How does hardship impact your creativity?

Today’s Q&A Monday question asks about the link between hardship and creativity:

What is the quality of the science behind the idea that “hardship increases creativity”?

While artists and engineers can both grow by playing intellectual games with artificial constraints, is real hardship actually correlated with increased creativity and productive output?

Context: All those office perks? They’re ruining creativity.
Anonymous (via Quora)

The linked piece by Eric Weiner for The LA Times is written as an opinion piece. It’s written in that context. That said, some people who experience hardship are certainly able to channel that creatively:

However, these experiments show that creativity can be boosted by hardship. They did not find hardship necessary for creativity. Workplaces also have other factors that pure creativity: happiness, retention, and profit. Many creative workers who are simply don’t want hardship. They won’t tolerate it. The economics of business development are more complicated than simple creativity.

Many “fun” perks are popular in industries where employees have many job options. They’re also often designed to keep employees within the office longer. Even if  these employees are not purely working at all times. Making longer office hours more acceptable may generate increased overall productivity.

Amenities may be a consolation prize for the other hardships involved in very difficult work.

Readers, have you had a difficult experiences that helped with your creative projects?


Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Does mood impact creativity?

Each week, I answer questions about creativity and productivity in a series called Q&A Monday. Today’s question asks about the list between mood and creativity:

“Why are we most creative when we feel down?”
Anonymous on Quora

Which moods are scientifically linked with creativity? Various research links negative moods and feelings to a decrease in creativity:

UC-Blog-Feature-Study-MoodA 2010 study published by the Association for Psychological Science linked creativity most with positive moods. Using music and video clips, researchers primed participants for certain moods by researchers of the University of Western Ontario. Those who listened to the happiest music or watched a cheerful video were most able to recognize creative patterns. The happy volunteers were better at learning the rules behind patterns than those in neutral or sad moods.

“Generally, positive mood has been found to enhance creative problem solving and flexible yet careful thinking.”
Ruby Nadler, University of Western Ontario

Creativity has been associated with mood disorders. Preliminary associations compiled by the University of Iowa found higher rates of mood disorders and alcoholism among writers and playwrights. This study did not include a control group to draw comparisons against. (The relationship between creativity and mood disorders) Among those who were studied, almost all involved reported less creative output during depressive or manic states.

Positive moods enhance creativity. Creative performance increased according to an analysis of 62 experimental and 10 non-experimental studies by Mark A. Davis of the University of North Texas. Understanding the relationship between mood and creativity: A meta-analysis

Matthijs Baas of the University Of Amsterdam focuses his research on creative psychology. His work indicates that happiness, fear, and anger are the most creative enhancing moods. Sadness, relaxation, and relief decrease creativity since stimulation encourages flexibility and idea generation. Happiness leads to creative flexibility while fear and avoidance lead to creative persistence.


Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Are you a badger or barker? Achievement Versus Initiation Driven Creativity

What drives your creative projects more: the thrill of the fresh start OR the finish line?

Learning to love both makes us productive and creative.

Creatives love the part in the middle where we get to indulge in the business of making things. At the same time, I’m betting that you’re creativity sparks more from either (a) the love of starting something new or (b) the satisfaction of completing a task.

Imagine the nature documentary. The love of a new start VERSUS the joy of completion.

I see this Creative Drive spectrum as

Badgers versus Barkers

Picture this:

Badgers love achieving merit badges. They’re achievement driven.

Barkers love embarking on new tasks. They’re initiation driven.

Badgers: Achievement Driven

I call these lovers of achievement-focused creativity… badgers! They love collecting merit badges.  The badger Creativity Drive focuses on finishing tasks.

Badgers love the end goal. If they see a finish line, they’ve found focus. They love seeing an idea become real.

They become the classic gamer who wants to complete 100% of a game.  In their game, there exist only a few items. If you’re a Badger, you’re constantly envisioning finishing every single specific piece and then completing everything. That’s because you know exactly what it is. When given a well-defined goal, a Badger figures out how to beat the game.

