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True Creativity Requires Self-Actualization

The most innovative people persist in the face of doubt and rejection by others.

Key points

  • Self-actualized people express themselves and act on their own desires, even when kin or social groups are not supportive.
  • The ability to persist in the face of opposition from one's peer or kin group is a key ingredient in creativity.
  • The most creative people often teach themselves by reading widely in disparate fields.
C.E. Crane on Flickr CC by 2.0
Student studying in Aces Library by University of Illinois Library
Source: C.E. Crane on Flickr CC by 2.0

One of the themes of this blog concerns the forces that interfere with the ability of people to self-actualize, or freely express themselves and their opinions, and act on their own personal desires, even when their kin or social group may not always be supportive. Self-actualized people do not always follow in groupthink patterns during which others go along to get along, agreeing with the family or ethnic group's ideas and philosophies while remaining willfully blind to any information that contradicts the group's mythology.

Creativity in the Arts and Sciences

Although she did not put it in those terms exactly, the question of whether the ability to do this is an important contribution to creativity in the arts and sciences was addressed by Nancy C. Andreasen.
She is a well-known psychiatry professor at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and the former editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Psychiatry, and she wrote an article entitled Secrets of the Creative Brain, published in the July/August 2014 issue of the Atlantic magazine.

She described a study she was doing with a lot of creative people, many of whom were celebrities. In the article, she first discussed the often purported relationship between genius and madness, and she found that there is indeed some truth to the idea that there is some. The incidence of mental illnesses in her subjects and their family members was higher than expected. Although some of this may involve heredity, as evidenced by the incidence of schizophrenia, most of the psychiatric disorders found in her sample were those that primarily involve interpersonal dysfunction: certain mood and anxiety disorders and alcoholism.

Why might that be? Her answer speaks to my speculation about the role of self-actualization in creative people:

One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers....They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that....This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.

To be innovative in one’s field involves the ability to persist in letting one’s mind work in the face of scorn and rejection from one’s peers. Even though it does hurt, innovators didn’t let the rejection of publications or grant applications stop them from continuing. They also had the wherewithal to be proven wrong at times and yet not be discouraged from continuing to search widely for better answers to technical questions.


Creative genius also involved the willingness to teach oneself about a wide variety of subjects rather than be spoon-fed by teachers only in one’s chosen field of endeavor. Andreasen noted that many of her subjects were "autodidacts"—basically self-taught. Many had gotten in trouble with their school teachers for pointing out times when the teacher said something that was not true. She also found that many of her subjects were “polymaths”—people who read widely not only in their chosen area of expertise but also in many other subjects, both in the sciences and the humanities.

That sounds a lot like self-actualization to me.

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