Overcome Creativity’s Greatest Foes: Fear, Time, Mistakes

What’s the greatest threat to your creativity? Or, better yet, what’s the most evil, abhorrent monster that haunts the deepest core of your soul and prevents you from being as creative as you’d like to be? ("X-Files" theme music goes here.)

As the opening speaker for the HOW Design Conference last May, I had a rare opportunity to peer into the collective psyche of a cross section of graphic designers. That experience shed some light on the chilling subject of creativity inhibitors. To prepare for my presentation, I took a quick pulse of the design industry by soliciting feedback via the HOW website.

I asked designers what limits their creativity, what supports it and how they cope with these roadblocks.The results inspired me to develop this primer on leaping over creative obstacles so HOW readers could benefit from the exercise.

Designers are Scaredy-Cats
The first question in my investigation—What blocks your creativity, especially when facing a pressing deadline?—elicited universal and deeply emotional responses.

What blocks creativity for most designers? Fear.

Of course, not everyone used the f-word. Fear manifests itself in a variety of forms. But you’d have to be as blind as a vampire bat to miss the message behind the responses. It was definitely clear that, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Time, stress and judgment are the culprits designers identify as their main creativity blocks. "Time" means too little time, too much time or the deadline itself. "Stress" takes the form of worrying, lack of self-confidence or fear of failure. And "judgment" means the evaluation you get from clients, a boss or even yourself.

As president of Before & After in Tiverton, RI, I am a full-time creative-thinking coach who works with thousands of professionals each year. From that perspective, I assure you that—combined or alone—time, stress and judgment equal fear. From my experience, the best way to help people cope with fear is to help them better understand it. For example, when you were a child, if someone had said, "The lump under the rug isn’t your dead uncle’s body; it’s a warped floorboard," your fear would’ve disappeared. Bingo.

Remember that fear is an integral part of the creative process. If something is truly creative then it isn’t proven or known, and we usually fear the unknown. If you have no fear when you design something because you know it will work, it’s a sign that your design isn’t truly creative. Your design approach has probably been taken before; it’s not wrong, it’s just not so creative.

Simply knowing that fear is normal in the creative process doesn’t make you immune to it, but it may make your fear a little easier to bear. It may help to know that some very accomplished creative people have been victims of the fear beast. You probably think that people such as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, two of the most successful songwriters in rock music, are exempt from fear. Did you know that the original songs penned for their first albums were recorded under the handle "Nanker Phelge"? Why a pseudonym? Fear.

Time is on your side
Let’s break each of the fear factors down, starting with time. Too little time is a big fear for many people. But consider this: Most ideas are conceived in a mere second. Knowing this should take some pressure off you. Even if you have only three hours until deadline, you have more than 10,000 opportunities for inspiration in those three hours—a veritable eternity.

A good way to stretch your effective time on a project is to visit the assignment a few days before you start it. Then you don’t have to physically work until the proverbial 11th hour, but your mind will start working on the project immediately. Once you expose yourself to a problem, your subconscious mind races to find solutions. Just make sure you’re ready with pencil and paper when inspiration strikes, because it often comes without warning and retreats just as quickly.

Conversely, some people find that too much time to do an assignment creates pressure. My suggestion is that if you have some time early on, budget an hour or two to do some spade work—digging for ideas. Then walk away from the problem for a day or week or more. The worst thing that can happen is your mind will keep working on it. And that’s not really a bad thing. Again, have pencil and paper ready.

Another source of fear is the concept of the deadline. Let’s admit it: They could’ve chosen a better word than "deadline" if they wanted it to be less daunting—whoever they are. Maybe you don’t need fewer deadlines; maybe you need more. Think about it. The Big Deadline is pretty final. But giving yourself mini-deadlines—like until the end of today to start the project—isn’t so scary when the ultimate deadline is still a week or so away. Give yourself until the end of tomorrow for one step and the end of the next day for another task and so on. Ironically, when you take the ultimate deadline pressure off, you’ll likely find yourself working ahead of schedule.

