the 10 paradoxes of creative people

pre-eminent psychologist mihaly cziszentmihalyi about the ten paradoxes of creative people. here’s an abbreviated version:

1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest. … 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. … 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.

3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility. … 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.”

4. Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality.

5. Creative people trend to be both extroverted and introverted. … in current psychological research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits … Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously.

6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time.

7. Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.

8. Creative people are both rebellious and conservative. … 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.

9. Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.

10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment. … 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 and misunderstood.

From Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, published by HarperCollins, 1996.

for the rest of the article, go here.

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

49 thoughts on “the 10 paradoxes of creative people

  1. Sydney

    I admit I didn’t read the entire article from Psychology Today, but doesn’t this describe nearly everyone you know? I think it’s more rare to find someone who is very ‘even’ in tastes and temperment without the extremes, unless you’re talking about bipolar extremes, which many people suspect that Mozart was. Also, I’m not sure what YOUR definition of an artist is. Most people are creative in some way. What sets an artist apart from the norm in your way of thinking?

  2. isabella mori

    doesn’t this describe nearly everyone you know?

    that’s an interesting question. actually, it doesn’t characterize everyone i know – but quite a few. and why is that? because the majority of the people i know are creative types. and why is that? because i am one myself, and like most people, i am attracted to people who are on the same wavelength. however, once in a while i peek my nose out into the vast wide beyond, to see that there are lots of people who certainly do not think and feel in creative ways. (a conversation between csikszentmihalyi and a colleague touches on this topic, too).

    i have administered and taken quite a few personality and career type tests and found that this even distribution of seemingly opposite qualities that czikszentmihalyi reports is not the norm.

    right now, i can think of two ways of interpreting what czikszentmihaly found. one is that the artists/creative people that he interviewed actually have these opposite qualities.

    the other is this. in order to compare the people he interviewed to the “normal” population, he had to use standardized tests (probably something like the meyers briggs for the introversion/extroversion dimension). well, these standardized tests have standardized questions, which often seem quite irrelevant to artists – so while they ask questions that can easily be answered with a “yes” or “no” by the average population, it’s more difficult for an artistic personality to answer. one of the reasons for that is that artists tend to see many more shades of grey than others.

    and then you say, “what sets an artists apart from the norm” – hmmm … that’s fodder for another post …

  3. Sydney

    Those tests are awful in my humble opinion and I’m not convinced that creativity can be measured with any written test. Certainly it’s easier in retrospect to say that Einstein, Picasso or Mozart were all very creative people, but like the article says – it’s still up to society to interpret which are the artists. Generally I believe that artists creatively ‘exist’ in another time frame, often in the future, and can comment on this one in a unique way – their way. Sometimes this is viewed as insanity by those who don’t understand. Sometimes it may really be insane – some of the ‘art’ today cerainly seems at least border-line to me, but this is only MY subjective opinion and maybe I just don’t understand it. To another the same piece may be brilliant. Might be that only history can say, but does it matter to the person observing the art? Either the art speaks to you or doesn’t – perhaps this is the real test…

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  5. fuzzy-logic

    First of all, it is nice to see a professional psychotherapist blog. Thank You.

    …because the majority of the people i know are creative types. and why is that? because i am one myself, and like most people, i am attracted to people who are on the same wavelength. however, once in a while i peek my nose out into the vast wide beyond, to see that there are lots of people who certainly do not think and feel in creative ways.

    Hmm… as a psychotherapist would you say that this preference for wavelength may obstruct your objectivity at a professional level?

    An artist’s creative processes and the associated merit are very fuzzy and vague (atleast to me).

    On another note, these are traits observed amongst a group of artists; however, people who exhibit these traits don’t necessarily have to be artists. Which brings up the question, “what makes art art?”

    If you are saying that creative people see more shades of grey then would you say that this sort of categorization does not make sense because even the simplest of simple processes can have a zen like creative thinking behind it but for those who want to categorize, it may not be very obvious thereby, not serving the purpose of categorization in the first place?

  6. isabella mori

    Hmm… as a psychotherapist would you say that this preference for wavelength may obstruct your objectivity at a professional level?

    good question! i’m going to use that for a blog entry! stay tuned …

    If you are saying that creative people see more shades of grey then would you say that this sort of categorization does not make sense because even the simplest of simple processes can have a zen like creative thinking behind it but for those who want to categorize, it may not be very obvious thereby, not serving the purpose of categorization in the first place?

    ok, let me try to restate what you’re saying here, to see whether it helps me understand it.

