Is pressure a hindrance or an accelerator for inner talent?

Written by
Jonny Gifford

18 Jan 2016

18 Jan 2016 • by Jonny Gifford

One of my most memorable moments of 2015 was visiting the Picasso Museum in Paris for the first time in years. It blew me away. I'd forgotten how relentlessly raw and bleak his twisted vision of the world was. I emerged feeing slightly shaken and detached.

There is undoubtedly something appealing about the notion of the tortured genius. Living life on the edge, blindly chasing passions, even to the detriment of a healthily balanced life, reaching inspired levels of creativity that us mere mortals can only dream of. As well as the likes of Picasso and Van Gogh, we can see this in creations like Don Draper of Mad Men, characterised above all by dazzling flashes of inspiration. It makes his egotism and duplicity almost forgivable. The talent is part and parcel of a complex guy with a troubled childhood and unresolved trauma, right?

Perhaps not, going by a recent study by Kathryn Graddy at Brandeis University on the works of art of 48 French and American painters. The study drew on records of the financial value of over 12,000 works of art and whether they were included in Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online collection, analysing their value according to when, in relation to ‘deaths that had a well-known and public impact’ on the artists’ lives, they were produced. Most had between one and four such traumas; some had as many as five. What Graddy found was that works created in the two years following these personal losses had significantly less market value than those produced at other times. 

So much then, for the creative value of personal suffering. The findings are more reminiscent of the 2014 film Frank, about a talented yet mentally ill musician who permanently wears a papier-mâché fake head. A telling moment comes when the film's untalented protagonist Jon meets Frank's parents. On asking about the mental health origins of Frank’s musical creativity, his illusions crumble at a simple line. “The torment didn’t make the music," says the mother, “He was always musical; if anything it slowed him down.”

The notion of the tortured genius isn't the only assumption of its type. Another common counterintuitive belief is that interpersonal conflict can be a creative force. There is some truth in this, but in an important respect it is simply not the case. For example, a longitudinal study by Karen Jehn and Elizabeth Mannix  suggests that disagreement about what to do (‘task conflict’) and how to go about it (‘process conflict’) can contribute to performance, but only if the group is cohesive and respectful and doesn’t take these conflicts personally – in other words, if ‘relationship conflict’ is low. 

Conflict in relationships is a fact of life, for sure. But it causes stress, miscommunication, refusal to cooperate and a host of other ills. The more we can find ways to get results without it, the better.


Another idea to be approached with care is that some of us work better under pressure. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has long argued that anxiety and feeling out of our depth will damage performance, not enhance it. Under no challenge at all, we also perform worse, as boredom and apathy take over. But the secret to performance lies in finding tasks that match the level of challenge with our skill levels – leading to what Csikszentmihalyi labelled the state of ‘flow’. 

Optimal performance occurs when we feel comfortable with ourselves and the challenges we face. This even holds true in elite sport, undeniably a high pressure environment. The Arsenal star Mesut Ozil illustrated this in a recent interview, putting his excellent form this last year down to simple factors including sleeping more and feeling more relaxed.

I’ve long thought that an ideal answer to the classic interview question, "How well do you work under pressure?" is, "I try not to". It is much better to be organised and stable than attempt to thrive on stress. 

Among those who have made New Year’s resolutions, some will be trying to follow their passions, others will be focused on exercise and healthier living. The smart move will be to work on both. 

Here’s to a healthy, harmonious and creative 2016.