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Giving Up Is the Enemy of Creativity

23 December 2015

From The Harvard Business Review:

What determines whether the ideas we generate are truly creative? Recent research of ours finds that one common factor often gets in the way: we tend to undervalue the benefits of persistence.

In a series of experiments we observed that people consistently underestimated the number of ideas they could generate while solving a creative challenge. In one, we brought 24 university students into the laboratory during the week leading up to Thanksgiving and asked them to spend ten minutes coming up with as many ideas of dishes to serve at Thanksgiving dinner as they could. Then we had them predict how many more ideas they could generate if they persisted on the task for an additional ten minutes. After that, they actually persisted for ten minutes.

On average, the students predicted they would be able to generate around 10 new ideas if they persisted. But we found that they were actually able to generate around 15 new ideas.

Several similar follow-up studies we conducted produced the same result. We asked professional comedians to generate punch lines for a sketch comedy scene; adults to generate advertisement slogans for a product; and people to come up with tactics a charity organization could use to increase donations. In each of these experiments, participants significantly underestimated how many ideas they could generate while persisting with the challenge.

Importantly, after each study we asked a separate group of people to rate the creativity of the participants’ ideas. Across the majority of our studies we found that ideas generated while persisting were, on average, rated to be more creative than ideas generated initially. Not only did participants underestimate their ability to generate ideas while persisting, they underestimated their ability to generate their most creative ideas.

Why do we underestimate the benefits of persistence? It’s because creative challenges feel difficult. People often have the experience of feeling “stuck,” being unsure of how to find a solution, or hitting a wall with one idea and having to start over again.

Link to the rest at the Harvard Business Review


6 Comments to “Giving Up Is the Enemy of Creativity”

  1. Across the majority of our studies we found that ideas generated while persisting were, on average, rated to be more creative than ideas generated initially.

    Of course! Every writer knows that the first idea that comes to mind to solve a storytelling problem is often the obvious idea. We ditch those first two or three ideas and go for the fifth or sixth. Unless we choose to create a fun twist on one of those early ideas. Hah! 😀

  2. Great article. Thanks, PG!

  3. Persistence – or stubbornness, if you insist – seems to be one of the traits I have.

    I’m not fast, and I’m not timely, but I will get there. And once you get me started, it is hard to shift me. Just not good for things where mental or physical quickness is more important than stick-to-it-iveness. Like cooking.

  4. In my own writing and my how-to books, I suggest that writers make a list of at least 20 ways they might solve a story problem. As JM Ney-Grimm says, the first few are always the most obvious. The middle set are generally the silly ones, and only as the list grows, do the most original emerge. Sometimes I’ll list a hundred or more before hitting on story gold.

    ~~Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good write~~

  5. I needed to read this, this particular morning. Thanks for the article.

  6. To me, there’s a difference between willfulness and stubborness.

    Willfulness = I MUST do that.
    Stubbornness = I will NOT do that.

    The first is infinitely more valuable.

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