We all know how to get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. But that ancient punch line refers to honing one's technical ability, not developing greater creativity. According to conventional wisdom, you either are an imaginative thinker or you aren't, and if you don't have the gift, pushing yourself to come up with innovative ideas is simply a waste of time.
A new study suggests that's entirely wrong. Researchers report that people 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.
"People consistently underestimate the value of persisting on creative tasks," Northwestern University researchers Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "Adjusting beliefs about the value of persistence may promote creativity by reducing the possibility that people quit too early, leaving their best ideas undiscovered."
Lucas and Nordgren demonstrate this in a series of seven studies, the first of which featured 24 university students who were instructed to "generate as many original ideas for things to eat or drink at a Thanksgiving dinner" as they could muster. The students were notified that their answers would be rated for originality by outside judges, and those rated as above average would earn a raffle ticket into a $50 lottery.
"People consistently underestimate the value of persisting on creative tasks."
Participants generated ideas for 10 minutes, then took a short break, after which they were instructed to spend another 10 minutes on the project. In between the two sessions, they were asked: "How many ideas do you think you will generate with the additional 10 minutes?"
The researchers underestimated the number of ideas they would come up with in that second session. What's more, the outside raters found "the ideas generated while persisting were significantly more original than ideas generated initially."
Similar results were found in the follow-up studies, most of which featured larger groups of people recruited online. But the most fascinating bit of research featured 45 people you'd think would know better—"professional comedy performers from SketchFest, the largest sketch comedy festival in the U.S."
The performers were provided with a set-up of a comedic scene and asked to create as many endings as they could. (Example: "Four people are laughing hysterically onstage. Two of them high five, and everyone stops laughing immediately and someone says....") Participants worked on the task for four minutes, predicted how many endings they would come up with during an additional four minutes, and then spent another four minutes working on the problem.
Remember, this is the sort of thing these people do for a living. And yet they, too, significantly underestimated the number of ideas they would come up with on their second attempt. "This speaks to the robustness of persistence undervaluation," the researchers write, "and demonstrates that it is not limited to novices in novel domains."
So why do we doubt ourselves? Basically, Lucas and Nordgren write, because coming up with creative ideas is hard. When a task feels effortful, they write, "people decrease their expectations about how well they will perform."
This is generally true of assignments that do not involve creativity. If you can't wrap your head around a relatively simple math problem, you're not going to do well at calculus, so it makes sense to leave that line of work to someone else.
"Creative thought is a trial-and-error process that generally produces a series of failed associations before a creative solution emerges."
But we mistakenly apply that rule of thumb to creative work, where it doesn't necessarily hold true.
"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.
But as several of the researchers' follow-up studies showed, we tend to interpret that feeling of difficulty incorrectly, assuming that it means we're simply no good, and might as well stop.
While researchers have proposed many ideas for boosting creativity in recent years, Lucas and Nordgren have come up with the simplest and, perhaps, most effective one of all: Just keep at it. As Thomas Edison said: "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time."
And Edison knew something about light bulbs going off in one's head.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.