Frustrated? Embrace the potential for creativity

Are you familiar with the “group project” memes that have germinated all over the Internet?

Does this one resonate particularly strongly with you?

Via Tumblr
Via Tumblr

If you answered yes to these two questions, boy do I have good news for you!

In a TEDTalk, “Financial Times” columnist and author Tim Harford put forth the idea that frustration actually improves creativity and problem-solving skills.

Using examples from social psychology, rock n’ roll, and the German opera, Harford shows how disrupting factors – the things that trip you up, ruin your work, and complicate your process – are actually helping you think outside the box and do better.

According to Harford, strategic, predictable step-by-step processes can lead you to a dead end. You can only see what’s already there, and if there’s something wrong with your process, you can end up making the same mistakes over and over again. When you introduce an element of randomness, you’re forced to approach things differently, which makes for an end result that is new and different from what you’ve done before.

This isn’t just a theory. In practice, it’s called “oblique strategies” – a group of index cards list disruptive (and frankly annoying) things you can do to create obstacles in the creative process, and you pick one at random and implement it.

Because this whole idea is so counter-intuitive (making things harder makes them better? What?), our natural instinct is to shy away from it. What kind of masochist wants to make the difficult and often emotionally and physically draining task of making something even more complicated?

This is why, Harford says, when life doesn’t supply the randomness, you have to force yourself to find way to throw a wrench into your own plans.

So the next time you get an A+++ on a group project, you’ll know who to thank:

these-guys

You can find Tim Harford’s books on economics and creativity at the Creative Quibble bookstore.