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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 (189)
  • DonSprouse

    Be careful of putting out a blank statement on your social network, “What do you think of this?” I learned this lesson the hard way as a new designer. You end up with individuals that have no understanding of design or are jealous of your talents critiquing you or criticizing your work. Instead, have a mentore group around you of creative people that share in your passion, but have different skill sets in design for honest, constructive, and design based feedback.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anna-Harriman/1308846471 Anna Harriman

    Totally agree! The worst is when there’s some committee that you aren’t invited to present to and someone within the company has to convey your work without you there! That is possibly the most frustrating thing I’ve ever encountered.

    • Helenbeee

      I have to agree on this…. I explained a design concept based on fibonacci principle to my Director who was presenting to the Client who happened to be a Science Math whizz she shot it down in flames because he couldnt discuss it further than had the gall to have a go at me for not properly explaining the idea it was hilarious. Funnily enough he handed over the contact to the Client to me and a successful completion of a very problematic project (a Client everyone was afraid of) was done. They failed to see that she was getting frustrated by the fact that noone was giving her information that she could relay to her board of directors so she and I got on famously (well she was difficult) once she realised that I was going to give her the information she needed to do her job.

      • Sandy

        Sounds like her ego and yours came into conflict…it’s supposed to be about the client.

  • clarke

    Amen! I never experienced something as crude as just a frown and shake of a head – but I sure can empathize.

  • Lolzy

    Definitely number four!

  • Francis

    What kills your creativity ?
    — room with low ceiling

  • http://twitter.com/BillyPittard Billy Pittard

    Check out these 17 Toxic Collaborators – and stay the heck away from them! http://foryourinspiration.net/toxic-collaborators/

  • http://www.facebook.com/hsiaoyuchendesign Yu-Chen Hsiao

    Totally agree with you…
    These factors indeed make things harder~

  • Yo

    Having little or no natural light is a huge creativity killer for me.. I need windows!

  • Bill

    Yes, nice list. I’ll also add one more… distractions. Totally kills it for me. Please give us blocks of uninterrupted time. Cheers.

  • Kathleen

    Here’s what kills my creativity…. working in an environment where the owner is continuously trying to manipulate you into letting her capture your ideas and market them as her own and find ways to capture your creativity to promote her own business (whether by snapping pics when she thinks you aren’t aware or by reconfiguring your reports into something that looks as if she wrote it or at the very least approved and added her “expertise” to your input. Then she will add insult to injury by constantly saying things to the contrary. I share things pretty freely most of the time, but in this space, I find myself feeling very unsafe to be myself and let my ideas flow with my work, which zaps my energy faster than anything else. It leaves me feeling numb and later frustrated that I’m not being my true self or providing the best I can for the clients, which is important to me. – and that ultimately hurts my professional reputation as well, so it’s just a huge compound interest of creativity zapping. It’s something about the dynamic. There’s been all sorts of manipulations, mind games, and control. I’m doing my best to move into a better position and realize that it’s a sign that I’m not in the right place. I’m only posting this because it seems relevant to your topic.

  • Jim

    One way to effectively deflate the “I don’t like it” response….
    1. Tell the person that what you’re presenting ISN’T targeted to him/her. Then tell him/her who you’re targeting.
    2. Then say that you don’t care whether a person “likes” it or not. The REAL question to ask is “Will it work the way it’s supposed to work.” Substitute “work” for “like.” And avoid
    probing the “why don’t you like it” question. Never works.

  • Connie Sun

    My husband is different from me, my colleague, all of my close friends, they are all different, life is amazing everyday this way, and this proves how Social Diversity can help creativity. I always knew what I liked and never got too much influenced by other traditional crowd who didn’t like my choice, I am happy to be in the creative crowd.

  • rajeev

    rightly put!

  • Stephanie Hadrath

    Mostly I agree with the argues above, but I don’t think that discouragement or non positive feedback is necessarily a negative point.

    Many persons that work with creativity on a daily basis know that some constructive critics are necessary to improve and better up their work. Please do not understand me wrong I mean CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICS, not to destroy someone with no arguments based comments.

    Usually when you get a negative feed backs on your work the first one you should made is to ask the person for argues and then take perspective with your own work. This spoiles the person to better up the work and to get a new perspective on it.