Psychologists dub one type of a higher achievement drive as “performance orientation”. This is a high focus on positive outcomes such as grades and promotions. If the goals focus on comparison to others, the outcome can be psychologically negative. This high achievement mindset becomes influenced by environment according to a 2012 study by Stanford psychologist Paul O’Keefe. Healthy goals lean toward a “mastery orientation” where finishing the task with a focus of developing new skills, improving, and gaining knowledge.

A badgers favorite part of creating and making involves completing goals. A badger loves small tasks and finishes them.

A badger wants to start in the right place for a goal they know they can complete. Figuring out the unknown feels harder and less interesting.

A badger might tend to finish tasks that don’t really need to do at all. They write things on a checklist just to enjoy an official ending. They love the feeling of crossing a task off of a list more than the feeling of writing it on their first.

As part of a team, badgers are excellent finishers.

They’ll figure out how to get a task done on time. That’s because they are swiftly decisive when they see a way to cross a finish line. If they’re not given a new finish line, they wander off. They might even finish tasks that have nothing to do with the original goals, just because they know they can finish them off.

What are badgers afraid of?

They may be driven by the fear of not finishing a task and not the fun of finishing. If they don’t see how they can win, they won’t try. A fearful badger may learn to be driven by external recognition of a finished task or by an internal sense of accomplishment.

The badger procrastination style:

They do what they can finish easily. They’ll need to practice looking for ways to create finishable achievements. They don’t naturally see those link to real priorities with new projects. They’ll put off looking for goals as a way to delay starting.

Past versus future?

Badgers romanticize past wins. In their fishing stories, the fish gets bigger every time. An extreme badger might remember themselves as a king of their high school. Without those kinds of externally focused starts, that same person might not have done as much in regular life.

How badgers learn:

Badgers learn by looking backward. They love reflecting on completed work. An achievement, trophy or merit badge strongly represents their best qualities. Even when doing a current task, they learn to use past patterns to figure out new tasks. From the outside, this might look like a strong vision and plan.

Analysis paralysis at the beginning.

Achievement driven creatives find resistance when they’ve encountered a task they consider new and undefined.

How can badgers become better at starting tasks?

As badgers love to collect finished tasks, they’ll need to see starting a new task as an achievement. What task can they cross off their list that counts at the start? Get specific on the first step. If a badger learns to see “Finished Starting” as an achievement, they can adopt the best parts of the initiation driven style. Reward yourself at the start by completing even the most ridiculously small step.

Barkers: Initiation Driven

I call an initiation leaning Creativity Drive being a … Barker: They like to embark on new tasks. Barkers have a Creativity Drive focused on starting tasks.

Someone on this side of the spectrum leans towards creativity that involves start on a new work. They love to start lots of tasks and all of them seem ongoing. They find more ways to add and stretch any task as they find new pieces to explore.

A barker starts a new task with energy and then quickly their attention wanders. They chase the next shiny thing.  After all of this dreaming, their project becomes too big. Their ideas began without defining a clear realistic end point.

Research experiments on abstract thinking links such new goals with discpline. (Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) This kind of thinking helps barkers dive into new adventures. What’s hard if you’re a barker? Focusing on the smaller and seemingly mundane details along the way.

As part of a team, barkers are excellent starters.

They’ll know the best place to start is anywhere. They’ll remind others to notice new paths to wander. That’s because they are swiftly decisive when they see something new to jump into. They stop at any point due to frustration, losing focus, or when realising how much work they have involved. They may just start something else and forget the original task if not kept in check

What are barkers afraid of?

A barker may even be afraid to finish realizing that the result may not match their ideal

What’s a barker’s procrastination style?

They’ll start something new and unrelated to put off the old task. If they practice seeing new opportunities to start within the current project, they have a better chance of success.

Past versus future?

For a barker, starting a new project feels like falling in love. A barker feels excited by possibilities to come. They’re disillusioned by possibilities when they realize the effort, work, or planning involved. A barker feels more likely to seem like a perfectionist. After they’ve created an idealized task, they want the reality to live up to their vision.

Barkers love trying new things. The downside? Barkers love trying new things. The tendency to fantasize about the future –
experiments in the American Psychological Association demonstrate – results in a false sense of finishing. We imagine how it ended, felt the reward of that, and so we don’t actually feel like we need to create any of it.

