The curse of creativity

Aug 26, 2022  ·  27 min read

Last night a friend surprised me with a question, and I surprised myself with the answer. He asked, out of nowhere and almost as if we were in a job interview: “what do you think is your greatest weakness?”. I unironically replied: “being creative”.

I mean it.

It’s not one of those canned responses like “oh, I’m a perfectionist” that only try to present you in a positive light. Quite the contrary. You would think creativity is a positive trait, but being creative can be a terrible flaw. It can make you very dysfunctional. And that’s why I was surprised with my answer, because the more I kept reflecting about it, the more I think I was spot on: being creative is in fact my #1 flaw, and it could also be yours.

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Can creativity really be that bad?

To answer that, we need to understand what creativity is. [1]

First of all, creativity seems to be a measurable phenomenon. And that’s important, because it means science can study it fairly accurately, and thus we can know what it is and how it works. More particularly, creativity seems to be a phenomenon tightly associated with personality.

Personality theory is a complex field. Many have tried defining what personality is and how to measure it, mostly unsuccessfully. You may have heard of things like the MBTI test before. What you may not know is the MBTI is essentially pseudoscience: it doesn’t work, it has significant scientific deficiencies, and researchers in the field not only don’t use it – they despise it.

What works, and what’s actually used in psychological research, are modern models rooted in statistics and science. The most widely used model of personality nowadays is called the Big Five – it states that personality is made up of five different main traits: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience. We’ll mainly focus on the latter.

Two of the Big Five personality traits

Creative people are high in trait Openness, and it’s not clear if that’s even two separate phenomena. It may be just two different words to refer to the same thing. One of the two subcomponents of Openness is trait Intellect – which essentially measures how interested one is in ideas and in discussing ideas. We can extract our first take away from creativity:

Creative people like to talk about ideas.

It’s no surprise then that creativity is also high IQ related – people with higher IQs are likely to be creative.

Why do you need to be smart to be creative? Well, because creativity means getting where no one has gotten before, and if you are not smart you are going to get where everyone else has already gotten – and that’s not creative by definition. This makes us understand yet another thing about creativity:

Creativity means being at the front of things.

In fact, creative people are defined by their high motivation to experience novelty. Novelty can come in many forms:

→ exploring new ideas
→ learning new things, becoming multidisciplinary, cultivating polymathy
→ listening to barely known, unconventional music
→ finding, using and creating indie startups
→ playing indie games

Almost always, creativity involves ideas and exploring the unbeaten path.

The good side of creativity

What are creators good for? Well, creating. Making something out of nothing. They’re the first ones to go into unexplored territory and set ground for others to build upon. They’re constantly putting a foot into the unknown and then making sense of it.

They’re explorers. They go into where nobody goes and discover what’s possible, and set the path for others to follow. They’re pioneers. If you ever wondered if something was even possible and later found out about someone’s work and felt like “Aha! This is it, this proves the thing I wanted to do is in fact possible”, that someone was probably a highly creative person.

You can think of creative people as the kind of people that constantly revitalize cities. Say there’s a poor and rather undesirable area of town nobody really wants to go to. An artist may go there and make artwork based on it, putting the area in the spotlight and making it somewhat known. Then maybe the first exhibitions happen, which attract the first batch of creativity-oriented people into the neighborhood, and expand its popularity. Then maybe the area becomes known enough between those early adopters that another creative entrepreneur opens up the first hipster café, making the area now trendy. Which, in turn, attracts the non-creative but career-oriented people that jump in trying to develop the area.

And when the area is no longer unknown territory, then creatives go and rejuvenate some other area, where they can explore yet another unbeaten path. Because that’s what creatives do, they transform chaos into order. And that’s precisely where they live, they live on that edge between known and unknown: always with a foot above the abyss. And it’s a very difficult place to live, because you can fall into chaos at any time.

It’s hard, but the flip side is creators tend to produce exceptional and lasting works. Why? Because creativity can be defined as novelty –if it weren’t novel it wouldn’t be creative– and what’s novel is original and authentic. Authentic novelty is usually exceptional and enduring – because no one has done it before and because you’re the first one to do it.

That’s also why the worst thing a creator can do is feel like a sell-out or a copycat (if you’re creative, you may have a rough time copying/following strategies that work, or feel like you need to discover your own strategies in order for the process to be “worthy”).

