The Pressure to Be Creative

I am a writer and a computer programmer, both professions that require creativity. (Okay, admit that I’m not making any money off my writing, but I’m treating it as a profession nonetheless.) The thing is, being creative is not something you can follow a formula to achieve, otherwise it wouldn’t be creative. Most of my most creative ideas do not come from any brain-storming session or writing exercise, but when I am being utterly bored or having an episode of insomnia. Ideas, especially very good ideas, come to me when I am not expecting them to arrive. I would be walking in the middle of the street and a new scene for my novel would appear in my head. The same thing happens when I am working on a programming assignment. In fact, I often found that I was most productive programming work at times when I was not supposed to be doing it. For about a year I would take the train to work, taking about one hour each way. There were tables and power outlets on the train, so I would plug in my laptop and work on my programs. Those two hours were some of the most productive hours of work in my day.

A while ago someone did an experiment on creativity. The researchers took two groups of people and asked them to do a task that required creative problem-solving. One group was told they would get a small reward for doing the task correctly, while the second group was told they would get a large reward. The result was usually that the two groups performed similarly, or that the group given the large reward performed worse. It does not only hold for creative tasks, but for tasks that required “subjective engagement”, a concept I do not fully understand but I think means the person finds the task they are doing interesting.

Why do rewards fail to motivate people to do interesting tasks? Psychologists don’t yet have an answer, but perhaps this is the key to being creative. My theory is that creativity comes from taking risks, and when there is reward at stake we tend to take fewer-risks. Sometimes we have to come to the realization that not everything we do will be a resounding success. The creative process, along with many other human activities, will sometimes be beset by failures, and that’s okay.

But I think there is also another lesson to be learned, and that is we shouldn’t be afraid of being unproductive. Sometimes the only way to be productive is to do things that appear unproductive, but are really activity that gives rise to interesting ideas. If you have trouble coming up with an idea, take half an hour to do some light work such as feeding the cats or washing the dishes, and when you return you may find that you’ll have tons of ideas. Even day-dreaming can sometimes be a productive activity.

Finally, we have to face up to the fact that we can’t be creative all the time. Or that maybe we are not creative at all. The ancients viewed creativity as a gift given by the gods. But the modern world requires many of us to be creative all the time, which is impossible. The plague of procrastination does not reveal any laziness in modern society, it just is a symptom of a modern world that demands more from us than we can give. People are creative all the time, just not in ways that the economy finds productive. Just look at the vast amount of time people dedicate to writing witty comments on social media. Most of the time nobody asked them to do it, they just find the activity engaging and fun. The fact that most creative activity is economically unproductive is the reason why creativity seems so scarce in our world. It is not a flaw in human nature, just the way the economy is run now.

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