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5 Creative Barriers & How to Break Them

So many talk about being "blocked" in their creative work but few seem to be able to define what actually blocks them. I dug out five great blocks to creativity from Tom Monahan's book The Do-It Yourself Lobotomy. Here's the first one:



It's an odd thing – to be afraid of the unknown. Remember when we were just little toddlers? In normal circumstances we had no problem failing. In fact, we would do nothing else than to try again and again until we succeeded with what we wanted to do. The most obvious is walking, that's why I'll use it as an example. How many times must we have tried to get up on our feet only to fall back down on our seemingly heavy counter-weight bottoms. One technique we used, to our parents great amusement, was to try to balance our body on our head as we tried to straighten our legs. Legs first, then body – boop! Fail, again. Yet, up we went again.. until we managed. And it didn't take long to manage either, because our focus was fierce and our dedication immense – and perhaps most important of all – no fear.

Yet, again, once we start to grow up the harder it becomes. Harder not because we lack focus or dedication, but because we have fear. Harder because we tend to rather leave our attempts for someone else than to try with the immense possibility of failing. But what about all those people who seem so successful and just seem to explode in their attempts – those people who make success look so easy? What's the difference between those who succeed and those who do not? Monahan uses a number of legends to prove that those who succeed fail more:

    "Did you know that Babe Ruth not only hit more home runs than anyone else in his time, but also struck out more than anyone else in his time? One of his modern-day equivalents, Michael Jordan, missed more shots during his playing time than anyone else. [...] Albert Einstein said, 'Show me someone who hasn’t failed, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t tried hard enough.'
    A study by a major university in California showed that the top scientists in the world fail more than average scientists. [...] We learn from failure. There is progress in failure. And not doing anything sometimes constitutes failure. The only way to succeed is to do something, so we have to be willing to risk failure. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky says, 'You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.'"

I think the Wayne Gretzky quote is the most profound. “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take”. You already fail by not trying to succeed. Logically, as we always want to perceive ourselves as logical, we have a bigger chance of succeeding if we try than if we don't.

One way to look at it that I personally enjoy is to make it a step-by-step road map for success. One failure is closer to the goal. It's like a maze with thousands of roads where the beginning of the maze is a rotten sewer and the end is a beautiful park with naked people and wine fountains (if you like naked people and wine!). The beginning of the maze is a terrible place, and we can get away from it by just picking a road and walk it. If it's the wrong road we can always turn back and pick a new road – eventually we will find the right path. After awhile we will even start seeing patterns in the how the maze is constructed and will find the right road a lot faster in the next maze.


I've been guilty of this barrier most of my life. The fear of looking stupid is in fact so strong that we tend to generalize our expectations of life so that they are in tuned with everyone else. The fact that everyone else are doing the exact same thing shows how destructive this barrier is. To change this downward spiral we need to understand it. I believe this barrier is very much related to the first one - The Fear of the Unknown. If you recall, I wrote that when we were kids we had no problem with trying over and over again until we succeeded but that that energy was suppressed as we grew up.

The reason why this is can be found in how our brain develop in relation to our surroundings. When we grow up we are sent to school, and in order to survive this chaotic environment we need to adjust and attune to other children. Not only are children cruel towards those who does not fit in, but we are programmed into find groups to belong to (because hundreds of thousands of years ago the world was filled with dangerous predators and we needed strong friends). So we still try to make ourselves accepted by whatever group we find ourselves in because we feel that we need to. This wasn't a problem when we were fresh into the world, because our parents (generally) automatically accepted us and so we didn't fear failing.

That's why the fear of looking stupid is very related to the fear of the unknown. We have been taught to have a desire to fit in. The need to fit in means that we cannot try to be better than anyone else, because that would alienate us from them – which is just simply social suicide.

    "But this fear is nothing to be scoffed at; it prevents people from taking a leap. I can see the apprehension around a new idea in the work I do with businesspeople every week. Often they look at a new idea, then think, 'Hmm, they’re not going to like it. I might look like an idiot. I might lose my job. How am I going to pay the mortgage? I’m going to have to move my family under the viaduct.' It’s an eight-second thought chain that leads from 'they might not like it' to 'life under the viaduct.' Why risk it?"

Even if the fear is real, because we have accepted the importance of what other people think of us, the reason for the fear is not. It's been forced upon us by being placed in a social situation where we weren't automatically accepted for who we thought we were. The solution is as simple as it is hard: realize that people are just as afraid of what you think of them as you are of what they think of you; and stop it.

Whether the realizations of your fear really matter in the long run or not is solely up to you and no one else. Just remember that it takes time to break barriers, but as soon as you've found the weak spot it will all come tumbling down and you can continue on your path.


It's not strange at all that judgment is the third barrier. Considering how much of our daily life is made up out of judging in one form or another, it's quite a familiar subject and we eagerly jump at the chance of judge our own as well as other people's ideas.

Judgment is especially damaging when we are trying to come up with new ideas. If every idea you come up with gets shot down, it won't take long till you're bleeding so much you surrender. It's generally damaging because no one knows if an idea is bad until it is has been attempted. There is no way of knowing if an idea is the one that will change everything – just because it happens to look ludicrous at first. There are tons of examples; here are some:

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” - H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927

“This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” - Western Union internal memo, 1876

“Theoretically, television might be feasible, but I consider it an impossibility – a development which we should waste little time dreaming about.” - Lee de Forest, 1926, inventor of the cathode ray tube

“It doesn't matter what he does, he will never amount to anything.” - Albert Einstein's teacher to his father, 1895

“We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” - Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962

“We don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.” - Hewlett-Packard's rejection of Steve Jobs, who went on to found Apple Computers

“Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value.” - Marshal Ferdinand Foch in 1911

“Radio has no future.” - Lord Kelvin, 1897

And finally:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Above quotes have been taken from thatsweird.net.

