Photo by Sophia.

I’ve been having an insightful shuffle through Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People. Mihaly is a seminal professor of Psychology and Management, and is the Founding Co-Director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont. He writes:

“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.”

Nine out of the ten people in me strongly agree with that statement. As someone paid to be creative, I sometimes feel kaleidoscopic in my views or opinions, and that “multitude” of expressions sometimes confuses those around me. Why does that happen? My thoughts make cohesive sense to me, yet others sometimes feel that I am contradicting myself or switching positions. What is wrong with me?

Mihaly describes 9 contradictory traits that are frequently present in creative people:

01

Most creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but are often quiet and at rest. They can work long hours at great concentration.

02

Most creative people tend to be smart and 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 creativity workshops try to enhance.”

03

Most creative people combine both playfulness and productivity, which can sometimes mean both responsibility and irresponsibility. “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.” Usually this perseverance occurs at the expense of other responsibilities, or other people.

04

Most creative people alternate fluently between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality. In both art and science, movement forward involves a leap of imagination, a leap into a world that is different from our present. Interestingly, this visionary imagination works in conjunction with a hyperawareness of reality. Attention to real details allows a creative person to imagine ways to improve them.

05

Most creative people tend to be both introverted and extroverted. Many people tend toward one extreme or the other, but highly creative people are a balance of both simultaneously.

06

Most creative people are genuinely humble and display a strong sense of pride at the same time.

07

Most 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.”

08

Most creative people are very passionate about their work, but remain extremely objective about it as well. They are able to admit when something they have made is not very good.

09

Most creative people’s openness and sensitivity exposes them to a large amount of suffering and pain, but joy and life in the midst of that suffering. “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.”

Sometimes what appears to be a contradiction on the surface is actually a harmony in disguise. My problem has been primarily one of communication. I am learning to let people know what I am thinking and why, and explaining myself in a way that helps them understand why I am discussing multiple perspectives instead of just cleanly stating my own. At first it might not make sense, but give me/us long enough, and it will.

Join the discussion 644 Comments

  • Nancy says:

    Thank you. I have seen this popping up more and more recently and I really appreciate it. It would have been nice to have had this information growing up.

  • Dick says:

    Amen to all the comments and the article. Now maybe I can understand why I get strange responses to some thoughts etc that I express.

  • Meredith says:

    Thank you for very succinctly breaking down these complexities of contradictions. I’ve never really viewed myself as a creative person, but one that was scattered – maybe unfocused. This piece is actually making me rethink that view a bit, and appreciating the dynamic way my mind operates instead of viewing it as a problem…

    • C says:

      Do you create anything Meredith? One might assume that scattered, unfocused people simply radiate banality back against the universe while creative people bring into being something which did not exist before. I’m certain that you are creative, so no offense is meant. Rather, I’m interested in what it is you produce through the creative process you now see as dynamic.

      That’s why I ask, no other intent is meant. The clarification is because I’m tripping my balls off and don’t want to come across as a jerk.

    • Prof Thomas says:

      I create LIFE (!!!) from blobs of peanut butter, using galvanism, certain invocations, and a generous amount of friction. The process is dynamic, though the product itself tends to fall apart and create what I like to call a “work-in-progmess” on the table of my office-kitchen. Do you mind if I join the club? Because, frankly, my endeavors are starting to seem more and more like simply radiating banality back against the universe the closer to actualization I get.

  • Wow. I’ve never seen myself in a composite before. I actually printed this out to use as possible defense against all those logical people in my life. Thank you!

  • I have never read anything more clear in describing what happens internally with me. I believe that I am a very creative person, not everything I create is beautiful or the best, but it is my creation. I have struggled to help others understand what happens inside of me. Thank you for penning this so well.

  • Peter says:

    I have always thought of myself as being normal. Now I can see why my friends don’t.

  • Cortney says:

    Great post. Thanks for bringing this research to a wider audience. It makes me sad to think how many creative children (and adults) learn to quash these instincts/skills in order to fit in, or at least not to be teased.

  • JP Miklovic says:

    Wow!!! This post makes me so happy, I could cry! At 58, I am still trying to figure out this inability to be able to explain some of my thoughts, ideas, projects, opinions and general babble to those around me, who tick me off, but yet I feel sorry for, as they lack understanding. If you combine this with my tendency to chase every new idea that pops (ADHD?), it just makes me want to take a nap, after I clean the garage!

  • Joe says:

    Spot on. I am a very creative person (or at least it appears that way) suffering from a multitude of hobbies. Everything you said rings true about me and grants me greater perspective on myself. Thank you.

  • So enlightening, and so familiar.

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