Creative flow

Creativity can also be defined as the proclivity to engage in creative thought. But what does it mean to think creatively?

It means that if you get tossed out an idea, there’s some probability that that idea triggers off other ideas in your imagination. If you’re not very creative, when you’re thrown an idea hardly any other ideas will be triggered, and the ones that will be triggered are going to be closely associated with that initial idea. But if you’re creative, just an initial idea is enough to generate a vast array of completely different ideas.

This is called divergent thinking, and the amount of derivative ideas you can generate is called fluency.

If you’re fluent in divergent thinking, sitting down to work feels like being in the middle of a nuclear chain reaction. Every single step you take sparks a new idea, and that new idea sparks a myriad of other new ideas – and those also have the potential to generate new ideas, and you want to write them all down so you can go explore them later, but there are so many of them and they come so quickly you barely have time to write them all down, let alone to act upon them. The amount of ideas you need to keep in memory grows exponentially. Most of the time, you just forget most of them because you start daydreaming and exploring one of the ramifications and get so lost in it you can’t backtrack.

It’s like when you’re playing a videogame and you’re faced with a crossroads or a labyrinth — you wanna keep a mental track of every unexplored path so you can go back and explore them later, but you can only do so much.

I associate this feeling of creating ideas effortlessly with being in a state of flow. It’s a very distinct feeling, and the best way to tell if you’re in this state or not is to have experienced what it feels not to be in it.

When you’re not in creative flow, you just sit in front of the computer hoping the day goes by as quickly as possible. Maybe you scroll mindlessly for hours, binge watch YouTube videos, or just do anything that’s not intrinsically productive. It feels like the days pass without getting anything done, as if everything had been a big waste of time just to justify your time in front of a screen.

It feels tremendously different when you’re in creative flow. It feels engaging. When I’m in creative flow, I don’t have enough hours in the day to get done everything I need to do, and yet every time I put my head down to work I generate 1000 new ideas I want to explore and act on. I’m flooded with new things to do and explore, and my idea pad grows substantially every single day because I write down so many ideas and thoughts. It’s such a strong force that I need to turn off my phone and stop answering messages for days at a time, because distractions completely break the process for me.

Creative flow doesn’t always occur, of course. There are many creativity killers, the most deadly in my experience is a structured environment. This means if I happen to have to work within an already designed system (like a rigid company) and I get assigned a task to do, there’s almost a zero chance creative flow will happen. I need a blank canvas and full creative freedom as preconditions to unleash this process – creativity doesn’t happen on command.

The price for creativity

There’s an increasing price to pay as you deviate from the average, and creativity can quickly turn from virtue to pathology.

The price for creativity is that it’s hard to catalyze an identity, because you’re interested in everything, and your interests will flip from one thing to another.

For a creative person the fun resides in exploring new things. It’s not fun to deep dive into what you’ve already explored. The motivation is in going into the unknown and then coming back with new information, not in staying and improving what’s already known and stable. You always want to jump boats, chase the next shiny object and go explore the next thing.

Creatives are professional jacks of all trades, masters of none.

Creative people lack focus. They’re constantly creating so many possibilities that none can be acted upon fully.

It can become pathological, because when you’re just exploring everything around you is unrealized potential, and unrealized potential is not real nor tangible. As a creator you fear everything is an illusion, so you need to seek to prove reality outside of your mind, and materialize things.

The creative process

Exploring obviously needs to be part of every creative process, but convergence is just as necessary to make sense out of chaos. And this process needs to be cyclical, a creative person always needs to be alternating between the “divergence” and the “convergence” phases. If all you do is diverging without ever converging, because that’s what you like doing the most, you will never get anything actually done.

As an entrepreneur, I often fall into this trap. I often have a bunch of new business ideas I want to quickly explore, so I’d build a quick Proof Of Concept (POC) for each of them to understand the market and get a sense of the kind of problems I would face if I decided to pursue the idea. But once that’s done, the fun is over – and they often just remain POCs without me really delving into any in any substantial depth.

Creative people get easily lost into rabbit holes.

It’s not uncommon for creative people to go through frenzy periods of time characterized by an obsession with one single topic. For me, this has historically materialized in things like obsessing over solving the Rubik’s cube under a certain time (I was consumed by it for weeks, and I wouldn’t stop until I had learned how to solve it sub-one minute, which is not even that fast, and by that time I had even considered signing up for speedcubing competitions). I’ve also had other more practical obsessions, typically related to learning about bleeding edge technologies like AI or Brain-Computer Interfaces.

