Stress as the Threshold to Creativity

Stress is a necessary part of life and something that has helped us to survive & thrive over our evolution. As I’ve written about before, the challenge with stress in modern times is that our conditioned & learned responses to stress often don’t match the perceived threat that we’re experiencing. And we often resort to bad habits to alleviate our feelings of stress, or forget the simple things we can do to become more resilient.

When I was re-reading Charles Duhigg’s book, “Smarter Faster Better”, there was a passage that I came across that didn’t jump out at me until now. He was discussing how innovation arises within team environments, using Pixar as the specific example, when he made this statement:

“…[R]ecognize that the panic and stress you feel as you try to create isn’t a sign that everything is falling apart. Rather, it’s the condition that helps make us flexible enough to seize something new. Creative desperation can be critical: anxiety is often pushes us to see old ideas in new ways. The path out of that turmoil is to look at what you know, to reinspect conventions you’ve seen work and to apply them to fresh problems. The creative pain should be embraced.”

page 236, “Smarter Faster Better”, Charles Duhigg

For me, this was quite a different perspective on stress, but one that really intrigued me. In the past, I’ve tripped myself up with stress in my reactions and how I would choose to cope. I’ve personally made a lot of progress with various techniques & approaches, but this reframing of stress as a positive condition for change was new to me.

In his book, Duhigg uses the example of the numerous creative blocks encountered by Pixar during the creation of the movie “Frozen”. I highly recommend picking up the book as he provides many real-world examples to back up his research into what habits & behaviours can make us more effective & productive.

He describes how the creative team encountered issue after issue and how eventually, with some small but meaningful changes to the team and by drawing on their own unique experiences, they were able to transform their problematic project into an acclaimed and successful film.

In his description of how stress contributed to the right conditions for the team to be flexible, I was having challenges seeing how this was possible at first.

For me, stress has a connotation of stiffness & rigidity that keeps me on edge. How can stress help me to be flexible?

A few things helped to me overcome this incongruity between stress & flexibility. First, I looked to the behaviours I currently use as coping mechanisms in the face of stressful events, namely taking a pause, breathing and staying in the moment. Each of these responses do provide a good foundation for being more flexible. I associate feeling stress with holding my breath. There’s a great quote from Frederick Salomon Perl:

“Fear is excitement without the breath.”

Frederick Solomon Perl

Knowing the importance of breathing, especially after reading James Nestor’s book “Breath”, I can understand how this simple act can help me enter a more flexible mindset.

Next, I reframed stress as something to work with instead of something to work against. As I’ve written before, stress can be viewed as an ally. Taking this different mindset from the start can help you shift the story you may default to when encountering a stressful situation.

Starting from this new mindset of stress being an ally, I can instead view a stressful situation as a sign or reminder to pause and take a different approach. In the same way that a headache is a signal from your body, I can take a pause and start to think about how I can approach this particular situation from a different perspective. Stress becomes a signal for me, a reminder that it’s time to try a different approach.

One of the recommended approaches that Duhigg describes is to take techniques or strategies that you’re familiar with in other contexts and apply them to this current situation. The idea is that applying these strategies in a different context could spur innovative thinking and perhaps create some breakthrough “a-ha” moments. He also recommends digging into personal experiences for answers. We have a wealth of life experiences which we are intimately familiar with. Leveraging these subjective experiences can bring our own unique perspective to the problem.

Stressful situations sometimes make us feel like withdrawing from others. We think we may feel safer isolating ourselves. In fact, the best thing to do in stressful situations is to reach out to people. Researchers like Kelly McGonigal have found that connecting with others in stressful times helps the body provide oxytocin which helps out cardiovascular system and generally makes us feel better. Coupling that with the energy you share working with others, it can become easy to understand how you can alleviate stress by connecting with other people. That act of connecting may even help solve the problem at hand by having others provide their own subjective experiences as ways to approach a solution.

One particular scenario that has occurred frequently in my professional life centres around technology and what happens when it stops working. Supporting my colleagues through technical issues has taught me a lot about this topic of stress. My early emotional reactions somehow interpreted technology as being malicious and that the issue was my fault and arose from something I did or didn’t do. As you can see, that’s not a healthy approach to this situation and it involved rewriting my own story about my abilities & feelings of worth. It’s required some objectivity as well, understanding at a very coarse level that technology either works or it doesn’t – the task is then to figure out why it isn’t working, without judgement of anyone involved.

Once I started seeing it as a puzzle to solve, I could start to take some of Duhigg’s findings to heart and start to look at it from different perspectives when I started to feel stress from not making progress. Looking to other situations for inspiration, I could adapt other approaches to this current issue. Even better, I could reach out to others for their feedback and assistance instead of keeping it to myself. By involving other people, I am exerting a sense of control over the situation, which is another tactic that Duhigg mentions in the book. Having an “internal locus of control” helps you to feel motivated to act. Involving other people is an opportunity for collaboration and a way to boost my feeling of connection while working towards a solution.

Reframing stress in this way as a launchpad for creativity is something that I am glad to have learned from Charles Duhigg. It aligns with my approach of rewriting my own stories and to using curiosity to defuse the effects of stress. Stress is an ally and can be a sign for us that we might want to try a different approach in our current situation, and to reach out to others.

I thank you for the time you’ve taken to read this and I hope it has resonated with you in some way.