How frustration can make us more creative

An inspiring TED talk by Tim Harford, about how challenges and problems can make you more creative than ever.

Starting talking about a Keith Jarrett’s concert, Tim Harford try to convince you of the advantages of having to work with a little mess:

Some hightlights

Late in January 1975, a 17-year-old German girl called Vera Brandes walked out onto the stage of the Cologne Opera House. […] in just a few hours, Jarrett would walk out on the same stage, he’d sit down at the piano and without rehearsal or sheet music, he would begin to play.

But right now, Vera was introducing Keith to the piano in question, and it wasn’t going well. Jarrett looked to the instrument a little warily, played a few notes, walked around it, played a few more notes, muttered something to his producer. Then the producer came over to Vera and said … “If you don’t get a new piano, Keith can’t play.”

[…] so a few hours later, Jarrett did indeed step out onto the stage of the opera house, he sat down at the unplayable piano and began.

[…] Keith Jarrett had been handed a mess. He had embraced that mess, and it soared. The recording of the Köln Concert is the best-selling piano album in history and the best-selling solo jazz album in history

We’ve actually known for a while that certain kinds of difficulty, certain kinds of obstacle, can actually improve our performance. For example, the psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer, a few years ago, teamed up with high school teachers. And he asked them to reformat the handouts that they were giving to some of their classes. So the regular handout would be formatted in something straightforward, such as Helvetica or Times New Roman. But half these classes were getting handouts that were formatted in something sort of intense, like Haettenschweiler, or something with a zesty bounce, like Comic Sans italicized. Now, these are really ugly fonts, and they’re difficult fonts to read. But at the end of the semester, students were given exams, and the students who’d been asked to read the more difficult fonts, had actually done better on their exams, in a variety of subjects. And the reason is, the difficult font had slowed them down, forced them to work a bit harder, to think a bit more about what they were reading, to interpret it … and so they learned more.

The author

Tim Harford is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “Messy” and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less” and the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House. He is a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

Tim was Economics Commentator of the Year 2014, winner of the Royal Statistical Society journalistic excellence award 2015, won the Society of Business Economists writing prize 2014–15, and the Bastiat Prize for economic journalism in 2006 and 2016.