I had never been aware of this behavior of mine until both my girlfriend and one good friend put it into words: “You’re always getting lost into rabbit holes. This is your biggest weakness. We have to keep you out or you’ll never do anything relevant”. If you’re jumping from one rabbit hole to the next one, you get nothing done.

There’s such a thing as being “too creative”. If you’re too creative, you’ll see patterns everywhere, even when they’re not there – and that’s not helpful in any sense. It only leads to overthinking and overanalysis.

Another price to pay for creativity is that life often feels incomplete.

Creative people often feel unfulfilled.

You don’t feel fulfilled even when you’ve met all basic needs. Even if you’re good on most important dimensions of life (you have friends, you have a healthy relationship with your partner, you have a loving family, you are as educated as you are intelligent, you have an occupation that gives you stability and something productive to do, and you’re not doing anything self-harming) – that’s not going to be enough. If you’re creative, you’re going to have to pick another domain where you’re working on something that’s both positive and somewhat revolutionary – or you’ll feel emptiness even if you’re good on the other dimensions.

I’ve recently been through a pretty intense burnout, and I think this is in part why. I felt burned out because I was no longer being creative, and even though I was working on my own business I felt like I had created my own corporate job – because my day to day ended up requiring zero creativity.

Creative people crave being at the frontier of what’s possible – so work options shrink significantly. If a company is not doing something somewhat revolutionary, it’s likely a creative person will be not interested at all in working with them. The problem is most companies are not revolutionary. And this is yet another high price to pay for creativity:

Creative people have a rough time at work.

Making a living as a creative person

Creativity is high risk, high return.

It’s a gambling strategy. Like playing the lottery. It can turn out tremendously good, but the most likely outcome is that you’ll play the lottery your entire life without winning the prize.

If you’re pursuing anything creative, the overwhelming probability is that you will fail, but the upside is that a small proportion of creative people succeed spectacularly. This is why creatives are overrepresented in both stories of failure and stories about extremely successful people. And this is yet another price to pay: creatives are so much more likely to be homeless and starve than people without creative inclinations.

Creative people have a hard time monetizing their creativity.

Although it’s very foolish to be creative (because failure is almost guaranteed), it’s creative people who lead the vanguard forward into the unknown and change the world. So if you want to be the kind of person that moves the needle forward and has a shot at changing the world, you’re going to have to pursue a creative path.

Now, be aware: statistics are not on your side. In fact, almost all creative endeavors follow a Pareto distribution. This means only a tiny, tiny percentage of all people make almost all the money, and most people make close to nothing. This is a distribution that happens naturally across all creative domains: think book authors, singers, music producers, movie makers, actors, comedians, game makers, influencers, entrepreneurs… And it happens mainly because talent and creativity is unequally distributed, so only creators really at the top of their game succeed.

A year or so ago, Twitch leaked a pretty interesting piece of information. It was a dataset that included a relation of all streamers in the platform along with how much money they had made streaming. I analyzed the data of the top 10k streamers on Twitch, and this is what it looks like:

Distribution of Twitch streamers and their average monthly income. In the y aixs: "Monthly average payouts (USD)"; in the x axis: "Number of Twitch streamers". The chart shows a pareto distribution following a power law.
Data source: Twitch.tv (leaked)

What this means is:

  • There are only four (!) extremely successful streamers that make more than $200k a month.
  • The distribution goes down very steeply, revealing the next biggest performers earn “only” about $100k/mo.
  • Once we’re past the top 600 or so streamers, payouts start being below $10k/mo, and from there it only drops dramatically.
  • The median payout is $1.7k/mo, and to earn more than $5k/mo you’d have to be better than 85% of all streamers.
  • The top 10% of streamers make 50% of all money. The remaining 50% needs to be split among thousands, if not millions of other streamers.

Now, bear in mind, this analysis is extremely biased because it only considers the top 10k streamers (out of about 9.2 million total active streamers), so these are streamers that are already in the top 0.01% of their field – if we actually took into consideration all streamers, the results would be much, much more discouraging. The average streamer could probably expect a payout of close to $0.