Listen to more on the podcast:

How to Finish What You Start (Uncanny Creativity Episode 33)

Since a barker loves new beginnings, they open a new and different box of cereal before finishing the last one. Leftovers lose their appeal and they’re ready to cook something new. Creation feels like exploring new wonders in life.

How barkers learn:

When a barker learns, they love to think about their future use of knowledge or an ability.

Analysis paralysis at the end.

Initiation driven creatives find resistance when they’ve encountered a task that needs a well-defined end. The dream of travel might be appealing to a barker. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, a barker would be paralyzed by the mundane details of travel planning.

How can a barker become better at finishing tasks?

Since a barker loves to embark on new adventures, they have to see the journey of finishing. Get specific on the last goal, break down each small step along the way, and take a minute to see the fun in starting the next little thing.

Research on self-control demonstrates how focusing immediate rewards help us meet our goals. Reward yourself at the finish line by leaping into a brand new fun thing that you’ve withheld beforehand.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Escape the Comfort Zone: Uncanny Creativity 41

Making art often means getting out of the comfort zone.

Alan Henry of Lifehacker explains the science of breaking out of your comfort zone:

Routine and patterns minimize risk. Making something scares us. Creating something inherently feels risky. Who knows if it’ll be good?

The comfort zone feels happy with low anxiety and low stress. This is why most people never make anything.

Optimal Anxiety

Slight anxiety helps us. “Optimal Anxiety” increases performance. Too much stress and we do poorly. Comfort is the opposite of productivity. Volunteering as a designer helps me escape my routine. It can feel stressful, yet also I’m helping people.

Regularly facing fear in controlled ways prepares you better for out of control problems according to researcher Brene Brown:

Try this: Venture a new medium, performance art, visual arts, practice new tips. Small tweaks to normal ways of producing art involve exploring your curiosity.

Productive Discomfort

It gets easier to push boundaries the more you do it. Alina Tugend describes this effect of “Productive Discomfort” for the New York Times.

It’s easier to brainstorm if you’re seeking new experiences, new skills. You get used to looking at the world in new ways and question confirmation bias. Old problems will seem new.

Try this: Do old things differently. New restaurants, drive a new route, switch out apps you normally use.

Take small steps

Avoid putting things off. Keep a list of “someday maybes”. Review it regularly to see if they match with your schedule. Always wanted to paint dogs or nudes? What’s the next small step to make that happen.

Take small steps. Set small actions. Weekly daily. Think big in the long-term and small in the short-term. If you want to have a huge gallery show, first you need to slowly make painting
Try this: find clarity through action.

Remember to return to your comfort zone. Have rituals that you return to for comfort.

Try this: Slow down or speed up on decisions that you have to make. Be more spontaneous in areas where you’re usually very planned. Try being more calculated in the parts where you usually are carefree

The Sweet Spot Between Overconfidence and Anxiety

Optimal levels of anxiety tested as middle range by scientist, Business Insider explains. If we’re overconfident, there may not exist enough anxiety to focus and perform the task at hand. With too much anxiety, we’ll have trouble performing even basics of tasks. Self-described worriers tended to have “high levels of brain activity when they made mistakes”. The test became difficult compared to those with less anxiety.

Try this: Actively Practice worrying less. Actively practice worrying less. Working out. Meditate. Question and answer the facts behind your worry. Practice optimism. Seek help – friends, family, therapy.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.

Ideas I Stole From Tina Fey: Uncanny Creativity 40

I previously read the book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. I’m working on reviewing the follow-up book “Show Your Work. Inspired by Kleon’s discussion of his inspirations, I think the creative ethic of Tina Fey is pretty great. So I’m going to discuss some of her ideas and how to apply them to be creative. One thing I love is that her ideas inspire having humor about art. Humor has been linked to idea generation.

Make sure to write and even sketch your answers to these questions. Writing a powerful way to take action.

What are you resisting?

“Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.”  Tina Fey

Carl Jung would say that “what you resist not only persists but will grow.” This resistance connects to the psychological effect of priming. When we’re exposed to one thing, how we respond to other things changes. We often dwell on other people’s thoughts. These are real or imagined as worry. We’ll worry to the point where we’re less focused on our own goals and ideas. That’s natural. We have to counter balance the effect.

