“Almost all good writing comes with terrible first efforts,” Anne Lamott declares in her beloved book for scribblers, Bird by Bird. “You need to start somewhere.”
The same is true of any creative project. Yet it’s easy to forget this rule of thumb when you’re in the midst of brainstorming a new design or coming up with a business proposal, aware that the undertaking thus far isn’t looking very promising. Under those circumstances, it can seem reasonable—nay, wise—to simply give up.
A recent paper, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, suggests that many people quit creative projects too soon because they misunderstand how creativity works. Basically, they put too much stock in the importance of “aha moments” filled with sudden inspiration, and not nearly enough weight on persistence as a crucial part of the creative process. The authors call this phenomenon “insight bias.”
The problem of “insight bias”
The new paper was authored by Brian Lucas, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, and Loran Nordgren, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Previous research by Lucas and Nordgren established that people underestimate how much their own creative performance benefits from persistence. In a 2020 study published in the journal PNAS, people consistently expected their creativity to decline as they continued a brainstorming session, when in fact their creativity improved.
Other research, meanwhile, has shown that a lot of people expect creativity to be something that comes naturally. For example, the authors note, “One study found that people believe creativity is stimulated more by defocusing (i.e., not working on the problem) than by focusing (i.e., deliberately working) on the task. However, when asked to recall and describe a recent idea generation experience, they reported the opposite: their idea was more often preceded by focusing than defocusing.”
To be clear, research supports the idea that the kind of effortless insights that strike us on walks or in the shower can be part of the creative process. But chipping away at a task matters a lot, too.
How expectations shape reality
The origins of insight bias may lie in the cultural emphasis on the figure of the “lone genius” whose innate talents inevitably lead him to success. It also may have to do with our own personal experiences of creativity—it feels more fun and easy when ideas simply come to us than when we churn away at our desks for hours at a time.
These expectations matter, the authors say, because our beliefs about creativity influence how willing we are to keep working even when we don’t feel particularly inspired. “Undervaluing persistence and believing one’s best ideas come early leads people to disengage from creative work more quickly, which limits creativity,” they explain.
Lucas and Nordgren also note that insight bias may prompt people to “discount the value of others whose accomplishments draw on persistence rather than innate genius,” even when the quality of their work is high.
While the study doesn’t offer ideas about how we might reset our expectations about how creativity works, simply being aware of the bias may help us keep it in check. So the next time you feel discouraged or frustrated in the midst of a creative problem, resist the urge to throw in the towel. Like Lamott, trust the process, and have faith that a really good idea may be just around the corner.