By Roberta Kwok
Based on the research of Brian J. Lucas and 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.”
Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer based near Seattle.
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