Of all human activities, creativity comes closest to providing the fulfillment we all hope to get in
our lives. Call it full-blast living.
Creativity is a central source of
meaning in our lives. Most of the things that are interesting, important, and
human are the result of creativity. What makes us different from apes—our
language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology—is the result of individual ingenuity that was
recognized, rewarded, and transmitted through learning.
When we're creative, we feel we are
living more fully than during the rest of life. The excitement of the artist at
the easel or the scientist in the lab comes close to the ideal fulfillment we
all hope to get from life, and so rarely do. Perhaps only sex, sports, music, and religious ecstasy—even when these experiences remain fleeting and leave no
trace—provide a profound sense of being part of an entity greater than
ourselves. But creativity also leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and
complexity of the future.
I have devoted 30 years of research to
how creative people live and work, to make more understandable the mysterious
process by which they come up with new ideas and new things. Creative
individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation
and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities
different from others, its complexity. They show tendencies of
thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain
contradictory extremes; instead of being an "individual," each of
them is a "multitude."
Here are the 10 antithetical traits
often present in creative people that are integrated with each other in a
Creative people have a great deal of
physical energy, but they're also often quiet and at rest. They work long
hours, with great concentration, while projecting
an aura of freshness and enthusiasm. This suggests a superior physical
endowment, a genetic advantage. Yet it is surprising how often individuals who
in their seventies and eighties exude energy and health remember childhoods
plagued by illness. It seems that their energy is internally generated, due
more to their focused minds than to the superiority of their genes.
This does not mean that creative
people are hyperactive, always "on." In fact, they rest often and sleep a lot. The important thing is that they control their energy;
it's not ruled by the calendar, the dock, an external schedule. When necessary,
they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately
recharge their batteries. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by
idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work. This is
not a bio-rhythm inherited with their genes; it was learned by trial and error
as a strategy for achieving their goals.
One manifestation of energy is sexuality.
Creative people are paradoxical in this respect also. They seem to have quite a
strong dose of eros, or generalized libidinal energy, which some express
directly into sexuality. At the same time, a certain spartan celibacy is also a
part of their makeup; continence tends to accompany superior achievement.
Without eros, it would be difficult to take life on with vigor; without
restraint, the energy could easily dissipate.
Creative people tend to be smart yet
naive at the same time. How smart they actually are is open to question. It is
probably true that what psychologists call the "g factor," meaning a
core of general intelligence, is high among people
who make important creative contributions.
The earliest longitudinal study of
superior mental abilities, initiated at Stanford University by the psychologist
Lewis Terman in 1921, shows rather conclusively that children with very high
IQs do well in life, but after a certain point IQ does not seem to be
correlated any longer with superior performance in real life. Later studies
suggest that the cutoff point is around 120; it might be difficult to do
creative work with a lower IQ, but an IQ beyond 120 does not necessarily imply
Another way of expressing this
dialectic is the contrasting poles ofwisdom and childishness. As Howard Gardner remarked in his study of the
major creative geniuses of this century, a certain immaturity, both emotional
and mental, can go hand in hand with deepest insights. Mozart comes immediately
Furthermore, people who bring about an
acceptable novelty in a domain seem able to use well two opposite ways of
thinking: the convergent and the divergent. Convergent thinking is measured by
IQ tests, and it involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one
correct answer. Divergent thinking leads to no agreed-upon solution. It
involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas;
flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and
originality in picking unusual associations of ideas. These are the dimensions
of thinking that most creativity tests measure and that most workshops try to
Yet there remains the nagging
suspicion that at the highest levels of creative achievement the generation of
novelty is not the main issue. People often claimed to have had only two or
three good ideas in their entire career, but each idea was so generative that it kept them busy for a lifetime
of testing, filling out, elaborating, and applying.
Divergent thinking is not much use
without the ability to tell a good idea from a bad one, and this selectivity
involves convergent thinking.
combine playfulness anddiscipline,
or responsibility and irresponsibility. There is no question that a playfully
light attitude is typical of creative individuals. But this playfulness doesn't
go very far without its antithesis, a quality of doggedness, endurance,
Nina Holton, whose playfully wild
germs of ideas are the genesis of her sculpture, is very firm about the
importance of hard work: "Tell anybody you're a sculptor and they'll say,
'Oh, how exciting, how wonderful.' And I tend to say, 'What's so wonderful?'
It's like being a mason, or a carpenter, half the time. But they don't wish to
hear that because they really only imagine the first part, the exciting part.
But, as Khrushchev once said, that doesn't fry pancakes, you see. That germ of
an idea does not make a sculpture which stands up. It just sits there. So the
next stage is the hard work. Can you really translate it into a piece of
Jacob Rabinow, an electrical engineer,
uses an interesting mental technique to slow himself down when work on an
invention requires more endurance than intuition: "When I have a job that takes a lot of effort, slowly, I pretend
I'm in jail. If I'm in jail, time is of no consequence. In other words, if it
takes a week to cut this, it'll take a week. What else have I got to do? I'm
going to be here for twenty years. See? This is a kind of mental trick.
