Grit: Build a reservoir of creative resilience to overcome failures

(This is the 3rd of a 9-part series on creativity traits.)

Curious: passionate for fresh knowledge; desiring to learn new things
Resilient: capable of overcoming setbacks; able to take risks; ambitious
Evaluative: willing to experiment and evolve your creativity beyond the idea stage
Autonomous: independent; norm-doubting
Tuned in: open and alert to the world around you; highly perceptive
Introspective: driven by innate (intrinsic) rewards; self-accepting
Visionary: having dreams and aspirations; original thinking
Energetic: adept at managing and recharging your energy

Creative grit

Do you have what it takes to withstand creative flops?

Creativity cannot exist without failures. Period. Unfortunately, failures can occur without creativity. The challenge is how easily you give up.

The picture at the top is one of the few photographs of my mother’s family. My grandmother had 10 children. Two were still-born, one died at an early age, and two were unable to make the trip to the United States with her. She faced continual hardship, but was resilient enough to be creative in her own way. That’s true grit.

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, wrote an article about grit for the New York Times Magazine. In it he discussed the role of resilience and persistence in attaining success. He emphasized that people insulated from botched outcomes don’t develop the fortitude necessary to succeed. Taking risks is part of life — and part of creativity.

That’s where grit (creative resilience) comes in. Sustained creativity requires not just failures, but also an ability to bounce back from them. It requires an ability to manage adversity. And it’s a character skill most people have not been taught.

So, do all educators agree there is a link between grit and creativity? No. Nevertheless most concur that it may play a role in long-term projects. In other words, in pushing creativity toward innovation. An initial creative spark is not enough. You need to continue through to a result. That means you have to keep bouncing back.

What is your creativity safety net?

To bounce back from adversity, you need a virtual trampoline, a safety net. You have to strengthen your ability to cope with outcomes you don’t want. The Mayo Clinic provides these tips on improving resilience:

  1. Get connected
  2. Make every day meaningful
  3. Learn from experience
  4. Remain hopeful
  5. Take care of yourself

I want to augment these tips and relate them to creativity.

Get connected to build creative resilience

Develop a strong social network of family, friends, colleagues and/or mentors. Find people you can confide in. Share your frustrations. Use their support as a “sounding board” to help reduce the frustrations you are feeling when faced with creative dead-ends.

Make every day meaningful

Look for opportunities to be grateful every day. Oprah Winfrey keeps a gratitude journal to help her appreciate what she has rather than bemoan what she doesn’t have. According to Inc. Magazine, gratitude can compensate for stress, thereby opening creativity ability.

Turn mistakes into lessons

Rethink failure. Learning from mistakes and setbacks is an achievement. It’s an element of success. Not learning from errors is a failure.

In fact, failure often creates new opportunities. Ian Robertson observed in Psychology Today:Paradoxically then, failure can help us to encounter new possibilities because it forces us to abandon the blinkered focus on reward that repeated success causes.” In other words, success can cause complacency and risk reduction, sometimes referred to as the incumbent’s curse.

Challenge yourself to engage in experiences where success is not virtually guaranteed. If you need to wade into this by making mistakes that nobody sees, start there. Teach yourself that that you are resilient enough to rebound from occasional defeats.

Keep track of what you have learned from missteps. Apply that to new situations. Contemplate setbacks without dwelling on them. Accept them as part of the normal process of creativity and innovation.

Remain hopeful

Being hopeful is not Pollyanaish optimism. It’s not wishful thinking.  Rather, it’s about embracing possibilities, even while knowing some outcomes will fail. It’s about accepting the present while being motivated to change the future. This perspective on hope is believed to be related to creativity.

So, encourage yourself to explore multiple solutions to problems. Believe you have the capacity to impact change. Take the long view.

Take care of yourself

Physical, mental and emotional health are all connected to resilience. The stronger you are in all these areas, the better equipped you are to bounce back from setbacks. Get proper sleep. Eat a balanced diet. Learn to relax. Manage stress through meditation, yoga or deep breathing. Focus on maintaining healthy self-esteem.

And exercise. Studies prove the physical, mental and emotional benefits of exercise. And aerobic activity also stimulates prefrontal cortex areas of the brain generally associated with aspects of creativity. That’s why taking a walk, riding a bike, or engaging in a sport can trigger new ideas after you have been in a creative rut. It also gives a boost to resilience.

Relearn life’s lessons

Think about mistakes you made growing up. What were the responses of your family? What about peers? Or teachers? Or ministers? Were you criticized or encouraged? Were the mistakes viewed as learning opportunities or dead-ends? These experiences “taught” you how to deal with failure. Now you must decide if the teachings were appropriate, or if you need to “unlearn” the lessons. That requires creative grit.

If you were taught that failure is bad – that only perfection is acceptable – you will likely look for ways to avoid taking risks. Or you learn to blame others. While risk reduction is important, too much will squelch creativity. It can cause you to limit your focus to only areas where you are strong. It may prevent you from seeing answers that aren’t directly in front of you. And even some that are right in front of you.

Is all perfection necessary?

Force yourself to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary perfection. Necessary perfectionism saves lives. Unnecessary perfectionism causes procrastination. It creates delays. And it obstructs the realization of ideas. There’s a lot of room for creativity in-between.

When I published the first edition of my product manager book in 1995, it was far from perfect. However, it was “good enough” to generate an increased awareness of product management. It’s now in its fourth edition. Had I waited for it to be perfect, it would still be sitting unpublished in some long-forgotten location.

Just to be clear – I am not suggesting that with creativity anything goes. Details can make the difference between a good and a great idea. But not all details are equally important. Strive for perfection. Just don’t let it become an excuse for lack of forward momentum.

When you run into a dead-end, decide to move forward. Don’t allow yourself to be stuck in perpetual limbo. Scrap what you’re doing until you uncover an untried solution. Reframe the problem. U-turns can be okay. Decide if the problem you are trying to solve is the wrong problem. (Sometimes the best resilience is “quitting” and starting over anew.) Just continue moving forward.

Failure is rarely fatal

Failure is not enjoyable and can be a blow to one’s ego (and possibly one’s budget or profit), but it is rarely fatal. Coach yourself to tolerate missteps, learn from them, and recognize that they are instrumental in your pursuit of creativity and innovation.

Be flexible. Practice improvisation. Try new approaches when the first way does not work. Be persistent. But do so with vigilance and intelligence, and be willing to change course when necessary. Strengthen your mental ability to be aware of and cope with potentially contradictory data. Acknowledge there may be multiple viewpoints for issues, and that other perspectives might add to your creativity.

Where to from here?

Resilience paves the way to follow-through. You need to bounce back from ideas that don’t work until you find ones that do. But you’re not done yet. Be ready to test, evaluate and evolve your creative ideas. That’s the topic of the next post.