Think You’re Out of Creative Ideas? Think Again.
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Innovation Careers Mar 7, 2016

Think You’re Out of Cre­ative Ideas? Think Again.

We down­play the impor­tance of per­sis­tence in cre­ative success.

Persistence, like an all-nighter at work, is the key to creative success

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Brian J. Lucas

Loran Nordgren

Here’s a famil­iar sce­nario: You’re sit­ting at your desk try­ing to come up with cre­ative solu­tions to a prob­lem. You rack your brain for a while, scrib­ble down half a dozen ideas, and then hit a wall. Have you already reached your cre­ative peak? Or should you force your­self to keep brainstorming?

Accord­ing to new research from the Kel­logg School, per­sist­ing in a cre­ative task may pay off more than you think. In fact, your best ideas are like­ly to come lat­er in the process— and if you stop pre­ma­ture­ly, you could miss a big insight.

Peo­ple just give up too eas­i­ly,” says Loran Nord­gren, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions. They’re rob­bing them­selves of their more inter­est­ing ideas by giv­ing up too soon.”

Nordgren’s team found that peo­ple often under­es­ti­mate how many new ideas they can gen­er­ate if they per­se­vere. This prob­a­bly aris­es from feel­ing like the cre­ative task is hard — and its suc­cess uncer­tain. Think of it this way: After spend­ing five min­utes doing long divi­sion, you prob­a­bly have a good idea of how many more prob­lems you could solve if giv­en an extra five min­utes. But it is much hard­er to pre­dict your tra­jec­to­ry of achieve­ment on a cre­ative task, which makes the ben­e­fits of per­se­ver­ing less clear.

That feel­ing that you’ve kind of run out of ideas is inac­cu­rate and, in a sense, shouldn’t be lis­tened to.” —Loran Nordgren

The impli­ca­tion is that peo­ple should ini­tial­ly ignore the voice that tells them the well of ideas has run dry.

In cre­ative tasks, per­sis­tence will buy you a lit­tle more than you think it will,” says Bri­an Lucas, who worked on the study as a Ph.D. stu­dent at Kel­logg and is now a fac­ul­ty mem­ber at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Booth School.

Try, Try Again

Anec­dotes and research alike sug­gest that per­sis­tence is key to cre­ative suc­cess. After all, James Dyson devel­oped 5,127 pro­to­types in his quest to invent a bet­ter vac­u­um clean­er. And one study showed that the num­ber of famous pieces a com­pos­er pro­duces dur­ing a giv­en time peri­od is linked to the sheer vol­ume of com­po­si­tions produced.

How­ev­er, it is not clear whether peo­ple under­stand the pow­er of per­sis­tence in cre­ative work. That research is out there on the actu­al link between per­sis­tence and cre­ativ­i­ty,” Lucas says. But there’s almost noth­ing look­ing at people’s per­cep­tions of that link.”

To test these per­cep­tions, Lucas and Nord­gren ran a series of exper­i­ments in which par­tic­i­pants were asked to brain­storm cre­ative ideas dur­ing two short time peri­ods. After the first inter­val, they had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to pre­dict how many ideas they would gen­er­ate dur­ing the sec­ond inter­val. This allowed researchers to com­pare their pre­dic­tions with the actu­al num­ber of ideas gen­er­at­ed. In some cas­es, the team also recruit­ed oth­er peo­ple online to rate the orig­i­nal­i­ty of the ideas gen­er­at­ed dur­ing the experiment.

In the first exper­i­ment, 24 uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents brain­stormed orig­i­nal dish­es to serve at Thanks­giv­ing. The stu­dents under­es­ti­mat­ed how much they could accom­plish if they per­se­vered: they pre­dict­ed they could come up with about ten more ideas dur­ing the sec­ond inter­val, but they actu­al­ly gen­er­at­ed about fifteen.

Inter­est­ing­ly, many of the ideas gen­er­at­ed dur­ing the first inter­val were com­mon­place, such as turkey and mashed pota­toes. But the ideas became more cre­ative dur­ing the sec­ond part, receiv­ing high­er aver­age rat­ings for orig­i­nal­i­ty. For instance, one par­tic­i­pant sug­gest­ed turkey-shaped waffles.

A Hint of Doubt

Is this under­es­ti­ma­tion spe­cif­ic to cre­ative work?

