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More Creative Creativity

I’m a traditionalist. And an iconoclast.

In his classic research on creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that creative personalities often display ten contrasting characteristics. In previous articles, we’ve looked at the first six. (Click here and here). Today let’s look at the final four.

In all cultures, men are brought up to be “masculine” and to disregard and repress those aspects of their temperament that the culture regards as “feminine,” whereas women are expected to do the opposite. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping.  Csikszentmihalyi refers to this as androgyny — not just in the sexual sense but in the broader, cultural sense: “a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive…” In his sample of creative personalities, Csikszentmihalyi found that the men were more sensitive and the women more assertive than their cultural norms would suggest.

Generally, creative people are thought to be rebellious and independent. Yet it is impossible to be creative without having first internalized a domain of culture. To master the vast knowledge of a given discipline, novices need to work very hard. They wouldn’t work so hard unless they believed deep knowledge of the field were important. Thus, in some senses, they are traditionalists as much as they are iconoclasts.

Most creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well. To perform difficult tasks that might take years to complete, one needs to be passionate. Yet to place one’s work against an existing domain’s framework — and to make it credible — one needs to be clear-eyed and objective.

Finally, the openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment. Leading a discipline into a new way of thinking is a lonely job. Being sensitive (as noted above) only complicates the issue. Csikszentmihalyi asks an important question: does suffering lead to creativity or does creativity lead to suffering?  Normal people may see divergent thinking and obsessive interest in obscure topics as weird or even deviant. As a result, “the creative person may feel isolated and misunderstood …. Yet when the 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 creation for its own sake.”

So we have ten different contrasting personality types that commonly occur in creative people. In each case, the creative personality appears at two different points on the spectrum. They are both traditionalists and iconoclasts. Smart and naive. Energetic and quiet. Introverts and extroverts. Imaginative and realists. As Csikszentmihalyi points out, “…without the second pole, new ideas will not be recognized. And without the first, they will not be developed to the point of acceptance.”

Click here for Csikszentmihalyi’s book. By the way, his surname is pronounced Six-Cent-Mihaly.


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