The beliefs about creatives run something like this:
Creatives are spontaneous and wild, and led by their passion. Unless they’re not, in which case they’re disciplined and focused, almost monastic in their dedication.
They’re sensitive and empathetic. Or possibly single-minded and ruthless.
They’re the quiet observer, at home in nature or alone. But they might be the wild extrovert leading everyone on.
And it’s all true.
You could, from that, reasonably conclude that there’s no such thing as a ‘creative type’. But that hasn’t ever seemed to me to be a good enough explanation.
Why creatives don’t fit into boxes
Instead, one of our defining characteristics is our ability to shape ourselves into whatever we think we need to do. That means creative people literally don’t fit into tidy categories: committed or footloose, organised or free-flow, fitness freak or writer, sociable or retreating.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has spent decades studying creative people and creativity. His best-known work is Flow, but his earlier book Creativity is a deeper study of high-achieving creatives.
What his research showed was that creative people can at the same time be multiple things we think of as contradictory. Discovering this was an ‘aha!’ moment for me: rather than trying to find a pattern in how we show up, the pattern is our very fluidity.
We can show up as introvert and extrovert simultaneously. We can be both childish and deeply serious. We can root ourselves in tradition, but want to be radically new with how we treat it. We can have a fire that burns for both empty Scottish hillsides and heaving, thumping nightclubs; we can want to be fully there for our family, but instead find ourselves snapping at them when we’re desperate to do our creative work.
That feeling of not fitting in
As creatives, it’s easy to feel that we don’t fit in. That the world doesn’t get us. It’s hardly surprising. We simply don’t fit the categories that we generally use to describe the world.
It’s not that other people don’t have this range of experience. But creative people seem to be particularly reluctant to slide themselves into a category and stay there. It’s as though our energy simply won’t allow us to stay there and be happy.
(Let’s face it, a lot of us have a job to even understand ourselves at times – and that’s often because we’re trying to define ourselves in a fixed, rather than fluid, way).
Our challenge is to balance out those needs
Managing those different parts of ourselves when they cause between different things we value: family and work; non-creative professional work and having the energy to do creative things, ‘relaxation’ and focused creation.
There’s one solution that’s very common, and particularly dangerous. And that’s the ‘unhappy medium’.
That’s when we try to smooth out our our extremes, and reduce our need for the different parts of us.
Sometimes we have no choice. But long-term, it means that we’re not fulfilling any part of us fully. And it also compromises the quality of all the experience we have.
You’ll know if you’re in the unhappy medium. Here are some of the signs:
- The feeling of permanent frustration, or that you’re not ‘good enough’ at anything: work, parenting, relationships, health.
- You’re not achieving the creative work you want to: perhaps you’re not creating, or it’s not as good as you want it to be, or you’re not putting the work into necessary parts around it, such as promotion or networking.
- You’re lacking energy, even though you’re doing the things that ‘seem’ to be sensible
- You’re not doing things that you used to love: seeing particular friends, dancing all night, hiking alone, writing at dawn
- You resent people or situations around you for not allowing you to be ‘you’.
If you recognise any of those things, it’s time to take action – now.
5 ways of getting out of the ‘unhappy medium’
1. Articulate your different needs, no matter how much they don’t seem to fit together. They’re part of what makes you creative and enriched. If that’s difficult, that’s ok. It can take a while to be honest with yourself, particularly if it doesn’t fit your own expectations of yourself, or other people.
2. Don’t apologise for them to other people, but if necessary, help them understand and work with you to find time and space for each. However, you don’t need to explain in detail, or justify your feelings, particularly if people aren’t supportive.
3. Plan defined times and spaces for different parts of your life. But be realistic. It takes emotional and mental energy to switch between things, so try to minimise changes, and recognise that you may need time to readjust.
4. If you’re in a period when you have to compromise one part, then acknowledge it to yourself, and recognise that it’s for a limited time.
5. Look for scaled-down experiences that feed what you need, particularly when you can’t achieve what you want in the way you’d like to. Think shorter rather than weaker: give yourself 30 minutes to create haiku, or 15 to create a tiny, detailed drawing.