The Common Belief About Creativity And What Happens When We
re Unable To Access It
Many of us in western industrialised society do not believe ourselves to be creative. We assign creativity to the exalted few we see as having god-gifted natural talent. We assume that the expression of creative or artistic ability is inherent in only some of us, but not in all.
We believe that we were not bestowed the gift and therefore shouldn’t waste our time in idle pursuits. Besides, in the practical world of things, to pursue the creative life is risky and can never pay the bills.
That’s the thin script many of us have running in our minds.
So hemmed in are we by the widespread belief in our creative inadequacies, that we often lack the broadness and depth of thought required to uncover creative solutions to challenging conditions. When professional challenges arise such as job loss or financial difficulty, we feel unable to cope.
Our teachers, politicians, peers and societal conditions have so successfully conditioned us towards dependence that we fail to see the creative possibilities available in every moment. It was the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse that I came to this understanding in no uncertain terms.
My first business, which I had worked hard for 15 years to create, had failed. The climb down from the heights of my self-assigned pedestal felt impossible. I pursued material gain first and foremost and had invested my sense of self so entirely in the business that I could not separate them.
Stress and anxiety were high, and although the warning signs were there, I couldn’t see them. My rational forebrain switched off, and my emotional brain switched on, there was no access to creative solutions.
No matter how much effort I applied, no matter how much I tried to think my way out of my problems, it was impossible.
However, now as I reflect, I regret none of it.
Given that there is no better teacher than experience, there was a great personal benefit to the entire sequence of events.
“ Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t “try” to do things. You simply “must” do things.” — Ray Bradbury
The Heightened Emotional Brain & The Effects of Stress on Creativity
I believe that we human beings have an enormous ability to overcome chaotic life circumstances. Skills such as courage, grit, resilience and perseverance, utilised by a mind balanced between emotion and rationality, can provide the route to creative solutions to our problems.
At that difficult time in my business career, I could barely access those skills, and when I did, I applied them in the wrong areas.
I have since learned, that to access these skills and apply them effectively, the influence of the surface level personality, of the ego, often needs to take a back seat. But given that materialistic ideals heavily influence our ideas of what constitutes happiness, it is usually impossible for the ego to relent.
In the surface level world of material things, everything we do must have a commercial value. We externalise our goals and motivations. Our daily work must be measurable in monetary terms, and if it doesn’t stack up, then the activity is not worthwhile.
And so we trade time for money, money to buy things we don’t need in pursuit of a commercial idea of happiness that doesn’t exist.
Stress and anxiety become our close companions, keeping the damaging cortisol loop open throughout our waking hours. We find our only relief in sleep or frivolous activities that afford no complexity.
In these stressful situations, our emotional brain takes over, shutting down our ability to think rationally and objectively. The Hippocampus, that area of the brain responsible for memory and learning, cannot be accessed, and we act irrationally.
In defence of our fragile selves, we blame things and other people. We refuse to take responsibility for the results of our own decisions and actions.
Having externalised our goals and motivation for achieving them, we lack the unconscious self-assurance and creative ability required to find a way through.
“When there is stress, it is usually a sign that the ego has returned, and you are cutting yourself off from the creative power of the universe.” — Eckhart Tolle
What Happens When Rationality & Emotion Is Balanced
In a balanced state of mind, instead of seeing ourselves in opposition to the environment and our daily work, we see ourselves as part of it.
We don’t see ourselves as something alien, cast into the world against our will, left to survive a life devoid of meaning and purpose. Instead, we see ourselves as an integrated component of the process.
In this state of mind, creative work becomes us, and we become our creative work. Work becomes enjoyable and meaningful in and of itself. There is a blending of the two into one, and the process becomes a vehicle for the formation of a deeper self.
In this place, we can accept conditions for what they are and exercise patience and reserve in the face of chaos while maintaining the assuredness of right action.
