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The 11 greatest enemies of creativity

What zaps your creativity? Let us know what you would change or add to this list of creativity killers.

In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, where the daily tasks required in a large number of jobs require not repetitive button-pushing but independent and complex thinking, we are often exhorted to "be creative" or "use some creativity." Which would be fine, if creativity were a little dance one could do on command like a well-trained circus seal. But, for better or worse, the act of creation contains a certain morsel of irreducible mystery. It's intuitive and holistic, rather than analytical and linear (which is the gear we're usually in when we're struggling to get work done). It prospers under certain conditions and perishes under others. Here are 11 factors that often vaporize folks' creative juices:

1. Shame

The No. 1 cause of death for good ideas is to be smothered in the cradle by repression. There are enough critics, haters, and the merely indifferent out there in the external world. Often we fear these responses so much that we internalize them, and invoke them preemptively, even unconsciously. We fall victim to shame, guilt, negativity, low self-esteem, or just plain healthy tendencies of skepticism and self-doubt. The thing is, there's a time for judgment, analysis, and editing - those are all key if you want to produce something good - but that time comes after you've given your ideas a chance to breathe. In the initial phase, the watchword is play: un-self-conscious, consequence-free, uninhibited play. Intellect, discretion, and second thoughts can all wait. Those can help you sculpt or prune what you've got (in a subtractive way, like a bonsai tree), but if you use them from the get-go, you won't produce the raw materials you need.

2. Ego

As with many of the items on this list, you can have too much ego, not enough, or the wrong kind. The ranks of great artists and innovators are certainly filled with narcissists and egomaniacs. A healthy sense of worth is crucial to help provide the courage to overcome shame, silencing the doubts within you and without. Ambition, too, is necessary; it may well be a virtue to be humble, but it is not a virtue that often correlates with great deeds. However, excessive self-regard not only makes one impossible to work with, it can bleed through to one's work in the form of self-indulgence or complacency. Too much praise can be just as stifling as too little encouragement.

3. Orthodoxy

There is no room for creativity when dogma takes over. Inflexible, rigidly set ideas will stifle free expression every time. "It has to be this way," one says. "Does it? Why, exactly? What if we tried this instead?" Many brilliant breakthroughs have come from that impulse. Yet it's not merely the closed-mindedness of fixed belief that can hold us back: it's also the convenience of habit, the laziness of stereotyped thinking. Stereotyping is something our brains do constantly, creating two-dimensional "thumbnails" as shortcuts to reduce complexity and make the world manageable. Defamiliarization, the act of looking at something as though for the first time, can bypass these filters and open up new possibilities.

4. Politics

Politics can be an enemy to creativity on multiple planes. On the most obvious or extreme macro level, the commissar might come and lock you up for writing or painting the wrong thing. Luckily in America, the First Amendment affords basic protections for free expression across all media, but only from government interference. Marketplace realities impose a more subtle, and for that reason insidiously powerful, restraint. People are inclined to self-censor ideas they know will be unpopular. This extends to the smaller scale as well; junior members of a company are unlikely to air ideas that second-guess the basic premises of their superiors.

5. Money

The relationship between money and creativity is an interesting one. Many acts of creation (think of architecture or movies) require a substantial budget. Even writers (who nominally require only a pen and pad) have to put food on the table. Still, even the most dire straits often spur on creators; J.K. Rowling credits the public benefits system in the United Kingdom for giving her enough of a pittance to subsist on, while she wrote her way to one of the world's greatest fortunes with Harry Potter. For lesser spirits, or in less generous societies, the stress may well be demotivating, and whatever mindless form of wage slavery is available may look like the only option. An extreme lack of funding can push people away from creativity, toward sheer practicality or even triage. However, extreme comfort has its own perils too. Riches can breed contentment, while on the other hand, having something to lose may make one less inclined to take chances.

