A study of writer’s block may explain why some people struggle to build on initial creative successes.
Reading time: 6 mins
Beginning inventors, directors, and novelists often struggle to replicate their initial success. In our recent study of creativity in the UK, we found that beginning cookbook writers faced a similar challenge, and for similar reasons.1
While cookbooks and management have little in common, understanding who publishes a second cookbook and who doesn’t sheds light on what it takes to keep creativity going, in the kitchen or at home. outside. Of the first-time cookbook authors we surveyed, 50% published a second cookbook within five years—often a variation or sequel to the first idea. The remaining 50% have stopped writing.
Receive Transformative Leadership Updates
Fact-based resources that can help you lead your team more effectively, delivered to your inbox every month.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
Interestingly, our research found that when the underlying idea is original and award-winning, a lack of follow-up projects is more likely. Indeed, authors of new cookbooks who won awards or other public recognition were less likely to write a second book than winners whose work covered less creative topics.
Why wouldn’t some of the most promising candidates deliver? Call it the Harper Lee effect: after the huge success of Kill a mockingbirdpublished in 1960, Lee published (to much controversy) just one more book, Go set a keeper. Published in 2015 but written in the mid-1950s, the novel was widely dismissed by critics as an early draft of the classic that primarily interests scholars of literature.
The Role of Creative Identity Threat
To better explain why objectively successful writers would choose not to continue producing cookbooks, we turned to role identity theory. This psychological framework argues that once people have a particular view of themselves – like being a creative leader, for example – losing that identity can be psychologically threatening. Seen in this light, not taking a risk on a new project seems perfectly rational if the potential failure of the second book could undermine that sense of self.
To test whether the development of innovative and award-winning ideas actually leads people to experience what we call a creative identity threat which subsequently decreases their likelihood of producing follow-up ideas, we designed two experiments.
The first experiment involved 264 university students who were asked to develop a creative theme for a cookbook that would be written for students by students.
1. D. Deichmann and M. Baer, “A recipe for success? Supporting Creativity Among New Creative Producers,” Journal of Applied Psychology 108, no. 1 (2023 Jan): 100-113.
2. D. Deichmann and M. Jensen, “Can I do this on my own…or can’t I? How Idea Generators Juggle the Advantages and Disadvantages of Teamwork,” Strategic Management Journal 39, no. 2 (2018 Feb): 458-475.
3. AC Edmondson and Z. Lei, “Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 1 (2014 Mar): 23-43.