What do you think when you hear the word “creativity”? Truth be told, creativity is having a bit of a moment. There are thousands of books on the subject, many written in the past decade. It’s become a corporate buzzword, right up there with “innovation” and “disruption.” It’s at the center of a whole lifestyle movement: online classes and Facebook groups and real-life meetups. There are creativity coaches, of course, and gurus, offering to rearrange your life to add more creative spice. So we here at Freakonomics Radio got to thinking: with so many people spending so much time and money and energy in pursuit of this thing called “creativity” — well, we wondered if there’s anything systematic to be learned about it? What if we started by simply defining the term. We asked a bunch of academics who study creativity, as well as some artists, musicians, scientists, and inventors: how do you define creativity?
Charlan NEMETH: You know, it’s actually harder than one might think.
Pat BROWN: Well, people use that word in lots of different ways to mean lots of different things.
Saul PERLMUTTER: There’s a huge amount of what goes under the heading of “creativity” that just has to do with a willingness to stick to a problem and a pleasure in it.
John HODGMAN: So, starting with nothing, having an idea, letting the idea pull you forward, getting it down, making it right.
Pat BROWN: “Okay, bingo, this is how we’re going to do it.”
Teresa AMABILE: It can’t just be different for the sake of being different, because that’s the definition of madness, I guess.
Teresa Amabile is a psychologist and a professor emerita at the Harvard Business School. She’s spent her career studying creativity, particularly in education and work settings. But I asked her: how is it even possible to empirically study something as diffuse as creativity?
AMABILE: Many people have the sense that it should not be studied scientifically, that you should not try to apply science and objective thinking to the magic of creativity, that it’s somehow in the spiritual realm. As you might guess, I don’t take that approach. I think that it can be studied scientifically without destroying the excitement and the sense of magic about creativity.
For economists, the concern hasn’t been about preserving the magic of creativity; they generally avoid the topic because it seems so touchy-feely.
David GALENSON: There’s sort of two questions: why do economists care? And the answer is economists really haven’t cared about creativity.
David Galenson is an economist at the University of Chicago. He does care: his central research interest is the life cycles of human creativity.
GALENSON: Why should they care? The single most important problem for the discipline of economics is economic growth. Why are some countries rich and others poor? And virtually all economists agree that the single most important source of economic growth in the long run, what really makes a country rich, is technological change. Well, technological change is just a lot of people making discoveries. So, it would seem to be a very big question, how do people make innovations?
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Among the scholars who study creativity, there is no real consensus on who has it or even exactly what it is.
Charlan NEMETH: I was just looking recently and reminded of that old fable that if you have people blindfolded, looking at an elephant…
Charlan Nemeth is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley who studies entrepreneurs and creative scientists.
NEMETH: …and one of them is looking at the tail, he thinks it’s a snail he’s touching. And if you have someone approaching it from the side, he thinks it’s a wall. And it’s just a reminder, in a way, that what you focus on, to some extent, determines how you think creativity works. In many ways, it’s a very difficult, and still to some extent mysterious phenomenon. So if you get somebody studying it in business innovation, for example, separate from studying Nobel laureates, or separate from looking at it in experimental tasks, for example, in a lab. So it’s very hard to compare those because they use different definitions of the end product as being creative or not.
But you’ve got to start somewhere. And that’s why Teresa Amabile starts with a basic definition that’s accepted within the field of psychology.
AMABILE: We identify creativity as, essentially, novelty that works. It has to be somehow feasible, workable, valuable, appropriate to a goal. And it gets a little squidgy when we’re talking about the arts. What does “appropriate” or “valuable” mean in the arts? But I think even there, pure novelty just for the sake of novelty isn’t really going to do it. It has to be somehow expressive of something that the artist was trying to convey or evocative of a response that the artist was trying to evoke.
“Novelty that works.” I think that’s a great starting point. What if we run that definition past a creative type — Michael Bierut for instance. Bierut is a world-renowned, much-awarded graphic designer: you’ve seen his logos; his work is in museums. How does he like defining creativity as “novelty that works”?
