5 Myths About Creativity

Published: May 11, 2012

 Workplace Issues       

The Don Drapers of the world are having their moment at Creative Week in New York City right now. But far from exclusive to the advertising world, "creative" thinking, problem solving, and solutions are something all of us have been lectured on at some point. Just take a moment for a mental montage of the many times you've been instructed to "think outside the box." A lot, right?

Outside of the 1960s advertising industry, though, booze, procrastination, the solitude of corner offices are luxuries few of us enjoy. How to be creative without these staples of artistic thought?

Luckily, many of our ideas about creativity—and what fuels it—are myths. Here are a few of the top myths about how creativity works , and what can really get your gears turning instead:

1. A "prize" will motivate you

Think a raise or commission would perk up your performance? Go ahead and ask for it, but don't count on it to boost your work.

Studies have found that financial rewards can boost the amount of work you do—meaning yes, you will work harder--but not the quality of it. Meaning, like Don Draper, you may pull a boozy all nighter of brainstorming, but all nine of your ideas have as much chance of stinking as one.

And the higher the incentive? Well, at a certain threshold, the more likely you are to screw up. Better to do your brainstorming when the stakes are low, get your idea approved, and then let your bonus hinge on the execution.

2. You'll work best under pressure

Many people self-report that they work better with a time crunch, or high performance stakes—but that's usually because poor work habits dictate that they only ever complete tasks under the gun. The reality is, performance is likely to suffer under extreme pressure, as much as by 45%, according  to one study.

And the bad-effects are lasting: research has found that there's a two-day "hangover" effect of lowered creativity after a few days of intense pressure. You're better off doing the creative portions of a project long before your deadline, during leisure time. That way your mind can wander—without fixating on a ticking clock.

3. You have to hunker down and focus

Perhaps Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had the right idea on this one: good times can lead to great ideas. Laughter—alcohol too, for that matter— have been found to be a great creativity stimulants, perhaps because they relax your boundaries and lower inhibitions.

Within reason, letting loose a little with a giggle or a two-martini lunch may help ideas you would normally self-edit to come through your consciousness—and eventually, your mouth at your next meeting.

To help tickle your funny bone, try incorporating your favorite silly stuff into the workplace—hang printouts of Rage Comics, watch Louis CK on your lunch break, or have a beer on your lunch break with your rowdiest coworkers. You may find the creative juices flowing—and the pressure off—when you get back to your desk.

4. Two heads are better than one

Introverts will likely have a hard time relaxing enough to do real thinking in a group environment. And everybody has a hard time thinking risky thoughts if a team is at all critical or has a tendency to rag on each other, even in a joking manner. Team environments may be great for presenting ideas you already have. But try generating a few on your own first, before bringing in an audience (or, depending on your coworkers, a panel of judges).

5. Distractions are bad

We often picture artistic geniuses creating in tortured solitude. But if you've ever stared a blank Word document, you know how unhelpful sensory deprivation can be sometimes.

For most of us, a little stimulation from our environments is a good thing, and can often prompt the best ideas--ones we'd have never thought of purely on our own.

The key to harnessing background action is to be mindful of what kind of stimuli is helpful, and what's truly distracting. A coworker's phone chatting might drive you nuts, but conversations at a coffee shop might lull you into a flow state of mind.

New sights or smells can help too—try getting outside for a walk around the neighborhood, or bring your notebook to a park bench.  Even swapping desks with a colleague can get your brain working in new ways.  

--Cathy Vandewater, Vault.com

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