Like most college freshmen, my experience in the requisite English 101 meant tackling a 10-page research project that would count for the bulk of my grade. I already considered myself a writer, and I’d had my share of high school success at producing such long-form papers. I was confident I could do the work. The problem, however, was that I had never mastered the art of choosing a topic.
Find something you’re interested in, my professor had encouraged us. Other students tackled topics like sports and fashion and pets. But, for reasons I am still unsure of, I picked Aristotle.
“Ummm, entire books have been written about Aristotle, ” my professor said. “Can you narrow down the topic?”
I pored over the Aristotle entries in the library encyclopedia, hoping to find some curiosity I could research and write about.
“What about Aristotle’s logic?” I suggested, not realizing that entire books were also written about that.
“Maybe you could choose one element of Aristotle’s logic, ” my professor suggested. “Maybe the syllogism?” You know, if A = B and B = C then A = C. At this point, I think she was just hoping C, or worse F, wouldn’t equal my final grade because I couldn’t come up with a suitable topic.
So, with my professor’s blessing, I wrote a 10-page research paper on Aristotle’s syllogism. While it wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever written about, it outshone the topic of my persuasive speech in public speaking class the following semester: why you should have your home tested for radon. As you can imagine, my classmates were riveted and went straight to their dorm rooms to begin testing.
What Determines Whether an Idea is Truly Creative?
Thankfully, I’ve gotten better at idea generation over the years, but new research highlighted in a recent Harvard Business Review article might help even more.
“What determines whether the ideas we generate are truly creative?” ask professors Brian J. Lucas and Loran Nordgren in “Giving Up Is the Enemy of Creativity.” “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 studies, Lucas and Nordgren asked students to predict how many creative ideas they could generate for overcoming a challenge. Then, they had them race the clock to come up with their lists. Once the time was up and the students felt tapped out, researchers asked them again to predict how many ideas they could come up with during an additional 10 minutes. Then the clock started a second time. For anyone who has ever petered out at the end of a brainstorming session, the results were surprising.
“Not only did participants underestimate their ability to generate ideas while persisting, they underestimated their ability to generate their most creative ideas, ” the researchers write.
Additional studies were conducted with people in a variety of creative pursuits—comedy sketches, advertising slogans, charity events—and the results were the same.
One Man’s Writer’s Block is Another Man Giving Up
“Why do we underestimate the benefits of persistence? It’s because creative challenges feel difficult, ” Lucas and Nordgren concluded. “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. … But our work shows that when creative challenges start to feel difficult, most people lower their expectations about the performance benefits of perseverance, and consequently, underestimate their own ability to generate ideas.”
In the writing life, there are many opportunities for finding ourselves stuck in this way. Not only does idea generation stymie us, but so do the conundrums of plot, structure, and word choice. We run out of steam with longer works, and sometimes, because our creative predictors run low, we don’t think we even have what it takes to start. Some people call this writer’s block. Lucas and Nordgren would call it giving up too soon.
We can respond to being stuck in a variety of ways, many of which will only hinder our creative work even more. We could quit, of course. We could also stop early, rushing through an ending or becoming satisfied with work that is unpolished or even unfinished. Sometimes, we even unstick ourselves by cheating, by using someone else’s words as our own or by mimicking someone else’s voice or style rather than sludging through toward our own unique expressions.
But there’s another way.
Two Suggestions when Facing a Creative Challenge
Using their findings as a guide, Lucas and Nordgren offer two suggestions for people facing a creative challenge. To begin, “ignore your first instinct to stop.” We’ve all had that moment in our writing when the first difficulty arises and we seriously consider giving up. I felt that way after writing the first couple of paragraphs in this essay. If we persist through those early temptations, though, if we keep working, keep trying to come up with more ideas, our new material may be better than what we started with. “You may find that your next creative idea was closer than you imagined, ” Lucas and Nordgren write.
Their second suggestion for pushing through creative challenges is this: “Remember that creative problems are supposed to feel difficult, ” the authors write. “Most involve setbacks, failures, and that ‘stuck’ feeling. It’s part of the process.” Creative challenges don’t equal failure, nor are they a sign that you should be pursuing something a little less imaginative, like maybe double-entry bookkeeping. In fact, the difficulty you are facing may indicate you are on the verge of creative success … if you don’t give up.
A lot of us have been doing this writing thing for a while, but really we are just getting started. If we follow the path of persistence, the best is yet to come. It’s as simple as A = C, Aristotle might say.
Photo by Rachel Elaine, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig, author of The Art of the Essay: From Ordinary Life to Extraordinary Words.
What kind of writer are you? asks Charity Singleton Craig,
as she opens you to a journey of discovery about the art of essay writing that explores both practical and reason-for-