“You invent for the hell of it. I don’t start with the idea; what will make money? This is a rough world; money is important. But if I have to trade between what’s fun for me and what’s money-making, I’ll take what’s fun”
— Jacob Rainbow, Inventor (from Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention)
There are no mistakes in the balanced, self-assured state of mind. Every error is an opportunity to discover. In this state, there are no conditions we can’t overcome; in many respects, there is nothing to overcome.
In the self-assured state, the ego led surface personality fades into the background, and the deeper, genuinely creative self comes forward. Now the self, the process, and the environment become indistinguishable from one another and act as one system.
This oneness with the environment, acceptance of conditions, and the application of transformational skills do not mean we will smile all the way through hell. Instead, it will allow us to come out the other side stronger and more resilient and creative, better capable of dealing with whatever life throws at us.
We develop an internalised sense of self, and we are willing to work in harmony with the environment regardless of circumstances, becoming more complex and creatively astute than before.
“You need feeling, emotion, to create. You can’t create out of indifference.” — Leo Tolstoy
The 4 Traits of The Autotelic Personality
It is perhaps impossible to define the creative personality absolutely and definitively because the self is a moving target. And although traits of the creative personality can be identified, they can shift and change dynamically depending on conditions.
However, research has uncovered certain traits of personality that appear to be consistent amongst the highest performing creative people across many domains of expertise.
The autotelic personality is detailed in the book Flow, by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and here he explains where something is autotelic, it has a purpose in and of itself.
We derive the word from the Greek; autos meaning self, and telos meaning “goal”. It is used to explain the nature of consciousness in individuals who engage in complex work for its inherent enjoyment even when the activity is potentially threatening.
The author stresses that individuals he has studied undertake their work not to provide short-term stimulation and gratification, but as a long-term, often lifetime expression of intrinsic goals.
In other words, they engage in their work for the primary purpose of personal enjoyment and challenge. Subsequently, this engagement results in the growth of the self.
The development and maintenance of the autotelic personality has been found to consist of four essential conditions.
“An autotelic experience is very different from the feelings we typically have in the course of life. So much of what we ordinarily do has no value in itself, and we do it only because we have to do it, or because we expect some future benefit from it”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
1. Goals Are Intrinsic
The ultimate aim of the self is happiness and fulfilment in the moment of Now. When we are engaged in an activity we enjoy, and we do so for the inherent challenge of becoming proficient, there comes about the natural pursuit of goals.
We should not think of goals as a linear process whereby we consciously strive step by step to reach a future version of ourselves. Instead, we should regard goal setting as the natural draw towards an inner desire to understand everything about the work with which we engage.
It is perhaps accurate then to say, development of the creative personality is a multidimensional, and often unconscious process within which we execute daily and hourly tasks.
The autotelic person sets goals on an hourly, daily, weekly basis etc. from an intrinsic rather than extrinsic perspective.
In doing so, they continually assess results, adjust their actions, and remain consistently aligned with their values. Modifications to their efforts can be made based on feedback from their observed results.
Goals are, therefore, intrinsic and self-directed.
2. Work Is Immersive
The development of an autotelic personality can be achieved in part by becoming totally immersed in our chosen work. The type of work we choose to execute is less important than the degree to which we engage with it.
For example; I have found there is enormous satisfaction and personal fulfilment in washing dishes or peeling spuds as I have from daily work that pays the bills. It is our willingness to immerse ourselves and apply a relentless focus of attention that is of primary importance.
That is not to say that we must grit our teeth and grind it out, forcing things to our will. Instead, it’s more to do with dancing or playing with the work that it is toil and laborious effort.
Level of skill does, of course, have a bearing on results. Also does expectation of our ability.
For example; if I started an apprenticeship in cabinetry in the morning, it’s unlikely I’ll be capable of creating a masterpiece by next week. I must accept that my progress will be slow for quite a while. Unrealistic expectations will invariably lead to failure and disappointment.
On the other end of the spectrum, the skilled craftsman must continually challenge himself to better standards to maintain and develop the complexity in himself.
To languish in mediocrity will eventually lead to boredom, discontent, and what Csikszentmihalyi calls, psychic entropy.
