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Article: Tuesday, 11 October 2022

Why is it so hard to sustain creativity? Imagine this: the first cookbook you wrote with such passion and enthusiasm has become a bestseller but the second one is proving so much more difficult. The disappointment of becoming a ‘one hit wonder’ is real, but there’s a scientific explanation for the dread and difficulty of writing a follow-up. The acclaim resulting from a first creative attempt can actually constrain an author’s appetite to develop a follow-up. Dr Dirk Deichmann, associate professor in the department of Technology and Operations Management at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) wanted to find out why some people become one-hit-wonders while others keep up their creativity. At the end of his research, he identified three tips that could help keep the creative juices flowing.

“It is very difficult for people to sustain their creativity. And that’s a problem because a continuous stream of new ideas is critical to remain competitive. We wanted to identify the factors that may constrain people from continually creating new ideas,” explained Dr Deichmann, who tested this theory with an archival study of first-time cookbook authors in the UK, plus two experiments. He was inspired by living above a cookery book shop in Amsterdam – in fact, the bookshop owner helped by coding some data for the study. 

Dr Deichmann worked with Markus Baer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis to produce the research paper A recipe for success? Sustaining creativity among first-time creative producers, which has been published in the Journal of Applied PsychologyIt provides insights into what sort of conditions puts sustained levels of creativity at risk.

Novelty and acclaim

Deichmann and Baer tested two factors that have been known to enhance (at least to some degree) the success of a creative production, like writing cookbooks. The first is the novelty of the underlying idea, and the second is the acclaim it receives from awards or recognition, which can, paradoxically, constrain the author’s appetite to produce follow-up work in that same domain.

Their results supported their theoretical model. Artists and creatives can find it daunting to be expected to make a second ‘something’ that’s as creative and novel as the first because it’s experienced as a greater threat to creative identity; there’s a fear that the second idea will pale in comparison to the first. 

Bad news: you won an award

Award-winning writers of novel cookery books (or ideas for cookery books) are less likely to follow-up their initial production with a second one, largely because it has the potential to erode the writer’s creative identity. Those who win an award for their first publication actually feel a bigger threat from the anticipation of having to produce a follow-up, and then hold back from creating a second idea. So is getting an award bad news? Sometimes, yes. Winning an award becomes less valuable for people whose previous work was clearly creatively unique.

It is very difficult for people to sustain their creativity. And that’s a problem because a continuous stream of new ideas is critical to remain competitive. We wanted to identify the factors that may constrain people from continually creating new ideas

Feeling the fear? Use these three strategies

So how do you hold on to your creativity when fear is holding you back? The researchers identified three strategies that could help reduce the feeling of having your creative identity threatened.

Structure your approach.

Don’t just rely on your gut feeling. Instead, follow a structured approach to generating your fresh and innovative content. You could use an innovation process, like design thinking to systematically develop new ideas.

Use collaborators.

Don’t try to do it alone. Using a team of collaborators means you are less likely to experience a personal threat. Dr Deichmann’s own research into idea generators and the pros and cons of teamwork also shows that working with collaborators increases the chances of subsequent success.

Find a safe space.

Enhance your ‘psychological safety’. There’s always the risk that a follow-up cookery book – or any project – could be perceived as less impressive, but if it’s done in an environment in which risk-taking is made more acceptable because there are fewer negative consequences, you could feel less of a threat to your creative identity.

The researchers have not yet worked with cookery book publishers to test out their tips for creating follow-up works that are as successful as best-selling debuts, but you could try them out for yourself on your own creative endeavours.

Dr. D. (Dirk) Deichmann
Associate Professor
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Dirk Deichmann
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