by Brian J. Lucas / HBR.org
What determines whether the ideas we generate are truly creative? 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 experiments we observed that people consistently underestimated the number of ideas they could generate while solving a creative challenge. In one, we brought 24 university students into the laboratory during the week leading up to Thanksgiving and asked them to spend ten minutes coming up with as many ideas of dishes to serve at Thanksgiving dinner as they could. Then we had them predict how many more ideas they could generate if they persisted on the task for an additional ten minutes. After that, they actually persisted for ten minutes.
On average, the students predicted they would be able to generate around 10 new ideas if they persisted. But we found that they were actually able to generate around 15 new ideas.
Several similar follow-up studies we conducted produced the same result. We asked professional comedians to generate punch lines for a sketch comedy scene; adults to generate advertisement slogans for a product; and people to come up with tactics a charity organization could use to increase donations. In each of these experiments, participants significantly underestimated how many ideas they could generate while persisting with the challenge.
mportantly, after each study we asked a separate group of people to rate the creativity of the participants’ ideas. Across the majority of our studies we found that ideas generated while persisting were, on average, rated to be more creative than ideas generated initially. Not only did participants underestimate their ability to generate ideas while persisting, they underestimated their ability to generate their most creative ideas.
Why do we underestimate the benefits of persistence? It’s because creative challenges feel difficult. 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.
Trying hard and failing to make progress on a non-creative task, like an advanced physics problem, may appropriately signal that it’s time to stop working. But creative ideas take time. They are often generated after an initial period of thinking deeply about the problem, considering different ways to frame the problem, and exploring different possible solution paths. Consider that Sir James Dyson developed over 5,000 prototypes before he patented his best-selling Dyson vacuum cleaner. Or that Walt Disney animated cartoons for nearly two decades before his first big hit, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
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.
It’s important to accurately value persistence because our beliefs powerfully regulate our behavior. If you do not recognize that persistence is valuable for creativity, you will be less likely to persist when you face your own creative challenges.
In another study, we asked participants to work on a creative challenge, and we paid them a small sum of money for each idea they generated. Then we told them they could continue generating ideas (and make more money) if they first paid a small fee to go on. We included the fee to simulate how the decision to persist always has an opportunity cost: persisting on one task means having fewer resources to invest in other tasks. Even though nearly all participants were expected to profit from persisting (based on the results of pretesting), only 54% of participants chose to continue, and as we expected, those who chose not to generated fewer creative ideas and made less money.
Our research suggests that workers typically underestimate the benefits of persistence when it comes to being creative. In other words, some workers may have creative potential that goes untapped when they decide not to persevere with a challenge. Based on our research, we offer two recommendations to avoid this:
- Ignore your first instinct to stop. When working on a tough creative challenge, you will likely face a moment when you feel stuck and can’t come up with any more ideas. You’ll first want to quit and spend your time doing something else. Temporarily ignore this instinct, especially if you’re still in the early stages of the work. Try to generate just a few more ideas, or consider just a few more alternatives. You may find that your next creative idea was closer than you imagined.
- Remember that creative problems are supposed to feel difficult. Most involve setbacks, failures, and that “stuck” feeling. It’s part of the process. Suppress your instinct to interpret these feelings as a signal that you just aren’t creative or that you’ve run out of good ideas. Reaching your creative potential often takes time, and persistence is critical for seeing a challenge through to the end.