    - creative people see more shades of grey
    - because they see more shades of grey, this sort of categorization does not make sense (question: does not make sense to whom? and what sort of categorization are you talking about? the categories of the paradoxes in general, or the tests that they presumably used to arrive at the paradoxes?)
    - to those who want to categorize, thinking in shades of grey is not obvious
    - therefore the purpose of categorization is not served (question: i don’t get the connection between point 3 and 4)

    how about this: categorization in general may not make much sense to many artists, or at least it may make them uncomfortable. however, in order for non-artists to understand artists, using categories is a useful tool. here’s a metaphor: if you’d talk to a whale, she might find it pretty odd that she’s supposed to be closer genetically to a dog than to a shark. but for us humans, who are not familiar with whale thinking, one way to gain at least a little bit of knowledge about whales, putting them into the category of “mammal” together with cats and dogs seems to be useful.

    i know that opens a whole pandora’s box of epistemology: how much can we know about someone who is different from us? how much true knowledge do we gain by using tools such as categorization? by using knowledge tools that are alien to those about whom we wish to know more, do we create the potential of hurting them?

  7. Ruth Seeley

    I think Rollo May said it best in The Courage to Create, published in 1975:

    “This brings us to the most important kind of courage of all. Whereas moral courage is the righting of wrongs, creative courage, in contrast, is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built. Every profession can and does require some creative courage. In our day, technology and engineering, diplomacy, business, and certainly teaching, all of these professions and scores of others are in the midst of radical change and require courageous persons to appreciate and direct this change. The need for creative courage is in direct proportion to the degree of change the profession is undergoing.

    But those who present directly and immediately the new forms and symbols are the artists – the dramatists, the musicians, the painters, the dancers, the poets, and those poets of the religious sphere we call saints. They portray the new symbols in the form of images – poetic, aural, plastic, or dramatic, as the case may be. They live out of their imaginations. The symbols only dreamt about by most human beings are expressed in graphic form by the artists. But in our appreciation of the created work – let us say a Mozart quintet – we are also performing a creative art. When we engage a painting, which we have to do especially with modern art if we are authentically to see it, we are experiencing some new moment of sensibility. Some new vision is triggered in us by our contact with the painting; something unique is born in us. This is why appreciation of the music or painting or other works of the creative person is also a creative act on our part.”

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  9. Halina Goldstein

    Very interesting – and like you, I too wonder if I resonate so much with this because I and most of “my” people are creative people, or are we all Creative People by design?

    Interestingly, I find those character trait so “natural”, that I don’t experience any paradox here at all!

    Thanks for the inspiration -

    Halina

  10. isabella mori

    halina, i suspect that i one of the reasons why i sometimes think “oh, isn’t everyone like this” is because humans have such a strong tendency to flock to those who are “like us”. (that’s where racism comes from – not a nice comparison, but true).

    also, not too long ago someone mentioned to me that “only INFP’s understand INFP’s” (that’s the type of meyers briggs personality i am – INFP.

    and of course, i like to be surrounded by people who understand me. and as i understand it, it so happens that a lot of artists are INFP’s.

    (let’s see if i can get a meyers briggs specialist to comment on this)

  11. Laura

    Hi! I had already many problems with my parents because they can´t stand the fact that I do very rarely answer yes or no to questions. I tend to make answers very long and complex or rhater only say “it depends”. I don´t know whether this characteristic of myself is a good sign or rather it is a problemo of being excesively analytic. I share all the paradox that you attribute to creative people, but I´m not quite sure that they are an inequivocous sing of creativity.

    Best wishes from Spain

  12. isabella mori

    some who often say, “it depends” are people who see the big picture, and when they find all the details of that picture intriguing and important they might need quite a few words to describe this picture.

    i absolutely don’t think that sharing these paradoxes is an unequivocal sign of creativity. it’s just a framework that can be used when thinking about the psychology of creativity.

  13. Laura

    Hi! Thank you for the answer. I´ve read a lot about creativity, because, nowadays, creativity is very highly valued in many areas of life, even at jobs in enterprises, and I wanted to know whether I was or not creative, specially for working purposes ( I´m going to finish my degree and I´de like to find a kind of job ta suits me well). I personally think that I have a good potential for being creative, but I usually make the development of my own creativity difficult, because sometimes I am too rational and, as some people have told me, I am to strict and demanding with myself, so I usually stop my creative process. I personally think that I am more creative at writing than in other areas (and maybe at drawing silly pictures).I have wrote some short tales, a little of poetry and a very short screenplay, but there´s a long time since I don´t write because of lack of time (I´m usually involved in a lot of different activities) and because I frequently reject my own ideas, because I consider them no good enough. I am less strict with myself it what it refers to non-literary writings than in literary writings

    I hope this comment can be helpful and interesting for your research and taht my English is intelligible enough.

