If you think brilliant ideas just simply drop out of the sky, you are wrong. A recent scientific study of Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren shows that the best ideas actually occur only after the ‘dip’. So creativity is far and foremost a matter of persistence.
During my career as a designer many years ago, I often experienced this. Long hours, evenings and sometimes even nights in which you are toiling for that ‘reasonably well’ concept for the customer, to bring that ‘ok it is a nice idea and it does have something’ to a higher level. Because it was supposed to be brilliant, great, original. And I knew it would come, I only didn’t know when this Eureka-moment would pop up. So you keep working, choose a new path, try to find inspiration in even the smallest things. And when you entirely have lost faith and have reached your ‘dip’, you take a break. But even during these short moments, the engine keeps running at full speed. And then it pops up, totally unexpected. And I knew, after all these years, it always would. It was that knowledge that, again and again, gave me the power to go on.
And now — finally — this knowledge has been scientifically proven. Through a series of experiments Lucas and Nordgren demonstrated that people systematically underestimate the number of ideas they can generate to solve a problem. They started by asking a couple of students to come up with as much recipes as possible for a Thanksgiving Dinner. After this test, the students had to estimate how much more ideas they could come up with if they would continue for another ten minutes. On average, the students thought they could come up with ten more recipes, but the reality showed it was often more than fifteen.
A similar test was done with other groups of people: stand-up comedians were asked to come up with punch lines for a joke, adults had to invent slogans for a product and another group of people needed to generate ideas to raise money for a charity project. In each and every one of these tests, the participants underestimated how many ideas they could come up with after their first ‘dip’.
After every study, the researchers asked another group of people to judge the quality of the ideas. The result was even more surprising… The best ideas were the ones that were generated after the ‘dip’. So this means that persistence does not only generate significantly more ideas, but the quality of these additional ideas is even higher than the first batch of ideas.
And still, we give up so easily. Not that surprising, because creative challenges are often perceived as very difficult. A lot of people consider themselves not to be very creative and are, because of that, convinced that after the dip the stream of ideas has entirely dried out. Hard labour and final failure on a non-creative task — for example a technical problem — often means that you need to quit. There often is only one solution, and if that solution doesn’t work, there’s simply no alternative. But with creative issues, more solutions are possible. Which is difficult to understand for most people who have a linear thought process.
‘Quantity breeds Quality’, Alex Osborn — the founder of modern-day brainstorming — already stated in the early sixties. And he was fully right! Finaly some small tips to give your unborn and potentially brilliant ideas the chances they deserve:
- Ignore your first instinct to quit early. Know that the best ideas will only pop up after the dip, especially in the first phases of the process. Just try to generate some additional ideas or come up with some alternatives, or build on the things you already have. You will see that the stream of ideas will quickly start to flow again.
- Remember that creative idea generation is per definition not easy. Everybody will reach that point in time where it seems impossible to find new ideas. That is part of every creative process. Just remember that persistence will be richly rewarded.