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How to Stop Self-Sabotaging Your Creativity

Source | The Huffington Post 

It’s easier to start from scratch than it is to get out of a creative rut. That’s because we know a lot more about what sparks creativity than we do about what blocks it. The Greeks believed that inspiration came to us through muses who literally visited us. Freud insisted that creativity was a kind of sublimation, a way of dealing with repressed inclinations. Jung theorized a collective unconscious, structures of mind that all people have in common. Today, psychologists like Kay Redfield Jamison describe creativity as a mood disorder, a mild form of madness.

We have countless answers to the question of what drives people to be creative, but the better, tougher—more elusive—question is its opposite: what stops people from being innovative? Why do so many of us have trouble overcoming creative dry spells? There are, of course, tons of studies attempting to address just that, yet many of them are biased by fundamental attribution errors. That is, these theories attempt to impose orderly patterns on complex, ineffable cognitive phenomena. For example, recent reports reverse-engineer the lives of geniuses like Einstein and Edison and identify the qualities that made them creative as symptoms of disorders like dyslexia. To attribute these late visionaries’ talents to psychological conditions is to suggest something improvable and to falsely assume causality. Further, it is to give a tidy explanation for what are, in actuality, the messy realities of the human mind.

Rather than symptomizing creative blocks, I offer here three different factors that impede innovation — the inner saboteurs of creativity. We can’t destroy them completely, but we can manage them. Understanding how these saboteurs work will help us get out of that rut and avoid getting into new ones in the future.

Motivation. One of the major reasons people can’t be creative is that they’re not motivated to be creative — or their motivation is misguided. There are two types of motivation: positive and negative. Positive motivation comes from the desire to achieve tangible rewards, to impress others, or to make ourselves happy. Negative motivation comes from the wish to avoid bad consequences, to eliminate failure, or prevent self-hate or disappointment.

While positive motivation appears more encouraging than negative motivation, the truth is that negative incentives can actually be even more powerful. Creativity is, after all, often born out of constraints — not freedom. And necessity is the strongest motivating force of all: discomfort, alarm, and dissatisfaction are the starting points of many great innovations.

Figure out which motivators move you most. Pay attention to what gives you energy and what takes your energy. If you’re more creative when given soak time, allow yourself more space and time to generate ideas. If you’re more creative when given deadlines, impose a stricter timeline on yourself. Take a look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s influential book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, for further tools on discovering what motivates you to create.

Confidence. Self-doubt is a form of paralysis: lack of confidence shuts down our creative forces. When we’re unsure of ourselves, we can’t perform to our fullest abilities. Self-confidence is highly subjective and situational. For example, a neurosurgeon might have nerves of steel when operating on a patient’s brain, but may quake when giving a public speech. This debilitating anxiety is an evolutionary feature, a primal fear mechanism focused on what we won’t want to happen. It’s a neurobiological impulse to avoid what makes us uncomfortable. When that neurosurgeon’s hands sweat and shake at the lectern, it’s as if he’s running away from a predator. Here, our self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because we look for confirming feedback to validate our instincts. We’re setting ourselves up for failure. We’re our own saboteur.

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