The better angels of our nature creativity

This post is part of a series of posts written during the coronavirus outbreak. To read the first post and for a little bit of context start here.

 

Creativity is the fuel to humanity’s unparalleled ability to move forward. From tempering our most difficult challenges to soothing our most bitter suffering, creativity is the driving force that allows us to build the bridges into our future and out of isolation towards one another.

Creativity is about more than just the distinctly human ability to meditate on what we feel, wrap up our inner world into words or pictures or movement or any other form of expression, and share it with those around us. In a much broader sense, creativity is the art of building on the culture we have already created through thinking and seeing in novel ways.

Creativity is essential to our survival and thriving because it allows us to embrace rather than be overwhelmed by complexity. It allows us to grapple with complexity, without the need to flatten our complex world or our complex feelings into something ever smaller until what we are left with bears little resemblance to what we started with.  

Creativity enables us to come up with novel solutions to yet unfaced challenges. When this is not possible creativity allows us to shape the suffering that challenges bring into something with form and beauty. Something that almost resembles meaning.

Many books have been written about creativity and the creative process. A meaningful and important voice in this field is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and researcher who has devoted much of his professional life to illustrating  a clearer picture of creativity. Csikszentmihalyi’s research on creativity and the hundreds of hours he has spent watching and studying creative individuals is what ultimately led him to the findings he is most well-known for: his research into the nebulous, concentrated state of peek experience he called ‘flow’.

His understanding of creativity is vast and original and rooted in scientific rigour. His book ‘Creativity The Psychology of Discovery and Invention’ paints a lucid portrait of this human skill and the many elements, both personal and societal, that come together to allow it to blossom to its full potential.

Csikszentmihalyi’s work offers many beautiful insights including a different way of understanding creativity to the one we commonly hold in popular cultural discourse. But if we accept creativity as the essential component that allows our minds to bare complexity, one chapter of his book is particularly relevant. In chapter three titled ‘The Creative Personality’, Csikszentmihalyi paints a picture of the constellation of character traits he typically observed in the creative individuals that informed his research.

The main emphasis of his description is that creative people show a higher than usual combination of seemingly contradictory character traits which come together to form their highly complex character. Csikszentmihalyi writes: “If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it would be complexity. By this, I mean that 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”.

“Having a complex personality means being able to express the full range of traits that are potentially present in the human repertoire but usually atrophy because we think that one or the other pole is “good”, whereas the other extreme is “bad”.” But he points out that the complexity of character in creative individuals means that they are able to balance being “both aggressive and cooperative, either at the same time or at different times”. He explains that a complex personality “involves the ability to move from one extreme to the other as the occasion requires” with more fluidity and less rigidity than most other people are able to incorporate into their being.

Csikszentmihalyi summarises his observations of the creative individuals’ personalities in  “ten pairs of apparently antithetical traits that are often both present in such individuals and integrated with each other in a dialectical tension.” His chapter gives ample explanation and anecdotal evidence for each. While I will not go into all 10 or much of the detail here (I would urge you to read Csikszentmihalyis' original work to get an accurate picture of his valuable contribution), I do want to point out a few examples below that illustrate this point

  1. “Creative people seem to harbour opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.” While many of us tend to think of ourselves as falling into either one category or the other, most of us actually have tendencies towards both. Creative individuals are able to integrate these seemingly opposing tendencies into their character and harness the advantages of either according to what each situation requires.
  2. “Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest”. Creative individuals recognise both the value in prolonged, hard work and the value in rest and idleness and can see that only by incorporating both into their rhythms and routines can they move beyond the sprint of momentary success to accomplishing the marathon of creating something of value.
  3. “Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naïve at the same time…{they} seem to be able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent. Convergent thinking is measured by IQ tests and 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.”
  4. “Creative individuals are remarkably humble and proud at the same time.”
  5. “Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other…the artist may be as much a realist as the physicist, and the physicist as imaginative as the artist.”
  6. “A further paradoxical trait relates to the combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility…Playfulness doesn’t go very far without its antithesis, a quality of doggedness, endurance, perseverance. Much hard work is necessary to bring a novel idea to completion and to surmount the obstacles a creative persona inevitably encounters.”
  7. “Finally, the openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.” 

Creativity is a human ability. While it is more pronounced in certain people than in others, it nevertheless resides in all of us. When I look at this list of character traits, what strikes me as relevant for the current strange and bewildering situation we all find ourselves in, is how closely connected creativity is to complexity and contradiction.

Creativity is the key to our ability to deal with challenges and a soothing balm for our pain. Cultivating the sparks of contradictory character traits we have within us, allowing them the space and freedom to grow and unfold freely without attempting to stamp out one side or another, is our individual duty.

If we cultivate and learn to integrate our seemingly opposing character traits, they will serve in helping us to develop our ability to bare complexity, live with and embrace our own contradictions and those of the complex world we have been born into.

Csikszentmihalyi writes “creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand.” The ability to adapt to what has come our way has been the defining characteristic of our species. Our creativity is what allows us not only to dream up solutions to the ever-changing challenges life presents but to transform the suffering these challenges bring into beauty. The ability to endure complexity without flattening it, both the complexity in the external world and the complexity within, is one of the crowning character traits of this wonderfully complex and contradictory ape called human.

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