13 Feb 2011

10 Creative Contradictions.

I'm a big fan of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's books and research on creativity.
(In case you were wondering, he's of Hungarian origin and his last name is apparently pronounced cheek-sent-meh-hai-yee.)

If you're interested in creativity, psychology and/or personal development, I would highly recommend his 'Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention'.

One of the chapters in that book deals with 'The Creative Personality', where he explores the characteristics creative people from all walks of life have in common.

He comes to the conclusion that creative people have complex personalities. They contain contradictory extremes, and they are able to move from one to the other if the situation requires them to.

He distinguishes 10 pairs of traits he has discovered:

1. 'Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.'

They can concentrate for a long time, work long hours, but manage to radiate enthusiasm because they are so focused. These periods of activity are followed by times of reflection and idleness. Alternating those two are very important to their success. They are able to control their energy and recharge their batteries when they can.

It's also interesting what he writes about sexuality, as one of the manifestations of energy. Creative people seem to be paradoxical in that respect as well:
'Without eros, it would be difficult to take life on with vigor; without restraint, the energy could easily dissipate.' (1996 : 59)

2. 'Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive.'

They seem to be able to solve well-defined, rational problems (convergent thinking) as well as have the mental flexibility to come up with a lot of ideas (divergent thinking). They can follow one idea through, but also switch perspectives to come up wtih unconventional solutions.

3. 'Creative people are playful and disciplined, responsible and irresponsible.'

They have a certain light approach to life, but are also capable of sinking their teeth into a problem and persevering.

'Despite the carefree air that many creative people affect, most of them work late into the night and persist when less driven individuals would not.' (1996 : 62)

4. 'Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other.'

They are able to escape reality by imagination and come up with original ideas, but those ideas are still rooted in reality. By going beyond what is real and true now, they create a new reality for the future.

5. Creative people seem to be both extraverted and introverted at the same time.

Personality is a highly debated topic in psychology, but extraversion and introversion are considered the most measurable and stable traits that differentiate people. Creative individuals seem to be both sociable and solitary.

6. Creative people are humble ànd proud.

You would expect many of them to be arrogant or sniffy, yet when you meet them, they are self-deprecating and even shy. They have a sense of perspective about their own work, knowing they themselves stand 'on the shoulders of giants'.

At the same time they are aware of what they have accomplished, which gives them a certain confidence and pride.

7. Creative individuals, to a certain extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.

The women artists and scientists in his research tended to be more assertive, self-confident and openly aggressive than women are generally brought up to be. The men generally showed a greater preoccupation with their family and a higher sensitivity to subtleties in their environment. Still, they retained the 'usual gender-specific traits' as well.

Csikszentmihalyi calls this a kind of 'psychological androgyny', referring to 'a person's ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender.'

'A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities.' (1996 : 71)

8. Creative people are rebellious as well as traditionalist.

It is impossible to be creative without having learnt and acquired a domain of culture. In order to learn its rules, they have to see the importance of that domain. But being only traditional doesn't motivate to change that culture, while being only rebellious without regard for what has been valued in the past, rarely needs to new ideas that become accepted as an improvement.

Creative individuals are grounded in tradition, but willing to break with its safety in order to realise interesting ideas.

9. 'Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.

Without the passion, they would lose interest in the difficult tasks they have to take on. Without the objectivity, they wouldn't be able to take criticism and improve on their work.

10. Creative individuals' openness and sensitivity 'often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment'.

The sensitivity that drives the quest for novelty can cause a lot of anxiety. Being at the forefront of a discipline exposes a person to criticism and misunderstanding.
'Most would agree with Rabinow's words: "Inventors have a low threshold of pain. Things bother them." A badly designed machine causes pain to an inventive engineer, just as the creative writer is hurt when reading bad prose.' (1996 : 73)
At the same time, they thoroughly enjoy the process of creation, the fun and the excitement.


Which of these creative contradictions do you recognise in yourself?
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  1. Very good article...reminded me of a good friend and excellent author I was fortunate to know.

  2. I am afraid that I am not creative at all... (which I already knew before, of course...). But no problem... I do have a very creative sister, so maybe this compensates? ;-)

  3. @Lieve: you're a scientist, darling, and a damn good one! I actually recognise quite a number of those creative contradictions in you. Just look at those 10 points with the mindset of how you approach problems in your research and life and you'll see! :-)

    Creativity is not necessarily about art and crazy ideas, it's about solving problems and improving life. In my opinion, at least, but I'm not alone in that. ;-)


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