Creativity isn't easy. There's that familiar "stuck" feeling, the nibbled on fingernails, the frustrated walks around the block.
But according to University of Pennsylvania organizational psychologist Adam Grant, that discomfort is where fresh thinking starts happening.
"The first ideas that you think of tend to be the most conventional or the most obvious," says Grant, who just came out with the new book "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World."
It's only after you go through the "stuck" phase that you actually start getting into new territory.
That belief is evidenced by studies like the one led by University of Chicago psychologist Brian Lucas, with the apt title of "People Underestimate the Value of Persistence for Creative Performance."
For one experiment, Lucas and his colleagues asked 24 university students to take ten minutes brainstorming as many Thanksgiving dinner dishes as possible (this was in the week before Thanksgiving). Then the students were asked how many more dishes they could come up with if they were given another ten minutes.
On average, they estimated that they'd come up with ten more ideas. They actually came up with 15.
Lucas also asked people to think of fundraising options for a nonprofit, advertising slogans for a fast food meal, and a punchlines to a comedy sketch.
Writing about the study in HBR, Lucas said that in each case, participants "significantly underestimated how many ideas they could generate while persisting with the challenge."
The takeaway: It's easy to fall in love with one of your first ideas or just think that you're totally out of ideas when you're not. And when you've exhausted all obvious choices, you start arriving at the less obvious ones.
"You just have to generate that kind of volume to get the variation necessary for something original and weed out all of the defaults that are already stuck in your mind," Grant says.
It redeems a lot of the entrepreneurial folk wisdom about "not being afraid of failure."
The oft-cited case studies of Walt Disney making cartoons for almost 20 years before making it big with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" or Thomas Edison saying "I haven't failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work" start to make psychological sense when you realize that creativity happens after experimenting until you can alight on something original.
"It's only after you've ruled out and eliminated the stuff that was familiar that you come up with things you haven't seen before," he says.