Creativity: The Dark Side

I’ve read a lot lately about what Harvard Business Review calls the “dark side of creativity.” Menacing, right? Creative people are more likely to be dishonest, more negative, more narcissistic, and more impulsive. Sounds about right.

As Nietzsche once noted: “One must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” On average, people who are very emotionally stable may be too happy to feel the need to create.

quotes-creativity-robert-bresson-600x411There is, without a doubt, a dark side to creativity. It’s the idea that you can only create out of the void, out of the dark places. Whenever I get through a rough patch or heartbreak and start to feel normal again, I feel my creativity wane. I don’t feel the natural urges to write, play the piano, sew, or cook. I cope with problems by letting them out in those venues. When the problems are resolved, I’m less motivated. I constantly struggle to keep the motivation going without slipping back into a negative place. It’s almost like I want to hold onto heartbreak. (Because, of course, creative people are naturally more depressive, too.)

Even positive attributes of creative people become negative because they’re quickly taken to extremes (because, again, creative people are often extreme)–people like “spontaneous” until it becomes disruptively impulsive, people like “charismatic” until it becomes manipulative. People like “risk taking” until it becomes dangerous, addictive, etc. There’s this idea behind art and creativity that you have to suffer for it, or be an alcoholic. There’s no proven link between creativity and addiction (interesting read on that here), but the researcher admits that “there is a link between addiction and things which are a prerequisite for creativity” due to low dopamine function (ie, you feel pleasure less strongly than other people). He continues:

Genetic variants make for a low-functioning dopamine system, specifically D2 receptors. If you carry those variants, you are more likely to be more risk-taking, novelty-seeking and compulsive. None of which are explicitly creative, but they are things that get to creativity. So novelty-seeking might be a spur to creativity. Risk-taking might lead you to go more out on a limb. If you’re compulsive, you might be more motivated to get your art, science idea or novel out into the world. These traits that come from having low dopamine function have an upside. These traits can contribute to people having great success in the world, like business leaders.

So there we have it. I always struggled with terming myself “creative,” probably because I am not naturally emotive and veer towards rationality. But it is what it is. This is definitely my natural personality type, and, frankly, what I’m good at. I dropped my math/chem degrees and stuck with English and writing. But how do I circumnavigate all the dark sides of creativity and my personality? I’m guilty of all those things: being impulsive, depressive, narcissistic… Most disturbing to me is my predilection for staying in the dark places, all in the name of productivity.

HBR (can you tell I’m obsessed…I actually pay for a subscription) had another article called “To Get More Creative, Become Less Productive.” This is the basis of it:

Productive people move through the tasks they have to accomplish in a systematic way. They make steady and measurable progress toward their goals. They make effective and efficient use of their time.

Creativity… doesn’t.

Creativity needs time and space to grow. Although we can systematically engage in activities that are related to creativity, it is hard to systematize creativity itself. In particular, creativity is fundamentally about knowledge.

Overall, I disagree with the idea that creative people don’t make effective and efficient use of their time, or that creativity doesn’t grow under those parameters. I completely agree that creativity is about knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that schedules and systems don’t work. Maybe I’m totally weird, but my creativity thrives when I’m on a consistent schedule. It allows my “me time” or my “creative time” to actually be free because I’m untethered to other commitments.

Yes, you absolutely have to make time to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake. But I think that “free time” should be scheduled to an extent. You cannot give yourself too much freedom, because that oftentimes leads nowhere. If I have eight hours to just do as I please, nothing gets done at all. I just mess around all day, and it’s not a productive kind of messing around. I have to tell myself, “from 10-12 you will clean the house. At 12 you will each lunch. After that…” Etc, etc, etc. That’s not to say that I don’t have down time, but for the most part, I do schedule out my time. It allows me to balance productivity and creativity. I can still do my daily “deep dives” (where I just read as much as I can about something random and super specific), and I can still read for pleasure, and I can still do the things I enjoy…but within a greater framework geared towards productivity. If my brain is busy, my creative wheels are turning, too.

I think that’s almost certainly a personal preference. There isn’t a one-size-fits all for creativity OR productivity. I lacked framework in my life for, well, most of my life. When I figured out around 26 that I was happier and more productive when I was busy/scheduled, and that I wasn’t losing any creative time–I adjusted my life accordingly. Work is done with it’s done. Cleaning time is over when it’s over. Sticking to a schedule allows, ultimately, for greater freedom in my case. I’m always interested in hearing about others’ struggles with productivity, creativity, schedules, and more… Please let me know what works for you!



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