Be Prepared for Discomfort, Uncertainty, and Failure

by Billy Pittard on April 28, 2010

Having been involved in an uncountable number of creative projects, I can safely say that being creative is not about being safe. Safe solutions to creative assignments are rarely creative. If you really and truly want a creative solution, be prepared for uncertainty, discomfort, and failure. Although confirmation of success generally takes some time to appear after the work is completed, the good news is that uncertainty, discomfort, and failure are simply states you may pass through to get to a successful creative solution.

It takes a special kind of environment for truly creative work to happen. Participants need to know it’s okay to break old paradigms and try new things – even when it means foregoing tried and true solutions. When the collaborators know that it’s okay to try possible solutions that might not work out, it will lead to more creative thinking and a better eventual outcome.

When tasked with a creative assignment, it’s not unusual to feel an urge to stick with familiar kinds of solutions that you’ve had success with before, but this “comfort zone” is the enemy of creativity. Some creative people latch onto the first idea that pops into their minds. They jump right into implementing that idea without even considering any options. My advice to people who do this is to push yourself out of that “comfort zone.” If you don’t, you’ll certainly not achieve your creative potential, and you’ll probably burn out at some point. I’ve seen talented people become so locked into one kind of solution that they convince themselves that they are incapable of coming up with other kinds of solutions. Their work becomes one big blur of sameness and you can hardly tell one project from another. When that happens, the cure is to identify what elements you are repeating, and stop doing those things. It might be color, composition, or any combination of many different aspects of your work. You must consciously avoid those habitual solutions and replace them with new habits that keep you from getting into creative ruts. Try to find inspiration in the projects themselves to come up with unique new solutions. Force yourself to try new things and new approaches. This will cause feelings of uncertainty and discomfort, and you can expect a lot of failed attempts, but on the other side of breaking those old habits is the reward of unlimited creative potential.

When you are genuinely going into new creative territory, there will naturally be a certain amount of failure. A good creative process will take this into account and methodically eliminate many possible solutions until the one final solution is arrived at. For example, the multi-purpose WD-40 got its name from having been preceded by 39 failures. Attempt number 40 was so successful it has been a best selling product for almost fifty years and for many of those years it was the only product that the company made.

When your client says they want a very creative solution, it’s important to find out what he or she means by that. It’s probably not what you think, because you and your client probably have very different points of view about what’s creative. In my experience, when a client says they want a very creative solution, two possible scenarios come to mind:

A. The client recently saw something that they liked and thought was creative and now they want you to give them that same thing – but with their logo on it. Of course, this is not creative. Or…

B. The client really does need a very creative solution.

In scenario B, your job is to prepare the client for discomfort. The client needs to know that the degree of creativity of the proposed solutions will be directly proportional to their own discomfort. That is not to say that the more uncomfortable the client is, the better the solution is. Rather it means that creative solutions are unfamiliar by their very nature and may make the approval process somewhat uncomfortable and uncertain.

The magic of a healthy creative collaboration is that team members tend to challenge proposed solutions more than we might challenge ourselves when we work alone. That process of challenging ideas can get very uncomfortable, but it keeps us on our toes and keeps us thinking. Discomfort actually fuels the creative process. It takes maturity and the right kind of environment for this to happen constructively, but that’s just another reason why great creative work is a rare and precious thing.

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