What’s interesting is this distribution replicates itself across platforms. I don’t have the data at hand now, but I remember OnlyFans data reveals a very similar pattern – most creators make close to nothing, only a tiny fraction makes real bank.

As an entrepreneur, this distribution is also likely to apply to you – with a few added problems.

Entrepreneurs are constantly exploring new ideas at the frontier of what’s known and possible. But as an entrepreneur, you may come up with ideas that are way too novel. Like, imagine you create something so new it doesn’t even compare to anything that existed before. How are you gonna market something that’s so new it doesn’t have a category and you don’t have the lexicon to describe yet? You’ll probably need like 10 failed entrepreneurs before you that have educated the market enough so your product can be successful by the time you launch it.

Pursuing creativity is most likely to make you poor and unsuccessful.

Jobs for creatives

If creative people have such a hard time making money by doing creative things, and if they absolutely need to do creative things in order not to be miserable, what’s the solution? How do we integrate creative people in the workplace?

The answer might be just to be willing to suck it up and then do your thing on the side. Find a way to make money and then practice your craft after work, or you may starve otherwise.

Of course it’s better if you can find a job that’s somewhat creative, but companies don’t usually hire creative people. What a company wants is stability, not creativity. As a company, you above all want to keep things running. You need what’s already been built to keep functioning – you don’t want creative forces so big that question and threaten what’s already working. You want your new hires to blend in and average out the work your team does, not to stand out significantly, because that’s too risky and stimulates instability.

This is a funny contradiction, because we live in a world where the non-creative people are increasingly being replaced with machines. Anything that’s not creative can and will eventually be turned into an algorithm – so ironically those that aren’t creative are the ones that are at risk in the long run.

For the time being, it is what it is. Creatives that need to get a job better aim for one that lets them be at least somewhat creative. It’s not a black or white thing – it’s more like a spectrum. Some jobs require zero creativity, some require more. There are clues we can point at as to which kind of jobs are creativity friendly.

Managers, for example, are the opposite of creatives. They need to work like machines, like well-oiled gears in an industrial setup. Any managerial and administrative position is generally low creative and will require you to behave more like a robot than like Van Gogh.

“Implementer” jobs will probably won’t cut it, either. If you want something that’s already been invented implemented and then turned into a reliable, well-functioning machine, you don’t get someone creative to do that. Creative people want to be off to do the next thing. They aren’t even interested in that, they’d get bored to death replicating what’s already been done over and over again.

What kind of jobs can creative types get, then?

Well, creative people are problem solvers – if you have business problems you want creative people, because they can think laterally and find unconventional solutions to tough problems. Where others get stumped, creatives shine.

Think about it: there’s no reason to be creative unless you have a problem to solve. That’s why traumatic childhoods often lead to creative people, because under those circumstances you need to put yourself together in a creative manner. Early negative experiences aligned with high intelligence and high openness is one of the things that fosters creativity.

Creativity emerges when you put serious constraints on things.

In order to have someone be creative you have to set them a difficult problem. So it might very well be the case that jobs where you need complicated problems solved are a good match for creative people. Think maybe business consultants or engineers working in bleeding edge fields like robotics.

There’s another problem regarding creative people and the workplace, and that’s the problem of entry jobs. Creative people are useless at the bottom of the hierarchy, because at the bottom you should only do what you’re told to do. You’re not there to think outside the box: you’re there to learn what you’re supposed to do, and then implement it.

This contrasts with what’s going on at the top of the hierarchy. People at the top are the entrepreneurial ones, the ones who can communicate well and bring in new business – and those tend to be creative in nature. But it’s very difficult to get them from the system itself, because systems don’t nurture creativity. They’re the antithesis of creativity. In fact, the artist is the person that always stands outside the structure, or builds a structure of their own: artists are not likely to be already part of an existing structure. So, it may be that creative people belong more in the top of hierarchies, but to get there they either need to endure through a long and painful path through an existing system, or create outstanding success of their own outside the system (which, as we’ve seen, it’s extremely difficult) and then join at the top as a “superstar”.

In any case, creative people are a pain to manage and organize. Unless they’re willfully constraining their own nature and biting their tongue, telling them exactly what to do isn’t going to work, and putting them in a box is completely counterproductive. So they’re very annoying, even though they’re extremely necessary – and even more necessary in the upcoming future.

