Lessons from Books: The Ten Dimensions of Highly Creative Personas

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Driven largely by the success of Apple and also by its founder’s layered persona, “design thinking”, has spawned many corporate workshops, process changes and adopters. After all, if Steve Jobs, who was as obsessed with the appearance of things, as with their functions, could foster such a technology behemoth, then surely the methods used by designers could usher new products, experiences or even ways of being? Humans, however, have always been fascinated by creators well before “design thinking” infiltrated our buzzy online chatter. 

More pertinently, what are some of the traits of highly-creative individuals, that differentiate them from laypersons? This was a question that also intrigued a man called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. His interest was sparked off by an earlier study that he had conducted, when he wanted to understand the drivers of human happiness. As a result of his much-cited study, he coined the term “flow” – to describe how people feel when they are engaged in an activity that has clear goals and for which they have the necessary skills. Examples of “flow” activities can include jogging, cooking, knitting, painting, conducting a science experiment or working on an Excel Sheet.

Csikszentmihalyi then shifted his attention to studying the habits of highly creative people –those who had garnered very high levels of recognition like Nobel Prizes, Pulitzers, MacArthur Genius Grants and so on. He found such people seem to experience more “flow” or a higher life satisfaction, on average, than normal people. He wanted to unearth the attributes of such people, so that the rest of us can incorporate certain aspects into our own lives, to increase our experience of flow.

To begin with, he defined creativity as an act that “transforms” an existing domain. In order to do this, the creator must first master a symbolic domain – whether that is music, or astrophysics, or cooking. And then, after many years, when one is sufficiently proficient, one must impress the “field” or “gatekeepers” with one’s proposed transformation or original contribution. For a startup, gatekeepers might include investors; for a scientist, the field might comprise of journal editors and peers.

Of course, by limiting his study to those who have won recognition, Csikszentmihalyi was conscious that he may not capture creators who are not currently lauded, but who will be admired by posterity. After all, in his own lifetime, Van Gogh was impoverished and unknown, just a strange man who painted weird paintings. His reputation was resurrected many years after his death.

The psychologist was also aware that some creators may not be the easiest people to interview. Among historic figures, Leonardo Da Vinci was considered a recluse and “almost compulsive in his behavior.” Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison would have hardly made for scintillating company “at a party.” And neither would Michelangelo, Beethoven, Picasso and Einstein.

In general, creative people often possess “lofty aspirations” that transcend material notions of success. Max Planck wanted to gain an understanding of the Absolute; the poet Gyorgy Faludy, who started writing poems at the age of 7, was afraid to die. His poems were a means to defy death.

While acknowledging that many creative personas may defy “stereotypes”, one of Csikszentmihalyi’s significant conclusions – after extensive interviews with many contemporary creators – was, in general, their personalities embody more “complexity” than that of the average person. As the author puts it, “instead of being an individual, each of them is a multitude.” In his book, he encapsulates the significant dimensions of such complexity.

The Ten Dimensions of Complexity in High-Achieving Creators:

Trait 1: They often seem to have a great deal of physical energy, but they also spend long periods in quiet and rest.

  • They engage in intense bursts of activity, followed by long periods of idleness and reflection.
  • They usually work at their own pace. They are rarely driven by external schedules, calendars, clocks, deadlines.

Trait 2: They tend to be smart (though not all are possessed of as extraordinary an IQ that people might assume they have).

  • Any incremental IQ above 120 does not seem to significantly enhance creativity.
  • Curiosity is more important than sheer intelligence.
  • Along with intelligence, creative people can also show a startling emotional immaturity. One of the iconic examples is Mozart.
  • Creativity involves both convergent and divergent modes of thinking. Convergent modes are used to answer questions at an exam, divergent modes are used to generate ideas.
  • Creators use divergent modes to generate new ideas, convergent modes to pick the best ones.
    • Note: Darwin and Galileo did not have a profusion of ideas, but the ones they had were so significant, they radically altered their respective domains.

Trait 3: They are Playful and Disciplined

  • They are almost “joking around” when working – kicking around ideas, tossing out X, keeping Y.
  • But they are also dogged, persistent, often relentlessly working at something.
  • Often time is of no consequence, when they are deeply engaged in a task.

Trait 4: Alternate between Imagination/Fantasy and Reality

  • Once Einstein said that art and science were devised by human beings in order to escape from reality.
  • Creative people are often rooted in reality, while being aware that reality itself is fluid and relative.
  • People might assume that artists operate more in the “fantasy” realm than scientists and bankers. But that is not necessarily the case. Bankers use their fantasizing capabilities to project far into the deep future.

Trait 5: Creative People are Both Introverted and Extroverted

  • Most creative tasks involve being able to abide with solitariness.
  • But they also need interactions to get feedback from other people, or to bounce ideas around.
  • Their lives are often marked by periods of solitariness and gregariousness.

Trait 6: They are both humble and proud

  • Like achievers in other realms, they take pride in things like raising kids, rather than in their career or vocational achievements.
  • But they do have a confidence in their own abilities. As Jacob Rabinow says, “I always assume that not only it can be done, but I can do it.”

Trait 7: They usually do not conform to gender stereotypes

  • They tend to be psychologically androgynous.

Trait 8: They are both “traditional” and “rebellious.”

  • They are traditional, in being willing to absorb the rules of the domain.
  • They are rebellious in wanting to change the domain, or by venturing into “risky” experiments.

Trait 9: They are passionate and objective

  • They are passionate enough to persist despite obstacles.
  • They stay objective, so that they incorporate criticism to keep improving.

Trait 10: Their openness and sensitivity can trigger a great deal of suffering/pain and also enjoyment.

  • Often, since they have worked on projects for ages, and then the work is ridiculed or ignored, they are likely to experience distress.
  • But they do experience a sort of “bliss” while working.

Besides charting personality traits, Csikszentmihalyi’s book wades into many other aspects of creativity, and I hope to return to it in future blog posts.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Collins, New York, 1996.

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