What makes a creative personality? It’s a question that continues to be hotly debated by some of the greatest minds of our time. From a social perspective, we often jump to romantic stereotypes when defining a creative person – the tortured soul, the sensation seeker, the impulsive and uninhibited, or the downright maverick (Plucker, 2012). However research indicates that a creative personality is the property of a far more complex system, indefinable by any single answer (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). To enhance our understanding of creative personalities, this week’s reading explored psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ten dimensions of complexity – a set of “contrasting personality traits that may be the most telling characteristics of creative people” (Creativity: Flow and The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, 1996). Each example plays central to Csikszentmihalyi’s theory that a creative individual will house an internalized system of conflicting traits. In turn can these ten dimensions bare any resemblance or responsibility for the stereotypes we place upon creative people? More importantly can they enhance our understanding of the correlation between mental illness and creativity?
Following the recent loss of comic genius Robin Williams, it feels almost tributary to write a blog that explores creative personality as well as its relation to mental illness. While many commentators may be willing to link Williams’ creativity to his lifelong battle with depression, it is important that we also attribute his creativity to where it probably best belongs – to his playfulness, intelligence, physical energy, and insight into the human condition that few people have (Grohol, 2014). While we can’t say for certain whether Williams’ creativity was due, at least in part, to his mental illness, we can explore the notion that creative individuals are prone to a greater sense of suffering and pain. From a historical perspective, it often seems the most renowned creatives have followed the same tragic path of Williams, a “lengthy list that includes painters, poets, writers, musicians and designers – Vincent van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, and Alexander McQueen” (Puente, 2014). As psychoanalyst Barry Panter claims, “when artists are dealing with unconscious emotional issues, that creates great pressure inside, and they use their art to deal with those issues […] it’s a way of externalizing their pain, hoping to gain control and even mastery over it” (Creativity & Madness: Psychological Studies of Art and Artists, 1995). Expanding upon this statement we can also explore Csikszentmihalyi’s tenth dimension of complexity – “openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great enjoyment” (p.73, 1996). Perhaps it was this contrasting personality trait that led poor Robin Williams to briefly endure that “lonely moment of morbid certainty” (Brand, 2014) like so many other creative personalities before him.
Expanding upon this week’s reading of creative personality, there were several other key dimensions of complexity that particularly stood out. This included creative persons alternating between imagination and a rooted sense of reality, as well as feeling very passionate about their work, yet extremely objective at the same time. Both pairs of contrasting personality traits presented information that enhanced my understanding of creativity. In particular the latter dimension related to a complex and personal balance of passion and objectivity held towards my creative works. As Csikszentmihalyi explains, “without the passion, we soon lose interest in a difficult task […] yet without being objective about it, our work is not very good and lacks credibility” (p.72, 1996). From a personal perspective it is not uncommon to find myself objective as well as passionate towards my own work, enabling me to safely accept criticism or response. To elaborate Csikszentmihalyi notes in his 1996 article for Psychology Today that creative people “show tendencies of thought and action that contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an “individual”, each of them is a “multitude” (Kaufman, 2011). Like the late Robin Williams, this statement can often apply to the great contradictions of performers, caught between a world of extroverted entertainment and a desperate need for downtime and reflection.
Despite this week’s reading presenting a feasible list of characteristics found in creative people (p.76, 1996), it’s possible to argue that anyone can still relate to one of Csikszentmihalyi’s ten dimensions of complexity. From a social perspective, we could explore this notion by examining individuals that suffer from mental illness and a lack of creativity but still identify with Csikszentmihalyi’s tenth dimension – openness and sensitivity will often expose them to suffering and pain yet also a great enjoyment. After all, as leading psychologist Jeffrey Bornestein explains, “we should put to rest the myth that in order to be a creative genius, one must also be mentally ill […] up to 15-20% of the population could be classified as HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) […] and with or without creativity, anyone can still be open and sensitive […] making us more vulnerable to conditions such as anxiety and depression, or any genetic conditions inherent within our families” (Puente, 2014). In contrast, the shocking suicide of Robin Williams presented another creative personality that had the gift of enhancing the lives of others, yet struggled to handle their own. Perhaps we can only hope that losing another creative giant will stimulate broader research into the inner workings of creative minds, and a more public conversation about mental illness, helping to mitigate the stigma behind the disease. As aptly stated by John Grohol, founder and CEO of Psych Central, “his gifts to the world will be sorely missed, regardless of exactly where they came from” (Robin Williams: Creativity & Mental Illness, 2014). Here’s to Robin Williams, a real genie of creativity.
- Brand, R. (2014). The Guardian. Russell Brand: Robin Williams’ divine madness will no longer disrupt the sadness of the world. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/12/russell-brand-robin-williams-divine-madness-broken-world
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). The Creative Personality. Creativity: Flow and The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (pp. 51-76). New York: Harper Collins
- Grohol, J. M. (2014). PsychCentral. Robin Williams, Creativity & Mental Illness. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/08/13/robin-williams-creativity-mental-illness/
- Kaufman, S. B. (2011). The Huffington Post. After the Show: The Many Faces of the Performer. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-barry-kaufman/creative-people_b_829563.html
- The Huffington Post Canada (2014). Genie, you’re free [Image]. Retrieved 18 August 2014 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/08/11/robin-williams-evan-rachel-wood-genie-tweet_n_5670277.html
- Panter, B. (1995). Creativity & Madness: Psychological Studies of Art and Artists (pp. 170-175). New York: A I M E D
- Plucker, J. A. (2012). Duke TIP. Myths, Legends, and Creativity. https://tip.duke.edu/node/610
- Puente, M. (2014). USA Today. Robin Williams: A link between genius, mental illness? http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2014/08/13/robin-williams-is-there-a-link-between-genius-and-mental-illness/14016255/
- YouTube. Robin Williams, Parkinson  (Uploaded Aug 22, 2008). Retrieved August 18, 2014 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPz6JKGlzSI