Michael BIERUT: Yeah. I mean there’s this famous formulation by the 20th-century designer Raymond Loewy who designed the Lucky Strike package and the livery of Air Force One among other things. He used — he had this four-letter formulation: M.A.Y.A.: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. And it was based on his theory that everyone has these two impulses. And one is the desire for regularity and comfort, and the other one is the quest for surprise and novelty, right? If you have too much regularity and comfort, you get bored. If you get too much surprise and novelty, you get overexcited, wired, and distracted and exhausted. It’s the idea that it’s novelty with a purpose — that purpose is the element that actually is about expectation and expectations fulfilled. And the novelty part of it is the idea that those expectations might be fulfilled in a way that you haven’t seen before.
It turns out that psychologists have come up with a way to test our ability to produce “novelty that works.” Charlan Nemeth again:
NEMETH: It’s called the “Uses Test.” Basically, if I ask you to give me all the uses you can for a brick, you could say that you could build a house, you could build a factory, and you could build a road. And that’d be three ideas, but they’re all basically building. A more creative answer would be that you could build a house, you could use it as a platform to hold a cup of coffee, you could use it as a missile to throw through someone’s window as protest. And other tests of creativity all have that element to it: they see if the mind tends to go wide and down different routes and that it can even make connections through circuitous ways of getting there.
That’s one way to measure someone’s degree of creative thinking. But how about studying creativity the other way around — starting with people that everyone agrees are wildly creative? That’s the route chosen by Dean Simonton. He is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis.
Dean SIMONTON: I wanted to study creativity and genius and leadership, but I wanted to do it in a way that was different than what most psychologists did. Because most psychologists, they study, really, college undergraduates who happen to be taking a Psych 1 class. And they have to volunteer to participate. And those are not the people I wanted to study. And so I had to figure out a way of studying people like Michelangelo or Beethoven or Einstein when I couldn’t get them to come to my laboratory — particularly since most of them were deceased, which made it kind of awkward. So, I started developing various ways of studying genius at a distance, measuring their personality, measuring their intelligence, looking at their childhood and adolescence, the nature of their career.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Did you have a pretty smooth path through academia then, to become a Ph.D.?
SIMONTON: Oh no, I had a lot of times where I had to struggle. For example, when I decided I wanted to study real creators, and real geniuses, instead of college students, I had a hell of a time trying to put together a thesis committee. Because not everybody thought that that was even a legitimate form of doing psychological research.
DUBNER: Because why?
SIMONTON: Because at that time, and it is still the case — in fact, in many ways, it’s even more true — the laboratory is considered to be the acme of science, having a lab in which you collect your data. And in the case of psychology, a lab means a place where, for the most part, you bring in college students to study. Something about 86 percent of all research in psychology is based on college undergraduates.
DUBNER: That’s a very very narrow cohort, not just age-wise but also background-wise and IQ-wise and all that, it’s pretty homogenous. What about just the fact that even good lab experiments, forget about all the bad ones, that it doesn’t really represent the real world well enough, especially in the realm of psychology, but also economics, I would say. Was that a concern for you as well, or no?
SIMONTON: Oh yeah, it was definitely. To me, there’s a distinction that is made between what’s called internal validity and external validity. And internal validity has to do with the power of making causal inferences from your research, and laboratory experiments are really really great in internal validity. But external validity is — does it really tell you anything about what’s happening in the real world? What often happens when you want to study something in the lab that is actually in the real world, you do a simulation. But you have no way of knowing whether or not that simulation actually represents what happens out there. For example, I wanted to find out what were the social, cultural circumstances that were responsible for why, in some periods you have golden ages with lots of geniuses, and other times you have dark ages, where it’s really hard to find anybody who even knows what they’re talking about. Right?
DUBNER: How do you do that in a lab?
SIMONTON: How do you do that? I wanted to look at the impact of war. I wanted to look at the impact of having role models in your field when you’re growing up. I wanted to look at the impact of the political system, whether you had a lot of independent states or whether it was a big one unified empire. And those are things you just can’t study in the laboratory. You can’t say, “Hey, imagine you’re growing up in the Middle Ages, and how creative do you feel?”
