Preserve your creativity; Be selfish. Stop helping others

Which group of people are the most creative?

 A. Those who seek help when they can’t solve a problem themselves

 B. The people who provide help when others can’t find a solution themselves


The answer, surprisingly, is A.

The more you help others the less creative you become, according to a new study. If true then this poses some pretty profound questions at the business level and the personal level.

At one level it might explain why students raise their eyes to the heavens at the professed creativity of their art school; the teachers have burned out their creativity by helping for too long.

Such thinking might even throw a stick into the spokes of the growing mentorship/ office hours movement: Don’t be a mentor because then your own creativity will run dry!

In fact don’t try to teach creativity because it is a zero-sum game. Your creativity flows out of your head into someone-else’s!

At another level it ‘s a challenge for business. Since innovation and creativity are the engine room of most businesses, this finding affects ad agencies, mentor-led incubation programs, FMCG businesses and anything in-between.

The research flips the thinking about injecting creativity into corporate culture on its head.

Until now the problem was “how do you get your creative folk to impart a creative problem-solving mindset to the rest of your organization”.

Now it turns out there’s a hidden cost: The more the creative people help with problem solving the more it diminishes their own creativity. Well, now hold on: If that’s the case and your job isbeing creative maybe you should cease helping people altogether because the cost is too high.

Here are the findings of the paper (recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology):

  1. People who seek help are more likely to be creative because they are more willing to accept that the solutions might lie beyond their frame of reference and experience; they are open minded to finding solutions in places that they hadn’t thought of.
  2. Help seekers benefit from the new knowledge and approaches that the help givers bring them.
  3. Help seekers are highly intrinsically motivated. Their motivation to do their job well does not lead them to a source of greater creativity deep within themselves… but it makes them willing to swallow their pride and publicly accept that they may not have all the tools they need to find a solution.
  4. Those who seek help recognize that the cost for receiving help is that they will in turn have a moral obligation to help out the helper in the future.
  5. The person that helps is not encouraged to think beyond their usual frame of reference. On the contrary; Being asked to help reinforces a view that the solution lies within their existing experience and frame of reference so they become less open minded.
  6. The helper will feel they have less time to solve their own problems because of the time they have lost doing the helping. The experience of time pressure is already known to reduce creative problem solving.

The study, by the Indian School of Business and the Wharton School puts HR in a tight spot. Should they put their most creative problem solvers in a bubble where they cannot be asked to help sort out problems other than their own… but they can ask others for help?

The thing is it’s in the nature of creatives and problems solvers to be inspired by challenges so being asked to help with a problem is like a sniff of catnip. Holding themselves back is not in their nature and holding onto creativity makes it fragile.

As Paul Arden, the former creative supremo at Saatchi & Saatchi said :” Do not covet your ideas. Give away everything you know, and more will come back to you.”