Many of us assume that creativity declines over time, and that our first ideas originate from our best and freshest thinking. Yet according to cutting-edge new research by Brian Lucas, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, this assumption could not be more wrong – and we’re falling victim to a phenomenon known as the “creative-cliff illusion”. The best ideas, he says, come to those who wait. And by learning to exercise a bit of patience and perseverance, we can all find more innovative solutions to our problems.
Lucas’ theory originates from a logical consideration of the way ideas are formed. For any problem, the more obvious solutions are going to be within easy reach – perhaps resembling something that you have previously encountered, with a few tweaks for the current situation. That initial idea generation is incredibly satisfying – Lucas compares it to the hit you might get after eating a sweet.
Once you’ve exhausted those possibilities, any further solutions will come more slowly, and will require much more mental effort to draw out and develop. Lucas proposes that the frustration and hard work, give the impression that you are facing rapidly diminishing returns, and the sense that your creativity is about to drop off a cliff.
In reality, the number of ideas may indeed have fallen, but the quality of each individual idea could be much higher – with the extra thinking contributing to greater originality and insight. If you work through the frustration, you may therefore find a truly innovative concept that stands out from all the other ideas.
“It’s the basic principle of accessibility: the first thing you consider is probably what everyone else is considering, which means that they’re not novel,” says Lucas. “So, you have to push past those to get to the things that are a little more unique.”