Creativity through school and academia

I mentioned earlier that creative people would probably enjoy solving difficult problems, but this might not be the case if you’re a researcher.

Academic and scientific success is negatively correlated with creativity. The more creative you are, the less likely you are going to be successful in science and academia.

It makes sense: science is actually an algorithmic machine, and that’s why it’s so powerful. In science, you can get people who aren’t creative but are willing to work hard – and you crank the levers and out comes knowledge. Science is an extraordinarily powerful technology.

But you can’t get creative things published. What you can get published is incrementally better things. If you tried to publish creative ideas, no one would have any idea what to do with them, and non creative people will think it’s just rubbish.

This is also why it’s so hard for a creative person to go through the education system. It should be no news to anyone reading that the educational system cripples creativity at every level – and it should even be fairly obvious why that is the case this deep into the blog post.

The education system was created to mass produce workforce for the industries. And the system replicates an industry itself: a conveyor belt where you get the student from grade to grade until it’s a finished product, desks lined up in a grid to enforce order and discipline, a high number of students per class to mass-produce output at a lower cost, enforced silence and stillness in class, a bell that strangely resembles a factory bell… it’s all there to create highly compliant people – people that could follow orders to the T, and perform well in a factory. An artist’s nightmare.

It’s 100 years later now, but we still use the same system with almost no substantial changes.

Thinking with perspective, I think this is probably why I hated Math through High School, but have a rather healthy relationship with it nowadays: back then they made me behave like a robot and follow mathematical algorithms I needed to memorize without questioning. Ruffini’s rule comes to mind: today I would be absolutely unable to outline the steps of the algorithm or even say what it was used for, but I remember getting heavy penalties for misplacing just one number or not giving an exact result. In contrast, these days I use Math on a fairly regular basis, but I don’t get penalized for miscalculating or not following an algorithm like a robot. Instead, I offload all computation and algorithms to an actual robot, my computer, who does a way better job than me at calculating things, so I can focus on the higher level abstractions and reasonings. Today I see Math as one more tool in my toolkit I can use in my creative process, and not as a judge that will sentence me to death if I happen to misplace a digit.

On top of that, it’s impossible to evaluate or grade creative people. You can’t, because if they’re operating within the confines of the system, which has a structure, they’re not creative.

Not very long ago I had the opportunity to confirm this with my own eyes. The following story proved to me it is, in fact, impossible to grade creative people in an academic setting.

For my Bachelor’s of Business final thesis I was supposed to write a paper in Spanish between 20 and 30 pages long, in a very strict academic format, on a fairly constrained array of topics (to give you an idea: the most common kind of thesis among my peers was just an analysis of the business plan of any well-known company).

Instead, I ignored all rules and wrote and handed in a 250 pages book on how to build digital products. In English. With chapters, downloadables and everything. After finishing defending my thesis in a language I was not even supposed to use, the jury confessed they had never seen anything like that before and that they had no idea how to even start grading me. While I had proved some degree of skill and knowledge –they said– I didn’t fit into any category or structure they could measure, like they measure the rest of students. They looked perplexed for a good 10 seconds without speaking a word before asking me to leave the room so they could speak in private. I have to confess I was extremely lucky that day: when I came back in, they were friendly, and said that since I came from a background in startups and this didn’t really fit any structure, they were just going to give me one minute to pitch them why I should get a good grade on my work. I did, and it had to be a pretty good pitch, because they gave my thesis a perfect score on the spot. I guess creativity truly is a high risk, high return strategy after all.

Am I creative?

If you’re reading this post and made it this far, you probably are.

But being creative is rare. Extremely rare, I would say. Most people score 0 on some creativity tests. Not just low, but zero. Now, with regards to temperament and personality, trait Openness can easily be graded on a curve, which can give you a pretty good idea about how creativity-inclined you are.

If you haven’t already, and are curious, I would encourage you to take a personality test based on the Big Five model. It can be eye opening.

Personally, I’ve recently found out two interesting things about me.

The first one I found three years ago, before I was even aware of what the Big Five personality model was. I unknowingly took a Big Five test, and got my results on the five dimensions. Turns out I’m in the top 5% of all population in trait Openness, which by itself alone would mean I’m pretty inclined to creativity.

