Setting goals isn’t always the best creative move

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If you do any creative work (and I’m assuming most Critical Margins readers do something creative) you’ll recognize what researcher Kenneth Stanley calls the “objective paradox”: According to Christie Aschwanden over at FiveThirtyEight (“Stop Trying To Be Creative”), the objective paradox is the feeling that “as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.” This hampers the creative process, which requires “blind searching” and “an openness to discovering whatever arises.”

That’s how I’ve been feeling lately regarding a writing project I hope becomes something someday. I’ve decided to abandon what I thought I was working on (ahem, a novel) and follow where my writing is leading me. It seems this “novel” I was writing has turned into a series of poems and short stories: fragments of things, rather than one coherent whole.

Anyway, back to the point. Why is it so easy to get stuck? Why is writer’s block and the equivalents in other fields so damaging? Research on creativity reveals that a sort of ordered chaos leads to greater creative output. According to Aschwanden and based on Stanley’s research, those serendipitous “aha!” moments come when we allow ourselves to veer away from the goal and try new things:

Rather than beginning with a specific goal, most creative people “start out with with a hazy intuition or vision,” Kaufman told me. “After a lot of trial and error they get closer and closer to discovering what their idea is and then they become really, really gritty to flesh it out.”

Objectives are fine when you have a modest goal and the path to get there is clear. “I would sound like a kook if I was like, no one ever should have an objective ever again,” Stanley said. “If I want some lunch, I’m not going to just wander around until I stumble upon a sandwich.” But if you’re trying to create something new, an objective can stand in your way.

Seeking novelty instead of objectives is risky — not every interesting thread will pay off — but just like with stocks, the potential payoffs are higher.

This point from Aschwanden also fits in with my experience:

When I’m mired in a pile of overwhelming reportage, sudden insights arrive when my frustration is at its peak. It’s the point where, like that robot flailing its legs, I’m forced to try something completely different because I’ve depleted the most obvious options. After reading Stanley’s book, I’ve started to think of those moments of frustration as prerequisites to creativity instead. I’ve also gained a little more faith in my messy methods. When I give myself space to let ideas percolate, good things happen naturally.

Creative work doesn’t come from the clenching, thinking, concentrating mind. Instead, the best creatives know how to access disparate ideas and concepts and make new connections, which lead to clearer insight and new approaches.

This might be why dreams often lead to creative output. I had a strange dream the other night about the show Mad Men. In this dream, Don and Peggy – two of the show’s main characters – were married with kids living in suburbia in the 1980s, and Don worked as a middle manager at a boutique advertising agency, writing copy for awful cable TV ads. If you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ll know why that’s absurd and kind of funny.

When I woke up, I thought, “this could make a weird fan fiction exercise.” I started writing. Now I have a draft of a story that has nothing to do with Mad Men, but some of the themes from that dream have made it into the story. Strange connections can lead to new ideas. I could have dismissed the dream as silly, but I didn’t. I used it to create something new and something not connected to Mad Men or the show’s characters.

I guess the point here is that “trying” sometimes isn’t the right move, especially if you’re stuck. You might need to throw out your original goal or start over to move forward with your project.

By the way, Kenneth Stanley’s upcoming book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective looks to be a fascinating read. I’ve added it to my to-read list.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.