The Last 10% of Creativity—Why People Avoid Your Cake at the Potluck

By | June 24, 2014


X equals minus b plus or minus the square root of  b squared minus four a c all over two a. Sound familiar? Ha. Try again, right? Think way back to seventh or eighth grade math. Remember something called the quadratic formula? Yeah, that’s it. I remembered that sucker for a really long time (up until I had to look it up for this article to make sure I had it right (I forgot the “minus b” part towards the beginning.)) It’s true. I used to be a “study rat” and I used to be good at math.

(It's okay, you don't need to know anything else about math to understand the rest of this article. I just reference it to make a point.)

(It’s okay, you don’t need to know anything else about math to understand the rest of this article. I just reference it to make a point.)

The comforting thing about the quadratic formula for me was that as long as you plugged in the numbers and performed the calculations correctly, you would get the right answer every time.

Creative vs. Non-creative

I consider myself a creative person. I enjoy drawing and painting, reading, playing music, and designing and creating graphics. But summoning the energy to create can be an excruciating process with no tangible results. So sometimes performing tasks that require absolutely no creativity is refreshing to me.

Non-creative tasks require a different kind of brain power and stamina. I used to be a human machine in the bindery process at my parents’ print shop. I could collate, fold, and staple papers for hours and at the end of the day have boxes upon boxes to show for my efforts. There’s satisfaction in following the same steps over and over and learning to work quickly and efficiently at a task until there is no way to improve on the process. There is satisfaction in watching a mountain of unfinished brochures getting smaller and smaller.

Yeah, sometimes I like that!

Sometimes, though, I get so wrapped up in the non-creative side of things that I forget how to be creative and I wonder why my life feels empty. At work, I was recently doing a lot of mundane tasks such as looking for and deleting online references to an old program our graduate school used to offer; and before that I was copying and pasting website URLs and statistics into a spreadsheet. It was all very repetitive and easy, and at the end of the day, I was able to look back and see what I had done.

A Travel Blogging Workshop

Then I was asked to put together a workshop on travel blogging.

I thought, “Great! This will be fun and different!” I looked forward to it. I opened a PowerPoint document to start working on the presentation and suddenly felt squirmy inside. My mind drew a blank and I couldn’t get beyond the uncomfortable pressure I felt to have to think about what I wanted to do. I closed the PowerPoint and went back to the website to work on my next mundane project: to find the phrase “short program” and replace it with “professional program.” Much safer. Much more worthwhile and important.

Two weeks passed, and I had barely worked on the presentation. Then I realized the presentation was the next day, and the time had come to force out some creativity.

I wanted my presentation to take a fresh approach to blogging—get the students excited about their upcoming assignment to keep a blog, and give them a creative and useful method for coming up with blog entry ideas.

Crunch Time

As I finally got some ideas flowing, the squirmy feeling went away and was replaced by excitement for what the final product would be. I refined my ideas and tightened up my method. As I got close to done, I looked at what I had created and realized something was missing. There was no pizzazz. It would be a mediocre presentation at best; I wanted to delete it and start over.

I debated with myself. I knew it would be okay if I stopped there. The students would suffer through a half hour of me standing in front of them, and never think of me again.

But I wasn’t satisfied! I wanted it to be so much better than that! The longer I looked at it critically, the more I hated it. It was hopeless. I felt defeated and let down by my lack of creativity.

I decided to persevere a little longer, though, because I still had a little time. And I realized that somewhere in the agony of creating, I was enjoying myself! Finding and replacing text doesn’t give the same adrenaline rush, for some reason.

Then a miracle happened.

In the last 10% of my preparation time, everything came together. It was incredible! My ideas gelled, the entire PowerPoint took shape, and as for the actual presentation in front of the class—I nailed it. The students were interested and engaged, asking questions, and looking eager to start their own blogs.

Here’s the Lesson

Looking back, I am reminded that all creative projects are the same for me. I always have an initial resistance to becoming engrossed in it. Then I work and work until I’m about 90% done and then I look at it and groan. It’s uninspired and the entire exercise feels like it has been pointless. At that point, it’s easy to stop.

I have dozens of examples of bad and incomplete projects. Flip through a few pages of my sketchbook and you’ll see all sorts of half-finished drawings. Listen to me play a couple songs on my mandolin that I’ve almost-learned and given up on. My book about Peace Corps is one in which I’m still trying to get over that resistance hump.

A half-finished drawing from my sketchbook

A half-finished drawing from my sketchbook

Another half-finished drawing from my sketchbook

Another half-finished drawing from my sketchbook

Quitting a creative project too soon is like baking a cake and taking it out of the oven 5 minutes too early. The inside hasn’t had time to finish cooking and is gooey and disgusting. Not an impressive result. No matter how good it would have been, people will avoid your cake at the potluck. All you have to do to make it more desirable is let it finish cooking. That last 10% is critical!

Take a lesson from this. By putting in only 90% of the required effort, your projects will be forgettable. If you push yourself that last 10%, you will come up with an extraordinary project. 

It’s through persevering a little longer that you attain excellence. Even if you were not blessed with a naturally creative gene, you will stand out from the crowd if you reach for that last 10%! Let’s all strive to push ourselves 10% farther this week.

Do you have examples of when you quit at 90% and/or when you pushed that last 10%? Please share and inspire the rest of us!

The most ironic (but also most predictable) thing is that while I was writing this blog entry, I had to push over that hump of resistance and really stretch that last 10% to make this something I thought was worth sharing!

You might also like:

3 thoughts on “The Last 10% of Creativity—Why People Avoid Your Cake at the Potluck

  1. Martin Helminen

    I kept reading and not finding anything about cake was just about to give up. Then I pushed myself to read the last ten percent and walaaa! There was the cake. I think I learned a lesson from this blog post. And btw my job is all mundane tasks in the oilfield. Then on my days off I get to be creative and make cool designs for my part time job

  2. Amy

    I have examples all over my house of when I only went to 90%! Especially with my crochet projects! I need to push that extra 10%! I would love to be able to use the projects and they would be hanging out taunting me all the time!

  3. Ruthann

    I think I’m right at the 90% spot in a few different things. Good post, it inspired me to try a little harder, in the hopes of getting to 100% soon. Thanks, Ev!

Comments are closed.