The researchers ran a sec­ond exper­i­ment in which some par­tic­i­pants per­formed a high-cre­ativ­i­ty task, such as brain­storm­ing uses for a card­board box, while oth­ers were giv­en a low-cre­ativ­i­ty task, such as solv­ing sim­ple math problems.

The par­tic­i­pants in the low-cre­ativ­i­ty group did slight­ly under­val­ue per­sis­tence: they esti­mat­ed they could gen­er­ate an aver­age of sev­en more solu­tions and end­ed up pro­duc­ing eight. But the high-cre­ativ­i­ty group under­val­ued per­sis­tence even more. They pre­dict­ed an aver­age of six more ideas and actu­al­ly gen­er­at­ed ten.

What might explain the results? Because cre­ative work is non­lin­ear, it is not clear how close you are to a good solu­tion and whether more effort will yield more ideas. There’s still that hint of doubt because you’re not sure exact­ly how much progress you’re mak­ing,” Lucas says.

This is espe­cial­ly true when cre­ative tasks feel hard. Indeed, in anoth­er exper­i­ment, the researchers found that the more dif­fi­cult a cre­ative task felt, the more peo­ple under­es­ti­mat­ed the num­ber of ideas they could pro­duce while persisting.

Doubt­ing vs. Rec­og­niz­ing Your Cre­ative Abilities

The researchers won­dered whether peo­ple would con­tin­ue to under­val­ue per­sis­tence if there was mon­ey on the line.

To test this, par­tic­i­pants were paid a small amount of mon­ey for each cre­ative idea gen­er­at­ed dur­ing a four-minute exer­cise. They were then giv­en an invest­ment” oppor­tu­ni­ty. If they gave back a bit of their earn­ings, they could con­tin­ue gen­er­at­ing ideas — and earn­ing mon­ey — for an addi­tion­al four minutes.

The researchers found that, over­all, it was in the par­tic­i­pants’ best finan­cial inter­est to con­tin­ue brain­storm­ing, even though not every­one did so. Mean­ing, those who doubt­ed the pow­er of per­sis­tence did so to their detriment.

The researchers also won­dered about peo­ple who have exper­tise in tack­ling cre­ative chal­lenges: come­di­ans. Would they more accu­rate­ly gauge their cre­ative output?

Forty-five sketch-com­e­dy group mem­bers took part in an exper­i­ment where they were asked to come up with pos­si­ble end­ings to a comedic scene. One set­up, for exam­ple, read: Four peo­ple are laugh­ing hys­ter­i­cal­ly on stage. Two of them high five and every­one stops laugh­ing imme­di­ate­ly and some­one says ______.”

As in the pre­vi­ous exper­i­ments, the come­di­ans under­es­ti­mat­ed how much per­sis­tence would pay off when it came to gen­er­at­ing nov­el end­ings. But they were much clos­er to accu­rate­ly gaug­ing their suc­cess than oth­er par­tic­i­pants. The come­di­ans esti­mat­ed an aver­age of five ideas and gen­er­at­ed six. Lucas posits that they may be more attuned to the work­ings of the cre­ative process and there­fore able to make more accu­rate estimates.

The Val­ue of Persistence

The prac­ti­cal, take-home mes­sage is that if you reach a point in a cre­ative task where you feel stuck, ignore that instinct — at least for a while.

That feel­ing that you’ve kind of run out of ideas is inac­cu­rate and, in a sense, shouldn’t be lis­tened to,” Nord­gren says.

The researchers are not advo­cat­ing that peo­ple per­se­vere indef­i­nite­ly; the study par­tic­i­pants worked on their tasks for only short time peri­ods. So it is not yet clear whether the results apply to sce­nar­ios on the scale of hours, days, or weeks. And there is no mag­ic for­mu­la to fig­ure out when you have reached the best solution.

Still, the researchers find it use­ful to apply their research to their own work. For instance, if Nord­gren and his col­leagues have a half-hour meet­ing and come up with only mediocre ideas, they do not give up.

Judge the qual­i­ty of the solu­tions you have thus far, and if they’re inad­e­quate, you should con­tin­ue for­ward,” he says. Because there’s good rea­son to believe that there are bet­ter solu­tions out there.”

Featured Faculty

Loran Nordgren

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer based near Seattle.

About the Research

Lucas, Brian J., and Loran F. Nordgren. 2015. “People Underestimate the Value of Persistence for Creative Performance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 109: 232–243.

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