So, as we can see there is a lot of judgment of things that are new or unknown by us. Imagine if Einstein (or his father) had listened to his teacher! ..OK, Einstein might be a bad example considered what he accomplished; but his teacher was at least wrong. Which is the point – if you really are afraid of being wrong, never judge your ability, your ideas, other people's ideas or ability.

    “A friend of mine who grows orchids took me to his greenhouse and showed me what looked like tens of thousands of orchids. He explained, 'I enter them in competitions and I win prizes.' When I asked which ones would be the prizewinners, he said, 'I don’t know. They’re all seedlings right now. If I took this one,' he picked up a beauty, 'and nurtured it because this is the prettiest one now, it doesn’t guarantee it will be the prettiest one later. The ugliest one now, which I might be tempted to throw in the trash, could turn out to be the greatest winner of all.' So you see? You can’t know in the fragile early stages what might become of our seedlings of ideas. And judgment too early can prune the best ones.”

- Tom Monahan

This is important for everyone to realize; for remember when we were children? As we grew up our behavior and our ideas were constantly judged by other kids, our parents, our teachers. And because everything we were was constantly under scrutiny we have, in adulthood, become judgmental ourselves. It's another vicious circle that never stops unless it does with us.

Anyway, the point is: a judgmental attitude is incredibly damaging for creativity.


The barrier of attachment is multifaceted but can generally be described as the want to attach to the old and avoid finding new ways of doing things. This is basically due to fear of the unknown – barrier #1 “Fear of the Unknown”. It's related to this fear of the unknown because if we stick to what works we manage to avoid the unknown, keeping ourselves safe from the trauma of failing (barrier #2).

One aspect of attachment is in the way we tend to hold on to ideas that work. Sometimes we are so reluctant to try something new that we can become quite violent. Perhaps the biggest pit in this regard is when we don't even think about the fact that there might be a better way of doing things that we never even think about asking the question: can this be done in a different way? A better way?

Another aspect is that if we manage to be creative and create something new we often want to hold on to it – perhaps create a habit out of it, or run with it as the best thing. We might refuse to let it go because we made it; we created it; or, we came up with it.

Of course, we are threading on a very sensitive subject by suggesting that we become less attached to things. Because if we didn't attach ourselves to the ideas that we run our lives by – our habits, our norms, values and customs – what is to hold society together? Of course we have shaken off such shackles as slavery and legal prejudice against minorities – but has our habits really changed that much? Once we, most often collectively, have decided that the old habits were bad we have instantly created new ones. New habits, new rules, new customs, new ways of doing things instantly take the now empty space previous occupied by outdated ideas. They might seem to be better than the last ones we tried but are we sure there's nothing better? Should we stop in our attempt to find new ways of doing things? Are we satisfied?

It's the attachment to ideas that makes us judge (barrier #3) other ideas and other people. So, in a sense, attachment should come first in the list of barriers because if we released some of the attachments we have we would inevitably have to stop judging.

All of the barriers so far are closely interconnected and interdependent on each other and it takes quite an effort to break through. That's why once we find a weak point and force one barrier down the others will come tumbling down as well.


Before objections rain in, consider the story of Frederick the Great and his continuous success in warfare bringing him the overconfidence that brought him is downfall:

    “In May of 1757 Frederick the Great invaded Bohemia, smashed an Austrian army outside Prague and bottled it up in the city. The Empress Maria Theresa dispatched Marshal Daun with 60,000 men to save the Empire's second city. Frederick had won a string of victories over the Austrians and was convinced his men would always triumph. Although outnumbered he attacked, but the Austrians were waiting. His army was defeated and forced to withdraw. As his veterans commented, 'they were not the same old Austrians at all'. Simon Millar shows how Frederick's overconfidence proved his undoing at Kolin.”

- Overview of Kolin 1757: Frederick the Great's first defeat

Of course, they were not the same old Austrians because Frederick the Great had previously relied on his creativity to create superior strategies in order to defeat his enemies. However, as he became more confident in his success he started to care less about coming up with new ways of dealing with new situations – because why bother when he knew he would win anyway?

Now, Frederick the Great isn't the only one. It in fact happens so frequently that we believe it's inherently by chance people become successful, and not in their own ingenuity. It's the kind of attitude that says things like “I guess he ran out of luck”, or “Some people have it, others do not”. It's in fact success itself that commonly brings about a person's downfall. When we have succeeded in something we, as mentioned in “Barrier #4”, tend to attach to it and make it a habit.

Think of all the things we attach ourselves to in this society, despite the fact that they are outdated and outmoded we refuse to replace them because they worked; in fact, they worked so well it's unlikely anything would work as well. Didn't you ever wonder why the difference between society in the 1900 and 1950 is greater than the difference between 1950 and 2000? Technologically we haven't been creative at all. We can fly airplanes faster and more efficient, but the idea of airplanes isn't new. Same with internet and most of our other technologies. But hey – why change anything if it works, right?

That solely depends on if you want to be creative. It's a given that creativity has made our lives a lot better over the course of human history. But to think that we have reached an end, a final frontier, an ultimate reality, as far as we could come, is just plain stupid. As long as there are problems (and we have a lot of them!) there will be creative solutions.

A good way to avoid this pitfall of success is the way some people move away from a successful project as soon as they are done with it. Moving into a new field will ensure that the unknown remains intact, and perhaps frightening.

Consider these things and if you have any additional barriers or comments please share.

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