Hall of Fame basketball player Michael Jordan is famous for his world-class talent, but what set him apart from his peers was that MJ knew how to get angry. And Michael Jordan was always angry.
Jordan would famously invent and exaggerate grudges to help fuel his competitiveness. As Wright Thompson wrote in ESPN The Magazine, “This started at an early age… His whole life has been about proving things, to the people around him, to strangers, to himself.”
Life can throw us frustrating circumstances out of our control that can serve to derail our creative process. Bad news like this is often totally out of our control and can serve as a source of despair or anger. We feel upset, angry, and alone. We hardly feel like creating.
Despite what happens in our personal life, our professional life still needs us to create. The events that bring us down are often outside of our control, but there is something we can control: how we work. New evidence suggests that negative emotions might just help our creative abilities in certain areas. Specifically, when you’re in a bad mood, the bad mood is an asset best used to attack a creative block.
The research comes from a trio of European professors who studied the habits of over 100 creative professionals. They asked these creatives to keep a diary of their emotions for a week. At the beginning and the end of every day, the professionals would rate their level of positive emotions (inspiration, excitement, alertness) and their level of negative emotions (stress, hostility, guilt). Interestingly, the most productive participants reported positive emotions at the end of the day, but also noted that they started their most productive days with negative emotions. In other words, they channeled their anger into their work.
One possible explanation is focus. Past research suggests that negative emotions help narrow our focus to specific tasks or projects and even persist longer on those projects, especially when it comes to getting rejected. Perhaps the initial negative emotions were actually helping the professionals keep their mind focused on their work longer, digging deeper into the problems they might be facing and generating better solutions.
To test this idea, the same researchers asked a different group of participants to try their hand at a brainstorming task—listing as many ideas as possible. Before brainstorming, however, the participants were randomly assigned to write a biographical essay recounting either a positive or negative event in their life. Just like the creative professionals in the first task, the participants who reflected on a negative event performed better, listing more ideas that were also more varied and original. Even though their essay writing had no relationship to the brainstorming task, the negative emotions they experienced put them in a better mood to focus on the problem and think up solutions.
The implications of this research are significant. The evidence suggests that certain moods are better suited to certain tasks. When you’re in a bad mood, it may be best to return to a particularly difficult problem or a project that has stalled out. Think of the negative emotion as fuel that you can burn on the path to creation. The negative emotions might just help you dig deeper into the problem and find a solution your happier self would never have uncovered.
This article was originally published on 99u.com.
David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.