3. Attention Is Unwavering
I can’t stand the dishwasher. Instead, I like to wash dishes by hand, and when I do, I am thoroughly engaged in the process, and I enjoy the order and sequence of it all. It’s almost like a meditation.
If I am not tuned in, if I see the work as a hassle and an inconvenience, then I’m unlikely to obtain a favourable result. Dishes, cutlery, pots and pans will hardly be cleaned well.
Yes, a trivial example, but a core aspect of work done well and to exacting standards none the less. And the same applies to creative people like you and me when we engage in complex tasks.
Take a surgeon carrying out a complicated operation for example, or a photorealistic artist working on a large format pencil drawing; for both these people, heightened attention to the task at hand is critical to their successful output.
The autotelic person is capable of holding unwavering attention to the task at hand. There is no room for self-analysis, for self-consciousness.
The focus of attention on what others may be thinking or feeling about the work we do is a self-conscious action and will destroy our chances of making something great.
Therefore we must control attention. With deliberate practice, this is entirely possible to achieve.
4. Work Is Inherently Enjoyable
As you may agree, the enjoyment of our work is a crucial factor in allowing ourselves full creative expression. If we don’t enjoy the work we do, we won’t stay the pace. We won’t be able to endure challenges.
Extrinsic motivation might keep us there for a while, but it won’t last. Besides, if we don’t enjoy our daily work, what is the point? Is it not a life wasted?
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing”
— Annie Dillard
Work must also incorporate an aspect of play to satisfy the creative personality. As Dr Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute for Play states in his book, Play; How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
“Play seems to be so important for our development and survival that the impulse to play has become a biological drive”.
Play seems to prepare us for the difficult challenges of life, but when life becomes a constant difficulty devoid of enjoyment, it ceases to have meaning.
It seems that most of us regard our work as toil, and as such, we can’t wait to escape it. And when we do so on Fridays and summer holidays, we engage in activities of low complexity.
We trade time for money and largely forgo enjoyment in work for the sake of a pay packet. Most people believe work is not supposed to be fun.
However, for the autotelic person, fun and enjoyment is an essential aspect of the creative process.
Transmutation of Conditions
The autotelic self possesses the ability to transmute challenging, dull, or even life-threatening situations into activities that bring about transformative states of being.
For this creative personality type, there are no wasted experiences; they can utilise all life circumstances to their benefit.
This does not mean that undesirable conditions are accepted in defeat and hopelessness. On the contrary, the experience is used to challenge the self to uncover unique and creative means to overcome the conditions.
Autotelic individuals accept the nature of current circumstances and resolve to discover the required solutions.
They don’t scramble to be noticed by their peers or the public, and they do not regard competition as the primary reason for engagement in their work. Neither do they waste energy in ego defence, because their ego is in the background.
“The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.”
- Stuart Brown MD
The Creative Challenge
Some of us will be unable to experience the simplicity and joy of doing things for the sake of it. For we are either too self-conscious and afraid or too self-absorbed and narcissistic.
In this fearful state of mind, then, our daily work is all about evoking a response from others. Too materially absorbed, our focus is only on personal profit, and authentic creative expression is impossible.
Perhaps not an ultimately determining factor, however, the autotelic personality may come about as a result of upbringing. A stable childhood environment and the freedom to explore opportunities without parental expectation may provide a suitable ground for the development of autotelic personality in children.
Although some creative people develop an autotelic personality in childhood, this does not exclude those who have not from developing the traits of autotelic personality later.
“Why have I stressed professionalism so heavily? Because the most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying” — Steven Pressfield
Regardless, it may be true that we over-analyse ourselves. Questioning ourselves, probing, keeping ourselves from our work. Whereas, all that may be required is to engage in the work, to go to the place that curiosity takes us.
In all our creative endeavours, there will be work that needs to be done, and it will be difficult. But what is life without challenges?
It’s supposed to be that way despite our often unwillingness to face it.
So best to go where you’re drawn, go deep into it, create meaning, and give yourself a purpose.
We only get one go at this as far as I know.
Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. You’ll find me on The Creative Mind too. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters