The 10 habits of highly creative people, applied to creative companies

You and What Army
A couple of months back, I was once again falling down the rabbit hole that is the theory of creativity. While revisiting the useful and inspiring concept of “Mental Flow” I discovered a later book by the psychologist who coined the term, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The book Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (previously titled: Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People) contains an exploration of the common personality traits of creative people. The traits are articulated as a series of ten paradoxes. Before listing them, he writes:

Of all human activities, creativity comes closest to providing the fulfillment we all hope to get in our lives. Call it full-blast living.
Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives. Most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the result of creativity.
What makes us different from apes–our language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology–is the result of individual ingenuity that was recognised, rewarded, and transmitted through learning.

You’ve got to love the man, I’m sure he’d be against speculative work and 6-way creative pitches.

The list itself is delightful on its own, and will feel intuitively familiar to anyone who has an appreciation for creativity and creative people. An interesting thing, is that while going through the list you discover that the principles apply not just to creative individuals, but also to innovation and to creative companies and organisations.

So here are Csikszentmihalyi’s Ten paradoxical traits of the creative personality, translated to the the traits of creative companies.

1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest.

Creative companies balance a great capacity for doing and action with time for focus, reflection and a healthy work-life balance.

2. Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time.

Creative companies retain a sense of wonder and innocence. This allows them to attempt the impossible even when “they should know better”. It sometimes results in great breakthroughs.

3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.

Creative companies realise fun and experimentation are just as important to the bottom line as budgets, KPI’s and deadlines. However, when most companies think of creativity, they only think of the fun part, the truly creative appreciate all the work involved in making the idea a reality.

4. Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality.

Creative companies continually imagine, reinvent and plan their future, but they also acknowledge that “A goal is a dream with a deadline” and that “Vision without action is an hallucination”.

5. Creative people trend to be both extroverted and introverted.

Creative companies look outside as well as inside. They tell stories and look for the limelight, but are also great listeners and willing to learn from anyone (and anything).

6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time.

Creative companies know their self-worth and don’t shy away from tooting their own horns, but they also keep their eye on the next challenge and know that their status should be continually justified. They acknowledge their debt to those who came before them, while not afraid to carry out their own vision.

7. Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.

Creative companies actively seek a healthy gender balance – both in term of staff mix and cultural style.

8. Creative people are both rebellious and conservative.

Most organisations will be either rebellious or conservative, but truly creative companies stay loyal to their values while challenging and often revolutionising their markets. A deep understanding of your business, requires you to be immersed in its history, principles and mechanics. And then you have to challenge them – a rare quality.

9. Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.

In a creative company, people passionately defend their work and are expected to do that, but they are not ashamed to step down or make changes when someone has a better idea, because creative companies are “all about the work”, so when the work can be improved, there’s no reason for conflict.

10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment.

Creative companies can be a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, but have the biggest potential to provide fulfilling work experiences (and, in turn, great customer experiences). In creative companies people are not afraid to be themselves, allowing themselves to show vulnerability (for more about the importance of vulnerability to creativity and happiness, see Brené Brown’s smash hit TED talk.)

Being at forefront of your business will expose you to a lot of criticism, unless you can handle it, your creativity will be squashed very early. In a truly creative company, the thought that things can be better and you’re not aspiring to make them so is unbearable. This requires a certain sensitivity. Companies with a culture of compromise, rarely exhibit creative breakthroughs.

These are but initial analogies? What do you think?

Cross-posted on The Crossed-Cow (The Partners’ Blog)

2 thoughts on “The 10 habits of highly creative people, applied to creative companies

  1. Love the way you’ve taken Csikszentmihalyi’s work on creativity and applied it to companies: it makes a lot of sense. I was particularly struck by the idea of a creative company needing to combine energy and rest/focus. I think too many companies get stuck in a mad rush for innovation, which can seem to become a goal unto itself. Focus keeps it balanced: is it on strategy? Has one given an idea enough time to develop fully? Is it worth doing? Does it add something to the firm/the world? Also, rest – either literal, physical rest or a break from something – helps to give us the objectivity we need to balance our passion.


  2. That’s so true.
    Thanks for this comment.
    As a bonus aside, just for you – have a look at his “flow” model and ask yourself in which “territory” the financial crisis is putting the average person. :-/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s