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.
What makes people creative? Can you exercise your creative “muscles” to become more creative?
I’ve read a lot trying to answer these questions. The best single source of answers I’ve found is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Csikszentmihalyi and his associates interviewed more than 100 people who had created fundamental changes in their domains.
After sifting and sorting the interviews, Csikszentmihalyi writes that the one word that best describes the creative personality is complexity. If you think of personality traits as continuums, creative people tend to show up at both ends. For instance, one continuum might run from energetic at one end to lazy at the other. Csikszentmihalyi observes that creative people are highly energetic and focused at some times but lethargic at other times. They can work very hard for extended periods of time but then “hibernate” to re-charge their batteries. Many interviewees noted that a daily nap is essential to their creative process.
Csikszentmihalyi identifies ten different pairs of opposing traits that occur commonly in creative personalities. Let’s look at three today. I’ll cover the rest in future posts.
Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.
Creative individuals can work long hours while maintaining a high level of energy. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the most important aspect of this is that creative individuals can manage their energy levels more or less on their own. As Csikszentmihalyi writes, “When necessary they can focus it like a laser beam; when it is not, they immediately start recharging their batteries.”
Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.
How smart are they? Pretty smart but typically not geniuses. It seems that an IQ of about 120 is a dividing line. Up to 120, creativity seems to increase with intelligence. As IQ rises above 120, creativity seems not to increase much. Other factors are more important.
If intelligence (as measured by IQ) leads to convergent thinking – finding a well-defined answer to a well-defined problem – then naiveté leads to divergent thinking. Csikszentmihalyi defines this as “the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas…or the ability to switch from one perspective to another….”
An issue with divergent thinking is that it’s often difficult to distinguish a good idea from a bad idea. Several of Csikszentmihalyi’s respondents say that the main thing separating them from less creative individuals, is that they are better able to predict which problems are soluble and which are not.
A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility. There is no question that a playfully light attitude is typical of creative individuals.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about the sheer joy of working with his colleague, Amos Tversky. They thought deeply – but differently — about the problems they studied and seemed to have a lot of fun.
As Csikszentmihalyi points out, doggedness is the necessary counterpart to playfulness. Being playful can get you started but it rarely gets you finished. Perhaps that’s why Edison said, “Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”
Can these traits be taught? Can we become more creative? Within limits, I think so. I suspect that intelligence can’t be radically altered but certainly we can learn to be naïve. Divergent thinking is taught in most creativity workshops. Playfulness shouldn’t be that hard to learn. Doggedness may be a bit more difficult but, with the proper motivation, it too can be mastered. As for energy management … well, how hard is it to learn to take a nap?