#34 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 4          April 1993

Personalities of Creative People
by Gary A. Davis, Ph.D.

Dr. Davis, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is author of Creativity is Forever (3rd ed., 1992), Kendall/Hunt Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa.

As an R&D manager, your job is to get the most from the people with creative potential.  That's never simple, but the more you know about the abilities and personality traits of creative people, the easier it will be. 

Creative Ability

Creative people are typically at least above average in intelligence, but not necessarily extraordinarily so; other factors are as important as their IQ—especially the ability to visualize, imagine, and make mental transformations.  A creative person looks at one thing, and sees modifications, new combinations, or new applications.  For example, a creative product developer for a candy company, wandering through a supermarket's fruit aisle, will visualize new candy flavors, sizes, shapes and even audiences.  A designer of educational software strolling through a video arcade might imagine combining two or three games into an effective drill-and-practice spelling game.

Analogical thinking is central to creativity.  The creative person "makes connections" between one situation and another, between the problem at hand and similar situations.

Another important talent for creative problem solving is the ability to think logically while evaluating facts and implementing decisions.  Sometimes it is even necessary to “find order in chaos.”  For example, a creative supervisor grappling with high absenteeism and turnover might go beyond employees' superficial excuses to discover that the true problem is repetitious, meaningless work, and that the best cure is job rotations, modest profit-sharing, or giving workers a greater understanding of how the task fits into the company and the community.

Creative Personality Traits

"Creativity" is not just a collection of intellectual abilities.  It is also a personality type, a way of thinking and living.  Although creative people tend to be unconventional, they share common traits.  For example, creative thinkers are confident, independent, and risk-taking.  They are perceptive and have good intuition.  They display flexible, original thinking.  They dare to differ, make waves, challenge traditions, and bend a few rules.

Like all of us, creative people make mistakes, and they subject themselves to embarrassment and humiliation.  They must be willing to fail.  Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, even recommended that one route to success was to "double your failure rate."

One particularly common trait of creative people is enthusiasm.  The phrases "driving absorption," "high commitment," "passionate interest," and "unwilling to give up" describe most creative people. The high energy also appears in adventurous and thrill-seeking activities.  Don't some of your most creative colleagues ride motorcycles, fly airplanes, sky dive, climb cliffs, or downhill ski?

Curiosity and wide interests are related traits, whether the creative person is a research scientist, entrepreneur, artist, or professional entertainer.  A good sense of humor is common.  Creative people tend to have a childlike sense of wonder and intrigue, and an experimental nature.  They may take things apart to see how they work, explore old attics or odd museums, or explore unusual hobbies and collections.  In other words, "the creative adult is essentially a perpetual child—the tragedy is that most of us grow up."

Another interesting combination some creative people display is a tolerance for complexity and ambiguity and an attraction to the mysterious.  Creative thinking requires working with incomplete ideas: relevant facts are missing, rules are cloudy, "correct" procedures nonexistent. 

Because most ideas evolve through a series of modifications, approximations, and improvements, creators must cope with uncertainty.  Many creative people seem to couple their interest in complexity and ambiguity with their lively imaginations and open-mindedness, and some are strong believers in flying saucers, extra-sensory perception, or other dubious phenomena.

The Down Side

So far the creative personality looks pretty good.  However, exasperated parents, teachers, colleagues, and supervisors are all familiar with some negative traits of creative people.  They can be stubborn, uncooperative, indifferent to conventions and courtesies, and they are likely to argue that the rest of the parade is out of step.  Creative people can be careless and disorganized, especially with matters they consider trivial.  Absentmindedness and forgetfulness are common. 

Some are temperamental and moody; a few cynical, sarcastic, or rebellious.

Most creative people realize there is a time to conform and a time to be creative.  In any case, managers must learn to control negative traits to maximize creative output while maintaining the company's standards.  The key is patience and understanding, founded on the knowledge that such traits are common among people who are naturally independent, unconventional, and bored by trivialities.  Because rigid enforcement of rules will alienate creative people and squelch their creativeness, flexibility and rule-bending are necessary on occasion. 

Humor is a management technique that can effectively convey your message without arousing negative emotions:  "How's the new plan coming?  Any chance you'll get it to me by Friday?  It'll give me the excuse to be busy this weekend.  With my in-laws visiting and all…."

Self-Actualized or Special-Talent?

One of my favorite conceptions of creative personality is psychologist Abraham Maslow's distinction between the self-actualized and the special-talent creative person.  In your organization, you will likely see each type, as well as some fortunate individuals who combine these traits.

The self-actualized creative person approaches all aspects of life creatively: he or she is well-adjusted, mentally healthy, democratic-minded and "forward growing."

In contrast, the special-talent creative person has great ability in a particular area, but may not be psychologically adjusted.  History is full of neurotic and psychotic creative geniuses (like Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, Howard Hughes and Judy Garland). 

The self-actualized person, by virtue of his or her general creativeness and healthy mental adjustment, is comparatively easy to work with, yet is energetic and productive in all areas.  The challenge lies in managing special-talent creative people, who are much more likely to show the negative traits mentioned above.

Finally, some suggestions to help develop your own creativity.  Watch your rigidity.  Be open to innovative, even far-fetched ideas.  Foster flexibility by looking at problems from new perspectives.  Search for ideas in analogous situations. 

Most important, accept the risk-taking and ambiguity that's inherent in creative problem solving.

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