What Makes a Creative Person? — Mark McGuinness | Creative Coach (2022)

Liz Strauss sparked a heated debate recently with her post 10 Reasons Creative Folks Drive Us Crazy, with some people (mistakenly) interpreting her as meaning that “creative folks” are somehow different in kind to the rest of us. I made a half-baked comment on one of her follow-ups, and she suggested I turn it into a blog post – so this is my attempt at the slightly-more-baked version, with thanks to Liz for the prompt.

It’s a question that comes up for me quite often in relation to my work, when people ask me why I focus on coaching creative professionals – after all, isn’t everyone creative? So aren’t I being restrictive by working with the “creatives”? To which I answer: Yes of course they are; and No I’m not. To explain why, let’s look at the concept of the “creative person”.

We can probably all recognise the classic image of the artist or creative person – a Romantic, wilful, sensitive, temperamental, tortured soul, a perpetual outsider with a mysterious and misunderstood talent. A bit like a cross between Lord Byron and Vincent Van Gogh.

What Makes a Creative Person? — Mark McGuinness | Creative Coach (1)

The trouble is, it’s not true. However appealing the image might be to some artists and the makers of biopics, there are many creative people who don’t fit the stereotype. Even among the poets, some of the most obvious candidates for the mantle of the incurable Romantic, we find quite a few actively resisting the image. W.H. Auden called himself “an incurable Classic”, and his friend and fellow-poet Louis MacNeice wrote:

(Video) Lessons For 21st Century Creatives with Mark McGuinness

Why hold that poets are so sensitive?
A thickskinned grasping lot who filch and eavesdrop,
Who enjoy ourselves at other men’s expense,
Who, legislators or not, ourselves are lawless,
We do not need your indulgence, much less your pity,
With fewer qualms, we have rather more common sense
Than your Common Man (‘To the Public’)

Philip Larkin produced perhaps the most memorable anti-Romantic poetic manifesto, by saying “deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth”. Yet if some artists resist the stereotype, there are still plenty of people, particularly in the Creative Industries, who are keen to perpetuate the idea that there is something special about the “creative personality” that sets it apart from other mortals, and makes creatives either social misfits or mysterious geniuses – or both.

This attitude gets short shrift from Robert Weisberg in his book Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, where he debunks the idea of the creative genius by arguing that attempts to define the creative personality have met with failure. Similarly, in Creativity – Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi admits that he started out as a creativity researcher by trying to identify the common personality traits of creative individuals – but later abandoned the attempt, concluding that there is no fixed ‘creative type’. The closest he could get was “complexity”, as described in Liz’s post, meaning that creative people often combine very different and seemingly incompatible traits. (E.g. a friend once told me she didn’t understand how I could both like football “and write such sensitive poems” – to which I answered, of course, that it’s because I like football that I can write such sensitive poems.)

One area of psychological research on creativity that has produced some positive results is motivation. Theresa Amabile’s research has shown that there is a strong correlation between creative performance and “intrinsic motivation” – i.e. when someone is working on a creative task for its own intrinsic interest they are likely to demonstrate more creativity than if they are pursuing the task in order to achieve an extrinsic reward, like money, fame or promotion. She quotes the American poet Anne Sexton:

Anne Sexton told her agent that, although she would love to make a great deal of money from her books, she knew that she had to forget all about that while actually writing her poems

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Weisberg and Csikszentmihalyi similarly emphasise the importance of motivation or determination in creative performance. A key element of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of creative flow is that this kind of peak performance is “autotelic”, meaning it is enjoyable for its own sake. So one way of defining the ‘creative person’ is simply someone who enjoys creativity and therefore does a lot of it.

So if the special “creative person” is a myth, why do I focus on working with creatives? Having worked with professional artists and creatives for over 10 years, as well as with many other types of client, I would say there are basically three differences between them and many other people.

1. They think of themselves as “creative”. I’ve come across many people who are perfectly capable of coming up with original ideas – but who keep blocking themselves by saying “I’m not creative”. Even when it is pointed out to them that they have done creative things, they resist the label, and clearly feel uncomfortable with it. The “creatives” on the other hand, are quite happy to think of themselves as creative, and don’t create this kind of internal obstacle to their natural creativity.

2. They love doing creative work. Because they enjoy creative work more than most people, they spend more time doing it. Which means they get better at it. Which means they enjoy it more. Which means they do more of it… and so on. This is not to say they don’t enjoy money, status, recognition or other rewards, but these are not as important to them as the pleasure of creativity itself.

3. They put themselves in an environment where creativity is encouraged. I once ran a seminar and set a group of managers the task of finding the “second right answer” to a question (based on Roger von Oech’s excellent creativity book A Whack on the Side of the Head). A couple of minutes into the activity, I noticed they were looking very uncomfortable. When I asked them what was wrong, they said it felt very unsafe, as they were constantly told by senior management that mistakes were unacceptable and they had to get things “right”. No wonder their creativity was inhibited! Creative types on the other hand, gravitate to situations where creativity is not only encouraged but expected of them – art schools, ad agencies, design studios, artists’ quarters, writer’s colonies, film sets and ‘clusters’ of creative businesses. By surrounding themselves with others engaged in creative work, they immerse themselves in the latest ideas and developments in their field – and some of that creativity rubs off.

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These three factors help them develop their raw creative talent into accomplished skills. This is not to deny that some of us are naturally “gifted” with more talent than others, but this is a matter of degree rather than kind – and talent is nothing unless you put it to work.

How you can be a more creative person
So what are the implications for someone who wants to be more creative, either as a professional or keen amateur? It boils down to doing these three things:

1. Assume you are creative. Don’t worry about labelling yourself a creative or uncreative person. Just assume that creativity is humanly possible, and you are a human, therefore it’s possible for you.

2. Follow your heart. Your passion for creativity is your guide to developing your talent. When your curiosity is aroused, when you feel yourself becoming absorbed, fascinated and excited by a creative task – that’s your talent telling you you’re getting warm – it’s saying “Do more of this”. Creativity can be hard work, and it requires dedication and commitment to keep going, but if you apply yourself and follow your heart, sooner or later you will taste creative flow, at the point where your motivation, talent and experience blend together.

3. Hang around with creative people. Get involved. Go to work in somewhere creativity is encouraged; go to readings, galleries and concerts; attend classes and stay behind for a drink and a chat with the other students; read books; read magazines and offer to write for them; hook into online communities via blogs, mailing lists and and discussion boards. Whatever your chosen medium, soak it up by hanging out with the people who are doing it. Get familiar with the whole of your chosen field, its history as well as its present – that way you have a chance of contributing to its future.

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So back to the original questions – I hope I’ve shown that I’m not putting labels or restrictions on people. Anyone can be creative, provided they do these three things.

And why do I work with creative professionals? Partly it’s a matter of personal taste – I’m a writer myself and love working with people with a similar passion for creativity. If you’re going to spend a lot of time coaching others to do something, I think you should have experience of it yourself.

The other reason is that the “creatives” don’t put any limits on their creativity, which makes them very exciting to work with. They are not essentially any different from other people, but they are doing the three things listed above, consistently – which means they are enjoying their work more and producing better and better creative results, working towards the possibility of creating something extraordinary.

And if you want to, so can you.

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