Ask yourself: What are you resisting? Notice your resistance. Be gentle without self and write something kind about the issue, Then refocus your attention back to your goals. We can counteract priming with “kindness priming”. When exposed to kindness, we tend to be more kind.

Is this information true and relevant?

When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.” Tina Fey

This ties into a logic problem. There are various names for this including genetic fallacy, the fallacy of origins or fallacy of virtue. We can’t conclude based solely on history, origin, or source. We have to consider context. If you don’t want to do something and can live with that, it’s really all you need to know.

Ask yourself: Is this information true and relevant? If they say you must try yoga, do they really mean that they are think that it’ll help you? If you don’t think it’ll help you, thank them for being so thoughtful and move on.

What’s the next action?

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”  Tina Fey

We call this analysis paralysis. We seek more and more clarity and not action. .One of my favorite poems Archaic Torso of Apollo describes in detail a headless statue. We can still imagine the head and arms, how intense this statue once was. Then we’re hit with one last detail: “You must change your life.” You know everything you need to act. Seek to balance seeking information with real creation. Small action leads to clarity.

Ask yourself: What’s the next action? Then do it. Make “Next Action” lists, not to do lists. David Allen describes next actions in detail in his book Getting Things Done. (To help you remember, print out my Getting Things Done cheat sheet.) This kind of list is specific verbs, places, and things. Avoid even broad goals like “Draw comics”. Instead try “Drawing in my sketchbook every day.” “Pencil a single comic panel every night”. Take action!

What can I do about this situation?

“Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.”  Tina Fey

Expressing negativity doesn’t make us feel better according to psychologist Jeffrey Lohr who studies venting. We just create a habit of venting. The issues you’re expressing are real. We often complain when we feel helpless. Acknowledge that we feel helpless and prepare to deal with that feeling.

Ask yourself: What can I do about this situation? As I discussed in the episode on Creative Optimism, helplessness comes from seeing problems as being an issue with who we are. We’ll see them as long-lasting. The story we tell us is that they will impact other parts of our lives. Once we’ve noticed a question or an obstacle, write a few actions. It’s great that we’re observant! Now put that power of observation to use on a task.

How can I turn mistakes into opportunities?

“THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities.”  Tina Fey

Scott Berkin writer of Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds says that making a mistake means that you’ve created a situation where you make interesting mistakes. Once you gain confidence to accept yourself, you’ll learn by being courageous about making changes.

According to Scott Berk, there are four kinds of mistakes. Stupid, Simple, Involved, and Complex.

  • A Stupid Mistake happens when we stub or toe. Just an accident of everyday humanity.
  • A Simple Mistake involves missing something in an everyday process.
  • An Involved Mistake involves becoming conscious of a pattern. Figuring out what makes us late for a deadline on a regular basis, for example.
  • A Complex Mistake might involve all of these plus unforeseeable issues and difficult information, even when we care the outcome.

Ask yourself: How can I turn mistakes into opportunities? Even a complex mistake is really mostly a series of Stupid, Simple, and Involved mistakes. Identify the simple low hanging fruit. As babies, we had to fall a lot so that we could stand. Mistakes happen. The biggest opportunity is finding ways to laugh at it.

What can I do to keep my promises?

“The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”  Tina Fey

Creativity doesn’t just happen. We make it happen. It’s about making. Otherwise, we’d be trapped within the realm of thought and imagination.

Jon Stewart discussed with The Daily Beast how deadlines helped the Daily Show’s success. He made a promise to treat ideas as welcome from all staff members, not just writers. Stewarted created an environment where everyone felt comfortable sharing ideas remained important.

With this overall friendly environment, he could set a firm meeting with writers and producers at 9 am, first drafts of scripts due by noon with rewrites due by 2 o’clock. With his name and voice on the show, he felt free to rewrite drafts in his own voice which could frustrate others.

Ask yourself: What can I do to keep my promises? Notice how you’ve met deadlines in the past. If you had someone checking in on you, you might ask someone you trust to keep you accountable. You might be better with scheduled dedicated alone time. Find ways to make it super easy to finish what you start.

Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.