Creative minds

Creative individuals are often considered odd — or even arrogant, selfish and ruthless. It is important to keep in mind that these are not traits of creative people but traits that the rest of us attribute to them on the basis of our perceptions. … In fact, creative people are neither single-minded, specialized or selfish. Indeed, they seem to be the opposite: They love to make connections with adjacent areas of knowledge.
          ——Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,

There were a few examples of creative people who came up multiple times in my reading for this series, and I’m going to toss one more contemporary example into the mix. I wanted to see what these folks have in common, and it seems the answer is … very little.

Which, on the one hand, means that there isn’t much of a pattern for you to follow (although there are some things you can do, which we’ll discuss next week), but on the other hand, this means that if you’re not blessed with whatever gifts any one of these folks was blessed with, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a great innovator.

In fact, as we’ll discuss next week, doing the work is really the best way to ensure a creative life.

“Creative persons differ from one another in a variety of ways,” Csikszentmihalyi writes, “but in one respect they are unanimous: They all love what they do.”

That’s a pretty important thing, wouldn’t you say? To be able to love what you do?

Elkhonon Goldberg concurs. Even in the same field, top innovators have very different creative styles, life spans, and lifestyles. It is clear, then, that there are multiple paths to creative greatness.

Csikszentmihalyi notes that there are 3 types of people who might be considered creative:

(1) Those who are interesting and who may express unusual thoughts but who make no major contribution
(2) People who are insightful, who see the world in novel ways
(3) People who make profound, public creative achievements

The first type of person is probably your favorite backyard barbecue guest, or the person you hope is at the bar because last time you had a crazy conversation, but in all likelihood, nobody’s going to have ever really heard of them.

The second group makes me think about comics.

The third brings to mind people like Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci.

Csikszentmihalyi and his team of researches interviewed more than 100 people across fields, and identified ten dimensions of highly creative people:

  1. Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are often quiet and at rest.
  2. “Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.”
  3. Creative individuals have a “combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.”
  4. “Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end and a rooted sense of reality at the other.”
  5. “Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.”
  6. “Creative individuals are also remarkably humble and proud at the same time.”
  7. Creative individuals escape gender role stereotypes
  8. Creative people must be both traditional/conservative and rebellious
  9. Creative people are passionate about their work but objective about it, too
  10. “The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.”

Nancy Andreason also suggests a possible link between creativity and mental illness — John Nash was schizophrenic; Van Gogh and Martin Luther were depressive with bouts of mania, and lots of creative people commit suicide. Obviously, though, that one’s not prescriptive the way Csikszentmihalyi’s list is.

Let’s take a look at some creatives across fields and across time. We’re just going to pull together some commonly available biographical information and see if we can find some commonalities, particularly ones that we can emulate.

For the sake of comparison, we’re going to pick a pair of people in several fields, and then a few more outliers. See if anything stands out to you as things you can learn. It seems like the running theme is people figured out what they liked to do (usually at a young age

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart lived almost 36 years (January, 1756, through December, 1791). His dad was a composer and teacher, and the younger Mozart was sitting at his elder sister’s side watching her learn instruments by the time he was three.

He is credited with composing more than 600 works in life. He married in his mid-20s, had six children (four of whom died in childbirth), became a Freemason when he was 28 and died of an illness (we’re not really sure what) in his mid-30s.

Despite his short life, he was considered a master composer, created hundreds upon hundreds of works, and was famous both during his life and in the over 200 years since his death.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven and Mozart had a lot in common — both came from Austria, both learned instruments at a very young age, both composed hundreds of pieces.

But unlike Mozart, Beethoven had a tougher life. He relied on patronage, giving private concerts for money, and was never super-famous in his life. He lived to be 56, but says he started losing his hearing at around age 28, after he fell during a fit of rage when he was struggling with his work.

That’s some crazy writer’s block.

He kept composing of course — his most famous work, his ninth symphony, was composed in 1824; he could hear neither the orchestra playing nor the applause following its premiere.

