Thoughts & Observations

Stress and Creativity

Two weeks ago, I went to an interesting Meetup: ClubTED was created because Erika, the organizer, often found herself watching videos of TED talks and then felt the intense desire to discuss them, but had no one around to discuss them with.

A group of about 10 of us gathered in the loft office space of Loosecubes to watch and discuss Elizabeth Gilbert‘s talk on creativity.

One of the key areas of debate that rose to the surface after watching the video was the idea of whether stress and pressure kills creativity. One person in the group had the perspective that the best creativity can only come in a completely stress-free state.

And I can see where that thought comes from. Being in a world that is driven by deadlines and staying ahead of the competition can create an almost paralyzing level of stress. We reach information paralysis with increasing frequency – not only can we absorb no further information, but we can’t do anything with the information we have. Our minds become overstuffed filing cabinets, the kinds packed so tightly that you can barely see what they contain anymore, never mind fitting anything else in.

I would agree that creativity can be a little bit difficult to spark if you have a boss standing over your shoulder demanding that you be creative on the spot – like creativity is some kind of on-demand performance in a circus side show. Quick side note: This is one of the main reasons why I don’t believe in company-mandated creative time (i.e. the 9 to 5 work day).

I think the “creativity can only exist in a stress-free state” perspective may also stem from the timing of when many of us get creative ideas: it seems to be when we are doing something unrelated to the problem we are trying to solve, and something that is often very relaxing, like taking a shower or going for a walk. But the reason that we have creative ideas in those moments isn’t because they are stress-free, it is because we have placed ourselves (and the problem we are trying to solve) in the fresh context of a different situation.

I don’t think that creativity only comes in a tension-free state. In fact, I think it is the existence of some tension that pushes creativity forward. Without some amount pressure, you enter a state of stasis and complacency. In that state, the motivation to think, to change, to move, can become almost non-existent over time.

Creativity tends to rise when there is a tension between the two forces of serenity and stress.