8 paradoxes of creative people.

I heard Penn researcher and Ungifted author Scott Barry Kaufman speak recently about redefining intelligence at Idea Festival, a local conference. Kaufman is a brilliant researcher who spent years in special ed because his kind of intelligence didn’t align with his teachers’ traditional view of what intelligence looked like.

Traditional intelligence tests measure skills located in the brain’s executive control network: working memory, processing speed, vocabulary, reasoning skills. But creative people have messy minds, and these tests are often poor at recognizing their intelligence. They don’t assess the brain’s imagination network, which is distinct from but just as important as the brain’s executive functions, and is responsible for a whole catalog of skills that traditional intelligence tests ignore.

The imagination network is associated with things like self-awareness, daydreaming, and imagining the future, and it is crucial to our best thinking. When you seek empathy, pull meaning out of your experiences, and reason about moral dilemmas, your imagination network is at work.

(When you read fiction, you rely on and strengthen your imagination network, because you must transport your mind into the mind of someone else.)

In creative types, the lines between discrete mental skills aren’t neat and tidy; they tend to blur. According to Kaufman, “They are really good at mixing and matching all sorts of seemingly contradictory emotions, ideas, and personality traits to produce something truly original and meaningful.”

Because of their ability to blur the lines, creative people are excellent at dreaming up new possibilities and envisioning alternate realities across domains. Being this kind of possibility thinker is a strong predictor of success across the board.

If you feel like your mind is messy, have no fear—that’s not a bad thing. It’s characteristic of creative minds, which are untidy and characterized by paradox.

8 paradoxes of creative people

Creative types don’t view daydreaming as a waste of time. Letting their minds wander often results in their best ideas seemingly striking from out of the blue.

Creative people can persevere against all obstacles when pursuing an issue they care deeply about.

Creative thinkers may spend copious amounts of time alone, because solitude is a requirement for their best work.

These individuals are open to new experiences, ideas, and emotions. They also have sensitive nervous systems, and score highly on the Highly Sensitive Person scale.

Creative people can be playful and silly, embracing the absurdity of life, yet are highly focused on and serious about the issues that most concern them.

They heed their intuition, but can also think rationally when necessary. 

They are able to bounce back from trauma, learning from their hardships and channeling that new knowledge for creative growth.

These individuals are serious experts and rabble-rousers.  

Kaufman will unpack these ideas further in his forthcoming book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Human Mind, due out December 29. As someone who relates all too well to his “messy minds” description, I can’t wait to learn more.

Do you have a “messy mind?” Tell us if these paradoxes ring true for you. 

P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.

8 paradoxes of creative people.


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  1. Sarah Alves says:

    Goodness! Reading those different personality types, I have absolutely no idea where I would fall. I guess I’ll have to read the book! Adding it to my Amazon wishlist now 🙂

  2. Hannah says:

    “Creative types don’t view daydreaming as a waste of time. Letting their minds wander often results in their best ideas seemingly striking from out of the blue.”

    Yes. So, so yes.

  3. Tim says:

    I recognize myself in some of those characteristics, Anne. When it comes to #8, I think I’d be more likely to fit the description if my job were not the antithesis of a rabble rousing profession.

    • Anne says:

      Something that didn’t make it into the post: he said that creative people are often comfortable being “a minority of one,” and that this trait is a strong predictor of creativity AND lifelong success across the board.

  4. Dana says:

    Yes, Anne, I am all of these things, especially #1, #3 and # 6.

    I am definitely passionately introverted. I love spending big chunks of time alone. It is great thinking and creative time and makes some of the other things ( like #1 and # 6) possible. I am attending a Writer’s Retreat in a few weeks and it turns out I will not be able to carpool with anyone because of logistics. I was thrilled to know that I would have 5 hours each way in the car alone…great thinking and talking out loud to myself time : ).

  5. Leanne says:

    While I identify with all of these characteristics, I’m finding it ironic that someone is trying to characterize a creative person. That feels like putting a box around creative personalities, and isn’t that what creatives are supposed to think outside of?I think it’s possible to be a deeply creative person, and also live well in a world of logic and technical test questions.

  6. I love the concept of being “openly sensitive”. I am very open to new experiences and ideas, but I also score very high on the HSP scale. It always seemed like such a contradiction, but I love that it is associated with being creative. Cool list!

  7. Amy says:

    I clicked on this post because I am a creative, and I’m also very messy. I struggle with clutter and messiness every stinkin’ day. With all the trendiness now being about minimalism, and my tendencies toward the other end of the spectrum . . . THIS is what I need to be reminded of. We are not all created to be exactly the same. There are people who are more comfortable with sparse, tidy environments. And then there are people like me, who create and thrive in a (cough) looser environment entirely. Not that I want to live in a pile of junk. . . but I’ll anxiously await the chance to read this book!

  8. Amy says:

    Every single one of these describes me! Characteristics like “vulnerably resilient” used to throw me for a loop because I couldn’t understand how it was possible to be both at once. Now I think of it as my superpower 😉 I’ve accepted that I’m always going to be a minority, and I’m fine with it, but it’s still nice to read that other people experience the same things I do. 🙂

  9. Carrie says:

    I’m late to the conversation, but so glad I read this post- it describes me to a “T”! I’m grateful you wrote it and may have to check out the book. Im also happy to read that someone else can not do minimalism. When I am creating something, that means physical clutter and a messy brain.

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