Stop While You’re Ahead?

Stop While You're Ahead

Have you heard of the one-hit wonders?  They’re the songwriters, composers, or authors who produce stellar works on their very first attempt—but they struggle to continue to reproduce the same caliber of work afterwards. While it may seem counterintuitive, this is a true phenomenon which, once understood, can help you or your team avoid this creative pitfall.

                Researchers from Washington University (St. Louis), investigated this effect, trying to understand why some people can be continuously creative, while others struggle to maintain that same level of creativity in their work as time goes on.  In the worst cases, some people who have achieved success won’t even attempt to repeat it.

                It came down to how they were recognized and applauded for their creative works.  How someone was recognized, or given awards, ultimately influenced the creator’s identity in such a significant way that it determined their future success!

                After success is achieved and public recognition occurs, the identity shifts into being labeled as a “creative” person, and subsequent attempts to continue that level of success are often subconsciously blocked in an attempt to protect this newfound image.  The effect of being considered special, creative, or even a genius, alters the self-perception so much that one of the only ways to preserve this reputation is to restrict the ability for it to change.  The best way to accomplish that is to not experience any subsequent failures.

                So, what’s the difference between these people who decide one good piece is all they have versus those who go on time and time again to produce mass success?  People who produce multiple successes are usually the ones who aren’t lavished with awards on their first time, unique works.  The researchers demonstrated this by setting up an experiment where people were asked to write a cookbook.

                Half of the participants were told their cookbook was extraordinary, while the other half was told the cookbook was good, but nothing special.  Those who were in the extraordinary group were less likely to even produce a second idea or starting place for another cookbook.  First-time award-winning idea authors were more inclined to capitulate on the success of their first book, and those trying to produce another successful book only accounted for 21% of the group.

                In order to make the most of this, the researchers provided some tips for getting the most creative work out of yourself or your team.  They recommend that recognition and rewards are not only for the end-product, but for the developmental process.  Reward yourself and your team when you learn from failure, not just when things go smoothly; and keep awards and rewards proportional to the work done.  If someone is given a prize/award/reward/recognition which is too grand for the work done, you’ll be less likely to see that repeated.  Instead, try to celebrate your successes and your team’s successes by building up those team members when they use their creativity to produce solid work repeated.

Further Reading

Dirk Deichmann, Markus Baer. A recipe for success? Sustaining creativity among first-time creative producers.Journal of Applied Psychology, 2022; DOI: 10.1037/apl0001019

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

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