Individuality & Creativity

Should one make a conscious effort to develop your individuality and creativity rather than conform to social standards? It is not uncommon to hear that someone is “too much of an individualist” for a responsible role or effective membership in a team. Exceptionally creative people often seem like poor models for our own lives, because so many, for all that they achieve, do not achieve personal happiness. However, the persistent pursuit of your own insights and goals can be essential for self- fulfillment.

If you are an individualist you are part of a minority. Experiments have found fewer than thirty percent of us are willing to assert our own ideas when they run counter to a majority view. Even when the majority is obviously wrong – for example, if we are placed in a room where everyone else says that lines on a piece of paper look unequal in length when in fact they are somewhat unequal – only about one-third of us will disagree, often in a hesitant and doubtful manner. This minority of people who judge issues for themselves and assert their judgment are among the most successful and well-adjusted members of society. We select our leaders – in all areas of life, in industry, fashion, politics and science – from this group, people who resist being easily persuaded and who try to draw out what is best from the sum of the conflicting views that others present to them.

Leaders who stand out from the rest as strong individualists may tend to isolate themselves from the opinions, interests and tastes of others even to the point sometimes of being ineffective at organizing support for their lives. Many strong individualists have been forced to the margins of political or scientific life as cranks or misfits, only to re-emerge as major figures when circumstances permit. Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s great leader in World War II, was for years considered too eccentric, too unpredictable and too belligerent for high office by key figures among those controlling political power in Britain, and did not become Prime Minister until a charismatic leader was needed. Charles Darwin, the first major contributor to modern theories of biological evolution, was considered a failure in early life. His reluctance to seek a conventionally successful life in the Church or in medicine, as his family would have wished, was partly due to his being absorbed in unconventional ideas which he kept mostly to himself. He only published them when he was middle-aged, and friends and circumstances finally persuaded him that he could no longer delay. Without such exceptional individualism, it is probable that the human race would make little progress. In the context of self-fulfillment, of course, it is not exceptional individualism that is in question. We are each managers of a life, however, and just as we expect the people who lead countries (not their advisors or critics) to make the final judgment in important matters, to creativity invent solutions to problems and to stand up to social pressures when they have to, so it may be preferable for you – the person who leads your life – to do this. 

THE CREATIVE INDIVIDUAL

Everyone is creative in some manner and in some degree. We all experience our greatest sense of agency when we do something in a way that is not simply handed to us by others but is of our own making. Individual creative expression is a theme of widely different social styles: of the drive in the 1960s to be unconventional, and – contrastingly – of the drive in the 1980s for entrepreneurial economic success. In the 1908s, such economic individualism even began to be accepted in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of   China , as a way of channeling energies into greater production of wealth. From the purely psychological standpoint, any social style that encourages a genuinely creative individual expression is to be welcomed, whether this be the creation of a new economic enterprise, an alternative way of life, a song or a rock garden.

CHOOSING STANDARDS FOR SELF-JUDGMENT

All too often, we try to live according to standards we have never questioned. We may never have considered whether they are realistic or what we really want. The art of living a fulfilled life depends on setting goals that we care about and can attain, yet stretch us. We need to be able to persevere when success is possible, and to consider alternative goals when it is not. Above all, the expectations of others should not dominate our priorities. Of course, the good opinion and affection of other people is always important, but if the desire to please leads to excessive compromise in adapting our values or aspirations to theirs, the consequent loss of integrity may far exceed the apparent gains. Being “all things to all people” may be a prescription for superficial popularity, but it leads to a confusing and inconsistent sense of self. Its very formlessness will create an ambiguous and flimsy basis for self-esteem, and its uncommitted and changeable nature will probably not be highly valued by the people whose respect we care about most.

Creative genius is confined to a few, such as Albert Einstein or Pablo Picasso. More numerous are those who creatively adapt the insights of the great. Also, without being geniuses, many people are creative in the same ways as the great, but less intensely. Some are able to bring together old ideas and elements in new ways to invent solutions to problems. Many have a talent for creative technical manipulation – they are good at making and fixing things. Expressive creativity is also common – in people with a flair for writing, playing an instrument or singing. In addition, we all to some extent create our own personalities and our own lives as we adjust to the world in which we find ourselves.

The talent that psychologists have most attempted to measure in connection with creativity is divergent thinking (also called lateral thinking). This is the ability to branch out from a starting point to search for a variety of original possibilities. It is measured by asking such questions as “how many uses can you think for a brick?” and scoring the answers for fluency (how many you come up with) and for originality (how different they are from the most common answers). The opposite of divergent thinking is convergent thinking, which means bringing information together to formulate a solution to a problem. In fact, both forms of thinking are indispensable to creative activity, but uncreative activity heavily relies on the convergent pattern – for example, when we simply follow rules and try to focus on what we are supposed to do.

Related to the idea of divergent thinking is that of remote association. Examples of remote associations would be thinking of things in the opposite sense of the obvious (for instance, talking of an old man as if he were a young boy) or drawing a connection between two things because of a seemingly unimportant quality (for instance, buildings might be compared to blizzards because of their white colour).  Some people seem to have an inherited talent for creativity and for particular creative activities, but anyone can cultivate at least some traits of personality and the habits of mind that are characteristic of them. All research place independence of judgment high on the list. Creative people are also found to have high energy levels, persistence and self-confidence. They are flexible and open to new experiences. They tend not to be rigidly sex-typed – not overly concerned about how masculine or feminine they appear. They are spontaneous, have a good sense of humor and a tolerance of ambiguity: it does not always bother  them when they do not know how matters will turn out. They have a strong sense of curiosity and of play. They are sensitive to both their own and to other people’s feelings and they accept themselves as they are.

In the activities in which they are creative, they do not often rely on sheer luck in order to hit on solutions – usually they form more and more precise ideas of what they are looking for as they explore possibilities, persistently  calling up and testing answers to problems they set themselves.

THE CREATIVE INDIVIDUAL

Works of genius may need to be interpreted. The scientific theories of Albert Einstein have an astonishing creative intensity, but they are expressed almost entirely in mathematical symbols. They would be wholly inaccessible to most of us if no one  troubled to interpret their gist in more familiar terms. Great masters may be better appreciated directly, but even sidewalk artists can interpret their works for their own pleasure. The work of interpreters is sometimes almost as creative as the original. Even those who try merely to appreciate works of genius, even at second hand, may have to make a creative effort of understanding in order to do this.

Creative individuality can manifest in a myriad of ways. An element of invention is involved in any work that presents problems requiring original solutions. Technical creativity is involved in any act of bringing about a desired change with tools, equipment, instruments and materials. Expressive creativity is apparent especially in the invention of something that carries an emotional or other form of message, such as a new piece of music or the production of visual material. The discoveries of science are creatively applied in the work of many who work with technologies to create illusions of the fantastic or incredible.  

*The following information has been  taken from:

Wilson, Glenn, (1989), Self Discovery: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Your Personality & Well Being, Andromeda, Oxford UK .