Is Grit Stifling Our Creativity?

Is Grit Stifling Our Creativity?

Is Grit Stifling Our Creativity?

Stressed out, relentless, martyrdom is often viewed as part and parcel of success. From the sleepless persona of the Tech entrepreneurs, to the ubiquitous chatter around “grit,” tenacity has become synonymous with achievement. Yet, new emergent research is illustrating that perhaps dogged determination has been glamorized far beyond its usefulness.

I have been a dancer since I was three years old. When I finally graduated to pointe shoes at the age of ten, I was thrilled. Pointe shoes were notorious for their pain and so naturally, were associated with everything badass and superstar.

I displayed my newly blistered and bloody toes to anyone who would look (sorry friends and family).

It was confirmed. I was the real deal.
Success hurts. Progress takes blood.

These ideas seemed obvious, almost mathematical in their simplicity to my ten-year-old mind. “No pain no gain.”

But does it? Does success always necessitate pain?

We are conditioned to endure, to soldier on, to suck it up. Yet, the research on innovation, creativity, and insight paints a more complex picture. Obsessive overwork-- the ballet dancer who dances well past the limits of her bloody feet--may lead to a deficit in the quality of the result, not an increase.

It’s undeniable that grit, sweat, and hard work are core components of expertise. It would clearly be overly simplistic and inaccurate to dismiss their linchpin role. However overworking undermines our success in three major ways: creativity, problem solving and social connection.


Stressed out, relentless, martyrdom is often viewed as part and parcel of success.
From the sleepless persona of the Tech entrepreneurs, to the ubiquitous chatter around “grit,” tenacity has become synonymous with achievement. Yet, perhaps dogged determination has been glamorized far beyond its usefulness.

When most people think of expertise research, they think of Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, whose notability skyrocketed when Malcolm Gladwell popularised his 10,000 hour rule to expertise. Yet, what most people do not know is that Ericsson would not recommend a relentless non-stop pursuit to fulfill that quota.  After traveling to Berlin and logging data on some of the most successful musicians, Ericsson discovered that most successful virtuosos typically do not practice for longer than ninety minutes at a time. This led Ericsson to another, perhaps more even more revolutionary, claim. Downtime for recovery, inspiration, creativity and social bonding is an essential ingredient in skill acquisition.

Too much concentration on a desired result or goal can actually decrease the likelihood of the set goal being actualised. As former Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner  popularized with his research on mental control--any sort of stress or anxiety decreases our amount of mental control. As many of us know, the more you obsess about being on a strict diet, the more likely you are to eventually binge.  Similarly with creativity and insight, the more you try to force good ideas the more elusive they seem. Thinking hard about a problem ramps up your prefrontal cortex, which will maintain your focus and inhibit distractions. This non-distractible state will decrease your ability to make unusual  and disparate connections, inhibiting novel, creative, solutions. 

Overwork also often stands in the space between us and social connection. Beyond the emotional, and psychological benefits which are obviously gleaned from social connection, social connectedness plays an important role in the engendering of creativity.

Inspiration is often described as a one person experience. We have a rich vocabulary to illustrate this: epiphany, eureka, light-bulb moment etc. But great ideas and innovations almost always come about as a result of the interaction between many different peoples ideas, hunches and thoughts coming together. As Matt Ridley aptly puts it-- ideas must have sex.

Unlike my middle school, which went to exorbitant lengths to decrease the amount of spontaneous conversation in the halls ( think color coded hall passes), innovative companies, like Google, intentionally design spaces to increase social connection and conversation. This has trend has been well documented by researchers, such as psychologist Kevin Dunbar. Dunbar  studied labs around the world and videotape scientists as they worked to determine the evolution of breakthrough moments. He concluded that the wide majority of breakthrough concepts  did not originate in solitary moments late in the night, but rather when the colleagues got together and talked about their work.


Overworking has been so ingrained in many of us that it’s hard to imagine a different tactical method when approaching a conundrum or a creativity block. Here are some alternatives, play, daydream, and as mentioned above socialize .

Iconic vulnerability researcher Brene Brown confidently blogged that goofing off is really good for you. In her words:

“A few years ago, I noticed in my research that wholehearted people -- my term for men and women with the courage to be vulnerable and live their lives "all in" -- shared something else, too: They goofed off. They spent time doing things that to me seemed frivolous, like gardening and reading. I couldn't really wrap my head around it -- were they slackers? Then one day, while I watched my kids jump on the trampoline in our backyard, it hit me: Wholehearted adults play.”

Yet the data seems to indicate that play is about more than just whole hearted fun. Play actually makes us smarter. As play researcher Stuart Brown claims, “nothing develops the brain like play” . Dr. Stuart Brown interviewed thousands of individuals and cataloged the strong influence between success and playful activity, asserting that play is at the core of creativity and innovation.

The research on creativity and innovations continues to preverbally push us off our computers and away from our desks with it’s promising findings on the positive benefits of daydreaming. Daydreaming, a word that often evokes nostalgic memories of one's youth, yet seems to have little place in our high-paced, hyper-connected world, is becoming ever more relevant. In fact, unplugging, and scheduling in some youthful daydreaming can ramp up our productivity, not derail it. Daydreaming acts as a incubation space for creativity, and allows us to get in touch with our inner consciousness. As Dr. Jonathan Schooler states “Mind wandering seems to be very useful for planning and creative thought”. It is not surprising that many of our best ideas happen in the shower, one of the few remaining spaces that is not filled with constant external stimulation.

Brigid Schulte author of, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, describes the benefits of daydreaming have to do with the brain's default mode network. As Schulte explains,
“The default mode network is like a series of airport hubs in different and typically unconnected parts of the brain. And that's why it's so crucial. When the brain flips into idle mode, this network subconsciously puts together stray thoughts, makes seemingly random connections and enables us to see an old problem in an entirely new light.”

As a first generation American the value of dogged hard work seems to be imprinted in my DNA. Yet with an ironic and iconic twist of fate, leisure time seems to be the new key to productivity. Daydreaming, socializing and play are the commodities of the future, practiced by only a few, with rising worth. So next time you hit a creative block, err...daydream, socialize and play.

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