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Creative Blocks

The 5 Most Dangerous Creativity Killers

The "what the hell!" effect and other ways we can short circuit our creativity.


When it comes to doing creative work, it’s important to not only look for ways to let our creativity thrive, but to also be mindful of insidious “creativity killers” that can sneak up and strangle our ability to come up with our best ideas. According to research from Harvard University, there are five main culprits that are responsible for killing our creativity.

It’s important to recognize these impediments to the creative thought process because many are insidious, and worse yet, most can be made on the managerial end, meaning we may be stifling our creative workers without even realizing it. For those of us doing creative work, we must be mindful of these deterrents of the creative process so we can continue to put out our most novel ideas.

1. Role Mismatch

As Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Placing people in roles that they are not fit for is a surefire way to kill creativity. Although this may seem like a managerial concern, there are personal consequences here as well. Additional research has shown that we are at our best when we are “busy” (and pushed to our limits), but not rushed. In the wrong role, we can struggle to keep up and live in a constant state of creativity-crushing panic.

2. External End-Goal Restriction

Although self-restriction can often boost creativity, the Harvard study shows that external restrictions are almost always a bad thing for creative thinking. This includes subtle language use that deters creativity, such as bosses claiming “We do things by the book around here,” or group members implicitly communicating that new ideas are not welcome.

3. Strict Ration of Resources

While money and physical resources are important to creativity, the Harvard study revealed that mental resources were most important, including having enough time. Creative people re-conceptualize problems more often than a non-creative. This means they look at a variety of solutions from a number of different angles, and this extensive observation of a project requires time. This is one of the many reasons you should do your best to avoid unnecessary near-deadline work that requires novel thinking. Also, when we are faced with too many external restrictions we spend more time acquiring more resources than actually, you know, creating.

4. Lack of Social Diversity

Homogeneous groups have shown to be better able to get along, but it comes at a cost: they are less creative. This even applies to the social groups you keep, so beware of being surrounded by people who are too similar all the time, you may end up in a creative echo-chamber.

5. Discouragement/No Positive Feedback

It’s tough to continue working on novel ideas when you haven’t received any positive feedback. This feeling is backed by psychological research that shows people who’ve started a new undertaking are most likely to give up the first time things come crashing down, also known at the “what the hell!” effect. Creative people thrive on having others impacted by their ideas. Without feedback, their motivation begins to wither and die. — How about you? What kills your creativity?

Comments (187)
  • Risa Goodman

    Also clients use words that mean nothing. and then they don’t tell you what those words mean. I would try a little UX-question, “So what does that mean to you? what are some of the attributes that come to mind when you say _____?”

    and it might be totally different than what you were thinking so repeat it back to them. they will probably see that they are not quite sure. nothing helps me more than realizing i was not clear, then i can clarify. Once I am clear I have a designer sketch sitting next to me.

  • Risa Goodman

    barf. those businesses aren’t going to exist in the New World much longer.

  • beets

    an intolerance for ambiguity, neuroticism, and insecurity all kill creativity

  • Armaan Khanna

    Each and every point… I agree with… Recently I’m facing the trouble of point.4.. Thanks Gregory for the great article.

  • Nagaraj

    Creativity is always brand new solutions , so there would be no group or person who will share it with you, but if there is a group or person who can just listen to you , then the creativity will find validity.

  • adelmo oliveira

    creativity is priority!but it’s only work eith open-minded peoplo

  • T-Ville

    Fear of failure is the cold-blooded killer of creativity.

  • writerman

    Confusing creative people with assembly line workers.

    • http://leianivey.com/ Leian Ivey

      the most ingenius comment here by far.

      I hate the struggle of getting up every morning at 9 am to be “creative”. It doesn’t happen like that.

      There days I feel inspired to play music, draw, write poetry or play video games rather than sit and force the next great piece of shit design rushed by a client onto the unsuspecting public.

      I’m a very good designer but I find myself apologizing for client work more than anything else because it’s never what I want it to be at client approval.

  • JJ

    Being around closed-minded people that want you to go by the book, instead of branching out and letting you do you.

    • nick vog

      That’s a sweeping generalization……and of course the term “close minded” is also irrelevant. It’s meant as a deflection when someone is trying to press a radical agenda. There are always circumstances when following a norm/benchmark/rule makes perfect sense/is necessary…and of course there ..are those circumstances that that demand absolute freedom and creativity, but they change all the time.

  • Ahmed Emad Eldin

    School!

  • lolo

    ur u becom teh creativ b killeng yursulf

  • carl

    di most dangerus kilers was hitler and pope and bush and obama and stalin, creative also

    • Denis Lavia

      Yes, there is a little Hitler inside all of us designers.

    • nick vog

      In WHAT universe are Bush and Obama creative?????

  • mahta e

    Biggest problem may be that people don’t try to understand the ideas that they don’t understand. If you find it strange, chances are it is something new. Ask questions and try to understand it before dismissing it. Interestingly, people who don’t “get” new ideas, eventually will get there (sometimes too late and just as it is about to reach the tipping point).

  • percychow

    Oh please let me add one more…

    #6. A boss who thinks they are creative – when clearly they are not.
    The most ill-equipped people to manage creative teams tend end up managing creative teams. And what happens is that the team either ends up quitting or the manager hires/fires employees thinking they are the problem. The issue is exacerbated when that manager is responsible for lead or sales numbers, and they use their non-creative thought process to come up with creative solutions.

  • HBOLO

    SCHOOL SCHOOL SCHOOL

  • Sandra

    How can you make such broad generalizations about creative people – they “re-conceptualize problems” more than a non-creative? that ignores the fact that creativity is diverse, that there can be creativity in problem-solving as much as there can be creativity in art, poetry, philosophy, language, ideas, etc. etc. Someone writing a beautiful poem may not be seeking to solve any problems but they are seeking to capture an idea, an image, an essence…you are ironically placing the concept of creativity itself in a box through your rhetoric.

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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.