So how did Simonton go about studying this incredible range of factors?
SIMONTON: Well actually the story goes back to elementary school, believe it or not. When I was in kindergarten, my kindergarten teacher came to our house and told my parents — I came from a working-class background, in fact, my dad didn’t graduate from high school. And they said, if you want your son to do well in school, you need a set of encyclopedias, World Book Encyclopedias, and that it would really help him. And these books are designed from K-12 and very useful for writing term papers, and all that kind of stuff.
DUBNER: Those were expensive. That was a big deal.
SIMONTON: Yeah. That was expensive. It was an amazing purchase for them to make. And I started browsing through them. And one thing that is characteristic of the World Book, is they have lots of pictures. And I saw lots of pictures of strange-looking people, people with beards, people with long hair, people of different ethnicities, periods, whatever. And I wondered, how did they get in that? How did they get their entry?
DUBNER: Ooooh, yeah.
SIMONTON: Why were they so important? And particularly since I realized my parents didn’t have entries, my elementary school teachers didn’t have entries, I was always curious about just how you become eminent enough to end up in an encyclopedia, or just have someone write a biography of you.
DUBNER: Was it — envy is not the word I’m looking for. Did you want to belong to that tribe, and you were trying to figure out how to get there? Or you were more curious about who were these people and where did they come from?
SIMONTON: Well, it was a combination. I wouldn’t say it was envy, but it was curiosity about how they got there, and could I be in that group? Do I have what it takes?
DUBNER: And what do you have to do to get it there?
SIMONTON: Yeah. And what do you have to do? What’s the process? And is it something that you can develop as well?
Simonton learned to pay attention to all the details in the biographies he was reading.
SIMONTON: And it would talk about where they came from. Sometimes it would mention their birth order. Sometimes it would talk about their education and maybe some of the struggles they went through, and then their career. And then histories also have a lot of information about what’s going on externally, whether or not there’re any wars going on, whether or not there was a dictatorship or a democratic government. There’s also information having to do with personality, like this person was introverted or this person was extroverted. We know, for example, that Newton had a lot of characteristics that suggest that he was a high-functioning autistic. And he was very, very introverted. And we can see that from his behavior, as well as having some paranoid psychosis attached.
DUBNER: So, let me ask you the really obvious question. When you study people like Michelangelo and Beethoven and Einstein, who, I think most people would agree, were pretty good at what they did, and maybe all the way up to creative genius. Obvious question, what did you discover about creativity and genius? I guess, what do they have in common?
SIMONTON: Well, first of all, I have to say that artists and scientists are not equivalent to geniuses. But they also have things that they do share. They are all very intelligent in a general-intelligence way. Not necessarily in terms of taking an IQ test, but they’re very sharp. They love what they’re doing. They’re absolutely committed to doing what they’re doing. They want to spend their whole life discovering the nature of the universe or creating incredible paintings on the ceiling, or whatever it happens to be, and they are willing to overcome all sorts of obstacles and all sorts of struggles.
Like Michelangelo and the agony and the ecstasy scenario: even though he was recognized very early as a genius, he had constant struggles. And he often had major projects terminated, like with Pope Julius II. And it’s not easy to be a genius. All of them, whether they’re scientists or whether they’re artists, have that tremendous drive and commitment and determination to keep on going, even when they’re failing and failing and failing.
At this point, you may be starting to think: well, what Simonton’s describing sounds an awful lot like what’s known as the 10,000-hour rule of excellence.
SIMONTON: In our research, we call it the 10-year rule. There’s a little arithmetic that makes them equivalent, 10,000 hours equals 10 years. But, in any case, that is absolutely unquestionable, that you have to establish an expertise and — you have to know what you’re doing. You have to have the tools of the trade. Now, sometimes people enter fields where there’s really not that much to learn because they’re brand-new fields. When Galileo, for example, invented his telescope and pointed to the skies and saw all these things that are not supposed to be there — there weren’t supposed to be mountains on the moon. There weren’t supposed to be moons circulating around Jupiter. There weren’t supposed to be spots on the sun, and so forth and so on. He was creating a domain from scratch. So, he didn’t have to spend ten years learning something that was already obsolete. He was inventing his own field.
