Most of us recognize that you have to fail on the road to success. We know learning from mistakes is what perseverance is all about. But if that’s true, then the emotions those setbacks unleash are also key ingredients in that process.
There’s no point tip-toeing around the fact that everyone gets fed up from time to time. But neurological research hints that anger might lay the groundwork for creativity and can be harnessed to solve problems.
First, a quick primer on the physiology of anger. Emotions surface because our brains use memories and past experiences to determine the severity of a situation. If it’s similar to something bad we’ve gone through before, we experience negative feelings as a way of protecting us from being hurt again and remembering that situation for future reference.
Unfamiliar and highly emotional experiences cause different patterns of neurological activity in our brains than when we feel calm and secure. The hypothalamus triggers the release of stress hormones, and the sympathetic nervous system flips into “fight or flight” mode as adrenaline and cortisol begin pumping through the body.
Steve Jobs believed that “creativity is just connecting things.” In 1998, he told Wired magazine that someone is creative because they “were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
In other words, we generate new ideas when we can connect past experiences to something that’s happening in the present in order to piece together a new solution—almost like a puzzle.
Being angry typically makes us act irrationally and unpredictably. We imagine doing things we never actually follow through with. Yet we’re so emotionally heated that we give shorter shrift to the social standards that otherwise manage our thoughts, behaviors, and decisions.
Those are pretty good conditions for creative thinking. Not only are our memories pushed to the surface, but our imaginations are running in overdrive and we’re pushing past the usual thresholds for what we consider possible.
Here are three steps to unlocking your creativity when you’re angry:
1. Find an activity that takes you away from what’s making you angry and lets you release it. Exercise is a common outlet, but anything that distracts your mind through a form of physical movement can work well, from a brisk walk to an interactive video game. You can even try writing by hand as a last resort. Personally, I prefer running to blow off steam.
2. Embrace the anger and use it to push yourself harder. Do this for the first 10 to 20 minutes. Don’t try to think positively yet. Run faster, punch harder—just keep moving. You’ll probably find you can get into “the zone” much more easily when you’re angry. Endorphins will begin to flood into your system, and you’ll gradually begin feeling better and thinking more clearly.
3. Start thinking about things you want to do differently and problems you want to solve. This is the period when creativity really begins to soar. Don’t force it, but while you’re doing your chosen activity, focus on some of those obstacles and ambitions. Maybe it’s a new project, a habit change, a career move, a trip you really want to take, or a new business idea. Maybe it’s even the issue that got you mad in the first place.
It’s important not to push yourself too hard mentally while you’re pushing yourself physically. Just try to let the ideas flow as your mind begins to clear. If you can’t think of anything, don’t stress yourself out. The main thing is you’ll get better at connecting and synthesizing experiences over time so the next time something angers you, you’ll be more prepared to tap into it creatively.
Graham Young is a disruptive performance strategist who creates science-based strategies to evaluate human behavior and elevate personal performance. As a coach and speaker, he works with leaders, business professionals, and organizations across North America at Graham Young Strategies.