Innovative Marketing Agency

In Praise of Creative Bad-A%$@

If you work in a creative field you’ve probably heard that old trope about us. We are thin-skinned, emotionally fragile aesthetes who cherish praise and wilt under hard inspection and critique. 

“Oh, be gentle with your opinions about my work, because after all, it is an expression that comes from within my very self. Be kind, please.” 

Um, no.  

Nothing could be further from the truth. I know because I’ve been a creative for decades, been surrounded by them that whole time, and we are among the toughest professionals you can come by. When I’m in that proverbial foxhole, it’s creative people I want around me. I understand their grit. 

And now, finally, there’s research to prove it! In a paper published by the National Institutes of Health, entitled “Understanding employee creativity from the perspectives of grit, work engagement, person organization fit, and feedback,” (OK, NIH can use some creative help with their titles) the authors dive into what makes people creative and how they develop their professional problem-solving skills.  

Here’s their conclusion. Creative thinkers are bad asses. 

The paper explains some inherent characteristics that make a person naturally creative: “traits like taking risks, … development and growth to conquer issues, tolerance for ambiguity.” I recognize these traits in the people I work with. Their desire to bend the norm, their openness to new thinking, their need to create something original despite existing obstacles and entrenchments — they all speak to a natural inner strength and drive.  

The paper also identifies four stages of creativity: challenge, incubation, clarification, and confirmation. The more a person pursues solutions through these phases, the grittier and the more creatively bold their work becomes. So I want to explore each phase with you briefly, because these NIH researchers have given words to what I have always believed about the creative process and about creative people.  

Phase 1: Challenge 

NIH describes the opening of a creative challenge as, well, the challenge. To agency people like myself, we call it the creative brief. The most important aspects of the initiative are documented and placed before the creatives so they can intellectually and intuitively consider it from all pertinent angles. What information is shared here is critical. Either too little or too much can have a negative impact on the next phase of the process, Incubation. The goal here is to inspire, not overwhelm. To solve the big issue, not every issue. 

Phase 2: Incubation 

NIH has a lot to say about this stage, which is the period when we mentally stretch to conceive new solutions. It is human instinct to retreat to ideas that have worked in the past. But to be innovative, people must be brave to turn away from easy solves and charge on to find something fresh. Such effort requires that molds be broken and old ruts defeated. But perhaps the most important aspect of this phase, implied by its name, is the indulgence of time —to live with the issues, to let them seep into the consciousness so the brain can explore and play with innovative approaches. The best creative problem-solvers develop a skill for all the above and will consistently come to the next phase, Clarification, with break-through work.  

Phase 3: Clarification 

This is the “aha moment” in which an exciting solution is identified and the details fleshed out. In this step the project takes on a fuller dimension and starts to exist as a complete and impactful idea. This is maybe the trickiest step of the process because many collaborators will seek to change the idea to accomplish even more goals, or new ones. Their intentions are good, but the results of too much tinkering often weaken, not strengthen, an idea. This is the phase when brave creatives must recognize the essence of what makes the idea work and protect it against the feature creep that will diffuse its impact — like a mama bear protects her cubs. 

Phase 4: Confirmation 

This is the final and perhaps the most necessary stage of any creative expression — the reveal of the idea to the target and their response to it. No new creation is complete without it. Like an actor stepping on stage before a full auditorium, getting that reaction is needed by creative people on a very basic level. And knowing that this phase awaits ratchets up the importance of the earlier stages, creating pressure, but also focus. Effort and reaction are intertwined, one affecting the other in a continual loop. It becomes a way of seeing the world. 

I thank NIH for the paper, because I now have research to point to when I argue with friends about the natural strength of creative minds. Every step of this researched and documented journey is filled with bold intention — success of the effort depends on it. There is no room in any of this for self-pity. Only grit. 

And this is why creatives need that unvarnished feedback from you. Don’t worry about our precious feelings. Like NIH said, we’re bad asses.