Because either you’ve got a creative solution to a problem or you don’t, right? And frankly, either you’re a creative person or you’re not, and I often fear I’m a clunky, workaday bore merely pretending to be a creative person.
But it turns out that creativity isn’t a lightning bolt of inspiration, and it isn’t reserved for artists or other so-called creative types: The key to creativity is actually persistence, reports Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard.
In a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at Northwestern University conducted a series of seven studies. The first assigned participants a creative task—brainstorming original menu items for Thanksgiving dinner—and had them generate ideas in two 10-minute sessions with a break in between. At the end of the first session, the researchers asked the participants to estimate how many ideas they’d generate in the second session. Outside “judges” evaluated the creativity of the ideas.
The results? Not only did participants underestimate how many items they’d be able to come up with in the second session, the second session produced significantly more creative results.
The researchers then repeated the experiment in follow-up studies, with similar results. In one, the researchers asked a group of comics to come up with funny endings to comedic scenarios. The comics—who do this for a living, remember—also underestimated how many jokes they’d be able to write in the second session.
Jacob writes: “[P]eople consistently underestimate how many creative ideas they can come up with if they continue to work on a problem, rather than giving up in the wake of mediocre initial results. What’s more, the study finds the most creative ideas tend to arise after many others have been considered and discarded. If you give up too soon, chances are you’re not allowing your most promising notions to emerge.”
So, yeah, my novel-writing stall is me “giving up in the wake of initially mediocre results”—results that, if I kept going and didn’t cave to the cheap temptations of the Internet—I might eventually push past.
Jacobs writes: “‘Creative thought is a trial-and-error process that generally produces a series of failed associations before a creative solution emerges,’ the researchers note. It’s often difficult to know when you’re nearing a breakthrough; that ‘Aha!’ moment may occur immediately following a period of deep frustration.”
The first round of solutions are a “let’s try anything at all” period, a stage you have to go through before you break on through to the good stuff. If you let that “ugh, this is terrible, I’m terrible, I give up” moment halt your progress, you’ll quit before you get to your own best work. What separates the women from the girls, so to speak, is persistence.
So here’s my new motto, seven words that I’ll repeat to myself every time I open up the laptop: Just keep going, even when you suck. Ignore the voice that says you’re terrible; ignore the well of frustration at every lousy idea you come up with. Just keep going.