6. Collaborators

The dynamic of creativity that takes place in groups provides a fascinating and mysterious object of study. Under ideal conditions, alchemy that produces more than the sum of its parts occurs. Take something like The Beatles, or the great actor-director partnerships: von Sternberg and Dietrich, Ford and Wayne, Scorsese and De Niro. The chemistry has to be right to produce the perfect give-and-take (and sometimes the chemistry is too right to last, especially in sexually charged "muse" situations), and there's no way to predict it. Some great creative minds simply work better in solitude. Then, too, there are extroverts who draw energy from group settings, and collapse into boredom if left to their own devices.

7. Family

Heroism, someone once wrote, is a way of being that is not conducive to family life. Artists, at least in our romantic conception of them, fit this definition well. Often the most potent creators on the world stage prove to be appalling parents and spouses at home. There are plenty of counterexamples, of course, but they're the exceptions that prove the rule. Even creative dyads like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, or Charles and Ray Eames were rarely as happy, or equal, as they seemed. Apart from the demanding depth of family relationships, even what we would colloquially call "having a life" can be an impediment to creation. Fun, overstimulation, distractions, and even happiness and security can lead to loss of focus, procrastination, and excuse-making.

8. Addiction

Much ink has been spilled regarding the connection between art and addiction. The stress, and frequent despair, of pushing oneself to create can make escape seem tempting. However, the motivations of users vary. Writers in particular are legendary for their reliance on the disinhibiting effects of alcohol. Many of us count on a boost from coffee, while some abuse prescription medicines or amphetamines to work all night. Seekers employ psychedelics to gain new perspectives, via what Rimbaud called "the systematic derangement of the senses." Cocaine users push their egos to grandiose heights, only to come back to earth in a shattering crash. Artists whose drive comes from a profound inner pain are susceptible to opiates like heroin. All of these are ultimately crutches, which often end up further hobbling creativity, and are punishing in varying degrees to one's health.

9. Education

Again, this is a matter of balance. While we always speak of education as a positive in our society, there are counterexamples. A naive lack of instruction has always provided outsider artists with great vitality, while established folk traditions often pass on a fantastic wealth of ability that's almost impossible to transfer to a formal academic setting. Amateur enthusiasts have made many a breakthrough, from the airplane to the PC, that smarter people "knew" were impossible or pointless. Overeducation can lead (the word "educate" itself means "lead away from") to exactly the kind of rigidity and dogma listed at No. 3 here.

10. Deadlines

This is the most salient reality of creative work as it operates in the real world. Getting things in on time, on budget, forces one to make things happen. Unreasonable levels of pressure, though, can backfire, leading to "writer's block" and other forms of paralysis or even nervous breakdowns. On a related note, for those who've proven their creative chops, the world's high expectations can seem weighty or even crippling (thus the common "sophomore slump" phenomenon).

11. Lack of restrictions

The only thing worse than deadlines is no deadlines. A total lack of pressure leads to nothing much getting done; one can waffle endlessly and tinker infinitely, never finishing a project. Overindulgence can lead to flaccid creations. Creativity is a game. It's related to our faculties for problem solving. We look at a situation and think, playfully, what would be a clever, elegant way to solve this? The most radical revolutions in modern art would not have meant a thing if their proponents hadn't been deeply trained in the old ways of doing things. They would have had nothing to react against. We need parameters within which we can be creative - not set in stone, but constituting a kind of scaffolding that gives us something to work with. Setting too many rules will kill creativity, but so will setting no rules at all.

This is a guest post by Rosa Ray, a freelance writer for Onlinecollegecourses.com. The piece was originally published on Onlinecollegecourses.com.

TechRepublic resources about creativity

16 comments
NWwoman
NWwoman

I am an idea person. I also am someone who constantly thinks of new solutions to old problems. The greatest obstacle I face is the "no" people, who seem to exist in numbers far exceeding the "let's try" or "here's another idea" people. I find it exhausting to be in groups (a requirement at any university) and to constantly hear negative responses or silence. I finally gave up, refuse to work in a university and am now running my own business, where the boss (me) demands creativity and new ideas. Nirvana.

