This Personal Vice May Be the Key to Unlocking Your Creativity
For as long as I can remember, I have procrastinated on important matters. Not always because I lack the time -- although that certainly has played a part -- but more often because when not faced with an impending deadline, I tend to focus on more pressing activities in the moment, such as binge watching House of Cards on Netflix.
Being current on the nefarious activities of fictional political figures is important -- right?
And, although I have also felt that I do my best work under the pressure of a last minute deadline, much of the reading we find about procrastination calls it out as a menace or provides tips for overcoming it -- as if it was a curse, character flaw or infectious disease that burdens society.
I am fairly certain the editors at Entrepreneur.com feel this way about my consistent last-minute submissions.
It turns out, however, that there may be hope -- and even validation -- for procrastinators everywhere. According to Adam Grant, a top-rated Wharton professor, bestselling New York Times writer and one of the world's 25 most influential management thinkers, "procrastinating is a vice when it comes to productivity, but it can be a virtue for creativity."
Grant goes on to discuss the topic of procrastination and how it can affect creativity and innovation in a great Ted Talk. He points to three critical characteristics of the most creative people, who he calls “Originals,” or nonconformists who have and champion new ideas and who stand out and speak up. And, as he points out, these creative people are nothing like what we expect -- because they are exactly like all of us.
1. Creative people are typically late -- for good reason.
Throughout history, some of the greatest and most influential thinkers have been procrastinators. These are people who are quick to start but slow to finish, and by waiting until the very end to complete an important task, leave themselves open to the widest range of ideas.
This is particularly true for entrepreneurs who are always struggling to secure a "first mover advantage," or who believe that being first to market with an idea provides a competitive advantage. In a 1993 paper, however, Peter N. Golder and Gerard J. Tellis studied 500 brands across 50 different categories and found that close to half (47 percent) of "first movers" fail, while the fail rate of "fast followers," or market leaders who came after first movers, was significantly lower (8 percent).
Essentially, for entrepreneurs, the long-standing belief in "first mover advantage" is not only false but dangerous for businesses, and those entrepreneurs who strategically wait (procrastinate) and allow the market to test new ideas and react accordingly are better positioned to succeed.
2. Creative people suffer from fear and doubt -- same as everyone.
Grant goes on to point out that through his research, he found that creative people shared two different types of doubt: self-doubt and idea-doubt. "Self-doubt is paralyzing," Grant goes on, "It leads you to freeze. But idea-doubt is energizing. It motivates you to test, to experiment, to refine."
The difference between creative people and most others, however, is their ability to separate their idea from themselves personally. That is to say that when a first iteration of any idea fails, creative people blame it on the idea, not themselves. Blaming a bad idea on yourself is the difference between going from idea-doubt, when you are energized and motivated, to self-doubt, where you become frozen with fear.
Moreover, improving on your creativity comes down to consistently operating in the idea-doubt mode, always questioning if there is a better option. As Grant puts it, "It's about being the kind of person who takes the initiative to doubt the default and look for a better option. And if you do that well, you will open yourself up to (a frame of mind) when you look at something you've seen many times before and all of a sudden see it with fresh eyes."
When it comes to fear, creative people fear only not trying, understanding that failure is a necessary byproduct of success. They understand that at the end of the day, our biggest regrets should not be our actions but our inactions.
3. Creative people try -- a lot.
Most individuals with great ideas never act or speak out for fear of failing or being judged for a "bad idea." Most creative and innovative people throughout history and across fields, however, are often those who have also failed the most.
Grant uses two examples to demonstrate this. First, classical composers, such as Beethoven and Mozart, produced hundreds of compositions before composing their greatest works. Second, in addition to the light bulb, Thomas Edison had numerous failed inventions prior to some of his most famous ones. In fact, he was well-known for saying about his failures, "I have not failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work."
Malcolm Gladwell also wrote extensively about the link between trial and error and success in his book Outliers. Through his research, he coined what became known as the "10,000 hour rule," or that it requires approximately 10,000 hours of practice (or roughly 40 hours per week for five straight years) to achieve mastery in a particular field.
"If we want to be more original," Grant emphasizes, "we have to generate more ideas."
So whether you are a procrastinator or pre-crastinator, the most important thing to do is try. If getting over your self-doubt means putting something off until the last minute, then embrace this as a positive quality rather than a vice. Keep your eye on your goal and learn to embrace failure as the learning experience it is. As Grant concludes, "(Creatives) are not that different from the rest of us. They feel fear and doubt. They procrastinate. They have bad ideas. And sometimes, it's not in spite of those qualities but because of them that they succeed."
As for my editors -- apologies for turning this in late again. I just needed a little more time to find the right inspiration.