    Best wishes from Spain

  14. John

    Hi!

    Whenever I conduct workshops on Creativity and Innovation, invariably participants want to know the traits/characteristics of the ‘creative type’. While a number of authors have described such traits, I find the 10 ‘paradoxes’ of creative people intersting. It will be a useful tool that can be used for personal reflection.

  15. Scott

    Oooh, I like this post.

    I had an employer that gave the Myers-Briggs test to all its employees, most of whom were engineering types. I was the only one out of 120 employees to be graded as ENFP. (there were only around 2-3 “Es”, mostly sales people)

    That said, I think creativity goes far deeper than personality traits. True creation (which doesn’t necessarily mean “true art”) comes from a much deeper place than personality or ego. Most artists will tell you that when they are really connecting, they lose track of time, sense, everything. I might have some of these personality traits when I’m not working, but when I’m in the zone, my personality largely disappears.

    I know lots of very creative people who can connect in this way, but who don’t exhibit any of the “Artistic” personality traits listed here.

    And of course, we can’t forget that some of these personality traits can be associated with people who have mood disorders. ;-) Wouldn’t it be fun to have a conversation about whether Beethoven or Abraham Lincoln, who both suffered from “Big D” Depression, would have been able to reach the same astronomical levels of creativity if they had been dosed with antidepressants?

  16. SOULutions

    “Many are artists
    and do not even know;
    Many think they are artists
    and do not even know–they’re not.
    I may be one of either of them.”
    –LB Lacey

    Creative people are an enigma to many people and most of all themselves. They don’t mean to be “creative”. Sorry! They just are. Artists are at once closest to fiends and gods. They create and they destroy…because they MUST. They don’t understand. Go on. Ask a true artist to explain their art. You may hear words, but you may also know their perplexity.

    Artists exist in singular microcosms in the macrocosmic Universe. People try to dissect the work of many artists and uncover their inner motivations, but that is external to the process of the artist’s creation. Critique is the dull art of the critic attempting to apply linear pop perspective to a unique creation, which defies quantification by preexistent measures. Creative people live in and project from their own worlds. And even if no one “gets it” it’s there. It exists.

    Truly creative souls know that they do not fit in this world. That hurts…and feels good. It leaves the artist perpetually longing, yet infinitely satisfied. It is this juxtaposition of contrasting emotions that is the catalyst for many creations. The artists is in the world, but truly not of the world.

    In general, human beings can know naught but what they’ve known and therefore know nothing. Most people do not have the deep essential authenticity within the core of their being to be truly creatively expressive. Most people are cowardly primates imitating genius and succeeding in doing truly miraculous things with “the wheel”…though they never could have invented it. They can appreciate it. They can use it. They can even try to steal it and take credit for it…but they could NEVER create it. It takes an artist to think–to know a truly original thought.

    The nucleus of creativity exists in almost everyone, but the impervious courage (or insanity) to express it is not commonly expressed in the world. Most people would rather die than to say something out of tune with the same ol song that the masses stand singing. An artist doesn’t mind being “off-key” if it enhances the masterwork. Not everyone is called so loudly by the need to CREATE that she or he despite all obstacles or fears must express the inexpressible.

    Creative people are lonely, like God, THE CREATOR and lowly, like the most absurd, abused, neglected & rejected dog.

    That’s just my take on it.

  17. isabella mori

    thanks for your take on it, soulutions!

    i’m interested in your use of the word “true” – it appears a few times. how can we/you/i tell “true”?

    what if one true artist critiques another, as it happens all the time?

    you say “The nucleus of creativity exists in almost everyone, but the impervious courage (or insanity) to express it is not commonly expressed in the world.” i think i said something similar in the post following this one, what is an artist?

    how many artists would agree with that, i wonder?

    (ps. went to your myspace site, thanks for the heads-up on the bob marley celebration. now there’s an artist, deep and real …)

  18. kadie

    To me there is no necessary attachment of creativity and art. Creativity is much more than art, a piece of art is one specific expression of thought. Creativity is the use of thought through infinite possibilities, and creativity never ends, if something doesn’t come out right it’s perfectly fine because as a creator there are infinite possibilities.

    Creative people are not as judgmental, they know how to use their judgment objectively with out excluding possibilities.

    We’ve seen many creators of religion, politics, technology, teaching, art, performance, and at this point in evolution its extremely important to continue creating. for some reason humans feel that once we reach a decision that it’s the be all and end all, and if any one suggest something different (especially in politics and religion) it’s labeled as a conspiracy, and crazy!