DUBNER: So being first is always a good idea.
SIMONTON: Yeah, if you want to avoid all the hard work of studying, just be the first in a given domain.
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This is the first episode in a new, recurring series about creativity — which, for empirically-minded people like us, is a notoriously squishy topic. The psychologist Teresa Amabile again:
AMABILE: So there are a few myths about creativity that are very popular.
So let’s at least clear up a few myths, shall we? First off, when most of us think about creativity, we focus on the arts — music and film, the visual arts, writing, and so on. Maybe you also think of a scientist or a researcher in the lab, thinking up experiments to test a new hypothesis. That’s all understandable since these are people who make a living through their creativity. But Amabile thinks that view of creativity doesn’t go nearly far enough.
AMABILE: Creativity is possible in all realms of human activity. If we define creativity as doing something novel that works, that is valuable in some way, it’s absolutely possible in everything that humans do.
One of my favorite examples of creative thinking outside the arts is the story of John Snow, the English doctor who’s considered one of the pioneers of epidemiology. In mid-19th-century London, Snow was trying to identify the source of cholera outbreaks. Many doctors thought it was spread by “miasma,” or “bad air.” Snow thought it maybe had to do with germs in the water supply. Using maps, statistics, and common sense, Snow identified one pump whose contaminated water had caused nearly 200 deaths in a single outbreak of cholera. Over the ensuing centuries, Snow’s breakthrough would help save countless lives. And that strikes me as a deeply creative act.
Seth GORDON: Yeah, I think that’s right. That’s an example of profound creativity that isn’t artistic or artistic with a capital A.
That’s the filmmaker Seth Gordon. He grew up with two social scientists as parents; now he directs big Hollywood films and also makes lots of TV shows and smart documentaries.
GORDON: I think actually the most creative discipline I’ve ever witnessed in person is probably coding. Because you’re creating the language that you then employ to make something happen. That is profoundly creative. And whether that’s for making a game or whether that’s creating a program or whether that’s — I mean, in a way maybe the most creative thing I’m aware of in the last 10 or 15 years is the Stuxnet virus.
He’s referring to the computer virus, generally thought to be created by American and Israeli programmers, which in 2010 attacked Iran’s nuclear program.
GORDON: That thing is unbelievable, like what it was, what it did, and how it accomplished it. But I don’t think anyone would call that creative in any normal sense. It’s bad, right? But it’s making something that never existed before and tricked everyone for a very long time. It’s amazing.
Creating computer code that can shut down your enemy’s nuclear centrifuges — yes, I can see how that’s creative. Some people see a lot of creativity in sports. Here’s Dana Gioia, the poet laureate of California and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Dana GIOIA: I don’t like sports, but you’ve got to admire the energy, creativity, and innovation that goes into sports. And it’s very similar to arts. It’s a way of focusing human energy to create these symbolic encounters, which have enormous emotional resonance to audiences. So, I think it’s a mistake always to talk about the arts about being about artists. The arts are also about audience. It’s about community, it’s about this conversation between the creator and the receiver.
Margaret GELLER: I mean, what I think what one of the things people don’t understand is that everyday people are creative.
That’s the astrophysicist Margaret Geller, who in her everyday work pioneered the mapping of matter in the universe.
GELLER: You go in the kitchen to make dinner. You put a different spice in the dish. That’s creative. You’re planting your garden, you make a new flower arrangement — it doesn’t have to be a big thing to be creative.
Maybe not, but some practitioners of the creative arts — the humorist John Hodgman, for instance — do draw a line.
John HODGMAN: I would make a small distinction. It’s sort of the distinction between being a stand-up comic versus being an actor. When you are cooking, you’re following a recipe. When you’re acting, you’re following a script and direction. Those are arts, to be sure, but they’re interpretive arts, rather than purely creative arts, where you are solely, or in collaboration, responsible for creating something out of nothing. Developing a recipe or inventing a new kind of Afghan pattern or whatever it is. If you’re following a direction, right, that is an interpretive art, of which many people become craftspeople and masters, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s just enjoyable in and of itself.
