#161 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 6
Barriers to Creativity
Schutz is president of Will Schutz Associates, of Mill Valley,
California, a training and consulting firm focusing on personal
empowerment and group productivity. The most recent of his nine
books is The Human Element:
Productivity, Self-Esteem and the Bottom Line (Jossey-Bass,
San Francisco, 1994), from which this article was adapted.
He can be reached at (415) 383-8275.
In the ideal
R&D organization, creativity blossoms and successes
are welcomed, assessed, and implemented if appropriate.
Self-respect and mutual respect flourish, and employees
continually increase their self-awareness, self-acceptance, and
Only under these
conditions can individuals, and the organization, reach their
you’re willing to open yourself to the ideas and experiences
presented here, and carry them into your organization, you’ll
help create a structure where:
group operates to capacity (because members have created a
structure that elicits and uses everyone’s contributions);
people tell the truth; and
each person takes responsibility for personal behavior and
In such an
environment, teams can be more effective, organizations more
productive, individuals more accomplished, and human relationships
and problem solving is admired and (in principle) generally
encouraged by organizations.
Although interpersonal and organizational changes can help
unleash creativity, psychological blocks can arise at each stage
of the creative process. One of the quickest ways an individual
can maximize creative potential is to find and overcome these
these blocks are often out of our awareness, or consciousness.
They stem from our uncertainty about ourselves,
specifically that we feel—to some degree—insignificant,
incompetent, and/or unlikable.
These uncertainties typically distort our creative and
intellectual abilities since they lead us to try to avoid,
respectively, being ignored, humiliated, and rejected.
feelings may, at first, seem unrelated to the creative process, in
fact, understanding them is the key to expanding and enriching our
creativity. To make
optimal use of these self-insights requires a non-judgmental view
of ourselves. It’s
not “bad” to feel—to some degree—insignificant,
incompetent, and unlikable; it’s simply human.
Recognizing these feelings in ourselves is the first step
toward removing the blocks to creativity and, ultimately, toward
feeling better about ourselves.
obstacles to creativity and logical thinking, we must first
identify the hurdles at each stage of the creative process.
Before you can
discover a creative solution, you must acquire a repertoire of
requires being open to your environment and your feelings.
Why do physicists make the most creative discoveries in
physics? Why is it
that basketball players invent the new ways to shoot baskets?
Because their rich backgrounds give them more possibilities
for new solutions.
But there are
blocks to obtaining experience:
Fear of not learning.
If you feel unable to retain information, you'll be anxious
about new experiences. If
you fear being tested on what you were supposed to learn, you may
shut down. If your
self-concept calls you incompetent, you won’t put yourself in a
position to be humiliated. And
if you are always being compared to people who are supposedly
"brilliant," you may be driven away.
All of these can limit your experiences.
Fear of violating
you raised to believe that certain topics are “none of your
business,” certain actions “impertinent”?
If these feelings cause you to feel "out of
bounds," you'll avoid investigating a wide range of phenomena
and your curiosity will shut down. You may even close off your
unconscious and all the creative potential it holds.
You must be able
to associate experiences into a useful product. Like science,
poetry relies on such remote associations, or metaphors (recall
Carl Sandburg’s memorable line, “The fog comes/on little cat
What are the
blocks to making associations?
you stay in control by being utterly rational, you will reject
nonlinear or associative thinking, and forgo using intuition, even
though many creative people credit intuition as the source of
their discoveries. Equally,
you will curtail your creativity for fear of being seen as
“flaky” or unacceptable to the establishment.
make useful associations, you must avoid self-deception and
understand the consequences of your actions.
For example, one lab director eventually realized that his
unwillingness to acknowledge other people's contributions stemmed
from his fear of seeming incompetent.
Denigrating the “competition” helped him avoid feeling
associated diverse experiences or information, you must express
your idea: a creative association isn’t worth much unless you
can communicate it.
What are the
obstacles to expression?
you're uncertain of your abilities, fear criticism, or fear
speaking before a group (or certain individuals), you’ll have
difficulty bringing ideas to light.
Then the ideas will remain underdeveloped for lack of
Fear of assertion.
If you express what you feel, will people still like you?
Will you get into trouble?
Tom Sawyer always figured that "staying mum" kept
him out of a jam; but if you agree, your inhibition about
expressing ideas will limit your creativity.
undervalue their ideas tend not to follow through, which is when
we must distinguish the creative from the bizarre, the productive
from the irrelevant. Here,
two related hurdles comprise a false dilemma which can cloud your
ability to evaluate an idea and force you to choose between
proceeding with an unpromising project and prematurely deep-sixing
a promising one:
Fear of humiliation.
If you rate your solution highly, and other people think
it’s rotten, you could end up looking like a boaster or
starry-eyed fool. (That's
why people adopt false modesty or convince themselves that their
creations are boring or obvious.)
Fear of rejection.
On the other hand, if you are negative about your own
solution or product, people may ignore it—and you.
After all, if you don’t think much of your work, why should they?
and products are fun, but unless you persevere, they won't make
anybody rich. The concept of continuous improvement says any
process or product should be endlessly revised and improved.
Most authors incessantly revise their manuscripts.
Artists redo paintings and sculptures until they “work”
--give the right feeling.
Fear of failure.
What if you carry your idea to completion and find it’s
not as good as you thought (meaning you’re incompetent)?
Therefore play it safe by failing to develop your product
to the point where it's a truly creative work.
Lack of rewards.
Much of your creative activity is probably motivated by the
admiration your creations inspire in others.
Unfortunately, for many people, the work needed to turn a
creative impulse into a product is less rewarding. Do you regard
yourself as an “idea” person instead of a "detail”
person? This attitude
may partly stem from fear that you are poor at follow-through,
meaning your impulse will come to naught.
questions can help you to assess your strengths and limitations
For each stage of the creative process, which blocks sound
familiar to you? Which
do you want to remove?
Do you have any blocks to acquiring knowledge?
Do you fear that you won’t remember information?
Are you reluctant to explore certain personal areas?
Have you developed the ability to make creative
associations? Are you
reluctant to let your mind go wherever it wants? If so, why?
Are you inhibited in writing or speaking?
Are you afraid of ridicule?
Of making yourself look foolish?
Do you trust yourself to judge your creative efforts?
Do you have trouble sticking with things until they are
complete? Are you
afraid of failure? Of
being disappointed when you complete something?
The key to
dissolving blocks to creativity lies in the kind of self-esteem
that thrives in an open, truthful organization, where everyone can
express their concerns openly and their humanity will be accepted.
When we can focus on problems rather than defenses, and
when we all feel safe to acknowledge our fears, the organization
becomes a community that helps each person to identify and remove
these blocks—and experience soaring creativity.