The first time I heard that a feeling of gloom might be a normal part of creative work, I was incredibly depressed about what I was currently producing. It was a project focused on irrigation tools for small-plot farmers in Myanmar, and a week before the final presentation I was having a full-blown crisis of confidence. Compared to the needs of the farmers we were working for, our solution for redesigning and thereby reducing the cost of a water pump seemed inconsequential.
A far more experienced designer named Nicole Kahn was mentoring me. Seeing my dejected attitude, she told me that for everything she’s ever created, she has had a moment when she fully detests what she has produced. “I call it the trough of despair.” She sees only the flaws and none of its merits.
Then something happens. Maybe someone shares positive feedback that punctures the cocoon of self-doubt, or Nicole figures out how to improve the work and begins to regard it differently. She regains a sense of pride or accomplishment. Over time, Nicole told me, she has learned to understand the terrible trough for what it is—an important part of her own creative process.
Despite the many pleasures of creativity, one of its toughest aspects is that there is almost always a part of your process that feels terrible. The good news is, you’re not the only one who feels this way. The better news: that discomfort serves you.
In the case of my pump project, I did make it out of the trough. And eventually, 1,500 more affordable pumps were in service in fields across the region.
What I have come to realize is that the trough of despair isn’t just normal, it’s essential. The negative feelings you experience in the trough tell you whether the work you’re doing is hard or complex enough to deserve your full creative attention. Only challenges that don’t have easy answers require you to take the kinds of difficult creative leaps that lead to breakthroughs. Only work that requires you to push yourself to develop new skills—not just deploy the ones you already have—keeps you on the edge of your own learning curve and, therefore, reaching toward your full potential.
Over time, you’ll begin to feel that problems and work that don’t have this quality are missing something. They’re a little… boring. You’ll notice that you prefer challenges with a good dose of uncertainty. You’ll invite more ambiguity into your work or life. You’ll keep pushing yourself to try harder things. That’s when you can tell that you’ve reframed the queasy feeling of not knowing into the far more powerful feeling of being in position for a breakthrough to happen. And breakthroughs feel amazing.
If you dive deeper into the trough of despair (metaphorically, please), you’ll find different names for it. My favorite is “productive struggle,” which comes from research and practice in mathematics education. It turns out that students who effortlessly solve a math problem get fewer right answers when they face similar problems in the future, as compared to students who struggled with the initial problem. The lesson is that your learning is deeper and you retain more of the knowledge when it takes some time and effort to figure out how to do something.
It’s really useful to recognize both when and why you are struggling. The natural instinct to rail against the external circumstance (“It’s too much work; the project is too complicated”) just distracts you from turning the lens inward. A more constructive approach is to use your own past experiences as fodder for understanding how you work and learn best.
Not all struggle is productive, of course. If you’re too overwhelmed with difficulty or complexity, your brain and body become flooded with stress and fear. When that happens, you can’t perform or learn. Can you learn to tell the difference and, better yet, know how to navigate yourself into the right type of struggle? I think so. To start, it helps to be in the right zone.
When it comes to tackling new challenges, there are many things you already know how to do. This zone feels easy and familiar. There are also some things that you’ll never be able to do, and if you wander into this space, you might feel panic. And then there are lots of things that you can do, as long as you have a bit of guidance. This zone feels hard, and also exciting. Its formal name is the “zone of proximal development,” first described by psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1920s and ’30s.
You may be familiar with the phrase “in the zone” as it relates to a flow state, where everything you do seems effortless and perfect, and you’re not even sure how you’re doing it so beautifully. That’s great when it happens, but I’m talking about something really different here—the challenging zone that you actively embrace in order to experience struggle. When you’re beginning to struggle, you can turn to a set of practices that help you activate the guidance that you need, which is how you can flip the switch from unproductive into struggle that helps you in the long run.
The easiest form of guidance involves seeking help from someone more experienced than you. This sounds obvious, but since the arena of creativity is suffused with the myth of the lone genius who is just naturally gifted in their craft, it’s worth saying explicitly: you don’t have to suffer alone; you don’t have to figure out everything for yourself. It’s this awareness that made the advice I got from Nicole Kahn so valuable. She named the struggle and reminded me that it’s normal, which helped me to break out of it.
The process seems mysterious until you’ve had and reflected on enough of your own experiences. You’ll find that in creative work, productive struggle happens at certain critical moments—to the point that it’s almost predictable. One of those moments is while you’re making sense of your observations and findings to figure out what direction your work should take. Another is when you or your team is trying to converge or decide. Even if you’re working on your own, reconciling competing perspectives is just plain hard. No one can tell you you’re making the “right” decision. Another moment that commonly provokes struggle is receiving difficult feedback.
Knowing that these hard times are universally challenging is one way that working alongside more experienced practitioners can help, and you’ll soon start to anticipate these moments for yourself. Another form of guidance can include “scaffolding,” a concept that is deeply woven into the way that we teach and learn at the d.school. Katie Krummeck, a designer from the d.school who works with educators around the world, is often the first person to introduce new methods of design within a given school community. “Often people approach problem-solving by trying to draw from within. When you do that without prompts, frameworks, or new inputs, you’re inherently limited to what you already know how to do,” she says. “With a little bit of creative prompting and external structure, you can summon from within some new perspectives that wouldn’t have emerged without that support.”
As you continue to develop new and personal approaches to supporting and stretching your own creative work, remember that although breakthroughs feel great, struggle is how you get there. This tension—that the thing you want (a breakthrough) is something that you actually don’t want to come by easily—is simply one of the big ironies, joys, and perhaps even mysteries of creativity. Make the space for yourself to dwell in the tension, in an effortful struggle, to set yourself up to produce more impactful, beautiful, or satisfying work now and in the future.
Reprinted with permission from Navigating Ambiguity: Creating Opportunity in a World of Unknowns by Andrea Small and Kelly Schmutte and the Stanford d.school, copyright © 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Andrea Small is design leader, strategist, and educator. Currently she teaches at the d.school and leads storytelling and design strategy for Samsung Research America’s R&D Innovation team. Andrea has worked with some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Nike, Facebook, Starbucks, and Herman Miller.
Kelly Schmutte is a designer, educator, and entrepreneur. At the d.school, she designs learning experiences with lasting impact, reimagining the future of higher education, creating life tools for high schoolers, and building out the Navigating Ambiguity curriculum. Kelly teaches core d.school classes alongside d.school founder David Kelley.