The Pervasive Myth of the Creativity Cliff

Businessman looking down from mountain top on sky background. Creativity cliff concept

Myths about what creativity is and who is creative are widespread despite research that suggests or even proves those myths aren’t true. One such pervasive myth is the “creativity cliff.” This is a firmly held belief by many people that there is a certain amount of time or work or of your lifespan in which you will be your most creative. After that time, your creativity declines. That decline can be slow or a sudden drop like a sheer cliff. 

Many people define creativity as the process of creating completely unique ideas. Commonly, they believe only geniuses like Thomas Edison are truly creative. They forget or overlook the fact that Edison worked with Joseph Wilson Swan. Together, they performed many failed experiments before they produced a working light bulb. 

We credit Galileo with inventing the telescope. But he didn’t create the first magnification device, a dutchman named Hans Lipershey did. Galileo allegedly made improvements on the design, then used his device for scientific purposes (a first). 

James Watt, creator of the steam engine, didn’t exactly invent the steam engine. Englishman Thomas Savery patented the first steam engine in 1698. It removed water from coal mines. Later, Thomas Newcomen improved the design and later still James Watts made the design more efficient with a separate condenser.

More recently, James Dyson created more than 5,000 failed vacuum prototypes before he created the Dyson vacuum, an innovative idea about a pre-existing product. 

History is full of examples of people credited with a creation that was not a wholly unique idea. 

Researchers Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren asked why people believe that “other people” are likely to make creative breakthroughs when they persist, but believe the quality of their own creativity plummets when they persist. Lucas and Nordgren ran several tests with different volunteers.

First Test

During the first test they asked participants to complete an online brainstorming task. Before they started the task, they tried to predict how creative they would be in each minute of the five-minute-long task. A second group of volunteers was used to rate the creativity of the ideas generated by the first group.

Second Test

They recruited volunteers to take part in a cartoon-caption competition. The participants had 15 minutes to generate as many ideas as they could, but could stop anytime. Alongside the contes, they answered questions that quizzed their beliefs about creativity. Three professional comedians judged the submissions for funniness and novelty.

Last Test

The last test asked volunteers how often they used their creative skills at work. Then they performed the same brainstorming task as the first test group, while also predicting their creativity levels. 

Nearly all the participants in all these tests thought they would get less creative as the session went on. Yet, the ratings of their creativity showed that their creativity increased with time. 

Lucas and Nordgren thought this mistaken prediction is because we think the ease with which we generate ideas correlates with the quality of the ideas. During the first moments of creativity, we often experience a burst of ideas. We confuse the quantity of and ease of coming up with ideas with quality ideas because when we have to give more thought to generating ideas. We think we need the extra effort because we’ve “run out of ideas.” Instead, the first burst of ideas is the proverbial “easy” answers. When we give more thought and consideration to generating ideas, we  

Only those people who had more experience using creativity were more inclined to think their creativity would endure throughout their test.

Creativity doesn’t suddenly materialize. It is not a linear process, nor does it require a completely unique idea. It doesn’t show up at the last minute to help you finish that project before its looming deadline. It won’t leap into your brain fully formed. Your creativity comes from tinkering with and building on what exists.  

How do you do that when you feel you’ve run out of ideas? 

Image shows a black and white sign against a blue sky with scattered white clouds. The sign reads, "Welcome to Perseverance, enjoy the journey."

Embrace Failure

Each set back in a creative endeavor is not a roadblock nor a detour but a stepping stone. Remember Edison said he didn’t fail, (paraphrasing) but discovered a thousand ways how not to make a light bulb. Madeleine L’Engle’s sixty some rejections of her award-winning book, A Wrinkle in Time, were not impediments. They were integral to the story’s development and eventual success. 

Develop Tenacity

When you think you’ve run out of ideas, ignore your brain. It’s lying. Keep pushing. 

Sometimes you may need to reach out for support. Or it could mean joining a daily write-in group to keep you motivated. 

Develop Alternate Pathways

Sometimes that feeling of having no more ideas means you need a different way to look at the problem. Here are a few alternatives to try.

The Rubber Duck Debugging Method

When a software developer discovers a problem in the code but cannot find the “bug” that causes that program, they might employ this method. They explain their code line-by-line to an inanimate object. That process often gives them a new perspective, which leads to the solution.

Question Assumptions

Our assumptions often create barriers to creativity. 

Challenge your assumptions. Is this truly the only plot line your story can follow? What if your character were a different gender? 

Mind Mapping

Image shows a line drawing of a head with lines radiating out from it to post it notes labeled first idea and off it are arrows to post-its with details about that idea, there are similiar post its labeled second, third, and fourth idea with their secondary notes.

In mind mapping, you draw a tree-like structure with the branches representing different aspects of your concept. Because this visual method for organizing thoughts and ideas is non-linear, it may spur new ideas. 

Embrace Diverse Ideas

Look at different media, images, or techniques. Study movie making or animation or comic books. Or if you’re a knitter, look at crochet patterns or quilt patterns. That different discipline may spark ideas for your project.

Practice Mindfulness and Reflection

Reflection on your thought processes, why you chose this project, what tools and techniques work for you, and what you learn from failures can aid your creative process. It worked for Leonardo da Vinci. 

There are countless methods for journaling or otherwise practicing mindfulness and reflection. Google journaling for writers or mindfulness for writers. 

Digital Tools and Other Resources

The resources available to writers today can be overwhelming. There is a plethora of creative software, digital planning and story mapping programs, idea management systems, how to books, and organizations. Google can be helpful but also overwhelming. Check reviews and recommendations from your creative peers and mentors. 

The next time you question if you’ve run out of creativity, push past the urge to quit. Jump off that creativity cliff and be ready for your best, most creative ideas yet.

What tools or techniques do you use to be persistent in your creativity?


Image Credits

All images purchased from Depositphotos.

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