Creativity is a glamorous concept. It’s portrayed as the foundation of imagination, the special sauce of originality, and an essential element for artistic work. It’s an admirable and well-respected endeavor, and while all of the above is absolutely true, there’s also an ugly side of creativity that often gets ignored. That is, the creative process, while genuinely rewarding and ultimately worthwhile, also lends itself to a certain (perhaps necessary) amount of negativity. And knowing how to deal with negativity when it rears its ugly creativity-hindering head, can mean the difference between sweet success and creative catastrophe.
The Negativity of Creativity
Although negativity has a way of creeping into nearly every creative pursuit, just about everyone can relate to one particularly familiar form—writer’s block. Writer’s block is the sudden, sometimes inexplicable slowdown of creativity. It strikes without warning (sometimes mid-sentence or idea). And it can last for mere moments or linger long-term. Some well-documented cases of writer’s block have lasted for years with no end in sight (Herman Melville stopped writing for years before producing his most famous work, Moby-Dick).
Even though writers often struggle with writer’s block (hence the name), the concept is just as familiar to those who pursue other creative endeavors like music, dance, invention, and art. This inability to create (even temporarily) can be incredibly frustrating. It leads to negative thinking, which in turn interferes with creative thought, which in turn leads to more negative thinking.
In addition, there’s a certain stress that’s inherent to creativity—an ever-present pressure to produce something worthwhile. Sometimes this pressure is self-imposed and sometimes it comes from outside influences like clients, audiences, or even members of one’s own creative team. Either way, stress has a way of working itself into the creative process, and usually does more harm than good.
A Proclivity to Pessimism
Several recent studies suggest that the link between creativity and negativity is no coincidence. One such study conducted by Adam M. Perkins, of the Department of Psychological Medicine at King’s College London, proposes that both creativity and negativity are controlled by the same part of the human brain.
Spontaneous thoughts, such as those associated with creative thinking, often prove to be negative in nature. And the theory that a person with an inclination for imagination might also be vulnerable to negative thinking may, in fact, be connected by a common biological cause. Other studies have linked artistic creativity to depression. Some even suggest that these negative emotions play a part in fueling or influencing creativity.
Throw Creative Caution to the Wind
No matter where negativity comes from or why it tends to be part of the creative process, there are ways to harness it for creative enhancement. And unsurprisingly, the solution is found in creativity. In other words, getting around negativity and even using it as motivation for creation takes, well, actual creativity.
Steven Tyler and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band Aerosmith take this approach with their songwriting. They call it “dare to suck,” a process that throws all creative caution to the wind. Each week, Aerosmith meets together to purposefully discuss ideas that are most likely bad. And most of the time, their terrible ideas are, in fact, terrible. But once in a while a hit song comes out of a supposed bad idea. And it all happened because the band “dared to suck.”
By purposefully doing the very thing nearly every creative is afraid of (sucking), Aerosmith understands and embraces that creativity is a struggle. In doing so, they bypass the negativity of creativity. And they move straight on to persevering through the pain. They are unafraid of writer’s block, or expectations, or any other source of negativity. Instead of letting negativity derail a project for mere moments or even years on end, they embrace the negativity and view it as an essential element of the creative process.
The Creative Paradox
Whether taking the long, drawn-out road to creative completion, or embracing negativity at its outset, it’s paradoxical that positive outcomes usually require some amount of negative input. By turning negativity on its head and viewing it as a positive that can eventually lead to something great, creatives can avoid the type of negativity that wreaks creative chaos and instead embrace the type of negativity that leads to innovation and creative satisfaction.