Don’t stress about mistakes
Studies show that worrying about stress is usually more stressful than the actual cause of the stress. And, yes, most people worry about failure. But did you know that successful people fail more often than unsuccessful people? The University of California at Davis recently conducted a worldwide study of more than 2,000 scientists. The most successful scientists failed much more often than their less successful colleagues.

You may have heard about the failure rate of baseball legend Babe Ruth. The Bambino hit more home runs than anyone else in his era, but he also struck out more than anyone else. In modern sports, Michael Jordan is a failure of great magnitude. He missed more shots than any other player during each of his final three NBA championship series. In fact, he racked up nearly twice as many misses as the next-best players during his last year. Yet in each of those years he was named Most Valuable Player of the series because the things he did to help his team succeed far outweighed his many "failures."

Albert Einstein said, "Show me someone who has never failed and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t tried hard enough." If you’re worried that your boss might not have such a liberal view of failure, keep in mind that most people became managers because they were willing to take chances. And even if your immediate supervisor isn’t quite so enlightened, there’s probably someone farther up the management ladder who knows the real score. I’m usually hired by managers—not the rank and file. They know this stuff, even if they don’t always practice it.

Keep judgment in check
The last creative stumbling block is judgment. First, let’s discuss how you should handle judgment by others. If so-and-so’s judgment—be it your boss or your client—is an inescapable part of the project you’re working on, then I suggest you go out of your way to take that factor into account at each and every stage of the creative process. I’m not saying that their judgment is necessarily right. But if their opinion is a big part of the approval process, then that’s just the way things are. You can’t change that, but you can learn to cope with it.

I’ve often seen people disregard the parameters of a project, pushing for time that just isn’t there or designing for a budget that simply doesn’t exist. Reality is reality, and it’s very rarely utopia. You have to figure out how to create within the confines of that reality—and do it well—if you want to succeed in this business.

Fight the client’s judgment too frequently and you’ll be out of a job. Instead, figure out how to design a great project within the limitations of that narrow spectrum of acceptance and you’ll be a hero. It’s that simple. "Do the most successful designers have to do this?" you ask. How do you think they got to be the most successful designers?

No offense, but almost any second-year design student can create something pretty cool with no restrictions. But a true professional is resourceful enough to pull off a great design despite arbitrary limitations, no matter how stupid or crazy those stipulations may seem.

The toughest judgment—yours—is another kettle of fish. And they’re probably piranhas. The best advice on selfjudgment involves the most successful fundamentals of creativity: Work quickly; look at many options; delay judgment.

When you work quickly, you don’t give yourself time to get bogged down by self-criticism. You don’t allow time for fear to enter the process. When you explore several design solutions, you eliminate the pressure to always be "right." And when you delay judgment, one of two things usually happens: The distance gives you greater objectivity, so your decision making is less clouded; or, when you go back and evaluate your creative output, you find that you actually have many viable solutions in the mix. That’s a nice problem to have.

The alternative to delaying judgment is judging each idea, one at a time, as you generate them. That’s a sure-fire formula for frustration. If you don’t like an idea, you’ll probably think, "I’m a bum." If you like the idea, you’ll most likely stop working altogether. Instead, ask yourself whether there’s a better idea. You’ll never know if you don’t keep plugging along.

Beating fear
There you have it: simple, practical methods for keeping fear at bay. Show your creative blocks who’s boss by overcoming the negative aspects of time, stress and judgment. Then you’ll always come out on top in the fight against fear.

Additional resources
A Creative Companion: How to Free Your Creative Spirit, by Sark, Celestial Arts
How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker, W.W. Norton Co.
Inspiration Sandwich: Stories to Inspire Our Creative Freedom, by Sark, Celestial Arts (
A Kick in the Seat of the Pants: Using Your Explorer, Artist, Judge and Warrior to Be More Creative, by Roger Von Oech, HarperCollins Publishers
Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step-By-Step, by Edward De Bono, HarperCollins Publishers
The Secret Language of the Mind: A Visual Inquiry into the Mysteries of Consciousness, by David Cohen, Chronicle Books
A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young, National Textbook Co.
A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, by Roger Von Oech, Warner Books

HOW February 2000