Competition and Creativity:
a complicated romance
By Raphael Elisha
Competition is an inherent part of our existence, etched into the very history of our species. It’s a simple equation, really. You dangle something of limited supply in front of a sea of high demand and watch the rivalry ensue. It dates back to a time when we competed for food, water and shelter; where our very survival depended on our level of competitiveness. Perhaps those less competitive did not survive and so not only was competitiveness a desired trait but evolutionary it became the dominant trait. And so here we are, wired to be competitive in an environment where there are only a handful of opportunities but so many more of us vying for the crown.
We might often think that competition is a reliable source of motivation; a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to do our best work, seek out that promotion, earn that cash money and buy that first home. Agency land is built on an ethos of professional competition—the only reason I know the definition of ‘incumbent’ is because it is so often used in Campaign Brief to reference the agency that is under threat. But the question remains, is competition good for creativity? In all of this pitching, are we actually doing our minds a disservice? The short answer is yes with an ‘if’ and no with a ‘but’.
Ultimately, it depends on how you respond to a competitive situation.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of competition, an increase in anxiety is often a common response—and it is anxiety that can affect creative thought. Based on the research, it would appear that ‘some’ anxiety is actually beneficial for creativity. One reason is that when we become anxious, our cortical (thinking) regions become more activated. It is an adaptive process that allows us to more efficiently acquire and process information, particularly in cases of emergency, where unique solutions may get us out of trouble, fast!
Another reason (and perhaps one in which you may be more familiar) is that some anxiety can help to motivate greater effort. In instances where you may have lost a pitch before, anxiety following this event may spur you on to work harder and produce greater results the next time.
So that’s the good news. The bad? If you’re one of those people who toss and turn at night, lamenting over coulda/shoulda/wouldas whilst trimming your finger nails with your teeth, your level of anxiety is most likely going to be a hindrance rather than a secret weapon.
Most of the literature says that anxiety and creativity, much like the Gallagher brothers, don’t get along.
Chemicals released in the brain begin to inhibit the regions of the brain responsible for cognitive flexibility (creativity) and your focus begins to narrow. You’ll still be able to do simple tasks well—but no one ever won a pitch by being able to open a door the right way.
On top of this, highly anxious people are less likely to take risks. Rather than open, divergent thinking, people tend to adopt convergent thinking, staying within the lines, for fear of negative evaluation or chastisement. One interesting caveat, is that the effect of anxiety seems to be hemisphere dependent.
Anxiety has a greater impact on the left side of the brain (verbal) than on the right side of the brain (figural).
So, for all of the creative partnerships out there, if you find yourselves heaving into brown paper bags the day before a pitch staring at an empty page, best give it to the art director, as their visual capacity will be more intact than their linguistic partner, who by now is probably writhing on the floor, longing for sword over pen.
So, what can we take away from all this? Well, given the simple formula of supply and demand, competition is always going to be a part of our lives and our business. If you want to produce the best work you can, try not to get too worked up. The super-hyped, Rocky-style, succeed-or-die mentality is probably not doing you as many favours as you thought it was. Try not to give too much thought to the other team. Focus on the work, allow your mind to sail through any destination it pleases and see what develops. Remember, creativity doesn’t disappear—if your mind was flexible yesterday, it will be tomorrow. Reduce the anxiety and you'll increase your output.