The second bit of information I discovered at about the same time, but for completely unrelated reasons. A couple of friends were in Mensa at the time and encouraged me to take a proper IQ test. I did, and I happened to qualify for Mensa, so that also puts me in a rather high IQ percentile. These numbers are worthless in real life, and meaningless without context – but they’ve been immensely helpful in my quest to understand myself. It helps explain why I usually do the things I do. High Openness plus high IQ means I’m likely to be a highly creative person – and suffer from the creative curse.

You’re complicating your life unnecessarily, just stop being creative

«For the creator who seeks to make something new, something better, something important, everywhere you look is something unsatisfying.

The dissatisfaction is fuel. Knowing you can improve it, realizing that you can and will make things better—the side effect is that today isn’t what it could be.

You can’t ignore the dissatisfaction, can’t pretend the situation doesn’t exist, not if you want to improve things.

Living in dissatisfaction today is the price we pay for the obligation to improve things tomorrow.»

Seth Godin

Being creative comes with so many problems. Can’t you just stop being so creative?

I would argue not. You can’t kill creativity. It’s like shouting to a kid: “stop daydreaming!” – it’s not only not gonna happen, but it’s also probably not what you should be doing.

Discussing creativity with a non-creative person is like discussing color with someone who’s color blind. If you’re reading this blogpost and you’re not like “holy damn, this is me”, you’ll probably have a very hard time understanding creativity. And that’s going to be a problem if you need to be around creative people: for example if you need to work with someone creative, manage creative people, deal with your creative partner or even raise a creative kid. I don’t know what you can do to handle it better, but whatever you do, please try not to shut down their creativity.

Traits like creativity are deeply rooted in biology, they’re not just a surface trait. You can’t get rid of them. It’s likely that your whole brain is configured around the fact that you’re creative, and it’s likely that this has some biological and evolutionary meaning. Maybe creative people were necessary at some point, because they’re the ones more prone to go out and explore and come back with new valuable information about the environment, while others would stay in the cave and protect the tribe, generating stability. I don’t know for sure.

What we do know is creative people that don’t engage in creative endeavors tend to be miserable. It’s their life blood – if you’re a creative person and you’re not engaging in a creative enterprise, you’re like a tree that has had its vitality amputated. Like a fruit tree that’s bearing fruit, you can’t just suppress it.

And the bad news is that if you’re also smart, it’s likely that you are your biggest enemy:

«I had one client, he was a brilliant architect. His rational mind was his worst enemy, he was hyper rational, because it just criticized everything in a dark way, and effectively. If I got him to not think, and just create, he was a complete genius. That’s where all of the vitality in his life was, that’s where the sap rose up inside the dead tree that was sort of embedded inside of him.»

Dr. Jordan Peterson

Open people, especially if they’re smart, sometimes have a very nihilistic intelligence. They are really self critical and brutal – but smart. They criticize themselves out of existence. What a therapist often does is have them quit listening to their own critical over rationalization and force them to go out and create something. And as long as they’re doing that, they’re engaged in the world and happy as hell, but as soon as that self critical rationality comes in it shuts down the creativity – and they’re just like walking corpses.

How to be less miserable as a creative person

What can you do if you’re highly creative and want life to be easier for you? The consensus seems to be that you should deliberately work on improving your conscientiousness.

Conscientiousness is another personality trait (remember the Big Five?) that has almost nothing to do with creativity.

Conscientiousness, however, is a good predictor of long term life success.

Conscientiousness is associated with stability and reliability. Conscientious people are self-supporting and ambitious. They’re work oriented. They need to have a duty, they need to carry a load. They can’t stand just sitting there doing nothing, they need to do something all the time. If they were left alone in a forest they’d just pick up an ax and start chopping trees down, because they just can’t stand inactivity. Conscientious people make good managers and good administrators.

If conscientiousness sounds somewhat rigid – that’s exactly right. It’s precisely what we creatives need most, it’s the antidote to our creative chaos, the only thing that can set us straight. You may need to build up your conscientiousness over a number of years, but it’s worth doing. If you manage to mix both creativity and conscientiousness in harmony, you have a pretty damn good chance at being unstoppable.

Conscientiousness breaks down into orderliness and industriousness. The most important trait for us creatives is going to be the latter, but just so we get a better picture of what conscientiousness is, we’ll briefly cover both:

  • Orderliness is associated with disgust sensitivity, the kind of gut feeling that you get when two things that shouldn’t be touching are touching. It’s what makes people believe things are out of place, because they get that visceral feeling that they shouldn’t be in that particular spot.

