Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

24 August, 2016

Creativity requires a healthy ego
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 9:16 PM

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.

Some definitions

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?

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  1. From my experience with creative people, this doesn’t sound right.

    First off, the quiet account who creates in private is just as creative as the well known artist or the person who just creates for money. That’s nitpicking in a way, but also important for what I’m about to say, so bear with me.

    It doesn’t take ego to create. Of course you put something of yourself into it, but you may not even be aware of this. This isn’t a particular expression of ego, though, it’s just being a person: the technique I pick to lace my shoes, for example, puts just as much of myself into the lacing as what happens when I try watercolours. There are artistic knots some folk use because they really care about shoes. Me, I picked my technique up from a kid’s show when I was about 3 or 4 and stuck with it, because “the way adults do it” seemed too complicated to be worth learning.

    So creating reveals a lot about you, perhaps, but this does not mean it comes from a place of ego.

    The trickier part is showing your creative works. This always seems to boil down to personalities that look for external validation of their efforts. Here, I know two sub-types: the ones whose motivation for creating is to be admired (getting external validation, perhaps even in excess), and those who enjoy the act of creation. To the latter, the external validation is necessary for figuring themselves out, to understand how what they put into their works of themselves affects people.

    Either way, though, seeking external validation is something a truly confident person does not do, because they have no need for it. They may or may not be admired, but largely that’s something to ignore.

    Seen through that lens, your accountant is the most confident creator, Connie is over compensating her lack of confidence with a big show thereof, and Louise likely never makes it to the draft stage. It’s just not worth it, because she feels she won’t get validation anyway. It depends a bit on how much she likes the act of creation.

    This is of course also just pop psychology and deeply flawed, but it best fits the creative people I have actually met.

    Comment by unwesen — 24 August, 2016 @ 10:35 PM

  2. Creation doesn’t require ego. Showing off requires ego.

    Comment by Jeromai — 25 August, 2016 @ 8:08 AM

  3. I guess I should have gone into more detail about what is creativity and creative work. I think you’re both not quite understanding what I’m talking about.

    Note that I didn’t say the accountant working alone isn’t creative. I said that this didn’t apply to them, because it works differently.

    Think of creative work being like conversation. I can sit alone in a room and talk to myself, saying statements and giving responses. But is this really a “conversation”? Perhaps, but you have to admit this isn’t the same as having a conversation with another person. You’re not developing your conversational skills well by simply talking to yourself. Or, consider this in the context of conversation to learn a new language; talking to yourself doesn’t develop the same skills as working with a partner.

    Bringing this back to creative work, I think an important part of creative work is getting feedback, and working alone doesn’t give you that feedback you need in order to grow and develop your skill. And, sure, some people might like their own creative process with no aspirations to grow. But, that’s not what I’m talking about here.

    So, showing your work to others isn’t necessarily about showing off or seeking external validation. Some people might certainly have that as a motivation for showing their work, but at the core of it creative people who want to grow need to show their work to others. And I still assert it takes a healthy ego in order to do that.

    Hopefully that’s a bit clearer.

    I’ll also add a slight note of discomfort with the idea that sharing your creative work with others is necessarily a sign of showing off or seeking external validation. Some people do creative work for a living, and they have have to show their creative work to others in order to get paid. Accusing these people of being showoffs or attention seekers seems rather wrong-headed.

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 August, 2016 @ 12:11 PM

  4. I know I’m starting to nitpick, but I find myself disagreeing again.

    Creative work that merely uses the skills you already have well established, well… There’s an argument here to be made that that isn’t very creative at all, but let’s not go there. Let’s assume it is creative.

    Nevertheless it differs in the quality of the creation process from creating works that challenge your skills.

    You do not need to show your works to keep improving that way. When you challenge yourself, you figure out solutions to problems you haven’t faced before. By studying other creative works, either before, during or after this process, you grow your skill set further.

    This is akin to sitting in a room, speaking with yourself and alternating that with listening to talk radio (perhaps). You need not share what you are talking about will others to still grow.

    So I disagree with much of the premise of your previous argument.

    That said.

    People who are creative for a living, well, you can go several ways with that. One would be to argue that they chose this vocation for a reason over all the others that are available and support a similar life style. Then you can go and argue their choice and the motivations we listed above may be related.

