Motivation, Momentum, and Marketability
Three Prerequisites for Creative Progress
June 2014 (perspective of a postdoc)
To make creative progress, an individual or team must have strong motivation, sustain momentum, and be working on a marketable idea.
Over the past decade, I've seen friends, classmates, and colleagues make amazing creative advances, especially in computing. Some have founded high-tech companies whose products are used by hundreds of millions of people, some have led influential projects within established organizations, and some have published notable academic research that expanded the frontiers of computer science. However, I've also seen plenty of ultra-smart, well-resourced peers get stuck in frustrating ruts and fail to make meaningful progress toward their goals.
What I find fascinating is that the wide gaps in creative achievement amongst my peers has nothing to do with intellectual capacity. I've been lucky to have attended top-tier schools and worked at top-tier companies where most people are smart enough to make such creative advances. Yet still, even within this highly selective sample who should be at the forefront of technological innovation, very few end up fulfilling their creative potential. I've seen huge productivity gaps even between peers at the same institution who have access to the same material resources, knowledge base, and social capital.
What might explain such disparities? In short, just being smart isn't nearly enough. From talking with dozens of peers, mostly in computing and other STEM fields, I've identified three core prerequisites for creative progress: motivation, momentum, and marketability. This article explores each in turn. Breakthroughs occur in those rare magical moments when an individual or team embodies all three at once.
This is the biggest productivity cliche of all time, but it's so true. Motivation is the prerequisite for all creative progress. It's impossible to get started without it. But more importantly, without proper motivation, it's impossible to get re-started after inevitable setbacks along the way.
Much has been written about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, but I don't think that one is necessarily better than the other. In an ideal world, everyone would be intrinsically motivated to do good work for its own sake. But people naturally yearn for motivators such as recognition, respect, and making a comfortable living. For team projects, one of the most important roles of the manager or team leader is to provide motivation, which is often extrinsic. And sometimes a jolt of well-timed extrinsic motivation – praise, high grades, awards, promotions, or money – can even kick-start someone's intrinsic motivation.
Motivation alone isn't enough. You might know some people who are super motivated and express rabid enthusiasm for the idea of doing something cool, but they never seem to execute on their ideas. They're great talkers, but horrible doers. Perhaps they get easily distracted, or they're juggling too many concurrent projects, or they're good at starting but not finishing, or they're perfectionists who get paralyzed by choice and details. No matter the cause, the key missing ingredient is momentum – the ability to march forward day after day, chipping away at a problem bit by bit until something good (enough) comes out.
Momentum is very hard to start and sustain. Most people with innovative ideas simply aren't in a position to implement them, since it doesn't fit within their job description. Sure, they can pursue those ideas in their spare time, but in reality it's hard to make progress without enough time or official institutional backing. Even the lucky few who get to pursue their own creative projects often find it difficult to keep up their momentum in the face of external responsibilities and constant distractions.
Finally, momentum comes in concentrated bursts. For my own research projects, three weeks seems like the maximum amount of time that I can sustain a super-grind pace. I remember several three-week periods of immense flow where the conditions were just right for me to make tremendous progress. These bursts are usually followed by a long lull of incremental “crossing the t's and dotting the i's” maintenance work. Similarly, my friends who have founded successful technology companies fondly recount those magical first few months when a small initial team built up the first version of their product. For team projects in more established organizations, it's the manager's responsibility to clear away administrative and political hurdles so that their team can maintain such bursts of momentum.
I don't know a good term for this final prerequisite, so I'll call it marketability. In the broadest sense, this term means “Are you creating something that other people like and want?” The key point is the emphasis on other people, not on yourself. All the motivation and momentum in the world can't save an idea that doesn't appeal to the right audience. Here's what marketability means in the three domains where many of my peers work:
Finally, timing is critical for marketability. The history of technological progress is littered with failed ideas that were just a bit too far ahead of their time. Those same ideas can later succeed when dusted off and polished for a new era. Pretty much any successful incarnation of an idea (e.g., search engines, social networking, online video sharing) wasn't the first serious attempt. Rather, it was the one that came at the exact right time and was properly marketed to appeal to the audience of that era.
Parting Thoughts: Random Multipliers
Although this article argues that motivation, momentum, and marketability are the core prerequisites for creative progress, success also depends on factors outside of one's control.
Personality traits, technical privilege, and luck act as random multipliers that either augment or shrink the effects of one's efforts. For instance, someone from a socially disadvantaged background will need to work harder to stay motivated in the face of microaggressions at the workplace. Others play the game of life in easy mode, so their efforts get favorably multiplied. And those at powerful, top-tier institutions have strong P.R. and marketing departments to help sell their projects for them.
However, those factors are largely outside of any individual's control. Perhaps the best anyone can do in their given situation is to focus on maximizing motivation, momentum, and marketability ... even in the face of unequal multiplier effects.
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Last modified: 2014-06-26