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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

it’s a creative ‘and’ not an ‘either/or’

Valdivia, May 2022

The day begins to the sound of water running through the drainpipes. Behind the curtains, the windows are misted. When I finally get up, I pull on two pairs of leggings and under my t-shirt wear a thermal vest. Last week I was living through a wet English summer, this week a damp Chilean winter. There is a similarity in the rainfall, but the perception of it differs depending on whether you are planning a picnic or you’re carrying the shopping home and it’s soaking through your gloves.

JP, being Venezuelan, believes that since I grew up in a place with winters and occasional snow, I should be naturally adapted to such weather. He ignores my retorts that I grew up in a house with double glazing and central heating. Having grown up in the Caribbean, he finds the icy breeze down by the costanera exotic.

Recently, I finished listening to the audiobook of Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If my memory serves me well, it’s a book that I originally began reading in a library, but for some reason never had the chance to finish. I have a strong preference for reading over listening, but, ironically considering how much I travel, I am cursed with motion sickness which prevents me from reading on buses or in cars.

Whilst the book is generally interesting, what stuck with me was the analysis of character traits of creative individuals.

We typically apply labels to people using an either/or approach. Someone is introverted or extroverted, generous or selfish, optimistic or pessimistic, masculine or feminine. Csikszentmihalyi is interested in people whose lives exhibit a globally impactful creativity, the sort that is recognised and celebrated. These people, Csikszentmihalyi suggests, tend to exhibit contrary traits. They are an ‘and’. They are introverted and extroverted. Not somewhere in between the two, but both poles. They are masculine and feminine, not androgynous, but swing from one way of being to the other.

It suggests that when it comes to analysing character, we should be open to accepting contradiction. I can be both family-orientated and independent. I can insist on using a butter knife in my own home and not be fussed when in someone else’s place we eat with our hands.

One of the things I love about living semi-nomadically is that I am forced into different ways of being. Or maybe I should say that it gives me permission to be differently. Perhaps I shouldn’t need permission, and yet, experimenting and acting out of character tends to alarm people. Indeed, the challenge perhaps with Csikszentmihalyi’s idea about opposite traits is that it suggests that creative people, by failing to fit neatly in boxes, exhibit an unpredictability that may come across as threatening. Ignoring that his examples are all great creatives, we can still see that creativity requires the freedom to explore such opposite characteristics. It’s not travelling inherently that gives such freedom, but what you can learn while travelling (if you’re willing) that provides both the alternative ideas and the spaces in which to act upon them.

And I’ve heard numerous times that people feel that they have a different personality when speaking in different languages. I wonder if perhaps this comes from having different expectations or because we speak different languages in different contexts. Speaking Spanish, I don’t expect myself to sound anywhere near as intelligent as I would in English. Nor do I expect to sound anywhere near as polite. The effort it takes to communicate in Spanish means that I make different decisions. I have no expectation that I will be fully understood. I’m conscious of the limits of my speech and much more forgiving of my conversation partner.

We bring our faulty understandings of the world into every conversation. While mainland Europe was suffering a heatwave (and England just more rain), Chilean friends asked how I was dealing with the heat. What heat? I asked. When I tell people in England that I’m heading to Chile, they sometimes remark on how lovely it will be in the sunshine. I adjust their assumption with a single word – Patagonia – which brings up images of glaciers and snow. Although it’s generally agreed to be the southern tip of the Americas, Patagonia means different things to different people. Some definitions include where we live as being part of the region, some don’t. It’s a bit like trying to define where The North of England begins. This ignorance isn’t an awful thing. Most of the time, we just don’t have a lot of knowledge about anywhere other than our own home. It’s both a reality and an opportunity.

And however we see the weather, the rain keeps falling