What is the real motivation for creativity?
For most of history people did not use the word creativity very much. They just invented and discovered things in the course of their lives without applying special labels to them. But something strange happened to in modern times. We developed a romance around the notion of creativity. Most people today think of it as an extra layer of cognitive powers, that only special people have. This is untrue and there’s an easy way to prove it.
Imagine you are getting ready to work. You stop at your door to do your pre-airlock check for your phone, your wallet and your keys. You realize your keys aren’t in your pocket. Oh no! And at this moment an important sequence of cognitive events takes place.
- Your brain instinctively tells you to look by the door in the place where you usually put your keys when you come home. So you go and look, perhaps at the basket on the shelf right by the door where they usually go. And they are not there!
- Now your brain thinks a bit more. Maybe they fell? So you check on the floor and behind the basket. Not there!
- And here is where the magic starts: your brain starts getting increasingly creative. You look under the basket. You look in the hallway outside. You look in clothes you haven’t worn in days, or weeks. Then you check the basket again (perhaps the keys magically reappeared since the last time you looked?).
- You consider increasingly unusual explanations for where your keys are. Maybe you left them at the restaurant last night (which is unlikely since you got into your apartment)? Or someone broke into your place and stole them! (which also doesn’t make sense as if they broke in they don’t need your keys). And on and on your brain will go inventing and trying out solutions.
The lesson here is that when suitably motivated your brain will be creative all on its own. During step 3 above you did not have to engage in a brainstorming exercise or put on a magic hat of ideation. Your mind will, when motivated and presented with a hard problem, generate inventive, unusual and unorthodox ideas. This helps explain why our species has survived despite not being very strong or very fast. We are good at solving problems and when we are motivated can persist in trying to solve even very hard ones.
Now some people hear this and say that looking in strange places for keys isn’t really creative because most of those ideas are failures. But that’s just it. Creative work is very much like looking for keys. You have to do the work to explore many alternatives, many of them unsuccessful, until you arrive at a worthy idea. Even the most brilliant writers and artists write first drafts and draw early sketches that they eventually throw away. They learn much from those “failed” ideas and those lessons help make their second, third and final drafts better than the last. Working with ideas is never an efficient process. It’s messy and uncertain no matter how talented you are.
All this means that when we don’t feel creative often all that’s missing is a strong enough motivator. Sometimes we have demotivators in our own minds, like fear of being judged by others or fear of failure and it’s only by becoming more self-aware that our natural creativity can be free to surface. Other times we’re in cultures or teams that penalize creative thinking. But even in the best situations remember that creativity is a kind of work. You have to burn extra calories. And most of the time we, and our brains, prefer to be efficient and do the least amount of work necessary. But when we are suitably motivated, perhaps out of fear (losing your keys) or passion (solving a problem you care about deeply), our brains have most of the tools we need already built in.
- Thanks to George Carlin and his ‘losing things’ riff
- This essay is one of the many lessons from my latest book, The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity. So if you liked this essay you should check out the book.