A few years ago I came across an article online which attempted to sum up the essential characteristics of creative people. I passed it to an artist friend for her thoughts and we both felt there were some fascinating observations which we related to. This article was an extract from a book by Hungarian/American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, entitled Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention, so I got around to ordering it in the last few months and duly digested it. Here’s a quick review I did for it on Goodreads: Bit disappointing and not very encouraging to struggling artists and writers. Only successful creatives seem to be designated as truly creative and they must make some mark or significant change in their ‘domain’ and ‘field’. Also the interviews drawn upon were heavily weighted towards scientists. The qualities of a creative person were outlined well from my perspective – the books saving grace for me.
But notwithstanding my criticism, the fact that this was such an in-depth study based on real-life accounts from creative people, the essential characteristics Mihaly outlines I can go along with to share with you. I realise that there are so many elements of creativity in life that it’s vital not to draw strong divisive distinctions between creative and supposedly non-creative people, as there are so many things that anyone can do in a creative way. However, since I began this blog to support and share my journey with specifically creative people producing art in one sphere or another, be it painting, writing, craft or music, to hopefully help them own and nurture their creativity (which for a long time I downplayed in my own life) I feel it’s important to take a look at how our creative processes relate and draw upon our individual natures and personalities. What drives us? Why do we have to keep doing what we do? Why do we take what can be a very difficult road in life, that being opening ourselves through our work to the evaluation of others, with absolutely no guarantee of worldly success? But do we, in fact, have any choice?
Now I addressed Maslow’s take on the nature of a creative person in a previous post which was related to his concept of self actualisation, where he believes art gives creative people a vital sense of self-fulfilment through which they can hopefully achieve their full potential. And his characteristics of creative people were wonderfully validating and accurate in my own estimation. However, I thought I would widen the field and take an appraising look at what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has to say. If you look him up, you’ll find he is most readily recognised for his concept of flow:
In positive psychology a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.
(well that’s certainly artists and writers for you and this echoes Maslow’s views perfectly)
Named by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in 1975, the concept has been widely referred to across a variety of fields (and is particularly well recognized in occupational therapy) though the concept has existed for thousands of years under other names, notably in some Eastern Religions for example Buddhism (and no doubt Taoism too).
To come to his conclusions in the book about the psychology of creativity and creative people, he set about studying creativity as an unfolding process covering a lifetime by conducting extensive interviews with artists, poets, writers, as well as biologists and physicists. It was a massive amount of study over 30 years of his life…
And he found 10 opposing traits held in what he calls a ‘dialectical tension’. So lets take a look at these contradictory characteristics and see where you might agree/disagree…
1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, working long hours with great concentration, projecting freshness and enthusiasm well into old age, yet this energy is internally generated due to a focusing of mind rather than down to physical fitness as such. On the other hand, creatives often rest and need their sleep, where they can recharge their batteries. There is a natural control of energy levels whereby activity is followed by necessary idleness and reflection.
(I think I can agree with this. It’s that laser focus which we seem to need when we are working, but followed by a resting phase that feels duly earned. On a much lighter note, my own current idleness treat is watching and relishing Game of Thrones for the second around, before the final series comes out ;>))
2. Creatives tend to be smart and yet naïve at the same time. The smartness is simply a core of general intelligence countered by a ingenuous openness to experience which can seem ‘simple’ to others. Another way he expresses this is to say there are contrasting poles of wisdom and childishness operating which enable creatives to have both logical, deduction-orientated, convergent thinking, as well as more flexible ‘off the wall’ or outside the box divergent thinking, where perspectives can be easily shifted or switched. By using both modes, creatives can come up with their original ideas but can also assess their viability for putting into practice.
(I can go with this. I’ve certainly been called naïve before, at many points in my life actually – and most galling it was too! But It was a case of not wanting to assume or prejudge or categorise before I had made my own mind up about something. I didn’t want to pin life down, or have others tell me how it is or ‘know it’ too soon, I wanted to be excited or surprised by life. And yes, we need these two modes of thinking to do our work. In fact we need a great deal of methodical application to follow through on the creative idea, which involves a lot of plodding discipline – and discipline is certainly not what most people associate with the stereotype of an artist)
3. Creatives combine playfulness with discipline, responsibility with irresponsibility, and they need both to get their work done.
(Similar to 2. The play is sure to come before the hard work, but in practice we need to alternate between the two while we are working, and have an understanding of when to allow these functions to move upon us and through us according to where we are in the work at any given time. This is quite a magical thing, really, isn’t it?)
4. Creatives alternate between imagination/ fantasy and a rooted sense of reality. Society can view these new ideas as fantasies with no relevance to reality eg in science, but the whole point is to create a new kind of reality.
(Hmm – well yes, we have to have an imagination and we have to apply it to reality. But we can use what we find in our current reality to fuel our fantasy. There really is an interplay for me.)
5. Creatives are both introverted and extroverted, rather than predominantly one or the other. Our introvert side gets our creative work done usually in solitude and we can love being alone with this. And yet we also need and enjoy to talk about our work, sharing ideas with other creatives, bouncing ideas around, and writers certainly need to mix with a variety of people to bring ideas and observations on human nature into their work.