It may be enjoyable, but as Hodgman sees it, true creativity occupies a higher realm. Teresa Amabile takes a more inclusive approach.
AMABILE: One of my favorite things to do when I’m talking to managers is say, “Okay everyone, what do you most want creativity in your organizations?” They yell out, “R&D, marketing, advertising!” Great, great, great, great. “Okay, so is there anywhere in your organization where you do not want creativity?” Somebody will yell out “accounting” and then everybody laughs. And people say, “Well, you think of ‘creative accounting,’ you think of Enron, you think of all these examples of cooking the books.” Yeah, yeah, right. That’s funny. And yes, we want to avoid that kind of creative accounting. But then I ask them, “Is it true that you don’t want people in your accounting department to think about what they do creatively ever?” Then I give the example of my colleague Robert Kaplan coming up with activity-based costing many years ago and how that was a true creative breakthrough in accounting.
But in a time when everyone is encouraged to be creative — are there downsides to that? Especially if there’s not attention to go around?
SIMONTON: Can I give you one example?
Dean Simonton again:
SIMONTON: This just happened recently, and it happened near where I live, so it’s even more prominent. We had someone who walked into the YouTube headquarters and started shooting people up because she thought that they were stifling her creativity, that she had some creativity via video uploads that was not reaching the largest possible audience. I have never seen any of her videos, and you have to know Farsi to understand most of them. But the point is that she thought it was worth killing people because her creativity was being stifled. I think she would have been better off just becoming an accountant or something, rather than trying to be a creative.
And there’s the other issue here. We live in a society where we are inundated with creativity. It is so easy to put yourself up there. You can start your own blog. You can upload your paintings. You can upload your music. You can do all that. In earlier times, you had gatekeepers. You actually had to have a patron who was willing to pay for your marble for your sculpture.
DUBNER: You sound like you’re, for the most part, not in favor of this total democratization of creativity.
SIMONTON: I don’t really care. But I mean if someone is happy being a Sunday afternoon painter, by all means, do it. Just don’t give it to your relatives and force them to find some spot in the living room to hang it up.
DUBNER: When I hear that phrase, “creative genius,” and we do hear it a lot, I sometimes wonder if it’s a little bit of an unfortunate pairing. In that, people who are not geniuses don’t feel they have the permission therefore to be creative.
SIMONTON: Well, creativity and genius are separate topics, and there are many examples of geniuses who were not particularly creative. And on the other side, there’s a lot of creative people out there, a lot of creativity. There are people who are just phenomenally witty in conversations at parties. There are people who can put together an amazing recipe from just random scraps of stuff available in the pantry. And that all counts as creativity.
DUBNER: If you personally had to pick that you could only be good at one, would you be very creative or a genius?
SIMONTON: I would probably pick being creative, because I think being creative is much more fun than just being a mere genius. What do you do as a mere genius? You wallow in your genius-hood?
That’s not to say that genius doesn’t exist, or that certified geniuses haven’t come up with some pretty amazing things.
Walter ISAACSON: Well, I do think that there are certain geniuses that truly can make mental leaps the rest of us can’t.
That’s Walter Isaacson, who teaches history at Tulane and has written several best-selling biographies of big, big thinkers.
ISAACSON: That could be the way Einstein understood, after a while, that time is relative depending on your state of motion. This is something no physicist had ever even really thought of. But likewise, you can have a genius just in ordinary things. When Steve Jobs figured out the iPod and how to have it be a simple, sleek, personal product that would put a thousand songs in your pocket — in its own small way, that was a leap of genius as well.
On the other hand, there are some people, widely considered to be creative geniuses …
Elvis COSTELLO: Hello, I’m Elvis Costello.
… a songwriter, for instance, whose melodies and lyrics are practically beyond belief …
Music: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
COSTELLO: That’s a pretty good compliment.
