The 10 Paradoxical Traits of Creative People, According to Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (RIP)

Despite decades of research, sci­en­tists still know lit­tle about the source of cre­ativ­i­ty. Nonethe­less, humans con­tin­ue to cre­ate things. Or, at least, we con­tin­ue to be fas­ci­nat­ed by cre­ativ­i­ty; now more than ever, it seems. There may be as many best-sell­ing books on cre­ativ­i­ty as there are on diet­ing or rela­tion­ships. The cur­rent focus on cre­ativ­i­ty isn’t always a net pos­i­tive. Any­one who does cre­ative work may be labeled a “Cre­ative” (used as a noun) at some point in their career. The term lumps all work­ing artists togeth­er, as though their work were inter­change­able deliv­er­ables mea­sured in bill­able hours. The word sug­gests that those who don’t work as “Cre­atives” have no busi­ness in the area of cre­ativ­i­ty. As psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi put it:

Not so long ago, it was accept­able to be an ama­teur poet…. Nowa­days if one does not make some mon­ey (how­ev­er piti­ful­ly lit­tle) out of writ­ing, it’s con­sid­ered to be a waste of time. It is tak­en as down­right shame­ful for a man past twen­ty to indulge in ver­si­fi­ca­tion unless he receives a check to show for it.

Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, who passed away this month, deplored the instru­men­tal­iza­tion of cre­ativ­i­ty. He wrote, Austin Kleon notes, “about the joys of being an ama­teur” — which, in its lit­er­al sense, means being a devot­ed lover. Like Carl Jung, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi believed that cre­ation pro­ceeds, in a sense, from falling in love with an activ­i­ty and los­ing our­selves in a state beyond our pre­oc­cu­pa­tions with self, oth­ers, or the past and future. He called this state “flow” and wrote a nation­al best­seller about it while found­ing the dis­ci­pline of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy and co-direct­ing the Qual­i­ty of Life Research Cen­ter at Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Uni­ver­si­ty .

You can see an ani­mat­ed sum­ma­ry of Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psy­chol­o­gy of Opti­mal Expe­ri­ence above (includ­ing a pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Csikszentmihalyi’s name). Cre­ativ­i­ty should not only refer to skills we sell to our employ­ers. It is the prac­tice of doing things that make us hap­py, not the things that make us mon­ey, whether or not those two things are the same. This is a sub­ject close to Austin Kleon’s heart. The writer and design­er has been offer­ing tips for train­ing and hon­ing cre­ativ­i­ty for years, in books like Show Your Work, a guide “not just for ‘cre­atives’!” but for any­one who wants to cre­ate. Like Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, he refutes the idea that there’s such a thing as a “cre­ative type.”

Instead, in his book Cre­ativ­i­ty: Flow and the Psy­chol­o­gy of Dis­cov­ery and Inven­tion, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi notes that peo­ple who spend their time cre­at­ing exhib­it a list of 10 “para­dox­i­cal traits.”

  1. Cre­ative peo­ple have a great deal of phys­i­cal ener­gy, but they’re also often qui­et and at rest.
  2. Cre­ative peo­ple tend to be smart yet naive at the same time.
  3. Cre­ative peo­ple com­bine play­ful­ness and dis­ci­pline, or respon­si­bil­i­ty and irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty.
  4. Cre­ative peo­ple alter­nate between imag­i­na­tion and fan­ta­sy, and a root­ed sense of real­i­ty.
  5. Cre­ative peo­ple tend to be both extro­vert­ed and intro­vert­ed.
  6. Cre­ative peo­ple are hum­ble and proud at the same time.
  7. Cre­ative peo­ple, to an extent, escape rigid gen­der role stereo­typ­ing.
  8. Cre­ative peo­ple are both rebel­lious and con­ser­v­a­tive.
  9. Most cre­ative peo­ple are very pas­sion­ate about their work, yet they can be extreme­ly objec­tive about it as well.
  10. Cre­ative people’s open­ness and sen­si­tiv­i­ty often expos­es them to suf­fer­ing and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoy­ment.

We may well be remind­ed of Walt Whitman’s “Do I con­tra­dict myself? Very well then I con­tra­dict myself,” and per­haps it is to Whit­man we should turn to resolve the para­dox. Cre­ativ­i­ty involves the will­ing­ness and courage to become “large,” the poet wrote, to get weird and messy and “con­tain mul­ti­tudes.” Maybe the best way to become a more cre­ative per­son, to lose one­self ful­ly in the act of mak­ing, is to heed Bertrand Russell’s guid­ance for fac­ing death:

[M]ake your inter­ests grad­u­al­ly wider and more imper­son­al, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increas­ing­ly merged in the uni­ver­sal life. An indi­vid­ual human exis­tence should be like a riv­er: small at first, nar­row­ly con­tained with­in its banks, and rush­ing pas­sion­ate­ly past rocks and over water­falls. Grad­u­al­ly the riv­er grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more qui­et­ly, and in the end, with­out any vis­i­ble break, they become merged in the sea… 

This elo­quent pas­sage — Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi might have agreed — express­es the very essence of cre­ative “flow.”

via Austin Kleon

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Cre­ativ­i­ty, Not Mon­ey, is the Key to Hap­pi­ness: Dis­cov­er Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s The­o­ry of “Flow”

Albert Ein­stein Tells His Son The Key to Learn­ing & Hap­pi­ness is Los­ing Your­self in Cre­ativ­i­ty (or “Find­ing Flow”)

Slavoj Žižek: What Full­fils You Cre­ative­ly Isn’t What Makes You Hap­py

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Namaya Art Rat for Peace says:

    Delight­ful sage advice and per­spec­tive

  • Esteé says:

    Fan­tas­tic info, and nec­es­sary because so many of the younger gen­er­a­tion artists are los­ing cre­ative time while on face­book etc. Fur­ther­more, the unre­al­is­tic per­cep­tions cre­at­ed by look­ing at the (selec­tive) por­tray­als of the oth­er have a very neg­a­tive impact on artis­tic per­son­al traits.
    Thanks for writ­ing about very rel­e­vant issues. Per­son­al­ly, i find the pres­ence of both intro­vert and extro­vert char­ac­ter­is­tics with­in an artist per­son­al­i­ty very inter­est­ing and help­ful!

  • Zoltán Buzády says:

    Here the most impor­tant teach­ing by Pro­fes­sor Csik­szent­mi­haly, col­league and friend. 3 mins.:

  • Zoltán Buzády says:

    Mihá­ly wad also a pio­neer in inno­v­a­tive lead­er­ship devel­op­ment tech­nol­o­gy of seri­ous gamine. He has cre­at­ed and is the own­er of FLIGBY

  • Jeff Keeney says:

    The will­ing­ness for the pli­a­bil­i­ty of the mind to explore beyond the bound­aries of under­stand­ing. These are the syn­op­tic begin­nings for cre­ativ­i­ty and the build­ing blocks for every­day activ­i­ties such as prob­lem solv­ing skills. We are all capa­ble in these mind dis­ci­plines with prac­tice. The ego of fail­ure must be sub­sided there­fore free­ing the mind for new pos­si­bil­i­ties.

  • R.C. Beltz says:


    Yours was the only response that I found cred­i­ble and insight­ful.
    As you stat­ed, every­one is cre­ative in some form or anoth­er. Some are blessed (or cursed, depend­ing on your point of view) with an abil­i­ty to access those por­tions of our intel­lect that enhance, or per­haps invade, our state of being to pro­vide unique insight that can be inter­pret­ed as cre­ativ­i­ty.

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