24 August, 2016
A friend of mine started a Google+ discussion talking about creativity. He talked about how a successful software developer had been called “a dick” and speculated how that could be true.
That got me to thinking about what it takes to be creative and how creative people are perceptive. You might be able to guess my thoughts if you read the title of this post, but let me go into a bit more detail.
Creativity as violence
My friend’s original assertion is that creativity has an element of violence to it. You can’t have creativity, especially not large scale creativity that affects many people’s lives, without selfishness and ruthlessness.
He explained that Silicon Valley values “disruption”, which is when a young startup company disrupts an established incumbent company, usually causing loss for the incumbent. Blogs came along and disrupted the old forums some of used to love. Forums had displaced Usenet, which had become a morass of spam. And so on. Something new comes along and will often displace something old, if for no other reason than human attention being finite and paying attention to the new usually means the old falls out of the spotlight. You could see someone who preferred the old as not being a fan of the creative people who developed the new.
While I can see this point of view, I don’t quite buy into it.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining creativity as someone creating something of their own, usually for the enjoyment of others. You can be creative and then hide your creative work where nobody can see it, but that’s not the type of thing being discussed here. The quiet accountant who goes home to create wild works of art isn’t going to be called “a dick” for their creative work if nobody else sees it.
And, for this discussion, I’m using “ego” in the sense of a person’s self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence. I’m not intending to use any specialize meaning here.
Also, this is just a bunch of speculation on my part. I’m not a trained psychologist. I could be entirely wrong here, but it’s interesting enough (so my ego tells me) to share at least.
The creative process
Creative people put some of themselves into their work, so one needs a good enough sense of self to put the “real you” into your work. A creative person’s work often is a reflection of them, not necessarily in that they endorse what goes on in the story, but that it shows some part of who they are. A creator might put stuff they like, stuff they admire, stuff they aspire to, or even just stuff they think will be popular enough to bring success.
This is different for different people, though. Some people are telling a morality tale they hope others will take to heart. Others might just be creating echos of what they like in other creative works. And, yes, some people may not really invest much of themselves into the creative work; to some people, creative work is “just a paycheck” and they do the work like many people pursue their careers to keep the rent paid and food on the table. In this case, they probably don’t need much ego to do the work, but you might argue this is not the height of creativity.
You also need enough self-assurance to put your work out for others to use and judge. When you release a creative work, you are imposing upon other people to spend their precious and limited time on this planet to interact with it. You need to have enough confidence to either believe you’re not wasting someone’s time, or enough confidence that you don’t care if you are wasting their time or not.
Finally, it takes a lot of self-confidence to take criticism. Critical reactions can hurt people, and you need to have strength to deal with it. It might be enough self-confidence to believe you’re in the right and the feedback is wrong, or enough self-esteem that you can change your creative vision to incorporate the feedback. Either way, having some ego helps.
Richard Bartle has said that he likes calling MMO creators “gods” instead of “adminstrators”, because they literally create a little world that others will inhabit. It takes some ego to call yourself a “god”!
The result of too much ego
Obviously, an overabundance of ego can be a negative thing in interpersonal relationships. The same self-confidence that makes one able to create and release their work can also make them insensitive to the feelings of others. So, a creative person can definitely be both creative and be an asshole.
And if your creativity has been praised and/or rewarded in the past, it might swell that ego to the point where it becomes excessive. People get to the point I refer to as “buying into your own press releases”, where someone starts to believe all the grandiose things said about them. Obviously they’re a creative genius beyond reproach because they created this great creative work! This especially becomes a problem when that person gets selfish about the creative process and inflicts themselves on others.
Western culture also has a stereotype of the eccentric and aloof creative genius; we are expected to ignore the outrageous behavior of a “genius” because we cannot comprehend the world in the brilliant way they do. Jealous can also play a part in perceptions, where some might ramp up their disapproval of someone who appears more successful, particularly if they believe the person doesn’t deserve that success.
That said, there are plenty of “down to earth” creative types who don’t suffer from an overbearing ego. But, I think some creative types do buy into the idea that they have to (or simply can) be a dick to others.
Too little ego
What about the other end of the spectrum? What about someone who doesn’t have enough ego?
This is particularly scary because I think these type of people are created by others. Someone with very little ego generally doesn’t get into creative work; they are a lot less likely make it past the first few steps of making a creative work, so they don’t pursue that type of activity. So, the creative person with too little ego is probably created. Either by a fellow professional who squashes their self-esteem, circumstances that take away their self-confidence, or a weakening of the ego by negative experiences and feedback.
Having too little ego can be a brutal situation, because they might still be creative but without the confidence to create or share their creations with others. Again, you can do creative work and hide it away, but for most creative people they want to share their creative work.
You see this mostly in the creative person who is their own worst critic. Nothing they do is good enough, even if it appears fine to others. They create but throw away the creation because it doesn’t satisfy them. But, if they don’t have a proper outlet for their creativity, it can become frustrating.
An example of ego at work
Someone said they didn’t understand what I meant. So, I provided a little example of how ego influences a creative work.
Imagine we have two people: Confident Connie with a lot of ego (self-confidence, self-esteem, etc.) and Low Self-Esteem Louise who does not. Both decide to write a story.
Both are told that writing is a waste of time. Connie thinks, “But I have a story I want to tell!” and dedicates herself to the work. Louise isn’t sure her story is really all that great, so maybe it would be a waste of time.
Both are fed some bullshit about women being unable to write interesting stories. Connie scoffs and thinks her story will be interesting to others because it’s interesting to her. Louse starts to believe that bullshit and isn’t sure her story is really as great as the stories she’s read before that were written by men.
Both get to a point where the writing becomes difficult. Maybe the story comes to an abrupt stop because the plot just doesn’t work out the way they planned. Connie is excited about getting the story out to others and figures out a way to fix it. Louise isn’t sure that the effort is worth it.
Both get ready to release a draft of their stories. Maybe they’re going to post it online to a writer’s community. Connie thinks she has an interesting story to share and wants feedback. Louise isn’t confident that her story is really that good, and people will probably just hate it anyway.
Both get some critical feedback from someone who isn’t polite in tearing apart the story. Connie might answer back, pointing out counters to the feedback and also re-consider the work to see if she can express herself better to address the feedback. Louise sees this as confirmation that her story wasn’t very good to start with.
Both hear about an editor at a convention they’re at who might be interested in unpublished manuscripts. Connie looks for the editor and makes a pitch, knowing it’s probably a long-shot. Louise figures she’ll just get rejected, so why bother?
Now, it’s not impossible for Louise to write and sell her story, but Connie is going to have a much easier time doing so. Ego and self-confidence will help you through the myriad of obstacles that stand in the way of creative work
What do you think? Do you agree that ego plays a part in creative work? Or do you have another explanation?