Is creativity a boon to the affected individual?

“Asking whether creativity is a good thing is the same as asking whether it is good that problems are solved. It is a bit like asking whether good is good.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: Posted on 28th April, 1996

[Note added 2023: I slightly disagree with my 1996 self in some of this post, or at least I would word it differently, to avoid some of the common misunderstandings that some such statements of mine have created. See more up-to-date stuff here. For example, this, this, this, this and this.]

“Are creativity and intelligence related? They did a study of MENSA members years ago, in which they found that there was no difference in MENSA members compared to the general population in any respect but two.”

I’d say no. “Intelligence” is what IQ tests measure, and who cares about that? I very much doubt anything is genuinely related to IQ. Jumping through IQ test hoops is not creativity. The only member of MENSA I know seems singularly lacking in creativity on any level you care to name. She is constantly on the verge of suicide (if she could find the creativity to think of how to kill herself, she probably would…)

I liked the question you asked me in your initial message better….

“For society in general, of course, having some highly-creative individuals is very desirable—but, it might be asked, is creativity a boon to the affected individual?”

Asking whether creativity is a good thing is the same as asking whether it is good that problems are solved. It is a bit like asking whether good is good. But let’s consider the more narrow point of whether highly creative individuals are happy or less happy than others.

It is true that happiness and great creativity (as in original thinkers who dramatically further our collective knowledge, as it were) do not necessarily go together. But it is rather a myth that great thinkers are more often than not deeply unhappy. I think this is a comforting myth to the rest of us, who do not want to believe that someone else can be both brilliant and happy.

However, it is true that some highly creative individuals have been horribly unhappy. In cases that I have read about, it seems painfully clear that coercion in childhood was to blame. These people retreated into the one area of thinking they had that was not attacked by their parents, and managed to achieve greatness. Now the thing is, we have to remember that it does not follow from the fact that some great people managed to do that, that the coercion was responsible for their greatness. They achieved greatness despite the coercion, not because of it. We have to remember the millions and millions of others whose coercion has not only not pushed them to greatness, but has caused them misery throughout life.

I think there is a danger here, of grossly underestimating the complexity of the human condition, of human minds and their development. I would not wish to give the impression that taking children seriously is about manipulating people into “genius-level” original thought—manipulating people into that is impossible anyway, despite Glenn Doman’s view to the contrary. But we do know that whatever happens, coercion diminishes creativity, so let’s not do that. Now whether that non-coercion allows the person to develop amazing creativity in the sense of significantly furthering human knowledge or not is another matter. That sort of creativity arises through burning passion for many years. It does depend upon that, and that is not something one can give to a person directly. Like all these things, it comes from within. One person’s burning passion is another’s boredom-inducer.

Coercion interferes with creativity, so if applied in the area of the burning passion, that would likely destroy the person/his work. But remember that coercion, creativity and rationality are all subject-dependent. They all affect the area of thinking they affect, not the whole mind—unless the person is frightfully unlucky and is indeed affected very broadly, in which case, the mind has effectively shut down.

But in general, coercion affects specific areas of thinking, and whilst the effects may be wider than the immediate effect (and are in the case of people with severe problems/deep unhappiness etc.) they do only affect areas of thinking that are related in the person’s mind. In my posts about coercion diminishing creativity, I was trying to show how wider ideas are also affected, to show how the effect can be more widespread than just the area the parent thinks he is disabling.

The point of all this is that it is possible to be highly rational and creative in one area of thought whilst being a complete disaster in every other area. This is why there have been a few geniuses whose lives have been disasters except for the one area in which they are creative.

But if you were to ask any of those people whether they would rather be happy or do the work they are doing, they’d all say that they’d rather do the creative thing. OTOH, if you were to ask Norbert Wiener (whose writing I happen to have read on this) about it all, he’d say he wishes he had not suffered the coercive pushing his parents put on him. He said something quite painful like “Before you seek to mould a child in your image, consider whether your image is worthy of that.” [e.g. this quotation] That he was pushed and pushed as a child tells us nothing whatever about how he would have turned out had he not been pushed. I think it is likely that he would have been more creative, not less.

This great creativity we are discussing now is just not something one can turn on at will, a la Glenn Doman. It happens in individual minds pursuing individual dreams and passions, and the development of a mind is incredibly complex. We can look at all sorts of factors but they are nothing compared to the effect of the person’s thinking in his own mind. We could point to the stunning difference in creativity between the English culture and the Japanese culture, English children being much less regimented and coerced than Japanese children, and the cultures being as different as they are, but again, all that sort of thing is all grossly underestimating the significance of the factors in the individual’s own mind.

Happiness and unhappiness are very directly related to coercion, and if what we are now considering is not so much genius as the creativity required to solve one’s problems and live a happy life, then oh yes, oh yes, coercion is inimical to these good things. Coercion in families tends to centre upon just the very skills one needs to create a happy life later on. It diminishes people’s ability and will to find consensual solutions, and that is very destructive of happiness, because the more one reaches consent-based solutions to life’s problems, the more happy and harmonious life and relationships are.

In general, one might say, the more coercion there is—the less happiness. Think about it! If you are in a relationship with a person, and one or other is always coercing the other, is that conducive to happiness and a good relationship? Of course not! If, OTOH, you are always finding solutions with your loved ones, then you both have a warm glow of knowing that there is truly good will on both sides, and that problems are genuinely solved.

The more a relationship embodies institutions of consent, the more harmonious, the more happy, the more fulfilling it is on both sides. So… finding real solutions all the way through life—including during childhood (when skills in this area are learnt)—has got to be a very positive thing.

One last thing—suppose it is true that with great creativity comes a total lack of creativity in areas relating to everyday life, including relationships etc. (Well for a start, let me point out that since it is coercion that causes the damage to creativity, this whole idea is flawed, unless you are saying that coercion leading to low creativity in these areas produces creativity in the area of greatness). Suppose you had a child who was showing signs of greatness in one area. Now this child would not want you to coerce his greatness out of him, would he? By definition! So what exactly are the implications for action of this idea that great creativity in one area goes with very low creativity in other areas?

If you were worried about this possibility, you could talk to your child, and make him aware of your theories on the matter. You could suggest that he not neglect his human relationships, or not get into drinking or whatever. But really, this is all a bit silly, since if we are talking about non-coerced children, they won’t have had their creativity destroyed/diminished in these other areas anyway.

Maybe that point needs to be reiterated. Creativity is about solving problems, and every single area of life there is involves solving problems. The alcoholic, the drug addict, the person whose relationships are destructive, the person who is unable to support himself—all these people lack creativity in those areas. Coercion causes a lack of creativity. Let’s try not to be diminishing our children’s creativity!

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1996, ‘Is creativity a boon to the affected individual?’,