    Orderly people judge themselves quite harshly, probably because they would be disgusted by the possibility that they might count among the failures.

    Orderly individuals don’t leave their belongings around. They keep things tidy. They’re bothered by messy people and disorder. They follow a schedule. They like routine. They admire willpower. They are driven by dutifulness: they do things because it’s what needs to be done, no questions asked. They are good at following processes and making sure processes are followed. Orderly people also are very concerned with doing whatever needs to be done in the particular way it should be done.

    The problem with that is if you’re creative, things change all the time: there are a lot of transformations as you move towards the end – and that’s not something an orderly person is going to particularly appreciate. Orderly people are too likely to obey rules to be creative. Higher levels of orderliness aren’t associated with entrepreneurial capacity.
  • Industriousness is associated with plan execution. An industrious person carries out their plans. They take plans that are well formulated and then they implement them into behavior. They finish what they start. They’re really good at planning the use of their time to make things happen. They don’t waste time, they’re fans of efficiency and they careful choose the things they do, so they don’t waste time and get the thing done. They don’t postpone decisions. They’re not easily distracted. They don’t find it difficult to get down to work. They stay focused on their goal, or at least they continue acting in relationship to the goal. They want to win within a defined framework. They always know what they’re doing.

Conscientiousness is the cure for creative chaos, but since you’re (probably) pretty creative, in order to become more conscientious, you’re going to have to pick a domain that you’re suited to and that motivates you and follow the following advice in relation to that.

Here’s how to become more conscientious:

  • Lay down a vision for the future (3-4 years from now) and set a goal you want to achieve.
  • Make a plan to reach the goal and write it down.
  • Use a calendar: break down the plan into years, months, weeks and days. Think: what needs to happen in the next 3 years in order for me to achieve this, and when? Then, what needs to happen in the next 6 months? Then into the next 4 weeks. And then plan and set tasks for the current week and the current day.
  • Follow a schedule: wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, define a strict work schedule.
  • Discipline yourself: eat at regular times, hit the gym, get yourself back on track when you deviate from the plan.

Me personally – I’m already quite conscientious, but that’s only driven by the fact that I’m industrious. However, I rank pretty low on orderliness, almost on the opposite side of the spectrum. My personal hell, and the thing I need to keep doing very consciously to avoid falling into chaotic creative hell, is to implement more orderly behavior into my life, namely: creating and following routines and schedules, and committing to strict deadlines, as well as cultivating willpower and dutifulness. And even though I happen to have a natural tendency towards industriousness, I always need to keep an eye on that, because I can feel my industriousness levels vary wildly, especially if I’m feeling down or burned out.

Conclusion

It seems to me that creativity without discipline is just raw power, like a wild garden hose. Brute force without any aim or direction.

It is discipline that channels creativity into something of value. Without discipline, a creative person will likely amount to nothing: they’ll keep chasing shiny objects their whole life without getting anything done.

Discipline trumps creativity every day of the week.

To become more disciplined, creative people can work on developing their conscientiousness. Things like setting a goal, making a plan, following a schedule to implement it are really good ideas.

No matter the improvement, though, pursuing a creative enterprise is extremely difficult and likely to fail. But if you’re creative and you don’t do anything creative, your soul dies.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The upside is that creative flow feels deeply engaging and meaningful. And the ability to make things out of nowhere, to consistently turn chaos into order – I think it’s completely worth it.

But it does come at a price, one that you’re going to pay whether you’re willing to or not, and you better have a plan to keep chaos at bay, or it will consume you.

Creativity is a curse, but you can make it into a great asset once you know how it works and what countermeasures you need to deploy.


[1] As I researched this topic I kept coming across a number of lectures by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson (Canadian clinical psychologist, former professor of psychology at Harvard and Toronto). He’s done a fair amount of research in the field of personality and psychometrics, and has posted many hours worth of his lectures online. He happens to have a focus on studying the personality and psychological aspects of creativity, and I found his material remarkably useful. Some parts of his lectures were so enlightening I’ve transcribed them almost verbatim through this post – after all, he’s the one that knows about creativity, not me. I’ve credited all sources I’ve used below.

Sources (YouTube list of 12 videos):

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