For ten days I’m writing about what it really takes to be Highly Creative and whether greater opportunities make for greater Creativity. Yesterday, I wrote Walking Into the Unknown, in the Dark.
Highly Creative people are passionate on many levels and they bring it all– their passions, their knowledge, their observations, their entire lives, to the Creation table.
Some are lucky enough to grow up in an intellectually rich environment and they grow up surrounded by passion for life and learning.
As a child, British theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey ran around his family’s huge house and its gardens with his four siblings, two orphaned cousins, fifteen other cousins who lived within walking distance and many friends, including the young Stephen Hawkings. Humphrey’s mother, a psychiatrist who worked with Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, and his father–a Peace activist and Nobel Laureate who also directed the National Institute for Medical Research, where he did seminal research on antibody formation, ran a busy household. Humphrey says,
We went around in droves and stayed with one another in nearly unmanageable numbers.
But the major event of each week was the visit to my maternal grandparents, the Hills. The company at these Sunday parties usually spanned three and sometimes four generations, with my grandfather’s colleagues and students invited to sit down with his offsprings’ offspring–high chairs on one side, wheelchairs sometimes on the other.
As children, we lived and breathed science.
The guests at Humphrey’s grandparents were all scientists. His aunts, uncles and both of his grandfathers were also all scientists.
When the children finished their tea, they would be excused and sent out to play in the acres of land surrounding the mansion. Humphrey says,
My grandfather would not neglect us for long. Almost every week he devised some new game or experiment: frog races, archery, kite-flying, or perhaps, if the weather was bad, a magic lantern show. On one memorable occasion, he produced a sheep’s head acquired from the butcher, and placing it on the kitchen table (to the cook’s great distress), he dissected it in front of us.
Humphrey grew up with a sense of intellectual entitlement. He could ask anything, provoke, pry and go where he pleased in his pursuit of knowledge. Humphrey says,
To be a good scientist surely requires such audacity. How else dare anyone do what a scientist is required to do: to challenge Nature to undress before one’s eyes?
Yet, Humphrey thinks all this privilege could have a downside. He did nor have to struggle to become a scientist.
I have never experienced any real surprise or sense of achievement at having made it.
I wonder whether, in the end, having been born to be a scientist has not undercut my right to call myself a scientist at all.
Of his grandfathers, both first generation scientists, Humphrey says,
The passion they put into their work was the passion of scientists who daily counted their blessings for being allowed to do science–and who were determined to pay a debt with single-minded dedication.
In order to have passion, you must be exposed to something worth being passionate about. Humphrey had plenty of exposure on the wonders of science. He did wonder and stand in awe of Nature, but such passion was handed down to him, and so he felt not quite worthy.
Other Highly Creative people are lucky enough to have parents who support them wholeheartedly in much smaller, but immensely meaningful ways.
Rodney Brooks, founder of iRobot and Director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, grew up as the star-child in his Australian working class family. He says,
My father and mother had ninth- and tenth-grade educations…none of their friends had finished high school either.
But Brooks could manipulate numbers in his head at a young age. He says.
I had an obsession with the regularity of arithmetic.
When his parents built a carport next to the house, some extra backyard space was freed up and Brook’s father built one bench each for his two children so they could tinker with wires and other extras he had left over from his telephone repair business.
Brooks’ parents could not give him their passion for inventing, because they did not have it themselves to give. But they gave him space, some materials, lots of time to try things out and a book titled Giant Electronic Brains. which described the binary system and how computers could outperform an abacus expert doing arithmetic. Brook’s energy for Creative work and passion grew with time spent on doing what he loved to do as a child– inventing and tinkering with wires and numbers.
Creativity scholar Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says,
Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy…they work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm.
This does not mean that Creative persons are hyperactive, always “on”, constantly churning away. In fact they often take rests and sleep a lot. The important thing is that the energy is under their own control.
The first enemies of Creation are apathy and satisfaction with the status quo, but the biggest is the lack of ability to focus your energy towards Creation.
A good friend of mine grew up in a home where perfection was expected of her and her siblings in every area of life and achievement. She remembers a constant sub-clinical fear of not being good enough but also not knowing what good enough could ever be. Several months ago she began attending Al-Anon meetings, which are groups where relatives of alcoholics or other addicts, including “clean” addictions, like perfectionism meet to support each other towards healing. When I asked her what she was getting out of her Al-Alon group time, she gave me a bookmark with some of the core Al-Anon sayings like the following three I picked out:
- Just for today: I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests: hurry and indecision.
- Just for today: I will have a quiet half hour all by myself and relax. During this half hour, sometime, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.
- Just for today: I will be unafraid. I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.
When I read my friend’s bookmark, I realized some of the Al-Anon sayings describe how Highly Creative people find ways to Create, no matter whether they grew up well supported or not.
Ivan Pavlov, famous for his dog experiments wrote in his final testament:
Remember that science demands from a man all his life. If you had two lives, that would be not enough for you. Be passionate in your work and your searchings.
Passion for Creative pursuits is built by giving to that work you love–everything you have, regardless of your opportunities. Sometimes your grow into a life that respects Creative work, like some grow up in emotionally healthy families. But not all Highly Creative people are so lucky. Those that do not have their pasts on their side teach themselves to harness everything they have for Creation, just like a child of an alcoholic teaches himself to live a healthy life.