    I read somewhere (i don’t know if it was in this blog or not) that US school only focus on memorization and learning facts. Creativity and critical analysis are on the back burner (as we see the creative arts programs cut form curriculum’s first when there is a budget cut).

    Creativity is not valuable to the US government, could there be a reason for this or is it just a DUMB coincidence?

    It’s common knowledge that we are a product of our environment, we are trained by the society that we live in. Creativity allows people to explore infinite possabilities.

    YOU be the creator of your own reality…think about it.

  19. Yazan

    Im a guy who’s very creative & analytic,
    but the problem im facing is that im living in the middle of a DUMB society,Im living with people who are way too far from creativity, my poor unmature friends (18 years old) still like to spend thier money and time on cheap,chintzy computer games ,”GET A LIFE”. while i send my time on spinning beats and composing music at home, working on the photoshop,designing myself a happy life,think of the future, go for a walk, meet & talk to ordinary people or find myself some girlfriends.
    I also do bodybuilding and no one of my friends is intrested to start bodybuilding as i do. this is totaly shameful, imagine an 18 years old guy without any single,goodlooking muscle in his body, i call this “TOTAL GAYNESS”
    i tried to make them become more serious and start think BIG like i do, but it was all waste of time.What shall i do, i can’t find anyone who suits me, i can’t find myself any respectful friend.I hope this world would change a bit, or the place im living in at least .
    It’s a shame !

  20. Alexys Fairfield

    Hi Isabella,
    As a creative person myself, this is one of the most accurate articles I have read on the subject. Thanks for sharing it and giving me deeper insight into creativity. Truly fascinating.

  21. Liara Covert

    Creative people are the sort who do not get wrapped up in how other people judge. Creatie people focus on teh flow of energy. They attune to the source within themselves.

  22. no fee balance transfers

    Well, I think that nowadays creative people don’t have so many problems with the rest as they had in the past. Not that I’m trying to offense them, but this emo generation is kind of alike to them in certain ways. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that weird people are very popular these days.

  23. Jordan

    I find that I have always lived in a fantasy world and my friends call me immature for it. I am good at drawing but horrible at maths. So it seems that everyone thinks I’m weird. I also find that I have more common-sense than many of my friends.

    This annoys the hell out of me sometimes, but the good thing is some of them value it. I am quiet sure i am a creative person but I find some people will say “I’m a creative person” When they are obviously not. It’s easy for me to drift off and pretend I’m somewhere else. Would anyone find that some people are quiet arrogant toward creative people because they do not understand them?

  24. isabella mori

    hi jordan – misunderstanding often produces unfavourable reactions, and arrogance is one of them.

    i wonder, though, whether people REALLY misunderstand. maybe they’re just sad or angry because their creativity has been buried …

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  26. SargeDude

    Late post, but PLEASE DON’T EVER READ ANYTHING IN psychology today, unless of course it is for humor.

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  32. harry

    this is interesting, and really seems to explain many things to me. i am very artistic and creative, and, as the article says, am very passionate about my work. thanks for showing me that im not the only one experiencing this, and makes me feel less isolated (#10) :D

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  34. Debbie Lattuga

    The beauty of creativity is that we all are born with it. But the process of living tends to remove it from many of us.

    It’s very difficult for left brained people (like me) to own the shadow self of creativity. But once you do, your happiness level skyrockets dramatically.
    .-= Debbie Lattuga´s last blog ..Make a Collage Vision Board =-.

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  36. KORANTENG JUSTICE

    I like the entire contributions and will wish to have topics under the Visual art course.

  37. KORANTENG JUSTICE

    To be creative means to be able to generate innovative ideas and manifest them from thought into reality.

  38. Francesca

    Wow. I wince a little at calling myself creative (humble as pointed out above..) yet I do (also proud as pointed out above :P ) To the point, reading this somewhat reassured me because I feel like it perfectly described me and explained the reason I am like the ways described above. What particularly caught my attention was that creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time, and that are both introverted and extroverted, irresponsible and rebelious yet conservative. Basically being varied. Also, that being sensitive and open can be hindering as obscure interests go unrewarded and they feel isolated and misunderstood.
    I think creative people in a mild sense are a little bipolar and although they can get deep satisfaction out of something (like I am exploring this right now) they have a tendency to be dissatisfied with things and are more prone to ‘bad patches’ and lonliness.
    What someone has written above makes me feel better about my indecisivness : ‘some who often say, “it depends” are people who see the big picture, and when they find all the details of that picture intriguing and important they might need quite a few words to describe this picture.’

    Thankyou Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  39. Anon

    I call myself creative. The governemnt call me manic depressive. No joke, though at times it does seem funny.

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