While there are no specific traits that all creative people possess, there are some dimensions found in many highly creative people. These dimensions are like spectrums or paradoxes and creative people often manage to move along these dimensions with ease. Listen and see which of these dimensions you exhibit in your life and work.
What You’ll Learn
- The 10 dimensions found in highly creative people
- The many paradoxes that creative people are able to manage
- The difference between big “C” and little “c” creativity
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- Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
The Weekly Challenge
Share in the comments which of these dimension you feel you possess. How do they show up in your life? Feel free to also use the comments section to ask Amy questions.
Feel like reading instead of listening? Download the free PDF Transcript or read it below. Enjoy!
Transcript for Episode #010: The 10 Dimensions of Creative People
Amy Climer: Welcome to the Deliberate Creative Podcast episode #010. I’m so excited. We’re at episode #010. This is awesome. When you start a project like this, you just hope you can keep going and I feel like 10 is a big number. Thanks for listening.
Today, we’re talking about 10 dimensions of the creative personality. Specifically, I’m going to share some research by one of my favorite researchers. His name is Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is most well known for his book, Flow, and the research that he did on that concept of flow. Flow is that idea where you just get into the zone, we get into this flow. Time slips away and we’re so focused and so engrossed in what we’re doing that we just get really energized and excited. He discovered this concept of flow because he was researching creativity.
He is really a creativity researcher and then more recently, maybe 15 years ago, co-founded the field of Positive Psychology with Dr. Martin Seligman. That field has just exploded now and it’s really cool to see his impact on that. I had the opportunity to interview him in 2011 and he’s such a nice guy. It’s always great when your heroes turned out to be nice people – so really excited that I had the opportunity to interview him.
Today, I’m going to share with you some research that he did and published in a book called Creativity. It was published in 1996 and it was based on research that he did from 1990-1995. I’ll explain that research in more depth in a moment. I want to talk first about this idea of a creative personality and what does that mean.
In 1950, there was a significant event that year that really kicked off creativity research. The president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Guilford, gave a keynote speech at their annual meeting and he really pushed the psychologists to start studying creativity. People listened and after that speech, there was this huge surge in creativity research – huge compared to what there had been before.
That first 20 to 30 years of creativity research was really trying to figure out what are the traits that creative people possess. And really what we figured out is there aren’t any. There aren’t very many specific traits that all creative people possess. The reality is we’re much more diverse than that. But Dr. Csikszentmihalyi had done this study where he interviewed 97 people who were highly creative and what he did find was there were some dimensions that they all possessed. The purpose of doing this kind of research and looking at these highly creative people is it helps us understand what we can tap into within ourselves to be more creative. It’s not that we need to emulate them exactly, but what can we pull out and what can we connect with.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi talks about two different types of creativity. One is Little-c creativity and one is called Big-C Creativity. Little-c creativity is kind of that everyday creativity. There are probably people in your life and maybe you’re one of those people where you look at someone else, you’re like, “Oh yeah, they are really creative in a certain way.” For instance my mom, she’s really good at decorating for parties. Anytime we’re having people over, she’s thinking about the table decorations and just these little thoughtful things that are really creative and just ends up being really fun and festive. That’s one thing that she’s really good at. Another example might be a new way to approach a business idea or a new marketing angle for a product or something.
The point with Little-c is that they tend to be these smaller, shorter term things versus Big-C Creativity which is where someone is actually changing the domain they work in. Domain meaning something like Math, Science, the field of Art, Humanities, Government, Education where someone is essentially making a lifetime contribution. Their creativity spans their entire life and they are having such a big impact that they change the domain, they change the field. Picasso, Einstein those are some well known examples of people with Big-C Creativity.
Csikszentmihalyi was really interested in that Big-C Creativity and really curious of how are those people doing what they do. How are they impacting the field or the domain in that way? What he did, along with the graduate students that he worked with, he videotaped interviews of 97 exceptional individuals who exhibited this Big-C Creativity. There were three conditions for them to be selected into the study. The first was they had to make a difference to a major domain of our culture, for instance Art, Science, Business, Government, etc. I think there were at least 14 people who were Nobel Prize winners. If they hadn’t won the Nobel Prize, they had won some similar award in their field. They were highly recognized. They had a huge impact in the domain that they were working in.
