Why We Get More Creative Over Time


About 10 years ago, the management professors Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren encountered a paradox. On the one hand, we recognize that other people are more likely to make creative breakthroughs when they persist. Thomas Edison—for many the personification of creative genius—famously experimented with hundreds of materials before inventing the light bulb. On the other hand, when we feel stuck on a problem, most of us fail to see how successful we’ll be if we just keep trying. We tend to believe that our creativity plummets over time—that if our best ideas don’t come to us immediately, they won’t come at all.

Lucas and Nordgren call this misperception the “creative cliff illusion.” In one experiment, they asked participants to spend 10 minutes generating “as many original ideas for things to eat and drink at a Thanksgiving dinner as you can.” Afterward, participants were asked to guess how many ideas they would come up with during a second 10-minute period. Most expected to generate far fewer ideas the second time around, but in fact they produced just as many during that second period—66 percent more than they had guessed. And those were rated by other people as more creative than the initial ideas.

Lucas and Nordgren found the same pattern over and over again. People underestimated the value of persistence when coming up with unusual uses for a cardboard box, thinking of ad slogans for a burger chain, forming words by unscrambling letters, and finding thematic links between seemingly unrelated words. Even experts weren’t immune. Professional comedians mistakenly believed that their ability to write punch lines and funny cartoon captions would decline over time.

This article has been adapted from Alter’s new book.

Though we tend to think our ability to come up with ideas is easily exhausted, we actually get more creative the longer we focus on a problem or task. One major reason for this is known as the “serial-order effect.” Each successive creative idea we have is likely to be better than the one that came before.

The serial-order effect isn’t always easy to see. When approaching a problem, we normally begin by cycling through strategies and approaches that don’t work. This can feel both hard and useless. Most of us have inherited the belief that creativity—the result, we often think, of “being in the zone” or “achieving flow”—should feel easy, or “fluent.” And so we associate mental difficulty with futility.

But muddling through bad ideas is a necessary step in the creative process. The first solutions that come to mind tend to be either preexisting ideas or popular wisdom. These are the paths of least resistance. Though avoiding them requires some work, it’s the surest way to find original ideas that elude our default assumptions and strategies. Instead of interpreting difficulty as a sign of failure, we should see it as a harbinger of solutions.

The serial-order effect applies to tasks that last minutes or days, but creativity also improves across years, decades, and even careers. Some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs fail to understand this point, even though, in many cases, their life’s work bears it out.

Silicon Valley prizes youth over experience, fueled by the mythologies of 20-something prodigies such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. For example, the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who co-founded Sun Microsystems, has said that “people under 35 are the people who make change happen,” whereas “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.”

But this isn’t true. Many founders thrive in their 40s and beyond precisely because they have lived longer lives—or, in other words, have repeatedly failed. The founders of the one-in-1,000, highest-growth start-ups are, on average, 45 years old, and those who successfully exit from their start-ups have been, on average, 47 years old when they founded them. According to one study, “A founder at age 50 is approximately twice as likely to experience a successful exit compared to a founder at age 30.” Founders in their 20s certainly launch successful companies, but the smart money flows to the generation before them.

Scientific genius follows a similar pattern. In disciplines as varied as chemistry, economics, medicine, and physics, scientists tend to do their best work near age 40. Nobel Prize winners and inventors similarly do most of their best work from their late 30s to mid-40s. Precocity is fascinating because it’s unusual, but the most reliable way to achieve a breakthrough is getting stuck and unstuck over and over again.

We can see the serial-order effect at play not only at the individual level but also at the scale of companies and markets. Contrary to the myth in business that you have to be first—that if you don’t succeed early, you’re doomed to fail—many of the most successful companies are those that enter markets whose kinks have been ironed out through early failures.

Take search engines. The Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page revolutionized search engines as the 22nd entrant into the market. Before Google came Archie, VLib, Infoseek, AltaVista, Lycos, LookSmart, Excite, Ask Jeeves, and more than a dozen other also-rans. Google didn’t succeed just because it was the best product; it succeeded because Brin and Page had the luxury of learning from the products that preceded it.

Like Google, very few of the largest tech companies today were first movers. Facebook (2004) came after Friendster (2002) and MySpace (2003). Instagram (2011) launched almost a year after Hipstamatic (2010), which offered the same photo-taking features without the built-in social network. Amazon was neither the first online bookseller when it launched in 1995 (books.com launched in 1994) nor the first online marketplace when it expanded several years later. Before Apple there were Olivettis, Altairs, and IBMs. Success normally comes when you’re second or third, or even 22nd, to the party. Novelty is overrated.

Persistence, however, is underrated. So the next time you’re stuck, Lucas told me, just remember: “You’re more creative than you think you are.”

This article has been adapted from Adam Alter’s new book, Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most.

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