Complexity and contradictions of the highly creative individual

Josephine BakerThe psychology professor and creativity researcher Mihály Csikszentmihályi has studied nearly a hundred highly creative individuals, who were groundbreaking in their fields, to try to understand what it is that makes them manage to come up with and implement so many new and revolutionary ideas. What he came up with was that the common factor is not a certain specific property or a specific personality, but a series of opposing or conflicting personality traits which in most people are separated, but can be combined and accommodated within a single creative individual. This complexity and these opposites are often necessary for creative success because the different phases of the creative process require completely different qualities and abilities. In his book “Creativity: The Work and lives of 91 eminent people“, Csikszentmihályi describes a series of contradictions within these highly creative individuals.

The highly creative people can raise large amounts of physical energy. During the creative periods, they can work focused for long days and with a little sleep. But between these creative periods, they often have intervals when they relax and recharge their batteries. The endurance during the active periods seems to come from within through concentration and willpower rather than having stronger physics than others. Many of them experience this rolling flow between activity and rest as essential for their creativity. Physical energy also often expresses itself as sexual energy, which can periodically come to powerful expressions alternating with more ascetic periods when creation comes first.

At the same time creative people can be both smart and naive. Part of the creative process, especially during the preparation and verification phase, requires a convergent and analytical thinking that is strongly linked to the abilities we measure with intelligence tests. On the other hand, the connection between intelligence and divergent thinking is very weak. You can therefore be highly intelligent without being particularly creative and vice versa able to come up with many new ideas even though you have a relatively lower intelligence. In terms of thinking, the creative individuals have the ability to combine divergent and convergent thinking. The divergent thinking is needed to come up with the groundbreaking ideas while the convergent thinking is needed to realize them. Interestingly, some individuals who are considered highly creative have only a few revolutionary ideas throughout their lifetime. The rest of the time goes hand in hand to develop and fine-tune them. But at the same time, many highly creative individuals, such as Mozart, also had a childish and immature side.

Creative people combine playfulness with responsibility and discipline. Playfulness and the open mind are necessary in the initial part of the creative process, when the thoughts are bouncing around in the head and the crazy and odd ideas are flowing. Playfulness also causes the chains to break and the normal mental barriers, imposed by convention, can be overcome. But then there are long periods of focus and hard work that require a large measure of introversion, stamina and persistence. It also requires discipline and hard work to learn their domain. The artist needs to be able to master his expressions. The musician needs to master both his instrument and be able to read notes. The researcher needs to keep track of all the results within his research field and fully master the instruments in his laboratory.

Highly creative individuals swing between imagination and an ability to realise the realities. With their imagination they can see new possibilities and imagine a future that no one else sees. In their imagination they can also visualise how they skip obstacles that others had found insurmountable and therefore gave up the project. They rarely deal with skepticism and distrust, but in the end when the idea is developed and accepted, it appears that it was the innovators and their innovations that could best anticipate the possibilities of future reality. In other words, they have created a new reality with their imagination. On your creative journey there may also be a lot of tough reconciliation with reality. Does the idea work in practice? Can it be transformed into a new product? Could it be made cheap enough and resource efficient?

While most people are either introverted or extroverted as solid traits of character that rarely change, many creative people have both of these qualities at the same time. In their creation they can turn completely inward and be both unconscious and uninterested by their surroundings and sometimes also their own appearance. At the same time, in other periods, they may be forcefully outward in their commitment and defense of their ideas. Many great stage personages can be extremely outgoing on stage, while in their privacy they are bound and few.

Many creative people unite humility with pride. They are well aware of the great work of their predecessors in the field and they are grateful for the ability to build on their ideas and knowledge. But at the same time they are strongly filled by a sense of their own self-worth and an insight that they have achieved more than most in their environment. They are also more focused on the future and what they themselves can accomplish than looking back to admire others.

Most creative people are both passionate for their cause and for their work. They are willing to overcome many obstacles and their strong focus causes them to be prepared for major sacrifices both professionally and privately. The passion can also be needed when they are faced with skepticism and lack of understanding from their surroundings. At the same time, they need to be deeply self-critical and the first to objectively see the shortcomings in what they are creating. This objective self-criticism can then be used to improve the idea or work.

Creative people can at the same time be conservative and rebels. They must first embark in a tradition and learn to understand, respect and master their area before breaking their ground and creativity with their own ideas. This applies to both artists and scientists. Picasso first learned to master the traditional art forms before he became groundbreaking in the brand new cubist tradition. Already in his teens, Einstein mastered the traditional Newtonian physics before he could take the step forward and in 1905 develop the special theory of relativity. Despite respect for traditional knowledge, the creative individual is often characterised by a strong questioning and profound mistrust of authority. Current knowledge and insights are respected on the basis of an inner conviction of its value and not because someone else says that’s the case. Creative individuals are therefore not always appreciated by their surroundings.

Emotionally, it is not uncommon for highly creative people to commute between excited happiness and painful suffering. Harmony and joy are a good ground for playfulness and creativity. Creative creation also gives rise to positive feelings and self-satisfaction. At the same time, the creative individual often has a low pain threshold and can be severely affected by adversities to realise his idea. Divergent thinking is rarely valued by the surrounding people. The ability to see the possibilities makes it extra difficult to accept the mediocre. Being innovative is also exposed to risks. Being mocked or misunderstood for something one has created and is passionate about can be deeply painful. Sometimes, however, the negative can be used in the creation process. Many great artists have used their broken love, disappointments or melancholy as inspiration in a magnificent creation. Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who is perhaps most famous for her colourful self-portraits, suffered permanent injuries and severe pain after a road accident in her teens. The rest conditions after her accident resulted in that her being alone and isolated during extended periods of her life, with all her attention to herself, which was a prerequisite for her great art.

The creative individuals also tend to break the stereotypical gender roles. Creative and talented women tend to be more dominant than their sisters, while the creative men are often more sensitive and less aggressive than other men. This androgynic trend of creative individuals of both sexes makes it easier for them than others to exploit the entire repertoire of masculinity and femininity, giving them a clear advantage when it comes to the creative processes.

These complexities and contradictions in the highly creative individual manifest the essence of creativity, which is to embrace and welcome dualism, change, paradoxes, contradictions and uncertainties. They succeed in navigating and in a changing world by cultivating and developing their contradictory properties, and the result will not only be the sum without the product of these characteristics. A true creative person needs to be able to keep two thoughts in his head at the same time without desperately having to stumble upon stability, fact and reason. We can not create with only yin or only yang. The two must be equal in harmony.


An illustrative example of such an extremely creative, but immensely complex, person is the iconic jazz singer Josephine Baker who, in the 1920’s in Paris, danced in only a revealing banana skirt in La Revue Nègre. Baker was a singer and dancer, emotionally labile and with a strong sexual appetite, but also French spy during WWII, engaged in the civil rights movement and adoption mother of 12 “rainbow children” from all over the world. Her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker wrote in his biography of herI loved her, I hated her and would desperately try to understand her“.


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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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