Survival of Creative Minds


Creativity Workshop tweeted an interesting quotation by Anna Freud (see above). Whether the quotation is true or apocryphal doesn’t matter, the sentiment is probably shared by a lot of people. Likewise the assertion that creative minds survive anything — be it bad training, poverty, failures and the like.

However, I think the following quotation is more accurate:

For every talent that poverty has stimulated it has blighted a hundred.
John Gardner

I think it’s much more likely that the few people who survive bad training or poverty get more fame for being creative, because they are known for having overcome these difficulties. However, the countless whom bad training spoiled for creative endeavors, or whom poverty blighted — they just vanish, they are never heard from.

As an analogy, it’s a bit like arguing for taking cold showers in an effort to live a long life. The ones how tried it and died cannot tell you what a stupid idea it is. They are dead. Only the few that survive this abhorrent procedure can still be heard — and they always argue in favor. (Okay, I admit, I hate cold water. ;-))

In other words, there is a strong selection bias at work and you cannot see who was ‘pressured out’ by giving up creative endeavors. It’s a blunt and distorted measurement of who is a “creative mind”.

And perhaps, for those who were successful, despite the hardship, issues like poverty or bad training were not a limiting factor for their creativity. Perhaps they found ways to bypass bad training by becoming an autodidact. Which would — of course — require the necessary infrastructure, time, self-determination, etc. pp. Self-directed learning is not trivial and only a few can bring up the organization and persistence to succeed.

Even poverty might not be that much of a problem for some creatives, if they did not need that much money to be creative in the first place. I’ve seen “Winter’s Bone” yesterday and — although fictional — I found it a very hopeful movie that you might not need that much to survive and raise a family(*). However, it is more likely that poverty brings with it a lack of options that is — like the quotation said — blighting.

Or do we really assume that a Mozart — with a Tiger-daddy driven education in music and access to instruments and sheet music — was not more likely to achieve musical success for his creative works than the peasant’s son a few doors over whose parents couldn’t hit a note and considered music a waste of money?

And sure, the answer cannot be to simply throw money or training at people in the hope they become creative. After all, how do you know which person is creative or not?

But it can mean to take ones’ creativity seriously.

Because if you feel the need to be creative or work creatively under bad circumstances, mere survival is neither enough nor a given. But — and perhaps in this sense the quotation by Anna Freud has a ring of truth to it — you can survive bad training and the like, if you actively look for circumstances that are better, or make them:

“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in the world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”
George Bernard Shaw

Otherwise you might end up with a blighted life in the process. But if you manage to succeed over poverty or bad training, it’s not the norm for creative individuals.

It’s an exceptional achievement that deserves recognition.


(*) If you ignore that joining the army and risking your health and life is one of the few viable career options.

1 Comment

  1. There’s perhaps another factor not mentioned here. Poverty is certainly a blight. Harper Lee described it perfectly in the second chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird:

    “Miss Caroline began the day by reading us a story about cats. The cats had long conversations with one another, they wore cunning little clothes and lived in a warm house beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms. Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature. ”

    Rural poverty (unrelenting labor even as a small child) and inner city poverty (crime, never-formed families, and dysfunctional lives) do blight lives terribly. But there’s a different kind of poverty that may actually encourage creativity. That’s a poverty that frees a mind of excess information and of unrelenting distractions. They include:

    * A tiger mother-driven life of school, studies, grades and repeating back what you’ve been told.

    * A negligent, ‘go do something’ rearing in which kids get put in front of a TV or a game machine and kept busy.

    In either case, with our minds kept busy from outside ourselves, we may never learn to occupy our minds with thoughts of our own. Left to our own devices, we think new thoughts and explore new paths. There are schools of education that do just that.

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