According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, the most inventive, innovative people have what most of us believe are “bad” habits: they procrastinate, they experience fear and doubt, they even have horrible ideas. But it is because of these “bad” habits-not in spite of them-that creative people have breakthroughs.
1. Bad habit #1: They procrastinate
Ever since we took life skills class in 6th grade, we heard that procrastination was evil. “People procrastinate for fear of failure!” the psychologists roared, “Procrastination keeps us from doing our best work.” Though procrastination is a self-destructive habit in most cases, in some, procrastination operates to open us up to new ways of thinking. You’ll often hear procrastinators justify their behavior: “I have to procrastinate…that’s when I get my best ideas!” Goal-oriented, pre-crastinators like me may have thought this was a load of shit, but study after study confirms the same thing: time pressure often forces us to think in unexpected ways.
What procrastination is bad for is productivity. If you’re procrastinating on your term paper by playing video games or watching pointless video after pointless video on YouTube, you’re not accomplishing anything. In this way, precrastination-the frenzied panic that compels ambitious go-getters to finish projects way before their deadlines-is more constructive: when we get an early start on tasks, we get more done.
However, as Grant points out, procrastination has its own virtues. By momentarily putting off the task at hand, we give ourselves a cognitive break of sorts, which allows ideas to incubate. But Grant distinguishes between 2 different types of procrastination. Brief procrastination, such as spending 5 minutes checking your email before writing your senior thesis, is just enough of a break from the problem to jumpstart your thinking and energize new insights. Extended procrastination over prolonged periods, on the other hand, seems to lead to more conventional modes of thinking and fewer revolutionary ideas.
2. Bad habit #2: They undergo periods of doubt
Like the rest of us, the most groundbreaking pioneers experience doubt and fear. The only difference is that exceptionally creative people don’t doubt themselves-they doubt their ideas.
The difference between doubting yourself and doubting your ideas is the distinction between “I suck” and “This sucks.” “I suck” identifies us with our creative failure and paralyzes us in a state of hopelessness and inaction; “this sucks” is a wake up call. This kind of doubt, Grant asserts, actually leads us to recognize our failings and improve our work.
Say you’re writing an argumentative piece for your English class. You’ve been working for weeks researching your topic, developing a thesis, gathering sources. The paper’s practically complete when you realize a major hole in your argument. “I suck” would cause us to mercilessly berate ourselves; “this sucks” would cause a brief moment of panic but eventually lead to a practical approach to the problem. “Why isn’t my argument convincing?” we’d ask ourselves, “What’s missing?” After exploring possibilities, we might realize we don’t have enough facts or compelling stories to substantiate our argument. Or that we have to revise our claim all together. Regardless of the issue, “this sucks” would invite us to use our ingenuity and problem-solving skills to find a solution and ultimately write a better paper.
The most successful people know that doubt is the greatest driver of creativity. Remember the famous line Sylvia Plath once penned: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”– not doubt itself.
3. Bad habit #3: They have (a lot) of bad ideas and fail
It is a statistical fact: the more output you produce, the greater chance that you’ll produce something truly original. And the greater chance you’ll fail. All of the most original people-composers, filmmakers, brilliant entrepreneurs, world changing activists-have brutally, publicly failed.
The difference between the ordinary person and the successful one is the successful one persists. When we have resiliency of spirit-faith in what is possible instead of cranky skepticism and doubt-we can defy all odds. It is only when we yield to probabilities and chances that we are in danger. Faith is belief in spite of the odds. And faith is idiocy to an outsider. How can we believe we’ll survive stage 3 cancer when we’re told we only have a 50% chance to live?
Faith, I think, is the one quality shared by all remarkable people. Einstein. Edison. Tesla. All brilliant men had to believe in the reality of their vision when all other people saw was a lunatic’s hallucination, when time after time they failed. Time is relative?! Electricity can be harnessed as a form of energy?! When first proposed, these ideas seemed nothing short of crazy. But the revolutionaries and the innovators, the visionaries and the creators possessed the resolve to stand by their ideas, however ridiculed or unpopular, however many times they failed.