We typically associate frustration at work with a roadblock; something is standing in the way of a goal. It could be a bad boss, outdated tools, poor processes, nasty colleagues, difficult employees or any number of frustrations. However, if you flip the script on frustration, you can actually use it as a catalyst for creativity.
The Unplayable Piano
In his now-viral TEDTalk, behavioral economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Hartford talked about why frustration makes people creative. He told a story of a 1975 performance by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett at the Cologne Opera House. There was a mix-up behind the scenes and a piano was delivered that was unplayable in the higher registers. He threatened to leave but was convinced to stay. Jarrett decided to avoid the higher registers, instead focusing on the middle and playing with more force and gusto than usual to ensure the sound of the damaged piano would resonate through the hall. The recording of that concert became the best-selling jazz solo album in history and the all-time best selling piano album. He channeled his frustration to find a creative solution and that frustration ultimately became his greatest achievement.
How Frustration Makes Your Brain Work
During his talk, Hartford referred to psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer’s findings that showed when you make a task slightly more difficult, it brings out the best in a person. In one study, teachers gave out two versions of the same exam. One exam was formatted with an easy-to-read font, the other in a smaller, less legible font. The students who received the less–legible tests scored higher because they were forced to slow down and read more carefully.
When we are frustrated by an unforeseen challenge, we tend to act with more care and take things in much more thoughtfully—even if we might kick and scream a little at first. In times of adversity, by pushing through and funneling your frustration into a solution, you can have major creative breakthroughs.
It can be destructive to get mired down in frustration. If you instead tap into that emotion, it can be like creative rocket fuel, spurring you to be more likely to reject the status quo, question the way things have been done before and look for new solutions.
How Can Frustration Fuel You?
Don’t let obstacles get the best of you. Reframe your thinking and decide how you can work outside of your constraints. You may be surprised at the results.
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