‘After the Show: The Many Faces of the Performer’

Despite my argument that ‘the creative personality’ is only a part of the spectrum of faculties every one of us possess, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog written by Cognitive Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. about the extreme creative personality. Certainly some are more wholly immersed than others in the creative process and often more so in different periods of their lives. One of the shyest people I ever met was Robin Williams after a performance. It was like he was a teenager who was painfully made to talk to the dinner guests his parents had over.

Anyhow, thank you Dr. Kaufman for this dialogue:

“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman

Recounting his recording sessions with the young Michael Jackson, famed record producer Quincy Jones remembers that “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.” What a contrast from his onstage extroverted, charismatic and bold performance!

In the CNN.com article “The confusing legacy of Michael Jackson,” Todd Leopold discusses the perplexing combination of seemingly contradictory traits displayed by Michael Jackson. In explaining his many sides, Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborelli essentially throws his hands up in the air in exasperation as he tries to make sense of the apparent contradictions:

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. 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 entitled “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:

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 clock, an external schedule. When necessary, they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately recharge their batteries. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work.

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.

Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment… 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.

All three are also linked to what Elaine Aron refers to as a highly sensitive personality (HSP). HSP’s make up 15-20 percent 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. Some of the most creative people have very high levels of sensitivity.

The evidence is clear: for a large majority of performers, in some of the most extroverted forms of performance, there is a great ability to juggle multiple faces and a need for downtime and reflection. New psychological research is showing just how intertwined and prevalent Openness to Experience, flow, abnormal perceptual experiences, and extroversion/introversion contradictions really are in creative people, especially artists. Hopefully by combining methods, such as self-reported experiences, peer reports, and more objective tests, we can shed more light on the many complexities and seeming contradictions found in creative people of many different flavors, and by so doing counter common black-and-white stereotypes about people in general.

Note: For insightful articles on the link between sensitivity and creativity, I highly recommend the Talent Development website. I also strongly recommend Susan Biali‘s Psychology Today article “Was Michael Jackson a Highly Sensitive Person(HSP)? Are You?“.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Jennifer O. Grimes for kindly sharing the summary of her musician interviews with me.”

And thank you Dr. Kaufman. -W

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