After the Show: The Many Faces of the Performer

The complexities and contradictions of creative people

Posted Aug 25, 2010

"Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" - Walt Whitman

"I think that when you're talking about Michael Jackson and you try to analyze him, it's like analyzing electricity, you know? It exists, but you don't have a clue as to how it works".

Creativity researchers aren't so confused. They have long-ago accepted the fact that creative people are complex. Almost by definition, creativity is complex. Creative thinking is influenced by many traits, behaviors, and sociocultural factors that come together in one person (see "Could Michael Jackson Have Created Twitter?"). It would be surprising if all of these factors didn't sometimes, or even most of the time, appear to contradict one another.

As creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in his 1996 article for Psychology Today titled "The Creative Personality", creative people

"show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an "individual", each of them is a "multitude."

To me, some of the most fascinating contrasts are those found in creative performers- those who are constantly on stage and in the public eye. Out of Csikszentmihaly's list of 10 complex personality traits of creative people, which were based on interviews with a wide variety of creative people, I think these three are the most relevant to creative performers:

1. "Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they're also often quiet and at rest. They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm...This does not mean that creative people are hyperactive, always "on." In fact, they rest often and sleep a lot. The important thing is that they control their energy; it's not ruled by the calendar, the dock, an external schedule. When necessary, they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately recharge their batteries. They consider the rhythym of activity followed by ideleness or reflection very important for the success of their work."

2. "Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted. We're usually one or the other, either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines and observing the passing show. In fact, in psychological research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits that differentiate people from each other and that can be reliability measured. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously."

3. "Creative people's openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment. Most would agree with Rabinow's words: 'Inventors have a low threshold of pain. Things bother them.' A badly designed machine causes pain to an inventive engineer, just as the creative writer is hurt when reading bad prose. Being alone at the forefront of a discipline also leaves you exposed and vulnerable."

These three seeming contradictions- energy/rest, extroversion/introversion, and openness/sensitivity- are not separate phenomena but are intimately related to one another and along with other traits form the core of the creative performer's personality.

"Michael was so shy, he'd sit down and sing behind the couch with his back to me while I sat with my hands over my eyes—and the lights off."

A little while ago Susan Biali wrote a fascinating blog post for Psychology Today titled "Was Michael Jackson a Highly Sensitive Person(HSP)"? Are You?", which really resonated with me. In her post, she notes the seeming discrepancy found in Jackson between his

"shy reclusive personality (documented since he was a young child), and his outrageously impressive and even flamboyant ability to perform on and dominate the world stage."

Biali links this disrepancy to Jackson being a highly sensitive person (HSP) (see here for more info and here to assess whether you are a HSP). According to HSP researcher Elaine Aron, HSP's make up 15-20% of the general population and tend to be more aware than others of subtleties, get more easily overwhelmed when things get too intense or there is too much sensory input, are easily affected by other's moods, and are deeply creative and moved by arts and music. In a very recent post called, "Why it's hard to be a highly sensitive (HSP) introvert", I felt Biali very accurately described the frequent frustration of being a HSP:

"I'm extremely sensitive to other people's moods; when someone is angry, judgmental or irritated, those emotions come through my skin and into my cells, making me even more uncomfortable. Worst of all, if I don't have my own space to retreat to and recharge, I'll eventually have a meltdown."

Some of the most creative people have very high levels of sensitivity. Like Bilali, they embrace who they are and find ways to accommodate their sensitivity. Take Yoshira Nakamatsu, perhaps one of the most creative (if not also a bit nutty) inventors of all time. He invented many 'calm rooms' around his house to minimize as much as possible any potential sensory input that might interfere with his creative process. My favorite calm room is his bathroom, where his toilet shuts out every noise and every magnetic and electronic field! According to Dr. Nakamatsu, "Such a calm room erases all noise from your brain, you can concentrate and think." It should be noted that Dr. Nakamatsu also has a "dynamic room" in his old house, where music, patterns and textures stimulate the brain. According to Nakamatsu, this room is conducive to inventing, allowing the creator to mix ideas in his or her head. The genius of Dr. Nakamatsu may come in large part, from his ability to flexibly switch between extreme quiet and extreme stimulation (read here for more on the good Dr.'s genius).