Dyalect
Dyalect

It goes without saying that an open environment that encourages all ideas (good and bad) to be put forth ensures creativity will always be nurtured. Its been said to death, but great ideas come from thinking outside of the box without fear of being shot down or mocked.

chdchan
chdchan

Nearly all creative activities require additional resources, particularly ample time to convince, prepare, introduce and deploy, let alone much money. So being mediocrely conservative is an usual way to play safe rather than to pursue brave ventures. No wonder creativity is only confined to affluent enterprises with emphasis on R&D.

TechnoDoc
TechnoDoc

Nice list with reasonable rationalizations. Not sure i can do much about most of them, but it points out how dysfunctional a lot of our "systems" are. Thanks for posting this interesting article.

Rick in PA
Rick in PA

Fatigue should be on the list. You need your rest.

garytech57
garytech57

Increasingly, in the workplace as well as family settings, contemplating how to better our condition has to be a goal to strive for. When I managed people, I asked for their input, in a formal setting (monthly meeting) and on a regular basis into how they felt they would improve those processes they were responsible for. In support of this approach, I provided tools such as brainstorming and clear, concise documentation (instructions, policy procedures, etc.), and the training in their intent, with examples from previous results to get their creative juices flowing. I also fostered a practice of allowing them time during prescribed periods to grasp 'innovative thinking.' Quiet moments spent researching a process as well as group meetings where ideas were kicked around got great results in my group. I believe these moments of contemplation are just as important as time spent filling in a form, learning a new process or performing your daily tasks.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

Once worked at a place where there was one guy that every new idea had to be run past. Seemed to me that whatever someone suggested the answer was always the same; "We tried that back in, the 1960s/1970s and it didn't work." So, the idea was always shot down and the status quo continued. Complaining to management had no effect, because The Historian had been with the company longer than anyone else. Eventually, however, management begain to see our side of things, all it took was The Historian saying; "A website? We tried that back in, the 1974 and it didn't work."

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

Not everyone is creative, and there is nothing wrong with not being creative. If EVERYONE was creative the world would be filled with musicians, artists, writers, etc and there would be no one left to simply push the buttons, vacuum the floor, and do the other not-very-creative-or-exciting-but-needs-to-be-done work. In the same manner, not everyone is mathematically inclined, or interested in politics, psychology, etc. Insisting that people "be creative" simply adds pressure where it is unneeded. Best to simply encourage them to be the best they can, not be what you (or I) think they should be.

Ray Baker
Ray Baker

Lack of any recognition or reward may not stifle creativity but it does stifle the drive to even try.

Jeff_D_Programmer
Jeff_D_Programmer

Related to deadlines is overload. I have had several projects where I would really have liked to do something special, learn something new, or come up with a better way of doing a task, but I just didn't have the time to go down that road - even if the client was more than willing to work with me on it - because I had too many other tasks pressing on me at the same time.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Fear Of being wrong. Particularly relevant in a corporate environment where infallibility is encouraged to the point of stifling any change or worse still disguising failure as success, so therefore change must unnecessary, otherwise something that had to be "right" would suffer an implication of wrongness.

Ron_007
Ron_007

I hate hearing "...but we've always done it that way ..." given the rate of change in computing, if "always" is more than a couple of years I see it as the best reason to at least look for feature changes that may have been introduced. Another "favorite" is "...if it ain't broke, don't fix it..." While that is not totally unreasonable, it is an incomplete statement. The missing, important part, of the statement is defining "broke" AND "ain't broke". Just because a program runs to the end does not mean it is "ain't broke". All to often I've seen programs / processes that with just a little optimizing run in a fraction of the time and cost. While it can be argued that it is "ain't broke", your company can GO BROKE running it, wasting money and computing resources.