How Escalating Expectations Can Inhibit Your Creativity

In this excerpt from the new book The Accidental Creative, author Todd Henry explains how people's expectations from being compared to peers, or even to those that inspired them, can limit the creativity in their work.

The Accidental CreativeOne assassin of creativity is expectation escalation. We allow comparisons to affect our current creative engagement. The moment we place concrete expectations on the end results of a project—this upgrade is going to double last year's sales figures!—we begin closing off potential executions and helpful thoughts because we deem them "not useful enough" in accomplishing our escalated expectations. Doing this too early in the creative process can seriously derail brilliant ideas and prevent them from ever seeing the light of day.

The result of all this is a phenomenon I call "expectation escalation." As our perceived expectations escalate, we become almost paralyzed with concern about not measuring up. We want our ideas to be fully formed from the beginning rather than giving our creative process time to play out. If we don't see the idea as stacking up against the best of the best, then we don't spend time on it. But this ignores the reality that all brilliant creative executions began as infant ideas and had to be tweaked and developed.

I've witnessed three sources of unhealthy expectations, and each affects our creating in the same fundamental way. Expectation escalation causes us to self- limit as a result of comparison.

Our Past Work

Have you ever had difficulty getting started on an idea because you were afraid that it wouldn't measure up to something you'd previously done? Sometimes our expectations for our own work can get in the way of full creative engagement. It's unfortunate that we are often our own worst critic and that we often criticize and deconstruct our work well before it's ready.

You have a great idea and, at first, you're very excited. Soon, though, you begin to think back to previous work you've completed, comparing those final products with the seed you're currently nurturing. Even though your current work is still in its infancy and so of course can't stack up to a fully formed and executed idea, you're not willing to give yourself that grace period. Instead, you do a quick assessment of whether the work is worthwhile based on nothing more than these artificial expectations. As a result, you don't give the idea time to develop.

When you do this you fail to realize that (1) all your past work was once unformed and in midprocess, and that (2) you always remember past work more fondly than you actually felt about it at the time. In hindsight, recalling how a project succeeded is easy, but in midproject, there is always a lot of doubt and confusion involved. We tend to forget the angst and uncertainty we felt while doing the work and instead look only at the end results.

I don't mean to imply that all comparison is bad. There is both good and bad in playing this comparison game. You want to continue growing in your skills, and comparing your current work to past work can help benchmark your growth. But you don't want to fall into the trap of shrinking back from engagement simply because you're afraid of not measuring up. The key to using comparison effectively is to withhold it until later in the process. When you are in the early stages of a project you need as many possibilities in front of you as possible. There are enough limitations in place thanks to your organization, your peers, and your client; you don't need to limit yourself, too.

Our Managers and Peers

In the same way that we can experience escalated expectations for our work based upon our own past work, we can be tempted to artificially escalate the expectations of our managers and peers when they are not communicated clearly. Because of the already complex nature of creative work, and the time- versus value tension discussed in the previous chapter, a lack of clarity around organizational expectations will sometimes result in our going overboard in our work as we try to cover our bases. But this means that we often do extra and unnecessary work, and waste energy that could have been more effectively applied to the creative problems at hand.

Our Heroes and Competition

I love to read industry trade magazines and blogs. They can be a wonderful source of inspiration and information about what's happening in the wide world of business. But they can lead to a sinister side effect: it's very easy to let the work of others paralyze us.

This is a real problem in the design world. I've spoken with many designers and creative directors who feel the constant pressure to measure up to the work they are seeing on the covers of industry magazines. Some companies will cut these pieces out and hang them on the wall as a form of inspiration to the team, but these displays can sometimes feel more like a "why can't you be more like your older brother?" talk from your parents.

While you certainly need to be willing to learn from the competition and from our own creative heroes, don't let their influences cause you to condemn your own abilities. In his book Free Play, improvisational violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch writes, "It's great to sit on the shoulders of giants, but don't let the giants sit on your shoulders. There's no room for their legs to dangle!"

In other words, there is a form of oppression that emerges when we allow the work of our influences or competitors to drive our creating in an unhealthy way. The creative process is a personal assault on the beachhead of apathy and a push to explore and break new ground, even when we are uncertain of a successful result. The more we try to force a successful (and derivative) result, the less likely we are to see true breakthrough. It's only when we are free to abandon our need to measure up and instead simply trust our abilities that we will begin to see real creative brilliance emerge.

Excerpted from The Accidental Creative. Published by Portfolio / Penguin. Copyright Todd Henry, 2011.

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  • Cedricj

    Whenever I complete an executive leadership assessment the most common question I am asked is "How did I do compared to my peers?" We benchmark ourselves to death with such comparisons. They just fill our minds with feelings of inferiority, superiority, or ways to rest on our laurels. Our thinking then becomes like a barrel full of restless monkeys. For creativity to flourish we need quiet minds, open hearts, and exposure to ideas that have nothing to do with comparisons. And anyway, a comparison to others is so individualistic and US centric. How about asking ""How are WE doing?"

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