HR & Management

What three habits lead to creativity? Doubt, procrastination and bad ideas

11 min read

06 April 2016

We all have some type of creative genius inside of us and the only way to release it is to work on it. However, a recent TED talk drummed home the fact that great implementers of creativity also have some peculiar traits.

Business psychologist Adam Grant studies those he deems to be “originals” – people who not only have new ideas but also take action to champion them. According to Grant, these people – “the type you want to bet on” – are nothing like he expected. And it all boils down to three shared habits he mentioned in a recent TED talk.

The problem was that despite aiming to one day disrupt an industry by “selling things online”, they all had jobs lined up in case the idea didn’t find a following. But that wasn’t the only reason he declined the offer: “Six went by and the day before the company was set to launch it still didn’t have a functioning website, so why would I invest? But they ended up being Warby Parker” – a US firm selling glasses online that was named the world’s most innovative company in 2015.

He added: “The first reason I passed on Warby Parker was how slow it was getting off the ground, almost as if the team was procrastinating. I’m the opposite – a precrastinator. You know that panic you feel a few hours before a big deadline when you haven’t done anything yet? That’s me months ahead of time. This served me well in college because I finished my senior thesis four months before the deadline, and I was proud of that until a few years ago. I had a student named Jihae, who claimed she had her most creative ideas when procrastinating. She turned out to be one of our most creative students, and as a business psychologist, I challenged her in order to get some data.

“She went to several companies and had people fill out surveys about how often they procrastinated. Bosses were then asked to rate how creative and innovative they were. We found that people who wait until the last minute are so busy goofing off that they don’t have any new ideas. On the flip side, those who race in are in such a frenzy of anxiety that they don’t have original thoughts either. While trying to put these findings into a book, I decided to teach myself to procrastinate. I woke up early the next morning and made a to-do list of how to get noting done. As was scheduled, I one day put the book away in mid-sentence for months. It was agony. But when I came back to it, I had new ideas.”

Along the way Grant claimed to have discovered that many great originals in history were procrastinators. Take Leonardo da Vinci, who struggled for 16 years to complete the Mona Lisa. But some of the diversions he took in optics transformed the way he modelled light and made him a better painter. Similarly, the night before Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech, he reworked it constantly until the minute he got on stage. When he got onstage, 11 minutes in, he left his prepared remarks to say four words that changed the course of history: “I have a dream.” Delaying the task of finalising the speech until the very last minute left himself open to a wide range of ideas. 

“Procrastinating is a vice when it comes to productivity, but it can be a virtue for creativity,” Grant said. “Many great originals are quick to start but they’re slow to finish. And this is what I missed with Warby Parker. When the team were dragging their heels for six months, I thought they missed the first-mover advantage. But it turns out the first-mover advantage is mostly a myth. Look at Facebook, waiting to build a social network until after Myspace and Friendster. So one of the lessons I learned is that to be original you don’t have to be first. You just have to be different and better.”

Read on to find out how bad ideas fuel creativity.

Grant also suggested the Warby Parker crew were full of doubts. “They had backup plans lined up, and that made me doubt they had the courage to be original. I realised that while on the surface a lot of originals look confident, behind the scenes, they feel the same fear and doubt the rest of us do. They just manage it differently.” 

In his research he discovered there are two different kinds of doubt. There’s self-doubt and idea doubt, the latter of which motivates you to test, experiment and refine. So the key may very well be to simply stop telling yourself you’re bad at something, and say you’re just not there yet. So how do you get there? It turns out there’s a clue in the Internet browser that you use. Grant explained that Firefox and Chrome users significantly outperform Internet Explorer and Safari users. They also stay in their jobs 15 per cent longer – and it’s not due to a technical advantage. 

This is because Internet Explorer and Safari came preinstalled on your computer. If you wanted Firefox or Chrome, you had to doubt the default option and then download a new browser. And no, it doesn’t work to suddenly switch over now because you didn’t initially have that doubt.

“Essentially, if you’re a good doubter then you will open yourself up to the opposite of déjà vu – vuja de. This is when you look at something you’ve seen many times before and all of a sudden see it with fresh eyes. It’s a screenwriter who looks at a movie script that can’t get the green light for more than half a century.” 

Take for example the age-old Disney formula of one of the main characters being an evil queen. Enter Jennifer Lee who questioned whether it truly made sense. She altered the first act of a story ready to get the green light, reinvented the villain to be a tortured hero instead and Frozen has since the most successful animated movie ever. The message? When you feel doubt, don’t let it go.

Read more about failing in business:

While originals also feel fear, they’re even more afraid of failing to try said Grant: “They know you can fail by starting a business that goes bankrupt or by failing to start a business at all. They know that in the long run, our biggest regrets are not our actions but our inactions. Elon Musk told me he didn’t expect Tesla to succeed. He was sure the first few SpaceX launches would fail to make it to orbit, let alone get back, but it was too important not to try. And for so many of us, when we have an important idea, we don’t bother to try. 

“But I have some good news for you. You are not going to get judged on your bad ideas. A lot of people think they will. If you look across industries and ask people about their biggest idea, their most important suggestion, 85 percent of them stayed silent instead of speaking up. They were afraid of embarrassing themselves, of looking stupid. But guess what? Originals have lots and lots of bad ideas, tons of them, in fact. 

“If you look across fields, the greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most. Even the three icons of classical music – Bach, Beethoven, Mozart – had to generate hundreds and hundreds of compositions to come up with a much smaller number of masterpieces. So when you see all of these traits, don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t write them off. And when that’s you, don’t count yourself out either. Know that being quick to start but slow to finish can boost your creativity, that you can motivate yourself by doubting your ideas and embracing the fear of failing to try, and that you need a lot of bad ideas in order to get a few good ones.”

Fear can be helpful because it alerts us to danger, whether justified or not, but it can also wreak havoc on a business by choking creativity and ambition. Here’s ten ways to slay your corporate dragons.