Csikszentmihalyi and the Creative Personality

Creativity lies at the core of our capacity to grow and even to survive as individuals and as a species. Without creativity we cannot resolve and implement solutions to the adversities that threaten to overwhelm us on a daily basis.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, one of the most interesting and challenging psychologists of the late 20th century, explored the creative process and the creative personality from the perspective of individuals who redefined their respective intellectual domains. These individuals embody Creativity with a capital "C" because of the extraordinary scope and impact of their work, as opposed to the creativity with a lower-case "c" of ordinary people.

In Ceativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi presents a kind of bilateral  model of the Creative Personality. At the core of the Creative individual, Csikszentmihalyi sees a suite of complementary traits. The tension, interplay, and integration of these traits drive the Creative process. Most of us embody one trait from each pair. The profoundly Creative person exhibits both traits from each pair in their lives and work.

The following diagram illustrates the trait pairs identified by Csikszentmihalyi.

The specific pairs from Csikszentmihalyi are somewhat arbitrary. One could list other pairs of complementary and potentially contradictory traits. The key point is that the highly Creative individual exhibits and at some level integrates both sets of characteristics.

In reflecting on Csikszentmihalyi's model, I see a number of interesting implications:

  • Acceptance of the Different in Individuals: The Creative individual is different (though not in a bizarre way). The combination of seemingly contradictory characteristics is unusual, but the resulting insights from the interplay of those differences are crucial to solving difficult problems in our individual and collective lives.
  • Value of Diversity in Organizations: Csikszentmihalyi concentrates on individual Creativity. However, the different, i.e. diversity, is also valuable in our organizational lives. The respectful interchange of diverse knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal qualities can lead our organizations to innovative transformations and solutions. In a sense, what's good for the individual is also good for the group.
  • The Cost of Creativity: It takes an enormous amount of psychological energy to balance and integrate the opposing traits at the center of the Creative Personality. Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist who also studies Creativity (with a capital "C"), finds that highly Creative individuals tend to experience mood disorders more frequently than the controls in her research (see www.nancyandreasen.com/id2.html). Perhaps, there is a link between the Creative Personality of Csikszentmihalyi and the mood disorder tendencies of Andreasen. Perhaps, at some point, the highly Creative individual's energy to balance the internal forces runs down, and the individual slips into anxiety, depression, or other mood condition.

The balancing act of Creativity drives innovation in us as individuals and as a society, but that Creativity sometimes emerges at a heavy price.

- Mike Genevro