    As with everything, there are gradations and mixtures of motivations, and motivations can change.

    You are right about the commercial creatives, though: they *may* be motivation by something else, or they may just function like the accountant with the difference that their works aren’t theirs, so publishing them is no longer their own decision. If it isn’t, then the external validation motivation need not apply.

    Comment by unwesen — 25 August, 2016 @ 12:56 PM

  5. I meant “showing off” in the exact literal sense of the phrase. Displaying one’s creative work.

    How excessively it is shown off, in the figurative sense, is directly proportional to the amount of ego.

    There is no contradiction. Your discomfort is your own.

    Comment by Jeromai — 25 August, 2016 @ 4:51 PM

  6. Oversimplification, but I might say that creation doesn’t require ego… but to create again does.

    As noted, though, too much of a good thing can be as bad as not enough. So another way to dramatize the effect of ego might have been three cases: over-ego (“I’m awesome and anyone who can’t see my brilliance is a fool”), under-ego (“I don’t know why I keep trying; I must really suck if everyone hates what I made”), and balanced ego (“Well, it wasn’t that bad, but they have a point — I’ll have to do better next time”).

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 25 August, 2016 @ 7:22 PM

  7. Someone posted a Google+ post that gets to the heart of what I mean here.

    I’ve said multiple times now (and will go right on saying) there is only one bit of writing advice in the whole entire world:
    Solicit constructive feedback.
    Critically evaluate feedback.

    It takes some ego to keep doing that, especially to take that feedback and use it.

    Jeromai wrote:
    I meant “showing off” in the exact literal sense of the phrase. Displaying one’s creative work.

    But, that’s not what the phrase “showing off” means to most people. But, even allowing for you to change the meaning of that phrase, showing your work to others is part of the creativity process. As I said above, creativity without feedback is a conversation without another person. It’s not the same thing, to the point it should be called something else completely.

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 August, 2016 @ 7:30 PM

  8. Rather than calling “creation without audience” something other than creation, how about we use words we already have? How about we use “creation” for the act of creation, and any similar word to publishing as the act of soliciting an audience (and getting feedback)?

    I do agree, by the way, that creation without an audience isn’t really what I would want to do, personally. Or as a friend of mine puts it, “real artists ship” (which also means: meet deadlines, which is another story altogether). But I cannot bring myself to view creation without audience as somehow not creative. That doesn’t compute to me in the slightest.

    Comment by unwesen — 29 August, 2016 @ 8:27 AM

  9. unwesen wrote:
    How about we use “creation” for the act of creation, and any similar word to publishing as the act of soliciting an audience (and getting feedback)?

    Publishing and the synonyms provided all don’t quite capture the idea. Most of those words have at least the connotation of putting things out for the public, and particularly for commercial purposes. While I think that creativity does require sharing one’s work with others, I don’t think having a commercial requirement is fair.

    I’ll also note that the discussion has shifted the word from “creativity” which I’ve used in the post to “creation”. “Creativity” is a more specific term and I think has (or should have) connotations beyond the mere act of generating something. I also like the term “creative work” which differentiates it from plain “work”.

    But I cannot bring myself to view creation without audience as somehow not creative.

    Well, is any act of creation “creative”, then? Again, the connotations of the word “creative” are important to this discussion. To call someone “creative” generally indicates more than they they create stuff.

    I think labeling any output as “creative” dilutes the term because it puts any work on equal footing with all other work. I think it’s important to recognize the person who creates new, original works and strives to improve their creativity by incorporating feedback from others rather than handing the label “creative” to just anyone.

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 August, 2016 @ 1:55 PM

  10. Maybe this is where we differ:

    … the person who creates new, original works and strives to improve their creativity …

    First off, I don’t think there is such a thing as a new, original work. It’s like Mark Twain said, you just put a bunch of old ideas into a kaleidoscope and give it a twist.

    That’s not to say that people can’t surprise me with their creations, or that they are all worthless from the start, or anything negative like that. I just think that “new, original” as terms are very overrated, and far too wildly applied.

    [Mind you, my dislike of the terms doesn't come from art, but from business, where "innovative" means the same thing.]

    As such, I don’t actually associate any particular connotations with “creative” other than “creates stuff”.

    Comment by unwesen — 29 August, 2016 @ 11:43 PM

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