Behind the curtain, how did these hard rock musicians describe themselves? Below are some of Jennifer's impressions, which I've split up by category for ease of reading.

Introversion / Extroversion

- All subjects showed interest in physical activities but also reported requiring "alone time".

- While most of the musicians reported some degree of shyness at some time in their lives, this was not reported as the main motivator for their reclusion. Social reclusion was reported as a result of their constant "overthinking", rumination, concern regarding future events and possibilities, suspicions, and/or a sense of being philosophically overwhelmed. Most of Grimes' subjects reported "overthinking everything" and being hypercritical, exhibiting critical attention to detail and a careful method of planning everything.

- Those familiar only with the subjects' stage persona believed the subjects to be friendly, bold, and approachable. The acquaintances who were able to respond to Grimes' interview questionnaire reported that the subjects were not approachable or appeared to hold a condescending view of others until one became better acquainted with the individual. Those closer to the musicians thought they were warm, friendly, calm, and pleasant.

- Many of Grimes' subjects felt as though they were often misunderstood or perceived in a negative light, sometimes due to shyness. Other reasons for feeling misunderstood stemmed from a preference for solitude and an accompanying belief that their perceptions of appropriate social exchange with certain friends is dissonant from the expectations of these friends. In other words, friends of introverted musicians believed that they are closer and expect greater interpersonal exchange than the musicians were willing to concede or deem appropriate.

- All musicians reported a reduced need to be around many others in purely social situations, indicating anxiety and/or a lack of pleasure in collecting more than a few trusted friends.

- All were happy to interact with vast numbers of people at signings, 'meets and greets' and other public events for publicity. Some musicians reported this being easier than small talk.

- All musicians reported introverted tendencies as compensatory mechanisms to experience 'balance' given their need to act extroverted and to interact in situations involving high social stimulation.

- Subjects were in agreement that relating through art allowed them to 'bridge the gap' between their inner world and their outer world, and to be able to constructively enjoy their creativity without the pressures of emergent anxiety or a desire to withdraw.

Openness / Sensitivity

-At the same time, Grimes found a lot of the musicians reported a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and their experience of sound, lighting, scents, etc. Some of the musicians she interviewed even reported finding the scent of food "disturbing" when they weren't hungry.

- All of the musicians reported some degree of unusual perceptions, especially relating to high sensory sensitivity.

- All subjects described music as a means of self-expression, relating to others, and finding fulfillment. Subjects reported that listening to or creating music allowed them to recharge when overstimulated.

- Subjects who were principal writers describe "giving in" to the creative process in order to fully achieve flow.

- Musicians reported that any amount of inhibition hindered creative production. Apparently, this was a conscious decision: artists explained how they learned to work with the process so that they did not unintentionally inhibit their creativity by blocking their own flow.

- Many of Grimes' subjects showed an appreciation of fantasy; daydreaming was commonly reported.

- Drummers reported less abnormal perceptual experiences, lower levels of sensitivity, and lower anxiety than the rest of the instrumentalists.

Grimes concludes that it is her hope that the stereotyping about introversion will cease to pervade introversion literature without unbiased support for those claims.

So that's heavy metal rockers. What about stand-up comedians, another group of creative performers that often seem quite Extraverted onstage?

"The public perceives comedians as ostentatious and flashy. Their persona on stage is often mistakenly seen interchangeably with their real personality, and the jokes they tell about their lives are considered by many to have a grain of truth in them. However, the results of this study suggest that the opposite is true. Perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily life. Comedians may portray someone they want to be, or perhaps their act is a way to defy the constraints imposed on their everyday events and interactions with others." 

© 2010 by Scott Barry Kaufman

Note: For insightful articles on the link between sensitivity and creativity, I highly recommend the following website: http://talentdevelop.com/category/high-sensitivity.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Jennifer O. Grimes for kindly sharing the summary of her musician interviews with me and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic for bringing Dr. Nakamatsu's creativity to my attention.