DUBNER: I think everyone who knows your music, including me, would consider you an extraordinarily creative person. You’re the kind of person that people use the phrase “creative genius” on.
COSTELLO: That’s really crazy. I don’t really think in terms of definitions like a name tag, but if you actually asked me I say I was a worker of a kind. I work at what I do. And then there might be moments of inspiration that visit you unexpectedly.
DUBNER: Can you give, can you give an example.
COSTELLO: Any song arriving is a mysterious sort of thing. I mean, it can range from carrying around a phrase in a notebook for four years before it joins up with some other thoughts, or a line of melody that seems to bring it to life and allows you to represent something that you want to share with people. Or a song can just appear, the whole thing, the words and music. Time stops and —
DUBNER: Really, that’s happened?
COSTELLO: Oh yeah.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether Elvis Costello belongs on the creative-genius list. In any case: there’s one characteristic that we almost universally associate with such people: they’re tortured. Either they burn so bright that they flame out early and die young, or they spend long lives wracked by schizophrenia or depression or at least garden-variety neurosis. Maybe the most famous, most defining example of this is Vincent van Gogh, with his nervous breakdowns and self-mutilation, and eventual suicide. Dean Simonton has looked at the incidence of mental illness in creative types through the ages. And there is a correlation between creativity and mental illness. But it depends on the kind of creativity you’re talking about.
SIMONTON: There’s a relationship between how much constraint the creative genius has to operate under, and their tendency towards mental illness. A scientist operates under a lot of constraints. A scientist has to come up with theories that are consistent with the facts. It has to be logically coherent. It has to fit in with what previous scientists have been doing, and so forth. And, in our culture, artists don’t operate that way. Particularly since the Romantic period — anything goes. But there are times and places where the arts have extremely high constraints imposed on them. Japanese haiku, for example, is a very constrained form. You have a certain number of syllables to work with. You also have a certain number of themes that are considered to be more appropriate for haiku.
So what’s interesting is that as you get into domains that are very very constrained, mental illness tends to be very rare. And then, if you go into more and more unconstrained forms of expression, then you also do it at risk of having more mental illness, as well as having all sorts of horrible experiences in childhood or adolescence. And there’s a study published on this, where you can compare Nobel prizes in physics with Nobel Prizes in literature, and they’re not cut from the same cloth at all.
DUBNER: I think if you look at American winners in literature — most of them were alcoholics, right?
SIMONTON: Yeah, alcoholics. They often dropped out of school. They had tremendous ups and downs in their education, if they even finished formal education. Whereas the physicists came from perfect family backgrounds, professional families. Nothing happened. Nobody died.
DUBNER: Excellence in physics is building within a domain that must be mastered first, and that requires a certain set of resources and skills and an ability to color within the lines. Yes?
SIMONTON: And you’re expected to stay within the box. Because the box actually defines what is science.
DUBNER: So interesting.
SIMONTON: I mean, I published an article in Nature a few years ago. But they wrote their own title, and they made it deliberately provocative. They said, “After Einstein, Genius Is Extinct.” Woah! And immediately I got inundated with all sorts of mail, e-mails mostly, from people, some of whom agreed with me.
DUBNER: And did you take credit for writing the headline in those cases where they agree?
SIMONTON: Yeah, right. But others wrote and said, “What about me?” And they said, “I’m a genius and I’m after Einstein. In fact, I’ve actually disproven everything that Einstein got credit for and I’m still waiting to get my Nobel Prize.” And they’ll publish this stuff on the web, usually their own personal website. And you look at it, and it violates all the constraints of science. I mean, a basic thing is, you have to obey high school algebra, for example. I know that seems really obsessive, but you have to obey high-school algebra.
DUBNER: Well I mean, we’re laughing about it, but on the other hand in language, let’s say, right? You can break language, you can go way outside the bounds of formal English or any other language, and it can be considered poetry. But I cede that science is a different ballpark.
SIMONTON: And in the case of poetry, it’s actually astonishing how far you can push the edge. Like Ezra Pound, for example, really pushing the edge of intelligibility.
