How Success Can Ruin Your Creativity

There was once a flight instructor in the Israeli Air Force who was told that complimenting your students’ performance is a more effective teaching method than punishing them. He didn’t buy it, and replied:

 “On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic maneuver, and in general when they try it again, they do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed at cadets for bad execution, and in general they do better the next time. So please don’t tell us that reinforcement works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.”

This flight instructor’s conclusion is an example of the regression fallacy—he believes that his reactions are what drive students’ subsequent performance, when in reality, statisticians know that flight cadets (and everyone else) are likely to regress towards an average performance after they have performed exceptionally: extremely good cadets get worse and extremely bad cadets get better, regardless of feedback.

Try not to make the mistake that this Air Force flight instructor did—though I must admit, I often do something very much like it. Whenever I produce an exceptionally good piece of writing, I feel proud of myself, and wish to continue writing at that high level. I’ve come to learn that I too regress towards an average performance, and that it’s very likely that my next piece of writing will not be so exceptional as the last. This knowledge makes me want to hang on to the moment as long as possible, to put off writing that next average piece. It’s a crippling attitude.

That’s how success can ruin your creativity—by tapping into your fear of failure. How to get around this creative pitfall? Know how statistics works and learn from all your work, both great and not-so-great. Embrace the fact that you’ll often produce average pieces (average for you, that is, and your unique talents). If you write or make something really cringeworthy, celebrate! It’s all downhill from there. If you create something exceptionally beautiful, savor it for a few moments, but then pick yourself up and get back out there—you’re sure to produce more beautiful things if you keep at it.

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