The Creative Personality
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
By: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
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, 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."
Here are the 10 antithetical traits often present in creative people
that are integrated with each other in a dialectical tension.
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.
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.
2. 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
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 higher
Another way of expressing this dialectic is the contrasting poles of
wisdom 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 to mind.
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 enhance.
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.
3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, 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, perseverance.
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 sculpture?"
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 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. 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.
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. 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 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.
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, even pride.
7. 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.
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. 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 about innovation for 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 positive one."
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."
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. 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
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 nobody cares.
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
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 of 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.
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