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Secret to Creativity: Learning How to Say 'No' Secret to Creativity: Learning How to Say 'No'

Secret to Creativity: Learning How to Say 'No'

by Yasha Wallin
May 24, 2013

Some of us have an easier time saying no than others. For those pursuing a creative endeavor, it turns out "no" is a word we should all become more comfortable saying—and using liberally.

When setting out to write his book Creativity, Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi contacted 275 creatives whose habits he wanted to study. The idea was to gain insight into their processes so that others could apply these practices in their own lives. But in many cases, the answer to his very inquiry was actually the secret to creativity. Out of all the subjects he asked, one third of them said no to being studied. The reason? Most simply did not have time. In order to be creative, many explained, it was vital they say no to any request that would take away from their time spent creating. Several who rejected Csikszentmihalyi knew of the respected author's work, yet they still maintained their hours were best spent on their own output.

Peter Drucker, a management expert and professor of Oriental art, responded to Csikszentmihalyi clearly:

"…I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours—productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well."

The secretary to novelist Saul Bellow wrote: "Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be the object of other people’s 'studies.'"

Composer George Ligeti's secretary said this: "He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have the time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a Violin Concerto which will be premiered in the Fall. He hopes very much you will understand."

And the photographer Richard Avedon just scrawled the answer, "Sorry—too little time left!"

Likely Csikszentmihalyi was not insulted by hearing "no" so many times. The psychologist wrote an entire tome on the idea of uninterrupted flow—complete focused motivation, and single-minded immersion—as keys to happiness and creativity, so he already had a firm grasp on the importance of maintaining that space and time to create.

The problem is, for many, it's hard to say no. You may fear being perceived as rude, uncaring, and selfish if you prioritize your time above all else. But I wonder if Bellow would have written Humboldt's Gift, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, or if Richard Avedon would have expanded his practice beyond fashion photography to journalism, had either of them given in to the numerous interview requests that flooded their mail boxes.

So here's an exercise: the next time someone asks you to do something that might interrupt your creative flow, just say no. Then let's see what kind of creative output comes in that space.  

Add "Saying no" to your To-Do list here, and report back on your creative output.

Richard Avedon self portrait via The Richard Avedon Foundation

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