The creative dilemma

Paul Myers MBA

A discussion about the human desire to create

Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay

Daniel Pink spoke of three factors that underpin motivation during his Ted Talk, which he explained as primitive human drivers. They are:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery, and
  3. Purpose

With creativity in mind, Dan indicates two types of work.

  1. Those that reward us for doing the jobs we hate. In fact, some people are more motivated by the reward than the work.
  2. Then there are those who work at what they love because this in itself is a motivator. Think of writers. At one extreme, people will work for no financial reward to do something they love.

Motivation derives from internal and external factors.

Some external reasons are born out of necessity, a valid reason to do something that doesn't light up your creative soul.

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Both are very different and lead to disparate outcomes. Here’s how to make the most of motivation, both for yourself and others. — Dan Pink

This article will discuss the factors that can influence creative work.


If our work is unsatisfying, but the reward is motivational, then creative problem solving is a hope, at best.

Those only motivated by rewards tend to do the minimum. What’s necessary to get the reward, and no more.

Even if creativity is the reward, those who are not engaged in their work are less likely to connect insights necessary to innovate or invent something new.

Intrinsic motivators

Internal motivation is crucial for creativity.

Creativity fulfils a need beyond material things, like a promotion, accumulation of money, or things. Creative people have a deeper sense of their being. As such, they have more influence over their environment and their lives.

Creative minds learn more about themselves. They explore their ability to think differently, innovative thoughts, and take action to make it happen. The creative activity is a motivator. It’s a source of pleasure, satisfaction, and enjoyment — it is the reward.

Creativity is a source of happiness.

This is true. Deep focus is an opportunity to do our best work. It’s a source of self-expression, freedom to make a difference. It's intrinsically rewarding.

Extrinsic factors

At work, superficial influence is not good enough. Leaders or managers that deny others the freedom to fail to create something, is fundamentally depressing for the creative mind.

Also, if people are interrupted continually, it makes it harder to get into a flow state to thoroughly enjoy the creative process, to take pleasure from their work.

If we believe that someone or something will prevent us from doing our best work we lose faith. We can stop trying due to sheer frustration.

We think, what’s the point. Why make the effort if our efforts are arrested, our time wasted.

Just like in business, if we’re falling behind, or churning out sub-standard work, we should look at what’s blocking creativity instead of assuming that things outside us are the problem.

The environment, process, or culture is often the problem.

External rewards lead to conformity. This drives people to fit in more than the desire to do creative work.


Creative people are less likely to accept the constraints of conformity. Their minds pay more attention to the task as opposed to how they compare to the people around them.

The business world compares people based on conformance, therefore bleed creative minds at an alarming rate because most can't measure creativity.

The greater the opportunities for creativity, the less emphasis we place on conforming.

In a group environment, if people are convinced that the environment encourages creativity, ego, and politics vanish.

The more we’re encouraged by intrinsic rewards, the potential to make a difference, the more creative we are. The possibility of experiencing a creative high or attaining a deep flow state is highly motivational. It unlocks our creative ability.


Extrinsic reward blocks creativity, if exclusive. Thinking about what others might say about us, or what reward we may get for our effort, diminishes our creative urge.

Inventors, writers, designers, marketers or anyone who focuses on external critics, struggle to deliver their best work.

Seeking out safety, following tradition, or doing what you think others think you should be doing is a creative passion killer.

A mistake.

Why? Because our attention is divided between the demands of meeting expectations, the task itself, and the reward on completion. This makes it hard to find creativity because for every step forward we tend to take a step back.

That said, external rewards can be beneficial, as long as rewards build trust. In this environment we can relax, focusing on ideation, solutions, and creative problem-solving.

People are motivated to take steps towards a creative goal if the rewards are clear. The problem is that a lot of creative work must happen before we can even know the questions to ask or figure out the type of reward befitting the creative outcome.

Why? because many aspects of the task exclude solutions that haven’t been considered — they could not be conceived without the creative journey.

Extrinsic rewards are therefore only effective as creative reward when unknown-unknowns are part of the recognition.

Final thoughts

Some people make the creative process look easy. As if by magic a ‘Eureka’ moment appears.

We think: creativity is something that other people do.

It’s tempting to believe this, but new ideas don't appear out of thin air. Creativity, invention, and innovation are the result of hard work.

To recap, the three takeaways below are a reminder that creativity is a human trait, one we all behold and can develop.

  1. People are much more likely to love their job if they can work creatively, with no interference, and the opportunity to achieve a high standard.
  2. There are a number of factors that can influence creativity — internal, external, reward, and environmental factors all play a part.
  3. Creative quotient (CQ), individually and collectively, increases when people work on what they love.

Creative people collect and nurture ideas. Their curiosity is immense. But anyone can learn how to improve their creative quotient.

Transforming a great idea into a functional and profitable service or product is hard. It’s the final step. We never have all the skills to make this happen. We’ll never have all the knowledge.

What we do have is a choice. The choice to quit or take the next step.

Creativity takes courage to jump into the unknown.

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