Two psychological responses that can mess with creativity and entrepreneurship
Before I delve into these two traits of human nature, let’s look at what Wikipedia has to say about them:
- ‘In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person’s belief clashes with new evidence perceived by the person.’ Cognitive Dissonance
- ‘Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that affirms one’s prior beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply-entrenched beliefs.’ Confirmation Bias
Why am I lumping them together? Because they are intimately related in the sense that are both about belief systems and threats to them. Both of these reactions can be totally unconscious and can seriously impact creativity and business formation concepts. First a little background in my personal experience.
The inability to hear what you don’t want to hear
I worked in a three year very early stage startup program that had three cohorts of twelve teams each year (36 total). It was a three month program that led up to a pitch contest with several hundred investors, entrepreneurs, and economic development people in a theater setting. I served as one of three mentor/teachers. The program was based on Customer Discovery, a process where the team takes their concept to 100 people for feedback and refines their idea based on that feedback. Not a simple process. And they all experienced both confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. They simply did not want to hear feedback that contradicted their theories.
With confirmation bias you tend to selectively hear and accept feedback and information that confirms what you want to hear, ignoring that which contradicts a cherished belief. Cognitive dissonance results when feedback from an expert resource directly contradicts that belief system. Both serve as creative dams at the stage in a creative process when we most need to be open to information, regardless of what we want to hear.
Belief systems are not facts or reality, they are theories
So, how do you ensure you’re not processing or ignoring valuable information because of these blockers? First, understand that a belief may have nothing to do with the reality on the ground. Eisenhower, the overall planner of what is arguably the single largest human endeavor ever, the Allied D-Day invasion of German-occupied continental Europe, famously said planning was absolutely necessary, but no plan survives its first exposure to the reality of war (in his case). It is easy, in business formation, to believe a great plan will result in success. The customer discovery process I mentioned earlier was the first exposure of best laid plans to the reality in action.
Mental flexibility involves being willing to admit there is a better or different way
We required our entrepreneurs to work in teams of 2–3 ‘founders’ for admission into the program. There was a very good reason for this. When you seek feedback from a third person, two people will hear two different things. Confirmation bias is the demon behind this challenge to the solo entrepreneur. We’ve all read the stories of people starting things that ultimately made no sense, or doggedly pursuing a belief in the face of overwhelming information that contradicts it. But what do you do that helps you get past this?
Engage independent advisors that have no vested interest in your idea
You are not objective. Nobody is, excepting maybe some enlightened beings. And if you are creating something, you are legitimately excited about it (I hope!). That excitement and energy is part of the process. So it’s natural to avoid things that rain on your parade. Those are good reasons for being subjective, but they only take you so far. This is why Buddhism teaches us that you can only make limited progress without a teacher. And paradoxically, you cannot seek a teacher. They should choose you. While I’m not comparing enlightenment to starting a company, I am suggesting that they way to achieve some objectivity is to align yourself with an outside advisor.
Ideally your advisor(s) have a deep connection to your subject matter and have no vested interest in your idea but are interested in helping you succeed. A healthy dose of experience and skepticism helps. Teachers are not here to affirm, they are here to help you see things from a different perspective, and to help you learn from that experience. Advisors can help you overcome cognitive dissonance and recognize confirmation bias. While true objectivity in creative pursuits is very difficult, having an outside perspective can make a big difference.