What It Takes to Be Creative in a Time of Crisis
Three factors can help facilitate creative action in difficult times.
Posted March 31, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
- Crises offer opportunities for creativity because usual ways of thinking and acting are no longer sufficient.
- Creativity during crisis requires confidence and the willingness to take risks (social, reputational, risks of failure).
- To succeed, creativity requires support from mentors, peers, and leaders.
During a crisis – whether personal, organizational, or societal – usual ways of thinking and action may no longer be helpful or serve people’s goals. They might even lead one astray. New ways of thinking are called for, and when novel thinking is needed, there is an opportunity for creativity. People can realize this opportunity and act on it if they have creative confidence, willingness to take risks, and social supports.
Kinds of crises
We are collectively experiencing a societal crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 2.5 million people, is causing uncertainty and anxiety, altering daily routines, and disrupting economies. Social crises also can arise from economic recessions or depressions and wars. In the past, these crises have sometimes coincided with bursts of creativity; Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus while quarantining in the time of plague.
Organizational crises, such as the restructuring that follows a merger, will change the nature of organizations. A study in companies across industries – wholesale, banking, electronics, automobile – suggests that the way employees think about a merger can make a difference in their creativity at work. When employees considered the merger as an opportunity (saw it as beneficial or advantageous), they were more likely to act creatively in their jobs (e.g., come up with new and practical ideas to improve performance), but when they thought of the merger as a threat (saw it as harmful), they were less likely to be creative in their jobs after the merger.
But how employees think is not the only thing that matters. Organizations can help even those who think of the merger as a threat. Research shows that employees who thought of the merger as a threat were more creative in their jobs if their organizations supported creative work and when they had the resources necessary for creative work.
Finally, personal crises such as a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, job loss, or surviving a major accident, can serve as a catalyst for creativity. Research has found that the distress caused by traumatic personal events was associated with an increase in one’s creativity and the breadth of creativity (such as being creative in problem-solving, writing, entrepreneurship, etc.). The increase in creativity appeared to be fueled by improvements in personal relationships after the traumatic events, as well as gaining a new perspective and seeing life in terms of opportunities.
What all crises have in common is a profound uncertainty paired with a sense of urgency to address the threat – to minimize risks or negative outcomes. Because customary ways of thinking and acting are not effective during a crisis, new ways of thinking and acting – a hallmark of creativity – can emerge. In other words, creativity is likely to surface from necessity. However, not everyone will be creative in times of crisis.
The question is what skills, mindsets, and supports make it more likely that people will show creativity, whether at work, at school, or in everyday life. In a recent article in a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Ron Beghetto provides insights based on the science of creativity. We illustrate them with examples from our applied work with Yale’s inspirED program (pronounced: inspire-ed) for middle and high school students, which provides resources to guide students to creatively solve problems they identify in their school communities.
While there are no step-by-step formulas for creativity, there are conditions that make it more likely that creativity will blossom. Here are three basic ingredients Dr. Beghetto identified that can increase the chance of creative action during a crisis.
Creativity needs a “Yes, we can!” attitude. Why try if we don’t believe we can succeed? Confidence is gained through experience and previous successes, as well as identification with role models whom we can perceive as similar to us.
Creative confidence becomes an engine for action when one has a measure of autonomy to pursue an idea or interest. An inspirED school in Connecticut acted on a school climate survey that found the most common feelings reported by students at school were "tired," "stressed," and "bored," and indicated that students wished to be heard and make a difference. Starting with projects that they termed “low input, high impact,” students organized activities such as “Chalk the Walk” (decorating the pathway into the school with positive messages to surprise students on a random morning), or “Post the Positive,” in which one day every student arrived to find a note of encouragement placed on their locker.
With momentum building, students sought to hold an Empathy Conference, first practicing their sessions internally and eventually feeling confident enough to host the conference for teams of their peers from 12 surrounding schools.
Be willing to take risks
The second requirement for creative action is a willingness to take risks. What are we exposing ourselves to by attempting something unconventional and original? Could we be perceived as silly? Could we be ridiculed?