Simonton looked at the prevalence of mental illness in different types of creative people. Visual artists and writers were on the high end of the scale, with poets the most pronounced: 87 percent of them experience some kind of mental disorder. How does that compare to the general population? According to one widely accepted study, around 46 percent of Americans experience some sort of mental disorder during their lifetimes. So artists and writers are considerably higher than average. But: Simonton found that scientists have a considerably lower tendency for a mental disorder: only around 28 percent. And if you include all creative types in the tally, Simonton found that they have lower rates of mental illness than non-creative people. Creative behavior is in fact often a marker for good mental health. So if you’re looking for some magic formula for the relationship between creativity and mental illness …
ISAACSON: I don’t think there’s one formula for that.
Walter Isaacson again.
ISAACSON: Ben Franklin was a happy, well-adjusted kid — even though he was a runaway from his brother, who tried to keep him as an apprentice. Leonardo da Vinci was pretty tortured, had all sorts of manic periods of his life where he was both depressed and elated. Somebody like Einstein, deeply focused. Steve Jobs had both demons and angels inside of his head. So I don’t think you can make one blanket pattern, to say creative people have some special mental challenges or abilities.
Let’s go back to Vincent van Gogh, who’s arguably the model of the tortured artist. There have been many posthumous attempts to diagnose Van Gogh; among the theories: manic depression, schizophrenia, and epilepsy. Many people, when they look at the fantastical swirls and the vibrant yellows and blues in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” see a picture of madness itself. But what if the arrow is moving in the opposite direction? Consider this: Van Gogh was in and out of hospitals during the final years of his life. It’s very likely that his doctors treated his epilepsy with digitalis, an extract of the foxglove plant. He even made a painting of one of his doctors posing with sprigs of foxglove. Well, one of the side-effects of digitalis? The color yellow overwhelms other shades, and swirly halos can appear around objects. So it may be that Van Gogh’s paintings were more influenced by the cure than the disease. Or maybe not. It’s impossible to know, in part because our understanding of the mind has changed so much since then. Some recent research suggests that highly creative people often have what’s called “cognitive disinhibition”— basically, they lack the filter that keeps you from getting sensory overload just by walking down the street. Which means they’re constantly being pinged by random stimuli; in theory, this could help you notice things that most people ignore. Cognitive disinhibition, not surprisingly, is also associated with mental illnesses like schizophrenia So it would seem that the line between pathology and creativity, at least in some cases, can be quite fine.
Jennifer EGAN: There are a lot of parallels between fiction writing and being schizophrenic.
That’s Jennifer Egan.
EGAN: And I’m a novelist and a journalist.
Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her 2010 novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. Her brother Graham was an artist who had schizophrenia and died by suicide in 2016.
EGAN: He heard voices all the time, but it wasn’t the way I hear voices — although he was a very funny guy.
DUBNER: Joked with you that you got paid for it and he was tormented by it?
EGAN: Exactly. He heard voices intrusively as if there were a radio on in his head. And it really kept him from being able to concentrate. His voices would speak to him in very cruel ways, and that made it very hard for him to function. It just boggles the mind to think about what that would really be day in and day out. He was in his own private war all the time and you could really see it. I mean he looked like he’d just come back from a tour of Iraq. He was drawn, and he would be exhausted. So in that way, I don’t have any of that to deal with. I feel so lucky that my brain mostly seems to work as it should. Talk about a gift. I mean a lot of people don’t have that.
DUBNER: Do you feel that the cliché throughout history of the mentally tortured artist, do you think it’s overblown?
EGAN: I don’t know. I guess it’s probably not. I mean it’s easy to romanticize that vision but that that romantic picture comes from somewhere and I am lucky enough to be on a fairly even keel, but I’ve also had a lot of therapy. I mean we have advantages now in terms of mental health that people didn’t have 100 years ago or really even 50 years ago. I mean even now honestly if my brother were a young man now becoming symptomatic for the first time he would have options that he didn’t have then. Maybe artists don’t have to live that way now in the way that they did.
DUBNER: A lot of people worry that if they need treatment including medication, a lot of creative people worry that it will kill their creativity, change their creativity, change the way they think about things.
