Over this past Labor Day weekend, I found myself reading excerpts from distinguished professor of psychology and management Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (pronounced me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee) seminal book Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People (HarperCollins, 1996).
“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. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s 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.”
Mihaly describes ten traits often contradictory in nature, that are frequently present in creative people. In Creativity, Mihaly outlines these:
1. 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.
2. Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time.
“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 enhance.”
3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
But this playfulness doesn’t go very far without its antithesis, a quality of doggedness, endurance, and perseverance.
“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 success.”
4.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.
5. 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. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously.
6. 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.
7. Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.
When tests of masculinity and 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.
8. 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.
9.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 puts it:
“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.”
10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment.
“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.”
Paradoxical or not, what I have learned most is that there is no formula for individual creation. As Mihay says, “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.” So, more than anything else, what it takes to be creative is resourcefulness and the courage not to give up.