I recently cartwheeled out of a tiny plane into the vast blue sky over New York's Fire Island. There are three things I remember most from that day: 1) the sheer terror of flying atop a column of ice-cold air, 2) the surprisingly intense mental clarity that came with tumbling out of a plane, and 3) the unanticipated bout of creativity and productivity that followed.
It turns out, there's a direct link between the pathways in your brain that respond to fear and those that stimulate creative thinking. Here's how you can capitalize on it.
The Fear That Stifles
Fear and creativity have a complicated relationship. While sometimes fear can overwhelm our mental faculties and prevent us from thinking clearly, it can also help focus us and unlock creativity in a powerful way. If one of your key vendors calls, saying they might need to drop out before a big public event, you might feel anxious and overwhelmed. Your mind starts playing out stressful worst-cases that twist your stomach in knots. Those feelings are characteristic of "amygdala hijack," a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman that describes this experience of fear taking over your brain. When your amygdala is hijacked, the emotional areas of the brain override the rational decision-making areas. You often end up doing things you regret, like snapping at your team or calling off the event entirely.
The Fear That Stimulates
If fear is such a mental blocker, then it would make sense to avoid it, right? Not so fast. While frequent stressful episodes can overwhelm the brain, acute moments of fear can also trigger the fight-or-flight survival response. That response leads to a heightened state of awareness and sensitivity due to an increase of adrenaline and cortisol, which can cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
Honed by eons of natural selection, our brain has evolved to get really focused and resourceful when it perceives a novel and potentially dangerous situation. You can enter a sort of "flow state," similar to the one creative thinkers describe when they have their most profound insights. As during an amygdala hijack, when creatives enter into a flow state, brain imaging has shown that there is also decreased activation in parts of the prefrontal cortex. When the prefrontal cortex, which governs our analytical and critical thinking pathways, is quieted, we can gain a brief reprieve from that inner critic's voice and unleash our more colorful and blue-sky ideas.
What we can glean from the research is that fear unmanaged can lead to some undesirable results, but strategically seeking fear out in manageable doses might unlock some hidden creativity. Here are some ways to start:
Expose yourself to scary situations (in small doses). As you do so, your brain will habituate to the anxiety-provoking stimuli. Each time, the stimulus will feel a little more familiar and a little less scary. For example, if public speaking terrifies you, try to do more of it. Start with a small group of colleagues and work up to presenting to the whole company. If whiteboarding on the spot makes you freeze up, seek out more opportunities to do it. Avoiding the situation will only make it worse. Your anxieties will remain novel and your ideas will remain stifled by fear.
Create a ritual for anxiety-provoking situations (to keep them from being overwhelming). In the same way that Michael Phelps has walked out to race with his headphones on his entire career, listening to music until the last possible moment, you also can create a "pre-game" habit. Maybe you spend a couple minutes power posing in the bathroom before a big client meeting. Maybe you always have talking points on hand, enabling you to riff on those points at any given moment and get the ideation going. Maybe when things get rough you always take a deep breath and start jotting down what went wrong, which might lead to a speedy solution. Though it might seem silly, these small, painless rituals can make a huge difference. Taking doubt and fear and channeling it into the familiar motions of a routine will help break down creative blocks.
Embrace (controlled) risk. Now, jumping out of a plane isn't for everyone, but growing accustomed to managing the fear that comes with risk-taking does help everyone. Remember, in the same way that repeated exposure helps us face our fears, habituation can also help us get comfortable with risk. Instead of feeling uncomfortable, we can start to embrace taking bets. Perhaps you take a chance on a new, less-proven marketing direction or an unproven vendor that seems great and checks all the boxes. After all, creativity is all about making unproven and unlikely connections, bringing to life the opportunities and ideas that only you can see.
Inject novelty. There is no better way to jumpstart our creative engines than to do new things. Novelty is like fertilizer for creativity. When we do new things, the dopamine reward circuit is accessed and we feel great, inspired even. Just as I experienced a mood boost and creative bump after going skydiving for the first time, we can all do small things to rev our creative engines, like try a new coffee place, have lunch with a new person, or try a new workout style, to get our brains to look at problems and scenarios in a different light.
The answer may be skydiving, or simply performing at an open mic night, but these measured steps can help us better equip ourselves to ideate and perform under pressure.