He became way more famous after he died than he ever was alive.

Evariste Galois

Galois lived to 20 years old, died after a duel and solved a 350-year-old mathematical riddle. He united group theory and field theory. He didn’t even get into the school he wanted. He picked up a complicated math textbook at the age of 14, read it like a novel, and got his teenaged butt to work.

Carl Friedrich Gauss

Gauss, also an important figure in math, lived to 77 years old. At the age of 19 he figured out how to draw a regular 17-sided figure. He was so proud of the accomplishment he wanted one on his tombstone, but the stonemason who made the stone said no, it would just look like a circle anyway.

What did he have in common with Galois? He started working in math in his teens and kept at it. That’s it.

Nikola Tesla

Tesla lived well into his 80s, working on the order of 20 hours per day, every day, with dinner at the same time in the same place virtually every day after he emigrated to the U.S. His college wrote letters to his father saying that Tesla would probably die young from being overworked.

He registered over 300 patents, invented alternating current, demonstrated remote control, explained how wireless communication might work, helped capture power from Niagara Falls, denigrated women and adored the work of Mark Twain.

Tesla walked between 8 and 10 miles a day for exercise and showed barely any weight change for about 40 years of his adult life.

He had an eidetic memory (what some people call “photographic,” which is technically inaccurate), and for sure if he were alive today he’d be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Thomas Edison

Edison was born a couple of decades before Tesla, and Tesla admired him greatly, but only worked for him for a short time. Like Tesla, Edison registered hundreds of patents and lived into his 80s. He’s most famous for the light bulb and the phonograph — and his perseverance. He is credited with saying he never failed, he merely found 10,000 ways not to construct a filament.

Edison only went to school for a few years, was mostly taught by his mother, married twice and had six children.

Albert Einstein

Einstein was so famous during and after his life that his name is used to signify genius, both seriously and sarcastically. He was a thinker — in addition to having come up with generalized relativity, he put together a group of friends who read everything from philosophy to science to mathematics for discussion. He famously had correspondence on race with the singer Paul Robeson, and, while he suggested the U.S. do research into atomic weapons to counter the work being done in Germany ahead of WWII, he also decried the use of such weapons.

He worked for a time as a clerk in the patent office, married twice and had three children, one out of wedlock with his first wife who either was put up for adoption or died of scarlet fever. Einstein lived into his 70s.

Leonardo da Vinci

Da Vinci might be one of the last people to truly be ahead of his time. He conceived of things like helicopters and calculators and solar panels, at least in principle and design, centuries before those things were possible. His Vitruvian Man illustrated the Golden Ratio, which is related to the Fibonacci Sequence, and aligns with Vedic and Kabbalic symbols as well (see more).

His Mona Lisa might be the most famous painting ever. His Last Supper is the most reproduced religious artwork in history. And a Salvator Mundi credited to him (though it may not be his) set records for price received at auction.

He never married, and in fact was born out of wedlock in 15th century Italy. He lived into his mid-60s.

Philippe Petit

Petit is the only living person on this list (my addition). He’s 70 years old. By his count, he’s been arrested over 500 times, in various countries. He’s probably most famous for his 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, something that took months of planning, since he didn’t exactly get clearance for it. The same with his walk between towers at Notre Dame and on the Sydney Harbor

In his book Creativity: The Perfect Crime, Petit says he gets it in his head to do something, and he does whatever it takes to get it done.

He’s also an expert juggler, fencer, rock climber, equestrian rider, carpenter and bullfighter.

He’s married with one child.

So what do all these people have in common? They had various life spans, started in their fields at different times. Some were specialists, others generalists. Some were married, some not. Some were involved in political controversies. Some were disabled in their field during their lives. Some didn’t even make it into college. Some were reckless in their lives; others very conservative.

But all worked, hard and consistently. That’s the key.

Next week, we look at how to bring more creativity into your life.


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