What does the most comprehensive study of geniuses tell us about creativity?


For his book Creativity, noted professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did interviews with 91 groundbreaking individuals across a number of disciplines, including 14 Nobel Prize winners.

In 50 Psychology Classics Tom Butler-Bowdon sums up many of Csikszentmihalyi’s findings. Here are some highlights:

  • The idea of the tortured creative person is largely a myth. Most of his respondents were very happy with their lives and their creative output.
  • Successful creative people tend to have two things in abundance, curiosity and drive. They are absolutely fascinated by their subject, and while others may be more brilliant, their sheer desire for accomplishment is the decisive factor.
  • Creative people take their intuition seriously, looking for patterns where others see confusion, and are able to make connections between discrete areas of knowledge.
  • Creative people are often seen as arrogant, but this is usually because they want to devote most of their attention to their exciting work.
  • Though creative people can be creative anywhere, they gravitate to centers where their interests can be satisfied more easily, where they can meet like-minded people, and where their work can be appreciated.
  • Beautiful or inspiring environments are better at helping people to be more creative thinkers than giving them a seminar on “creativity.”
  • School does not seem to have had a great effect on many famous creative people, and even in college they were often not stars. Many people later considered geniuses were not particularly remarkable as children, what they always had more than others was curiosity.
  • Most fell into one of two family categories: They were poor or disadvantaged, but their parents nevertheless pushed them to educational or career attainment, or they grew up in families of intellectuals, researchers, professionals, writers, musicians, and so on. Only 10 percent were middle class. The lesson: To be a powerfully creative adult, it is best to be brought up in a family that values intellectual endeavor, not one that celebrates middle-class comfort.
  • It is a myth that there is one “creative personality.” Something all creative people seem to share is complexity — they “tend to bring the entire range of human possibilities within themselves.”

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