(On the whole, yes to this. We need to understand where people are coming from and for that we need to mix, and because we are deriving these insights, hey, we can actually relish it! But it depends hugely on the company for me. I do think we can be ‘creatively alive’ in any situation however, and that is observing, reflecting, and bringing something useful out of any encounter, any situation. This attitude also develops flexibility of feeling and thinking, which is a strength in today’s world.)
6. Creatives are proud and humble at the same time. Famous creatives can be surprisingly self-deprecating and shy. Why? Well, Mihaly says such artists know where they stand in a long line of notables before them. They therefore have a humility through this relational awareness. They also may be very conscious of the part luck has played in their achievements, or they may just want to get on with the next passionate project – they need to move on. But conversely, they also appreciate their achievements and know they have accomplished a great deal so are naturally proud.
(I come at this from another angle. I believe we are naturally proud of our work because of the effort we put into it and we have an inherent child-like delight in what we have accomplished. My mother told me as a child I would show visitors to the house my latest piece of artwork, and she explained I didn’t do it with a demeanour of showing off, but more with a wanting to share my own pleasure – a pleasure in the process of creation, I think. As for humble, yes, we put ourselves down, we struggle to ‘talk up’ what we do, we struggle with our self belief, our confidence, we are easily hurt, we are really uncomfortable with self marketing and we tend to compare ourselves unfavourably with others, we’re not able to see our own talent fully, and yet, would it help us to create if we were fine with all this, if we thought we were wonderful? Would being easily satisfied or believing anything we touched was going to turn to gold actually result in quality work? I don’t think so. So maybe having modesty is a good thing to keep us on our toes, as long as we appreciate our work too. A difficult balance, but worth the practice.
7. Creatives escape rigid gender role stereotyping. The example given is that creative talented girls can be more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers. This ‘psychological androgyny’ as he calls it, refers to a person’s ability to be simultaneously aggressive and nurturing, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, all regardless of gender. Creative people are more likely to have the strengths of their own gender as well as those of the other gender.
(Wow! I don’t know about this one. I was a sensitive, quiet girl who wasn’t bothered about dolls, who loved reading and drawing. But I was also assertive (even deemed bossy by one girl I thought was my best friend) and I led activities in small groups of girls for a while, as well as exploring fields where I lived and having adventures. Maybe it just comes down to creative types not being swayed by expectations from the mainstream majority? Or being somewhat on the outside looking in and therefore not having to prove they are all girl or all boy?)
8. Creatives are both rebellious and conservative. Mihaly says it’s impossible to be creative without having first internalised an area of culture. So it’s difficult to say how a person can be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious. Being purely traditional leaves an area unchanged; constantly taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as an improvement. But the willingness to take risks to break with the safety of tradition is also necessary.
(Okay. Well this strikes me as a market-driven point, centred on the commercial aspects of art, concerning readers and buyers. And immediately I think of writers’ rules and conventions which when we begin our writing journey in earnest we feel we must observe at all costs. Why? For our writing to be read by a wide mainstream audience, rather than a narrow niche one that might/might not appreciate our quirks – too risky a strategy by far for most of us. And yet there is also the idea that rules are made to be broken for innovation, for a more personalised expression that shines out because of it’s difference from ‘the norm’ and is appreciated for exactly those qualities. You could so easily see this applying to many art disciplines. Art for art’s sake is a tricky one, so again there needs to be a balance, in this case between convention and rebellion, and we need to personally decide where we want to strike that balance in our work, because art isn’t intended to exist or thrive in a vacuum.)
9. Co-existing passion and objectivity in relation to work. Without the passion, creatives lose interest, but without objective evaluation of it, the work can be poor or lacking in credibility and quality.
(Amen to this. This is very much about the interplay between the creative right side of our minds and the critical left side working together in harmony, something which comes with time, experience and repeated practice.)
10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering on the one hand, and on the other, to a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment. Being alone with creating can make you vulnerable when the time comes to share. What if nobody cares? What then? Deep interest in obscure objects often go unrewarded. Divergent thinking can be perceived as deviant by the majority, so the creative person may feel very alone and misunderstood.
(Yes, and this is the risk of the path we follow. The pleasure and enjoyment simply have to hold sway over the potential negative outcomes and fears of ‘getting nowhere’. We have to find a way of handling this in ourselves. We have to know we create to bring something into existence that only we, as individuals, can do. And whatever it is, it is this which makes our lives worthwhile – it would be a form of death to not produce what we can. That’s how strong this stuff really is and that’s why it’s important to understand what the nature of creativity is all about.)
I’ll leave you with this paragraph from the book:
Yet when a person is working in the area of his or her expertise, worries and cares fall away, replaced by a sense of bliss. Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creativity for it’s own sake.
And Maslow says the same, so maybe it does come down to art for art’s sake, after all!
Thoughts and discussion most welcome :>)
(pics courtesy of Pixabay)