Ron Beghetto studied the extreme reaction to harsh criticism and called it "creative mortification." A single experience of severe criticism can result in an unwillingness to ever engage with that activity again. Children seem to be more susceptible to this, likely because they have not yet developed the capacity to manage strong emotions.
But even less severe criticism can be unpleasant enough that we don’t want to expose ourselves to the risk of embarrassment in front of others, such as coworkers and bosses or classmates and teachers. It might be easier and safer not to do something new and original.
What if we attempt to realize a creative idea, but fail and don’t have anything to show for the time and effort? What if we are ridiculed by our peers and colleagues? At a large high school in California, students noticed a lack of connectedness. With over 2,000 students, it was hard to build community. The student inspirED team started an initiative modeled after the Humans of New York project; each week a member of the inspirED team interviewed a student on campus and posted the interview on the school’s Instagram account. The inspirED team members quickly discovered that approaching near-strangers on campus, many with their headphones in, or walking in a group of peers, took courage. Would people be annoyed or bothered? Would they think the project was stupid?
As the project went on, students began coming forward, asking to be interviewed or nominating peers whom they thought should get a turn. Reflecting back, after graduation, students who developed the project noted how the skills they developed – leadership, communication, teamwork – have helped them continue to take risks and make a difference on their college campuses.
You cannot do it all alone
Despite popular myths of lone genius creators, creativity does not happen in a vacuum, or entirely within the confines of the office or lab or studio of the hypothetical genius. Creativity is inherently social. Creativity is built in response to social needs or in response (or opposition) to work of others. Creative products or performances have to be shared with others, who then evaluate them, react to them, or use them. A scientist builds on the work of those before her, presents the research at conferences to other scientists, and writes articles that are reviewed by editors and improved in the process. An entrepreneur often works with others to build prototypes, needs to convince funders to invest in them, has to find those who can solve technical problems, and then gains users.
Creative action requires supports from our social environments – those who can teach, provide material assistance, and make connections with others with still different ways to support the creative work. In one inspirED school in Connecticut, the various student organizations came together after a series of anti-Semitic acts on campus, speaking at a school board meeting and joining other after-school meetings to address what changes the school community could make to protect its members. Later that year, when racist comments and gestures were reported, the same students, now with advocacy and leadership experience, were ready to act again. Students collaborated with the administration and organized a demonstration, calling for a school-wide response to protect students of color. This collaborative work led the student government to launch a whole-school diversity and inclusion week.
The inspirED program supports students in the ABCDs of creating change – Assessing their school climate, Brainstorming project ideas, Committing to and Completing a project, and Debriefing on their impact. When possible, teams start with a full-day launch event, called a Youth Engagement Leadership Lab (YELL), in which they are guided in Assessing, Brainstorming, and Committing steps, walking out at the end of the day with a project plan in hand. Alternatively, the inspirED Playbook helps to scaffold the creative process by providing discussion prompts and project guidance.
In the wake of the societal crises during the pandemic, programs like inspirED provide students an opportunity to experience agency in solving some of the challenges they are facing, from students who organized pen pal clubs to make sure that every student had a lifeline back to the school building, to teams that provided every graduating senior with a personalized graduation sign to preserve the celebratory spirit. As students develop creative projects, the three ingredients outlined here come together: taking that first leap to do something new and risky, working together as a team, and finding the confidence through building skills.
Beghetto R. A. (2021). How times of crisis serve as a catalyst for creative action: An agentic perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 600685. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.600685
Forgeard, M. J. C. (2013). Perceiving benefits after adversity: The relationship between self-reported posttraumatic growth and creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(3), 245–264. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031223
Zhou, J., Shin, S. J., & Cannella, A. A., Jr. (2008). Employee self-perceived creativity after mergers and acquisitions: Interactive effects of threat-opportunity perception, access to resources, and support for creativity. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(4), 397–421. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886308328010inspirED’s searchable resource library details hundreds of project ideas for students who wish to gain inspiration from teams who have come before them. The goal of inspirED is to create a network, in which completed project stories are shared and added to open website. Teams who register through inspiredstudents.org also receive remote coaching supports, and a monthly newsletter detailing upcoming opportunities such as events in their city, webinars, or openings on the Youth Advisory Board.