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The Nature of Creativity and The Courage to Create

The following is a transcript of this video.

Referring to one of the most creative individuals of all time, Sigmund Freud wrote:

“The great Leonardo remained like a child for the whole of his life…Even as an adult he continued to play, and this is why he often appeared uncanny and incomprehensible to his contemporaries.” (Sigmund Freud)

For a creative genius like Leonardo da Vinci to have been described like this by Freud is not surprising given the remarkable creative capacity of children.

Most people, unlike da Vinci, lose these traits which promote creativity as they grow older. However, as those who have studied creativity have learned, there are ways to promote creativity even in those who view themselves as uncreative.

In this video we will look into the nature of the creative process, and explore ideas on how to stimulate creativity in order to live a more fulfilling life.

The creative process begins when an idea of something to create emerges in one’s mind. Whether it be it a book, a painting, a song, a software program or a business, one often becomes overwhelmed with a sense of euphoria and motivation when they first start thinking of what they could create.

Yet for many, this initial stage in the creative process is also the last. As the euphoria wears off, self-doubt and resistance sets in as one questions whether they are even capable of such an achievement.

“The poem in the head is always perfect.”, wrote the American poet Stanley Kunitz, “Resistance begins when you try to convert it into language.”

Speaking of the paralyzing effects of resistance, Steven Pressfield wrote:

“Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.” (The War of Art, Steven Pressfield)

Self-doubt and resistance, even for creative geniuses, is a normal part of the creative process.

While deterring the majority of individuals from cultivating their creativeness, creative individuals are those with the courage to proceed and the strength to overcome resistance, in spite of their self-doubt.

Creative individuals also display a remarkable ability to not only tolerate ambiguity and anxiety, but to accept and even embrace it.

One of the foremost authorities on the psychology of creativity in the 20th century, Frank Barron, designed an experiment which displayed the extraordinary ability of creative individuals to embrace uncertainty, chaos, and anxiety.

In his experiment Barron showed Rorschach cards to two groups: a control group, and a group composed of individuals judged to be exceptionally creative by their peers. Some of the cards had ordered symmetrical inkblot designs, some had chaotic and disordered designs. While the control group preferred the symmetrical cards, those in the creative group favored the chaotic designs.

The conclusion of this experiment, that creative individuals prefer ambiguity and chaos to order and symmetry, validates an age old idea. When things are too stable and rigid, there is no room for creativity.

This is perhaps why many creative individuals tend to be considered psychologically unstable, yet do not wish to do away with their inner instability. They recognize their internal chaos to be essential to their creativity – it is the fuel which propels them to impose order on their world in the form of highly creative works.

“You must have chaos within you”, wrote Nietzsche, “to give birth to a dancing star.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Creativity requires a deep involvement and obsession with one’s work. It is becoming increasingly accepted that it is not as much natural talent that leads to creativity, but the ability to become absorbed in one’s work for an extended period of time.

In the words of Rollo May:

“Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved, and so on, are used commonly to describe the state of the artist or scientist when creating or even the child at play. By whatever name one calls it, genuine creativity is characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.” (The Courage to Create, Rollo May)

It is interesting to note that while deep absorption in one’s work is essential for the cultivation of creativity, it is often when one takes a break from their task that the proverbial light-bulb moments strike.

Mozart claimed that entire symphonies would arise pre-formed in his mind when travelling, going for an afternoon walk, or lying in bed.

“Whence and how they come”, he wrote, “I know not; nor can I force them.” (Mozart)

While Mozart didn’t understand where these spontaneous visions emerged from, countless highly creative individuals have proposed that they arise in the unconscious dimensions of the mind.

The English poet Shelley wrote:

“One after another the greatest writers, poets, and artists confirm the fact that their work comes to them from beyond the threshold of consciousness.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

This explains why so many creative individuals have had breakthroughs appear to them in their dreams, and how the German polymath Goethe could say of his famous novel The Sorrows of Young Werther:

“I wrote the book almost unconsciously, like a somnambulist, and was amazed when I realized what I had done.” (Goethe)

Henri Poincare, the famous French mathematician responsible for countless discoveries, observed a regular pattern which preceded his groundbreaking illuminations. This pattern has been confirmed by countless others, and can be used by anyone to generate creative solutions to a problem or task one is grappling with.

In his essay “Mathematical Creation”, Poincare wrote that creative solutions to problems can be stimulated by alternating between periods of intense work and times of rest and relaxation, in which attention is diverted away from the task at hand.

During periods of intense work questions are fed to the unconscious, setting it in motion on the problem, while times of rest and relaxation provide a period of release from conscious tension, allowing unconscious insights to manifest themselves in the conscious mind.

Poincare concluded that the “appearance of sudden illumination”, arising during times of rest or diversion from work, was “a manifest sign of long, unconscious work.”

The philosopher Bertrand Russell echoed a similar sentiment, and used the technique advocated by Poincare to assist him in his writing. In his words:

“I have found, for example, that, if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity – the greatest intensity of which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done.” (Bertrand Russell)

For many today cultivating one’s creativity is seen as a luxury, or a hobby one engages in during one’s spare time. This is unfortunate for two reasons. Firstly, as Abraham Maslow believed, developing a deep creative capacity is necessary to achieve genuine psychological health. And secondly, as noted by Robert Greene in his book Mastery, engaging in creative work is one of the most pleasurable and satisfying endeavors possible for human beings:

“We are all in search of feeling more connected to reality…We indulge in drugs or alcohol, or engage in dangerous sports or risky behavior, just to wake ourselves up from the sleep of our daily existence and feel a heightened sense of connection to reality. In the end, however, the most satisfying and powerful way to feel this connection is through creative activity. Engaged in the creative process we feel more alive than ever, because we are making something and not merely consuming, masters of the small reality we create.” (Mastery, Robert Greene)

Further Readings