Present at the Creation

From the self-help gurus to the hottest new books, it's the buzziest concept out there: take a few simple steps—paint your room blue, drink more (or less), work under low ceilings—and you'll become more creative in no time, leading you to the success you've always desired. How much of it is true? We asked a Harvard expert to find out.

To assess the problem, I made two lists. The first was everything I had tried to do and had managed to finish. The second was everything I had not tried to do but had nonetheless done. The first list was easy, because there was nothing on it.

As I made the second list, something surprising happened. I realized that in struggling to get just one creative thing done (the drawing series), I had actually gotten a staggering number of other creative things done. I had renovated my bedroom and my workspace. I had created three websites. I had created and run this experiment. I had written a case study, and planned several others. I had written a draft of this article. I had made up a few funny words.

Now, these accidental accomplishments may not impress you, but listing them certainly made me feel a little more successful. I had battled for three weeks—and failed—to make even a few drawings, but in that short period I had engaged very productively on a remarkable number of creative side projects.

It was baffling. Was I making progress? Were any of the tips I was trying out actually working? Did it count if, while trying these tricks for one task, I was getting things done in other areas of my life? Did it count if that other stuff was mostly related to my regular job? Did that make the tips possibly more valuable? Or did that second list just include stuff that I would have done anyway?

All that I could reasonably conclude was that despite what books like Imagine suggest, creativity is messy.

The most uncomfortable part of this experiment to date had been the discovery that the struggle was not really about creativity at all. I’d had plenty of creative ideas. The struggle was actually about self-discipline, about being able to focus amid many distractions. Of the tips I’d tried, setting clear and achievable goals was by far the most helpful, because it provided a metric against which I could track my progress. It reminded me to work at clearing distractions and managing my time, and if I couldn’t do either, to reckon with the possibility that, given my existing commitments, my goal had never been remotely realistic in the first place.


Four weeks into the experiment, it happened. Holy Whoaballs! I wrote at the time. I’m drawing!

The night before had been a Thursday, and Boston was bracing for up to 3 feet of snow. Harvard had told everybody to stay home the next day.

My whole mission by this time had become a parody of itself. I was stuck. I’m a bit embarrassed to express it this way, but I was starting to feel like what I really needed was less a boost from scientific research and more a “talking to” from Tim Gunn, of the reality show Project Runway. I do a series of design workshops for my students styled after the show, and I love how Gunn barks at the designers as they’re crumbling under the pressure of their looming deadlines, telling them to “Make it work!” I’d been wishing I could call Tim up for some coaching. I needed someone who would hold me accountable to my stated goals, check in on me, tell me, “You can do it,” listen to me and give feedback, and then impatiently tell me to just make it work.

So with the blizzard bearing down, I called my mother.

I told her how nothing was working in my crazy project. And then, without the help of any studies, she delivered the following straightforward tips: Don’t worry about finding the perfect paper. Use what you have. Just get started. Don’t beat yourself up. Seek supportive people. Just focus on making a little progress every day. Her advice had nothing to do with ceiling height, room color, or doing drugs. It was a voice, like Tim Gunn’s, of common sense. And it got me thinking about the fact that, in all my years as a researcher, the only things that seem to have affected my creative work were: the people I was working with; whether I knew anything about what I was working on; whether I was being realistic about my other time commitments; and how committed I was to the project. Again, a lot of what felt like common sense.

On Friday morning, the snow started off gently. As it picked up, the traffic outside my window dwindled, and eventually ceased altogether. Email tailed off, too. Around midday, I stopped bothering to check it. All of Massachusetts slowed down. And all of that slowing down created an unprecedented quiet. The snow muffled everything.

For the first time in weeks, I forgot to put in my earplugs while trying to be creative. I began the morning with NPR blaring constant updates at me about storm-related crises. When I was ready to concentrate, I turned it off. For several hours, I focused intently on organizing, tidying, bill-paying, and general distraction-clearing. Gradually, I restored my world to a state of calm.

And then, in the stillness of the storm, I put on some music, sat down, and drew.


Trying to be more creative? “Get into the Groove” with these nine tips for making your creative project a success.