Creative Schizophrenia

“Like the color white that includes all the hues of the spectrum, [creative people] tend to bring together the entire range of human possibilities within themselves.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Rainbow Man

I’ve written often on the subject of creativity. As someone who’s been paid “to be creative” for almost 40 years, the topic continues to fascinate me. I’m currently reading a scholarly tome on creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University. Even the book’s title sounds scholarly: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Csikszentmihalyi’s claim to fame is the development of the theory of “flow,” a state of acute concentration and intrinsic motivation where a person is fully immersed in what he is doing and, thereby, experiencing ultimate happiness. Flow is characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment and skill, during which temporal concerns such as time, food, discomfort and ego are ignored.

His book, Creativity, is based on videotaped interviews conducted with 91 exceptional (his word, not mine) individuals between 1990 and 1995. This number was culled from an initial list of 275 prominent people in the fields of science, the arts, business and government. What’s interesting is that more than half of the scientists asked to participate in the research agreed to do so, while less than one-third of the artists, writers and musicians accepted the invitation. It appears they were too busy. I can relate.

One of Csikszentmihalyi’s many observations about creative people is that they possess “complex personalities” which “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.”

Nineteen out of the twenty people in me strongly agree with that statement. This may explain why the creative process for me has always been a journey from the complex to the simple; from clutter to clarity — an ongoing, internal argument with the many sides of myself. In other words, a form of controlled schizophrenia.

Through his interviews, Csikszentmihalyi discovered ten contradictory traits that are frequently present in creative people:

1 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.

2 Most creative people tend to be smart AND naive at the same time. They are able to easily shift between two opposite ways of thinking: convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking “involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer.” Divergent thinking “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.”

3 Most creative people combine both playfulness AND productivity, which can sometimes mean both irresponsibility and responsibility. “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.”

4 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 hyper-awareness of reality. Attention to real details allows a creative person to imagine ways to improve them.

5 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.

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

7 Most creative people are comfortable with their culturally-based gender roles BUT to some extent escape rigid gender role stereotyping. “It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.”

8 Most creative people are both traditional AND rebellious. “Being only traditional leaves the domain [of culture] unchanged; constantly taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as an improvement. 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, BUT remain extremely objective about it as well. They are able to admit when something they have made is not very good.

10 Most creative people’s openness and sensitivity exposes them to a large amount of suffering and pain, BUT they experience 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.”

Adapted from Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi