Why Creative People Are Often Considered Odd

Attention is a finite resource, and as such, creative people don’t have too much to spare. Here’s why this can be a problem

black and white image of a weird clown for article by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

Attention is a finite resource, and as such, creative people don’t have too much to spare. Here’s why this can be a problem

When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author, contacted management consultant Peter Drucker in the mid-90s requesting his participation in a study of creativity, he received a decline from Drucker delivered as follows;

“I am greatly honoured and flattered by your kind letter of February 14th for I have admired you and your work for many years, and I have learned much from it. But my dear professor Csikszentmihalyi, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions. I am told I am creative — I don’t know what that means…I just keep on plodding. I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe, whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours. Productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”

Attention appears to be a finite resource, at least in our current stage of evolution. Peter Drucker recognised this and responded in kind to Csikszentmihalyi’s request.

In his study of creativity, Csikszentmihalyi received a little over fifty per cent positive response from scientists contacted and less than thirty per cent from artists, musicians and writers. Ninety-one eminent creatively successful people from broad domains took part from an original shortlist of several hundred.

“Learn to manage your time. The secret is not to do the five million things that do not need to be done and will never be missed.” — Peter Drucker, Management Consultant

The point here is that many of those approached for inclusion in the study chose, for whatever reason, to continue working rather than give up time to an inquiry into their creative process. They perhaps valued time working above indulgence in activities that didn’t contribute to that work.

Csikszentmihalyi recognises this and agrees there is only so much information we can gather and process at any given moment. For example, we can’t eat a meal, shower and study for a biology exam at the same time. You might give it a go, but things are likely to get messy.

He also suggests that domains continue to be divided and subdivided, making a broad knowledge of many fields impossible. As knowledge fragments and takes a diversity of paths, there’s just not enough scope of attention in any single person to know all there is to know. Therefore, Csikszentmihalyi says specialisation is inevitable.

How To Focus The Lens of Attention To Nurture Creative Expertise
Choosing between a deep and narrow creative focus or a broad and shallow one can lead to obscurity or creative success…medium.com

The choice between focusing attention in one area and spreading it thinly between several feels like the analogy of broad-and-shallow versus narrow-and-deep. And it seems that to achieve creative success, we must be prepared to go deep and make sacrifices.

My boys who are 12 and 13, for example, play several sports; Gaelic football, hurling and rugby. For now, playing several sports helps them develop a broad set of basic skills. But at some point, they will need to sacrifice some of their interests if they want to develop the necessary expertise and go on to achieve some sporting success.

In doing so, in taking the narrow and deep approach, there is perhaps the promise of standing out from the rest of the pack. But there is also the risk of being perceived odd by everyone else.

Experts generally go to a level where others are not prepared to go. As such, they can be perceived and weird, arrogant, selfish and even ruthless. However, Csikszentmihalyi says that this is not an aspect of the character or personality of the creative person, but rather traits that everyone else attributes to them. These attributions are based on our expectations and perceptions and not what is inherent in the creative person.

Highly creative people can focus intently at the surrender of everything else vying for their attention. They tend to be introverted, comfortable in their own skin and have little desire for applause. Broad appeal is not necessarily attractive to them, and so they are good at ignoring you and me.

Consequently, onlookers can misunderstand the nature of their intent. We call them arrogant, rude or insensitive when the opposite is often the case.

Csikszentmihalyi has found in his four-year study of creativity that creative people he studied were the exact opposite of how the public perceives them. He says creative people tend to be sensitive and caring.

“It is practically impossible to learn a domain deeply enough to make a change in it without dedicating all of one’s attention to it and thereby appearing to be arrogant, selfish and ruthless to those who believe they have a right to the creative person’s attention” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Psychologist

The bottom line here is that whatever work we decide to do, to discover what nobody else has discovered, we must be prepared to go where there is no one. Creative expertise demands it.

It’s lonely there, and others will invariably make assumptions about our character, but we must be prepared to take the flack. Besides, since when do the opinions of other matter?

The second we make other people’s views count we dilute our work and quit being creative.

Mentors matter, but generally their opinions are not sharp and judgemental of our character. Views of mentors are invited and are usually helpful to the creative process.

Critics are the ones to be ignored.

Look, if you want to find out who you are and bring it to the fore in all its glory, you must decide to go it alone for long periods. Other things that don’t contribute to the work at hand must be ignored.

As performance artist Marina Abramovic said;

“Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do.”

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. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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