Creative Contradictions #1

My nephew Phillip is extremely creative.  His father, Brian, wonders if that’s why he moved his family here to Nashville a few years ago – not so Brian and I could work together, but so I could help interpret Phillip to him and reassure him on a regular basis that Phillip’s completely normal.  For a creative person.

Creative people are weird complex.  So this series is my attempt to explain us to anyone having to work or live with us.  Each statement is laid out as a contradiction.  I’m borrowing heavily from researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People but putting him in my own words.  It’s more creative that way.

Keep in mind that these are generalities, which means they won’t be true all the time for everyone.

1. Energetic and reserved. Creatives aren’t lazy.  We were built with two modes: work and idle.  It’s important essential for a creative person to spend time in both.

When doing something they’re passionate about (something creative) creatives can focus and work feverishly for long hours at a time, forgetting to eat or go to the bathroom, sometimes staying up late, toiling long after every sane person has gone to bed.  This is the work mode and it’s taxing even when it doesn’t look it would be.  It may seem like I’m merely sitting at my computer typing, but what’s happening in my head is more than one fast-paced conversation (we’ll get to that later).  It may look like I’m just painting or singing leisurely but my emotions and thoughts are thick, consuming every bit of my attention.  Sometimes I look like I’m doing nothing at all, just sitting, but in my head a problem and a million solutions are being turned and examined from every perspective. It’s not hard work by any means, but it’s intense and isolating – I’m truly incapable of being fully present and fully involved with everything and everyone around me.

Thus the need for an idle mode.  Without idle mode we’d have no relationships or much of a life.  Creative people intuitively manage their creative energy by expending very little energy between creative sprints (or marathons).  Some creatives sleep a lot.  Others golf or eat or find some other way to relax.  I shut my computer, ban music from being played in the house (hearing music sets off a work mode in my head), and just play with my kids or sit under a tree with my wife, or go for a drive alone.

Here’s the kicker though.  I can’t always control my modes.  I may be on a date with my wife, for instance.  She’s talking to me about the movie we just saw.  We’re laughing, having a great time.  And all of a sudden, something she says sparks an idea.  Seconds later a complete melody is playing in my mind, buzzing in my brain louder than the world around me. I don’t hear her anymore.  I want to, but I can’t.  I have to find a pen and something to write on or call our home phone and leave this melody on the answering machine in hopes that making a record of the idea will appease it for the next hour at least so I can get on with my life.

If you live with a creative person…

  • Remember the importance of both modes and allow time for each, within reason, without harming yourself or others.
  • Remember that our hand isn’t always able to reach the switch – we’re often as annoyed with us as you are when there’s a mode change.
  • When mode changes without warning, especially if we’re young and new to all this, we can feel out of control. Planning a break and setting goals helps control the modes.
  • Did any of this help?