    Personally for me the most demotivating is not to have the possibility to realize what you have in your brain cause of circumstances (like for example you wish to paint a huge picture but you don’t have enough space to store it or to paint it) However creative persons always find solutions for realizing that what they wish to do.

    Mainly I think that difficulties are there to be solved, and if you are creative you should solve them in a creative way.

  • Naveen Aysola

    Positive feedback needs to be given as per the situation. The team member might give an excellent idea/ design but it might not suit the business requirement. People should be encouraged to be creative, but it is important that the Lead explain the reason why an idea or a design is rejected in a positive manner.
    Creative people are emotional, so when giving a feedback this aspect should not be forgotten. Constructive or Positive feedback is alwasys important. If it cannot be a Positive feedback, give a Constructive feedback.

  • Naveen Aysola

    Visual appeal, business requirement, preconceived ideas are some of the reasons why a client might reject a design. Everyones tastes in life are different. I might find one Hollywood actress attractive and you might not. That unfortunately is the truth.
    Designers are one bunch who many cannot understand. In some occassions, a design rejected by one client is approved by another (with minor changes).
    A client rejecting a design can be a triple edged sword. Either the client does not understand the design OR the presenter does not communicate effectively OR the designer himself/ herself did not manage to put the requirements properly in the design.
    Designers become better with experience and learning. It is important they keep learning.

  • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

    Ha, couldn’t agree more!

  • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

    I would argue the same thing in many instances. Without every resource at your disposal, you have to ‘MacGyver’ your way to a creative end-result.

  • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

    Definitely an internal killer that creeps us on all of us from time-to-time.

  • Sean Blanda

    That’s fair, but children still need a modest amount of adversity. Check out our interview with Paul Tough for more on that: http://99u.com/articles/7233/your-iq-doesnt-matter-other-lessons-about-creativity-from-children

  • heroelinka

    The worst thing is when the client feels understood, regulate, as if the designer a better understanding of the aesthetic, and other high-pitched sound when the barrel is empty!

  • http://twitter.com/ALCEMIS Laura Delavie

    Rather than asking “why,” ask What? How? Where? to help you better understand what is behind the person’s opinion. Not every idea is a great idea. Many ideas need refining before they are amazing. Opinions about ideas are relevant as long as you understand what’s behind them. If someone says they don’t like an idea or piece of work because they don’t like you as a person, that’s a whole other story.

  • http://twitter.com/ALCEMIS Laura Delavie

    What kills my creativity is related to #2 in the article: command and control + oppressive environments.

    • elle

      My boss will take my proposal or idea, and then say, well, ‘so-and-so
      needs to approve this.’ It might be a person, or it might be a team–and
      they’re rarely experts in my area of work nor do they regularly
      interact with my job or its realities. Most of the time, if it’s a
      another individual, I get overruled; and if it goes to a team, it comes
      back different than what I submitted–but I’m still expected to own the
      project and carry it forward. The boss perceives that this is pulling in
      all the stakeholders who should be backing it, but I experience it as
      micromanaging on a larger scale, and wish that he’d just support me in
      doing the job he hired me to do.

      • Risa Goodman

        That is rough and trust me, I have it on the business side too! I have no clue if this will work but I try to package things to be handed off…in other words, I make one package of proposals or slides that are ready to be handed off to my manager’s manager.

        this is sort of like…hm…when you swing a bat and they tell you to swing through the ball…if I have to prep for one manager,I prep for the whole line. i ask, “i’ll do this but what do you need to do to get it signed off, because I’ll include that in my draft. what does finance need? i’ll include that too. what does the front end team need? I’ll include that too”– and then my manager realizes I am making it very, very easy for him to get my shit green-lighted (my average is about 70% green lighted and moved to road map).

      • OrlandoMario

        Yeap.

  • Carrie

    That really is a huge shame. Managers need to put into practice the power of positive reinforcement. Us creatives would all work harder for more praise. After all, we don’t (usually) do this for the money. Sure, more money is a nice incentive, but I actually think a regular “Thank You” resonates farther.

  • HJ

    it decribes exactly my lecturer -_-.

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