They also still had to be actively involved in that domain and they had to be at least 60 years old. When I first read that, I thought that was really interesting and I was like, “Wait a minute, why do they have to be 60?” The whole idea was that there was this lifetime of creative process, creative products. They did end up making a few exceptions and I think the youngest person might have been in their late 40s. For the most part, these are people who had a full career.
They really strived to have an equal representation of men and women. They did end up having more men than women. They tried to get a very wide cultural background. Apparently, recruitment for this study was pretty tough because it was a big commitment. You had to be willing to be interviewed. Most of the interviews were at least two or three hours. They may have even done more than one interview per person. They invited about 275 people and they eventually got the 91.
They talked about the reason people rejected them. Some of them rejected being in the study because they could not spare the time. For instance, the secretary to the novelist, Saul Bellow, wrote, “Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of his life at least in part because he does not allow himself to be the subject of other people’s study. In any event, he is gone for the summer.” A photographer just scribbled the answer, “Sorry, too little time left” and sent that response in. There were many other similar responses of people just saying, “Great idea for your study but I’m focused on my own creative work and I can’t participate.”
What this study resulted in was identifying a little bit about the personalities of creative people, but Csikszentmihalyi really is very clear in saying there is no specific personality. Creative people are very diverse just as you would imagine the entire population. What he did say is that they tend to have complex personalities and these 10 dimensions that we’ll talk about are not an exhaustive list but these are what he found in his research. For the most part, you’ll see they are paradoxes. Creative people are exhibiting both ends of a spectrum and they are comfortable moving back and forth along those spectrums.
10 Dimensions of the Creative Personality
- Having a great deal of physical energy but also needing space for quiet and rest. They tend to be able to sustain long periods of work. They can go in their lab or wherever it needs to be and put in 15-hour days at times but then they also need time for a lot of rest. There’s probably this alternation between intense work and then a lot of relaxing and sitting back.
- Creative people tend to be smart yet also naïve at the same time. They might not be necessarily aware of all sorts of things but that naivety also allows them to see things in a different way. They have that spectrum there.
- They are playful and disciplined or responsible and irresponsible. They can at times be super playful, silly, and jovial and then at other times just really focused and disciplined. Another way to look at it is to be very responsible in some aspects of their life yet really irresponsible. They forget things. They don’t complete things on time, yet other things they are adamant about taking care of. That’s a very common dichotomy.
- They alternate between imagination and fantasy on one end yet they have this rooted sense of reality on the other end. To me this makes a lot of sense because being different for different sake is not necessarily creativity but it’s how do you take what already exists and then change it, adjust it, tweak on it, build on it so that the imagination of those new ideas are very much based on the starting point, the reality that we’re moving from. That alternation, that comfortableness with both ends of the spectrum is important.
- Creative people tend to have opposite tendencies on the continuum of introversion and extroversion. They can easily adjust and flow back and forth. There are times where they love hanging around with other people, talking about ideas, they are getting a lot of energy from the conversations, from the interactions and then other times where they just want to be by themselves, process, and think, and have more of the introversion tendency.
This is an interesting continuum because tests like the Myers-Briggs profile which looks at introversion and extroversion, they found that that’s actually one of the more stable personality traits. This is interesting that people who are highly creative tend to be able to move back and forth fairly comfortably.
- Being remarkably humble and proud at the same time. Excited and proud of the work they are doing, yet at the same time not doing it to seek attention. They are doing it for the sake of the work. They are proud of it and having some positive feedback and attention can be great but that’s not the main purpose for why they are doing it.
