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The Creative Personality: Playful and Disciplined

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” Dr. Seuss

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Gertrude Stein

Paradox is a defining quality of many personality characteristics of creative people, according to psychologist and creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

In his article The Creative Personality, he includes these perspectives :

Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.

There is no question that a playfully light attitude is typical of creative individuals. But this playfulness doesn’t go very far without its antithesis, a quality of doggedness, endurance, perseverance.

Nina Holton, whose playfully wild germs of ideas are the genesis of her sculpture, is very firm about the importance of hard work: “Tell anybody you’re a sculptor and they’ll say, ‘Oh, how exciting, how wonderful.’ And I tend to say, ‘What’s so wonderful?’ It’s like being a mason, or a carpenter, half the time.

“That germ of an idea does not make a sculpture which stands up. It just sits there. So the next stage is the hard work. Can you really translate it into a piece of sculpture?”

Jacob Rabinow, an electrical engineer, uses an interesting mental technique to slow himself down when work on an invention requires more endurance than intuition: “When I have a job that takes a lot of effort, slowly, I pretend I’m in jail. If I’m in jail, time is of no consequence.

“In other words, if it takes a week to cut this, it’ll take a week. What else have I got to do? I’m going to be here for twenty years. See? This is a kind of mental trick. Otherwise you say, ‘My God, it’s not working,’ and then you make mistakes. My way, you say time is of absolutely no consequence.”

Despite the carefree air that many creative people affect, most of them work late into the night and persist when less driven individuals would not.

Vasari wrote in 1550 that when Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello was working out the laws of visual perspective, he would walk back and forth all night, muttering to himself: “What a beautiful thing is this perspective!” while his wife called him back to bed with no success.


In her article The Genius of Play, Kaja Perina notes “the Root-Bernsteins’ book Sparks of Genius [includes] evidence of 13 cognitive tools, including imagining, abstracting and, yes, playing, that may contribute to creativity by helping people synthesize knowledge across domains.”

[Photo: “Author and artist Jim W. Coleman poses at an Etta Projects event in Port Orchard, Washington. A balloon artist approached and said, ‘What, you too old to wear a balloon hat?’ This was his answer.” From The Coleman Experience blog.]

For some more traits Csikszentmihalyi described, see my earlier post The Complexity of the Creative Personality.

Also see the longer article: The Creative Personality: Ten paradoxical traits of the creative personality, By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

These traits come from Csikszentmihalyi’s classic book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

The Creative Personality: Playful and Disciplined

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2011). The Creative Personality: Playful and Disciplined. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Mar 2011
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