The Paradoxes of Creativity: Sensitive Rockers, Mindful Daydreamers, and Celebrated Outcasts

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

In their new book, Wired to Create, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and author Carolyn Gregoire explore the contradictions of creativity. Creativity is never one thing or another, they find. It isn’t clean, it’s messy.

“How are we to make sense of the complex creative process and personality?” they ask. “It starts with embracing a very messy set of contradictions.”

I recently sat down with Scott Barry Kaufman to discuss a few of the contradictions of creativity—highly sensitive rock musicians, mindful daydreamers, and society’s love of and bias against creativity.   

Evan Nesterak: One of the most interesting contradictions of creativity is that of performers who seem wildly extroverted on stage, but are actually highly sensitive people. What’s going on here?

Scott Barry Kaufman: There’s research, mostly conducted by Elaine Aron, showing that people differ in how highly sensitive they are, how highly reactive they are to the environment, [and] how much they deeply process new information in their environment. While there are a lot of [introverts] who are deeply sensitive, there are also a lot of extroverts who are deeply sensitive. What you find is that in creative performers particularly, they can seem extremely extroverted on stage when they’re performing, but then after the performance, in their daily lives, they can seem extremely sensitive too and even introverted. So there is [often] a contrast there between the onstage persona of people and their own personalities offstage. 

EN: Along these lines, Jennifer Grimes conducted a study of rock musicians at Ozzfest. What did she find?

SBK: She went to Ozzfest and went backstage afterwards and interviewed the heavy metal musicians about their personality and their life. A lot of them reported being very highly sensitive, being highly sensitive to lights and sounds, which is crazy considering what you just saw them do on stage. A lot of them describe themselves as introverts. Rock musicians could be considered some of the most extroverted performers on this planet so they’re dealing with those dualities and she was trying to understand that. When you’re very sensitive and process deeply, new sounds and sights, when channeled into a focused way that you’re in control of, it can be hugely creative. But that same sensitivity could become overwhelming in daily life.

EN: Can you describe the paradox of mindfulness versus mind wandering in the creative person?

SBK: We argue for a middle way in the book, between being completely present in the moment and thinking about the future and imagining other possibilities. We have this constant toggle between the two and creative people have honed their skills for both I think. They are able, ideally, to be mindful but also keep their imagination on call. I don’t think creativity comes solely from a mindful state and creativity doesn’t come solely from our associations. It comes from the unique combination of the two.

EN: In your book, you review research on posttraumatic growth and how adversity can turn into advantage. How can a seemingly terrible experience turn into something that actually helps an individual grow?

SBK: It’s not the experience itself that turns into anything. It’s our interpretation of the meaning of the experience and what we kind of place our value on those kinds of experiences. If you only value positive experiences in life or value happiness and pleasure you’re probably going to do very little growth in your life. You’ll always just be seeking the same sort of predictable things that give us pleasure. But if we instead even seek out even challenging experiences that maybe make us see the world a different way or shatter our assumptions about the way the world works, we find that it can lead to [a] renewed sense of purpose in life. It can lead to greater creative growth. There is this emerging field posttraumatic growth showing that trauma can lead to growth, but it doesn’t automatically lead to growth. It matters how you interpret these events and the kind of attitude you have towards disadvantaging opportunities.

EN: In your book, you write about how we celebrate a creative achievement once it’s gone mainstream, but in the moment we’re often very cynical of the creative process and creative people. Can you describe this bias against creativity?

SBK: We have a bias against original ideas that challenge our assumptions of the world. We’re not that open to it. Especially in school, if you’re a teacher, you don’t want kids who are being disruptive. It’s frustrating from a teacher’s perspective. We view disruptive as challenging our authority. However, once a child does think [differently], or an adult thinks differently, and calls something into being that never existed before that has great utility to you, then all of a sudden [you say] wow this is valuable to me so now I’m going to pay attention. You say wow this is really genius. Then we value and laud the creativity of the person.

EN: How would you foster more creativity?

SBK: I think that we can put systems in place that reward creative thinking. We reward the one correct answer on a standardized test. Why don’t we reward responses that generate multiple possibilities? It really wouldn’t be that hard. It is a matter of agreeing as a society that we value this skill set, which is increasingly happening.

EN: What is something about creativity that you think gets overlooked?

SBK: That it’s more than just getting messy on the canvas or finger painting and arts and crafts. That it’s a way of life. It’s a whole set of skills that we can cultivate and that has to do with how we relate to our world on a daily basis and minute by minute basis. It’s something we can be, not something we necessarily do.

Disclosure: Scott Barry Kaufman and Evan Nesterak are colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center.