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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Creative Blocks

Use Your Anger To Smash Creative Blocks

Channeled properly, negative emotions can actually boost your creative output.


Hall of Fame basketball player Michael Jordan is famous for his world-class talent, but what set him apart from his peers was that MJ knew how to get angry. And Michael Jordan was always angry.

Jordan would famously invent and exaggerate grudges to help fuel his competitiveness. As Wright Thompson wrote in ESPN Magazine, “This started at an early age… His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself. ”

Life can throw us frustrating circumstances out of our control that can serve to derail our creative process. Bad news like this is often totally out of our control and can serve as a source of despair or anger. We feel upset, angry, and alone. We hardly feel like creating.

Despite what happens in our personal life, our professional life still needs us to create. The events that bring us down are often outside of our control, but there is something we can control: how we work. New evidence suggests that negative emotions might just help our creative abilities in certain areas. Specifically, when you’re in a bad mood, the bad mood is an asset best used to attack a creative block.

The research comes from a trio of European professors who studied the habits of over 100 creative professionals. They asked these creatives to keep a diary of their emotions for a week. At the beginning and the end of every day, the professionals would rate their level of positive emotions (inspiration, excitement, alertness) and their level of negative emotions (stress, hostility, guilt). Interestingly, the most productive participants reported positive emotions at the end of the day, but also noted that they started their most productive days with negative emotions. In other words, they channeled their anger into their work. 

The most productive participants started their most productive days with negative emotions.

One possible explanation is focus. Past research suggests that negative emotions help narrow our focus to specific tasks or projects and even persist longer on those projects, especially when it comes to getting rejected. Perhaps the initial negative emotions were actually helping the professionals keep their mind focused on their work longer, digging deeper into the problems they might be facing and generating better solutions.

To test this idea, the same researchers asked a different group of participants to try their hand at a brainstorming task—listing as many ideas as possible. Before brainstorming, however, the participants were randomly assigned to write a biographical essay recounting either a positive or negative event in their life. Just like the creative professionals in the first task, the participants who reflected on a negative event performed better, listing more ideas that were also more varied and original. Even though their essay writing had no relationship to the brainstorming task, the negative emotions they experienced put them in a better mood to focus on the problem and think up solutions.

The implications of this research are significant. The evidence suggests that certain moods are better suited to certain tasks. When you’re in a bad mood, it may be best to return to a particularly difficult problem or a project that has stalled out. Think of the negative emotion as fuel that you can burn on the path to creation. The negative emotions might just help you dig deeper into the problem and find a solution your happier self would never have uncovered. 

Comments (25)
  • http://LDRLB.co/ davidburkus

    Thanks so much for the comment. I so glad to hear the piece resonated with you.

    • phil

      hi david

  • Jeff Halloran

    Anger has many faces and generates even more reactions. The fine line of focus in this article is not on the anger but the focused reaction to that anger to generate positive results. Anger is negative and is typically defined as an intent to preserve (1) personal worth, (2) essential needs, and (3) basic convictions. We all face these challenges, without exception. How we choose to direct our response is where we show our character (as in the positive way this article explores.) However, anger should never sought out – a person in anger is not a positive thing.

  • Tony Guard

    As a professional innovator… I think this is an interesting
    perspective and very true in my experience. I can relate not necessarily
    to anger but to being pressed against a wall, desperate (which is
    definitely a negative emotion). Through my years as an industrial design
    consultant and working for clients or as an innovator looking for the
    next big innovation/idea… there is nothing like a “last ditch effort”
    to bring home the bacon. Not only does negative emotion drive us to
    focus more but I think the timing of those emotions can drive us to
    greater innovation.

    • phil

      whaaa

      • Tony Guard

        Phil,not sure if your comment is a comment, but just in
        case… My point was, when pressed either by a deadline, expectation,
        lack of substance, or you just think you have come up with everything
        you can, it’s in the moments that follow (when you want to give up but
        continue to push on) that real hidden and focused innovation happens.
        This is true in my experience for design as well as innovation. Not sure
        on the whole “starting my day with negative emotions” but I can relate
        to the fact that negative feelings can add to creativity. Yaaaa!

  • phil

    saafi

  • http://www.theconfidencelounge.com/ Aaron Morton

    I think the most important word in the article is ‘channelled’. The successful creatives were able to use that anger because they channelled it in the right way just as Michael Jordan did.

    Aaron
    The Confidence Lounge

  • Mariam

    I was always against this idea, at my school at least they planed our day and submition to be under stress all the time in order to be creative and do our best. It just didn’t work with everyone but still had perfect results for others.
    I agree that it’s a good way to focus but it’s not a method to follow because on the other hand having a good time could make you produce your best at work.

