Making Sh*t Up: Creativity’s Dark Side

Photo credit: Creative Commons – mndcpr

When I was a college counselor, I once worked with a senior who was a talented art student. She came to see me tortured by anxiety and depression. It turns out she’d been depressed throughout high school and college. When I asked her how she had put up with feeling awful for all that time, her answer surprised me. She said she had wanted to see a therapist but was afraid the process might turn her into a normal person. She believed that if she let go of her depression, she’d lose her artistic creativity along with it. In her mind, emotional pain was the price of creativity, a source of inspiration. I found myself assuring her I wouldn’t do anything that would put her at risk of becoming boringly ordinary.

A few years ago, my co-author Fred Mandell and I were working on the manuscript of our book “Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life” in which we use stories about the great masters of art to illustrate the creative process. Our literary agent advised us not to talk about the lives of the artists. Too many artists make terrible role models, she warned. Any mention of crazy artists could turn off potential publishers and readers. Though we thought the stereotype was unfair, we were careful to write about how artists worked, not how they lived.

Every few months there’s some new and misleading research suggesting a connection between creativity and mental illness. Don’t worry.  Creativity is not hazardous to your mental health.  But creativity can be dangerous in more ordinary ways.

Examples abound: Subprime mortgage derivatives were “creative.” Bernie Madow’s bogus hedge fund scheme was quite creative. Creativity is not intrinsically positive and growth-promoting (I wish!)  Creativity is ethically neutral. Like other cognitive skills, it can be used for good or ill. Creativity at its best is about making things. At it’s worst, it’s about making things up.

When you’re making things up, from little white lies to tall tales, you’re practicing creative dishonesty. I know someone who’s an expert at making sh*t up. He’s padded his resume, awarded himself a few fake degrees and exaggerated the success of an online business venture. Maybe he’s “thinking outside the box” so his audience won’t notice there isn’t much inside it.

We all want to see ourselves in a positive light, but creative dishonesty is a misuse of the gift of creativity. Notice when you may be using creative smarts to take moral short cuts. Use your creative skills wisely, in pursuit of authenticity, purpose, and fun.

Questions: Do you think there is a link between creativity and emotional problems? Between creativity and dishonesty? How do your thoughts about these questions affect your attitudes about being more creative in your daily life?

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