EGAN: Well, I would tend to think that it’s the opposite, that that the craziness is actually getting in the way of the creativity more than fueling it. I mean in my brother’s case, it was so stark. I mean he was stark raving mad without medication. Absolutely out of his mind. And with medication, he still heard voices all the time, but he basically understood that they weren’t real. So for him, it was the choice between having some kind of a life and having absolutely no life. So I guess I really resist the romanticization of mental illness. Virginia Woolf on medication, if I had to guess and of course I have no way of knowing, would have done all the wonderful things she did and not committed suicide and been able to do more.
So one thing we can say about creativity is that the connection between it and mental illness is far more nuanced than the stereotype. As is the case with most stereotypes. But what about the more general stereotype of the highly creative person — essentially, the idea they are a select few? The idea that perhaps they’re simply born that way — and that we muggles should content ourselves with admiring their output, perhaps envying it a bit — but that we should generally just keep out of their way. Is that really the best way to think about creativity? Or should we all strive to be creative? That’s a question we put to everyone we’ve been interviewing for this series. Here’s Teresa Amabile, who’s spent her career studying the topic.
AMABILE: Should we all strive to be creative? Yes, we should because doing things differently in ways that work is the only way that human progress happens.
All right then! Who’s not in favor of human progress? Which means that all of us — in our way, on some dimension — have reason to sharpen our creative abilities. So how do we do this? That will be one of the preoccupations of this series. But don’t expect easy answers.
SIMONTON: Too many people want a one-size-fits-all. “What do I need to do to be creative?” And I’m afraid there’s no one-size-fits-all.
That’s Dean Simonton; and here’s Walter Isaacson:
ISAACSON: I do resist the type of books that say, “Seven easy lessons to being creative,” or, “The 14 secrets to innovative leadership.” I don’t think you can distill everything into a list like that, which is why it’s useful to read the biographies of different people.
Let’s put aside for the moment that Isaacson has written biographies of people like Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci; I don’t think he’s just trying to sell more books here.
ISAACSON: The leadership skills of a Benjamin Franklin came from bringing people together, finding common ground, and being very civil in his discourse when he tried to create compromises necessary to make the Constitution. That was very different from the leadership style of a Steve Jobs, who drove people crazy, but also drove them to do things they didn’t know they’d be able to do. So I think it’s useful to look at different creative leaders and then, after you have done so, look inside yourself and to say, “I’m better off being more like Ben Franklin, or I’m better off being more like Leonardo da Vinci, trying to mix art and science. Or I’m better off being like Steve Jobs, driving a team crazy but driving them to do things they didn’t know they could do.” And you can understand your own skills by comparing them to what great innovators and creative people have done in the past.
All right, that makes sense. Given the vagaries of our topic, it also makes sense to address it both systematically and individually, interviewing creativity scholars as well as lots of creatives themselves — sound good?
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Stephanie Tam and Matt Frassica. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rosalsky, Greg Rippin, Alvin Melathe, Harry Huggins, and Zack Lapinski. The music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Teresa Amabile, psychologist and professor emerita at the Harvard Business School.
- Michael Bierut, graphic designer.
- Elvis Costello, musician, singer, songwriter, and composer.
- Jennifer Egan, novelist and journalist.
- David Galenson, economist at the University of Chicago.
- Margaret Geller, astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
- Dana Gioia, poet laureate of California and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
- Seth Gordon, filmmaker.
- John Hodgman, humorist.
- Walter Isaacson, biographer and professor of history at Tulane University.
- Charlan Nemeth, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
- Dean Simonton, professor emeritus of psychology at University of California, Davis.
- “Vincent van Gogh’s yellow vision,” Anna Gruener (2013).
- “Are Genius and Madness Related? Contemporary Answers to an Ancient Question,” Dean Simonton, Psychiatric Times (2005).
- “Scientific genius is extinct,” Dean Simonton, Nature (2013).
- “Creativity and chronic disease Vincent van Gogh,” Paul Wolf (2001)
- A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Knopf 2010).