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Creativity’s Monsters: Making Friends with Complexity

Being more creative often requires us to get along with our own messy selves.

“To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.” ~ Jessica Olien

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, studied the lives of 91 eminent creators, what he terms “big C” creatives who changed their domains, in search of what they might have in common. His conclusion? "If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it's complexity” (read more).

Graffiti of Eminem in Shanghai, China
By Sabine Fricke; Graffiti: Unknown (Sabine Fricke) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By "complexity" he meant having personalities of “contradictory extremes,” such as being both extremely smart and naïve, or traditional and rebellious, or objective and passionate. There is little middle ground. Creatively complex people are nearly impossible to “peg” as this or that. Their capacity to tap into a fuller range of what life has to offer is what allows them a broader response to life’s problems and questions, whether practical or artistic. This is in line with findings that openness to experience is an important part of creativity.

Csikszentmihalyi believes that we all can become more creative by consciously becoming more complex:

"A creative person is highly individualized. She follows her own star and creates her own career. At the same time, she is deeply steeped in the traditions of the culture; she learns and respects the rules of the domain and is responsive to the opinions of the field—as long as those opinions do not conflict with personal experience. Complexity is the result of the fruitful interaction between these two opposing tendencies."1

Creativity and Social Rejection

Complexity, however, is not for the faint of heart. Parents, teachers, friends, and employers are more at ease when we are predictable, when we confine our creativity to what is comfortable, when we remain free from conflict and controversy.

In “Inside the Box: People don’t actually like creativity,” Jessica Olien writes about how, beginning in school and continuing through the world of work, our society routinely discourages if not outright punishes creativity. Yes, we celebrate eminence and innovation, but we do not value the ways in which creative people think and feel and live. Children are rarely praised for their divergence. Workers who challenge the status quo are rarely rewarded. But Olien also writes that not fitting in may be just what we need to live a fully creative life:

“All of this negativity isn’t easy to digest, and social rejection can be painful in some of the same ways physical pain hurts. But there is a glimmer of hope in all of this rejection. A Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is not actually bad for the creative process—and can even facilitate it. The study shows that if you have the sneaking suspicion you might not belong, the act of being rejected confirms your interpretation. The effect can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests.”

The students in my creative thinking classes are emboldened when they learn that the complexity they had always thought of as something to hide or try to simplify, because it is messy and hard to understand, can actually be a creative asset. They also begin to re-think aspects of their childhood that were difficult and painful—parental divorce, bullying, learning disabilities—as preparations for them to be more fully themselves, free from the need to fit in because they already know that they can survive without fitting in.

Snatching Creativity from the Jaws of Defeat

In his theory of Positive Disintegration, a theory of personal growth and personality development, Kazimierz Dabrowski posited, “A great flow of creativity, changing direction, reach, subject, and level of the creativity, often follows after great defeats in life.” Like Csikszentmihalyi, he found in creative people "the struggle of contradictory sets of tendencies, an inadaptability to reality, a disposition to prospection and retrospection.”2 He argued that creativity “is often connected in some individuals with periods of emotional crisis, inner conflicts, and difficult life experiences. It seems to demand 'turbulence' in the inner environment.”3

Eminem performing in 2011
WhiteBoyzCantRun at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

This is not to say that we should seek pain and conflict for their own sake, but rather that we can cut ourselves some slack for lives that are imperfect. Our periods of disintegration can serve as opportunities for both creative and personal growth. Dabrowski argued that this is especially true of complex feelings we have about ourselves and that life-long creatives often have a persistent "sentiment of inferiority toward themselves.”4

Perhaps no other musician has explored through his art the complexity of a creative life more often or with more candor than Eminem (Marshall Mathers). His GRAMMY-winning best rap/sung collaboration with Rihanna, “The Monster,” is no exception. The lyrics and the music video for the song reflect many themes present in much of his recent work, resonating with young and old alike: retrospection, conflict over one's domain, self-knowledge, self-doubt, self-acceptance, and fear of losing one’s creativity when life becomes less rather than more complex.

Before watching "The Monster" music video, learn more about the ideas behind it from Eminem's manager, Paul Rosenberg, including an Inception-like journey through Eminem’s career thus far, in “The Monster Explained (Behind The Scenes) ft. Rihanna.” Note that both videos contain some explicit language.


1 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity. New York: Harper Collins. p. 363

2 Dabrowski, K. (1967). Personality shaping through positive disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown. p. 129

3 Dabrowski, K. (1964). The theory of positive disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown. p. 115

4 Ibid. p. 50

Creative Commons Image links: Eminem performing in 2011 & Graffiti of Eminem in Shanghai, China