When I was a kid in the 70s, I was something of a connoisseur of TV. Brady Bunch, Gilligan, Happy Days – I was an expert. And I’ll never forget when Mork from Ork was on Happy Days as a special guest who challenged the Fonz like no one from this world ever could. Holy junk – this guy is something different. He was funny at another level – and you can imagine how thrilled I was to find that a series featuring this guy – named Robin Williams – was about to hit the airwaves. “Mork has his own show!?” I thought. Nothing could be better to my 8-year-old world.
And regardless of what anyone thinks, that show was brilliant! Even my dad liked it. I still recall watching it with my parents and brothers – and having my dad explain some of the “advanced” humor. One time Mork paid a pizza delivery guy – but had to be told by someone else to give the guy a tip (being an Orkan, he was unaware of this custom). Without hesitating, he comes up with this: “Here’s a tip – don’t eat Mexican food and stand next to a fire.” I asked my dad to interpret – and wow, did I find this funny once I understood it. My dad also explained the concept of "ad libbing" and explained that this particular actor did a lot of that.
And I pretty much, throughout my life, would be glad to watch anything that featured Robin Williams from then on – I even loved the movie version of Popeye. Yes, I really did!
In any field, there are those who stand apart. In a career of research dedicated to understanding the nature of extraordinary creativity and productivity, neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen sought to understand the neuropsychology of such individuals (this work, published across several peer-reviewed outlets, is well-summarized in a recent article, Secrets of the Creative Brain, recently published in The Atlantic). Therein, Andreasen describes the minds of such creative and prolific individuals as Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, and Charles Darwin. Here are some features that these stars held in common with one another:
- They were peerless in their fields. They stood alone.
- They worked harder than others could conceive.
- They produced work of high quality at a pace that was hard for others to comprehend.
- Theirs were minds that made connections that were powerful and novel – and their minds made such connections regularly (even when at rest).
- Sorrow, melancholy, and anxiety played well-documented roles in all their lives.
Is there a connection between prolific creativity and mood - on a population-based level? The data are mixed (for a summary of this work, please see the work of my collaborator, Scott Barry Kaufman, who is Director of Science at the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania – who recently blogged on this connection as it relates to Robin Williams).
Whether there is a statistically reliable connection at the population level, you can darn well be sure that this connection between extraordinary creativity and melancholy has existed deep in the exceptional minds of the individuals discussed in this article.
When I first encountered Mork on my TV screen in 1978, I immediately saw him as a cut above. I was 8-years old – and I could totally see it. He was different. He was engaging at another level. He had something special. And throughout his career, Williams continuously demonstrated this point. Not only did his mind clearly work at another level in terms of connections and speed, but he had a humble kindness about him – which cut across all characters he played. There was never any “I’m a genius and I’m better than you” thing going on with him. Not a lot of arrogance in Robin Williams. Rather, what he exuded was this: “We’re all travelers here on the same ride – I happen to be pretty good at getting people to see the humor in it all – and here it is.”
Every now and again, one of our conspecifics – or fellow humans – has this uncanny confluence of factors – including the ability to do the work of 20 people single-handedly; the ability to get others to gain insights about themselves that they would never otherwise see; and the ability to get other people to see just how wonderful and special this thing we call “life” is. Robin Williams was such an individual. We lost a great one. God Bless you, Mr. Williams.