How Setbacks Spur Leaps Forward

Fostering creativity is vital to the modern economy, but to reach your personal best, sometimes you have to go through the worst.

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The tortured artist is one of our most enduring cultural images of creativity.

From Orpheus, the Ancient Greek “father of song” who sought, and failed, to rescue his wife from the Underworld, to Amy Winehouse, creativity seems to be inextricably linked in our minds with suffering.

According to research by Modupe Akinola, there's good reason for that. In a recent study, Akinola, an associate professor of management at Columbia Business School, found that individuals produced works of significantly greater creativity after being primed with a negative stimulus — in this case a brutal review on a mock job interview. What's more, of those who received sharp critiques, Akinola found that those with low levels of Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate (DHEAS), a hormone associated with depression and feelings of emotional vulnerability, produced the works judged most creative. That suggests that the connection between depression and creativity, particularly when mediated by a negative experience, is more than a mere myth.

For managers looking to spur greater creativity on their teams, the research shows that it may be okay to impose tight deadlines and let workers bite off more than they can chew, Akinola says. Though she's quick to point out that different workers will have different tolerances for the approach and that harsh criticism has no place in more open-ended tasks like ideation.

For workers, on the other hand, the research shows that personal and professional setbacks — moments when we’re most likely to feel like just walking away — can be the best ones to achieve creative break through.

About the researcher

Modupe Akinola

Modupe Akinola is the Sanford C. Bernstein Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. Prior to pursuing a career...

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