- They tend to escape the binary of the rigid gender stereotyping, in this case, talking about that psychological androgyny. Not the physical or sexual androgyny, not talking about that so much but more of this idea that there are certain psychological traits that we think of as either masculine or feminine. Creative people tend to move and they are able to sort of be in the middle a little bit more.
For instance aggressiveness, we think of as a masculine trait and people in this study, many of the women exhibited that trait when they needed to stand up for the work that they are doing and fight for it. They could be aggressive when they needed to be. Apparently, there have been some studies of kids and looking at their masculine and feminine traits. The girls who are most creative tended to have more masculine traits and the boys who were more creative tended to have more feminine psychological traits. Again, this isn’t about physical appearance or how you represent as far as your actual gender. It’s more about those psychological traits.
- They tend to be traditional and conservative, yet also rebellious. This makes a lot of sense if you understand how the domain and the field work and how to change it. Let’s say you’re actually a painter. Let’s use Picasso for example. Apparently, Picasso was actually really good at realistic representational painting. He learned that first at a very young age. Once he knew that very well and he understood that tradition, he then was able to rebel against that. He used what he learned and build on it, and move into this other world of Cubism and all of that that he did.
You’ve got to know the foundation first before you can go off and be too rebellious. It’s like an architect, you got to know how a building works before you can get too creative and adding all these different techniques and approaches. You’ve got to understand the basics first. That’s something that Csikszentmihalyi found in his work. People have that balance of traditional and conservative, yet also rebellious.
- They were extremely passionate about their work yet also very objective. This allowed them to maintain their energy, that passion, help drive them, keep them motivated but then that objectiveness allowed them to accept criticism and not take it personally knowing that that criticism is going to help make the work even better. I think that’s a big one in my opinion from what I’ve seen.
- An openness and sensitivity of creative individuals can expose them to that suffering and pain, yet also bring a great deal of enjoyment. For instance, a writer reading someone else’s prose and just cringing and almost feeling pain of seeing this bad writing or a woodworker seeing this just really poor quality craftsmanship and just kind of cringing at it. That’s one type of pain and suffering that Csikszentmihalyi was talking about. You want whatever area you want to be creative in, it’s work and sometimes, work is painful. We have all those blocks that come up.
However, I also want to point out that one of the things that came up in this study and multiple other studies is that creative people are not necessarily suffering people. There’s this myth of the suffering artist or all writers deep down, they are going to commit suicide. That’s not the case at all. In fact, another researcher who I greatly respect is Dr. Teresa Amabile at Harvard. She has found, and others have found this as well, that people are actually more creative when they are happy. I think Csikszentmihalyi did some work on that as well. The point with this #10 here is that because creative people tend to be more sensitive, sensitive in the sense that they are more aware. They are paying attention. They are seeing things other people might not see that also can sometimes be a bit painful.
Those are 10 dimensions of the creative personality and I hope you can use those to get some ideas for yourself and think about how you can tap into this a little more. How can my team tap into this a little more? What you may find in a team context is that you have some people who are really good at one area of the spectrum and some who are better at the other area and ideally in a team that’s very well developed and they are performing at a high level, they are going to be able to tap into those differences. What often happens is that the teams don’t have that skill and so they get frustrated with each other. One thing you can do is bring this research in, talk about how we need those different perspectives, and you need every piece on that spectrum whether it’s in a team or individual.
Here’s your challenge for the week. I want you to just think about which of these 10 contrasting traits you possess. Are there any that you can bring out more in your life or are there some that maybe you have but you have sort of hidden? How can you bring those out more? I hope this is helpful just to hear about some of the research that’s happened out there in creativity land and also just to better understand what are some of these traits of these highly creative people.
Thanks for listening. If you have an opportunity to go into iTunes and leave a review, that would be awesome. I think by the time this episode come s out, I’ll just be finishing that opportunity to be in the New and Noteworthy category. It would be great to get a couple more reviews in there. I read them. I love them. They keep me motivated. They keep me excited and they help other people understand what the Deliberate Creative Podcast is all about.
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I hope you all have a great week and I’ll talk to you next time. Bye!
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