Otherwise you say, 'My God, it's not working,' and then you make mistakes. My
way, you say time is of absolutely no consequence."
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. Vasari wrote in 1550 that when Renaissance
painter Paolo Uccello was working out the laws of visual perspective, he would
walk back and forth all night, muttering to himself: "What a beautiful
thing is this perspective!" while his wife called him back to bed with no
Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted
sense of reality. Great art and great science involve a leap of imagination
into a world that is different from the present. The rest of society often
views these new ideas as fantasies without
relevance to current reality. And they are right. But the whole point of art
and science is to go beyond what we now consider real and create a new reality.
At the same time, this "escape" is not into a never-never land. What
makes a novel idea creative is that once we see it, sooner or later we
recognize that, strange as it is, it is true.
Most of us assume that
artists—musicians, writers, poets, painters—are strong on the fantasy side,
whereas scientists, politicians, and businesspeople are realists. This may be
true in terms of day-to-day routine activities. But when a person begins to
work creatively, all bets are off.
Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted. We're usually
one or the other, either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on
the sidelines and observing the passing show. In fact, in psychological
research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits
that differentiate people from each other and that can be reliably measured.
Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits
Creative people are humble and proud at the same time. It is remarkable
to meet a famous person who you expect to be arrogant or supercilious, only to
encounter self-deprecation and shyness instead.
Yet there are good reasons why this should be so. These individuals are well
aware that they stand, in Newton's words, "on the shoulders of
giants." Their respect for the area in which they work makes them aware of
the long line of previous contributions to it, putting their own in perspective.
They're also aware of the role that luck played in their own achievements. And
they're usually so focused on future projects and current challenges that past
accomplishments, no matter how outstanding, are no longer very interesting to
them. At the same time, they know that in comparison with others, they have
accomplished a great deal. And this knowledge provides a sense of security,
Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping. When tests of
masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that
creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and
creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers.
This tendency toward androgyny is
sometimes understood in purely sexual terms, and therefore it gets confused
with homosexuality. But psychological androgyny is a much wider concept
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. Creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths
of their own gender but those of the other one, too.
Creative people are
both rebellious and conservative. It is impossible to be creative without
having first internalized an area of culture. So it's difficult to see how a
person can be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at
the same time rebellious and iconoclastic. Being only 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.
The artist Eva Zeisel, who says that the folk tradition in which she works is
"her home," nevertheless produces ceramics that were recognized by
the Museum of Modern Art as masterpieces of contemporary design. This is what
she says aboutinnovationfor its own sake:
"This idea to create something is
not my aim. To be different is a negative motive, and no creative thought or
created thing grows out of a negative impulse. A negative impulse is always
frustrating. And to be different means 'not like this' and 'not like that.' And
the 'not like'—that's why postmodernism, with the prefix of 'post,' couldn't
work. No negative impulse can work, can produce any happy creation. Only a
But the willingness to take risks, to
break with the safety of tradition, is also necessary. The economist George
Stigler is very emphatic in this regard: "I'd say one of the most common
failures of able people is a lack of nerve. They'll play safe games. In
innovation, you have to play a less safe game, if it's going to be interesting.
It's not predictable that it'll go well."
Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can
be extremely objective about it as well. Without the passion, we soon lose
interest in a difficult task. Yet without being objective about it, our work is
not very good and lacks credibility. Here is how the historian Natalie Davis
"I think it is very
important to find a way to be detached from what you write, so that you can't
be so identified with your work that you can't accept criticism and response,
and that is the danger of having as much affect as I do. But I am aware of that
and of when I think it is particularly important to detach oneself from the
work, and that is something where age really does help."
Creative people's openness and sensitivity often exposes them to
suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment. 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.
Being alone at the forefront of
a discipline also leaves you exposed and vulnerable. Eminence invites
criticism and often vicious attacks. When an artist has invested years in
making a sculpture, or a scientist in developing a theory, it is devastating if
Deep interest and involvement in
obscure subjects often goes unrewarded, or even brings on ridicule. Divergent
thinking is often perceived as deviant by the majority, and so the creative
person may feel isolated and misunderstood.
Perhaps the most difficult thing
for creative individuals to bear is the sense of loss and emptiness they
experience when, for some reason, they cannot work. This is especially painful
when a person feels his or her creativity drying out.
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 creation for its own sake. Without this trait, poets would give up striving for perfection and would write
commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at
least twice as much as they do at universities, and physicists would stop doing
basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better
and the expectations more predictable.
From Creativity: The Work and
Lives of 91 Eminent People, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, published by