    • Tiemen Vergeylen

      Stress >< Anger. At least not only. I can see your train of thought, but those are 2 different things.. I do agree though that too much negative stress is bad for anyone. And I do speak out of experience.

  • http://www.creativityworkshop.com/ Tama Lancaster

    I just read about this study in PSMag. But, this hardly feels like a good way to start a work day. Besides, as the study illustrates. not everybody can channel their anger into their work, and focus on bringing their creativity out.

    • Mervin

      The more I think about this, the more I realize how much I use it in my own life. When I focus on the moments in life as a child when we lacked something or so the struggle my parents went through to raise their kids, it motivates me to stay focussed and channel that energy to make something work so as not to have the same situation happen to my kids.

  • wober2

    Now I wish feelings of hopelessness and despair were easily channeled into amazing work!

  • Tony

    ..it works because opposites attracts..

  • Tiemen Vergeylen

    Thanks for the good read! Although I’m quite sceptical..

    • Boyan

      It’s spelled skeptical, my friend😉

      • Tiemen Vergeylen

        Thanks for contributing to my opinion with your very meaningful comment.🙂

  • http://www.weboutsourcing-gateway.com/ Web Outsourcing Gateway

    It seems like creativity comes from different emotions and now even anger can deliver positive outcome..thanks for this interesting post.

  • Danielle

    I’ve experienced something similar when I planned to spend the day using a new piece of sporting equipment and ended up with a migraine, forcing me to be alone with my thoughts in a dark quiet room. I started out with so much negativity but my thoughts turned creative and I ended up with two verses to a song about the sport I wanted to be doing and my mood went from anger and frustration to excitement and a feeling of greater self-worth. It seems this concept can go both ways. Use creativity to improve your mood (and produce great work in the process).

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  • http://sincerelysplendid.com/2014/01/10/turning-your-madness-into-radness/ Turning your madness into radness | Sincerely Splendid

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  • Tim

    I work part-time as a musician, performing at least once a week, and often plagued by nerves (aren’t a lot of musicians?!) to the extent that I might make mistakes that I would never make in rehearsal. This is incredibly frustrating!

    However, on one occasion in particular, about 10 minutes before I was due to perform, I received a text message from someone that made me so angry – which is highly unusual for me, I might add! – that I flipped from a nervous mindset of, “Will this concert go okay?” to an irritated mindset of, “This $*!£@#^ concert is the last thing I want to do right now; I can’t wait to get out of this $*!£@#^place and deal with this $*!£@#^ message. $*!£@#^ !!!!” (or words to that effect). I privately raged my way through that concert, but you know what? I probably played my best concert ever! I simply didn’t care about it any more and treated it like a household chore that I hated doing but which had to be done. I felt focused and energetic, but completely dispassionate about the whole thing.

    However, had I have been required to improvise music in that mindset, I probably wouldn’t have been able to – because creativity is a divergent process and can’t necessarily be rushed, whereas completing a task is a convergent process, which would respond positively to the surging energies present in anger.

    That experience has stayed with me and I often reflect on it when I have a creative block of some kind.

  • Lynx Firenze

    personally I think that negative emotions act as a good focuser for the simple reason of escapism or defence of ego, if another writer or musician for instance annoys you in some way (especially by criticizing your work or making something better) then you get into that mindset of “I’ll show that smug £$W(&!* who’s the better artist” and are thus much more focused because you’re actively trying to one up someone. In the absence of a rival (either genuine or imagined) then the act of creativity would also provide some release from the otherwise negative emotions and increase our desire to create because it makes us hurt less

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  • P. Weem

    I’m a bit confused. Scanning through the study linked to in the 4th paragraph, those authors suggest that a “negative affect is not compatible with being absorbed in an ongoing activity, feeling vigorous at work, and being dedicated to a task. Arising negative affect interrupts the ongoing stream of action, leads to a ‘tightening’ of mental processes, and hinders rapid mobilization of cognitive resources and behavioral options.” It’s only when there’s a shift from negative to positive that a benefit appears to result. “The important point made by the affective shift model is that this increase in work engagement is dependent on both a negative event taking place first and a subsequent shift to positive mood.”

    • P. Weem

      To avoid any confusion, I just noticed that the study I referred to above is not the same one cited in the article, although it is by (mostly) the same authors and covers similar ground.

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Left to right: Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and Director Adam McKay on the set of The Big Short. Photo by  Jaap Buitendijk
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.