other people are more likely to make creative breakthroughs when they persist. Thomas Edison—for many the personification of creative genius—famously experimented with hundreds of materials before inventing the light bulb. On the other hand, when we feel stuck on a problem, most of us fail to see how successful we’ll be if we just keep trying. We tend to believe that our creativity plummets over time—that if our best ideas don’t come to us immediately, they won’t come at all.

[..] In one experiment, they [Lucas and Nordgren] asked participants to spend 10 minutes generating “as many original ideas for things to eat and drink at a Thanksgiving dinner as you can.” Afterward, participants were asked to guess how many ideas they would come up with during a second 10-minute period. Most expected to generate far fewer ideas the second time around, but in fact they produced just as many during that second period—66 percent more than they had guessed. And those were rated by other people as more creative than the initial ideas.

[..] Even experts weren’t immune. Professional comedians mistakenly believed that their ability to write punch lines and funny cartoon captions would decline over time.

Though we tend to think our ability to come up with ideas is easily exhausted, we actually get more creative the longer we focus on a problem or task. One major reason for this is known as the “serial-order effect.” Each successive creative idea we have is likely to be better than the one that came before.

[..] When approaching a problem, we normally begin by cycling through strategies and approaches that don’t work. This can feel both hard and useless. Most of us have inherited the belief that creativity—the result, we often think, of “being in the zone” or “achieving flow”—should feel easy, or “fluent.” And so we associate mental difficulty with futility.

But muddling through bad ideas is a necessary step in the creative process. The first solutions that come to mind tend to be either preexisting ideas or popular wisdom. These are the paths of least resistance. Though avoiding them requires some work, it’s the surest way to find original ideas that elude our default assumptions and strategies. Instead of interpreting difficulty as a sign of failure, we should see it as a harbinger of solutions.

The serial-order effect applies to tasks that last minutes or days, but creativity also improves across years, decades, and even careers. Some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs fail to understand this point, even though, in many cases, their life’s work bears it out. [..]

Success normally comes when you’re second or third, or even 22nd, to the party. Novelty is overrated.

Persistence, however, is underrated. So the next time you’re stuck, Lucas told me, just remember: “You’re more creative than you think you are.”

Full article, A Alter, The Atlantic, 2023.5.20