skip to main content

Creative Cliff Illusion

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else ever thought.”

Albert Einstein.

Our beliefs and intuitions about ourselves are powerful guides, though they can sometimes lead us astray.  The “creative cliff illusion” is a striking example of this.

The Creativity Process

Creative ideas are rarely born in a single isolated instant.  

Most creative ideas emerge after a gradual (sometimes bumpy) developmental trajectory that is sustained over minutes, hours, days, or even years.  Novel, unique, and insightful inspirations often appear after we have devoted sustained thought, time, and effort to searching for creative ideas.

But it may not always feel that way.

Instead, it may feel as though, after a short time, we’ve thoroughly exhausted all the possible good ideas we have.  Then with time, our new ideas start arriving more slowly.  There are often lags, lulls, and then even longer lags between each inspirational idea.

Our creative search can start to feel increasingly frustrating and unfruitful.  We begin to think, “sorry, that’s all the good ideas that I’ve got,” and move on.

But this is just when we may be right in the heart of the illusory phenomenon, firmly under the sway of the creative cliff illusion.

What Is the Creative Cliff Illusion?

When we’re under this illusion, we take (or rather mistake) how we feel about our creative thinking process for the actual potential outcomes of our search.  

We think: If it feels frustratingly unproductive, then it must actually be unproductive.  

But that’s precisely the illusion – that we’ve reached a sheer creative drop off or cliff in our novel idea generation, yet if only we had persisted…

In a recent study, researchers found that people expect creativity to decline over time, when it actually tends to rise.  They called this the creative cliff illusion.

The authors hypothesized that people confuse creativity with productivity—that because it gets harder to think of new ideas, those ideas must not be creative.  This reluctance to persist causes us to miss out on what might be our most creative ideas.

It’s Not Easy Being Creative

Creativity might often be viewed more as an enjoyable jolt of insight than an effortful process, but, in fact, both insights and persistent effort can lead to good ideas.

If we prefer and expect easier insights, we will be less likely to struggle through an ideation process and discover our best ideas.  Thus, we will confuse difficulty for quality and stop when we should push on.

What to Do About It

Many business leaders and entrepreneurs are tasked with managing creatives, which pose exciting and challenging opportunities.  Some managerial ideas for these leaders include:

  • Be aware of the potential for the “creative cliff” misperception.
  • Be patient through the lulls, lags, and lengthy pauses between your own ideas.
  • Equally important, be patient during the gaps in the idea-generation process of others.
  • Give your ideas (and the ideas of others) some leeway, space, and time around and in between each idea.
  • Recognize that persistence in the creative search also comes in many forms.
  • Interspersed breaks, followed by returning to and reviving your idea search, are likewise modes of persistence that may yield rich rewards.

The Bible

The word create is the fifth word in the Bible, and it’s found in 60 of its 66 books.  This equates to being repeated in some form or fashion over a thousand times from Genesis to Revelation (create, make, formed, designed, etc.).  Creativity is one of the core characteristics of God.  Romans 1:20 says:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse.

And, Colossians 1:16-17 says,

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.   And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Creativity is God’s.  It’s from God, and it’s for God.  God is the ultimate creator.

In today’s world, business leaders and entrepreneurs need to be creative in their business enterprises, from product ideas to solving business problems. 

Don’t let the creative cliff illusion stop you from coming up with the best possible ideas.  And don’t forget that the best ideas come from God.