Have you ever wondered why creative people always seem to come with the label “crazy” attached?
Isn’t it a little weird how “sanity” seems to entail the bland sameness of conformity to social norms?
Is it possible to for a human mind to be both creative _and_ sane, preferably at the same time?

We can deal with practical considerations first: how to do more creative work in less time.

According to Pareto’s Law or the “80/20” rule, most people obtain eighty percent of their results from twenty percent of their time and effort. I like this idea and have probably mentioned it before. Pareto’s Law (or “Pareto Principle”) describes the amount of “wasted” time that an artist spends daydreaming. Daydreams are the invisible generative work of sketching out new ideas.

That eighty percent also includes time misspent following ineffective advice.

If twenty percent of creativity is visible, how can the other eighty percent be used more effectively?

The Inverse 80/20 Rule

Metacognition means “thinking about thinking”. Someone who designs a school curriculum is thinking _about_ the best way for students to think about a given subject, with the purpose of learning that subject. It may sound confusing because most people rarely question their own ways of doing things. Lack of metacognition may be the largest blind spot slowing your creative development and abilities. Most people blunder about taking advice from authority figures and popular icons rather than learning to evaluate the (possibly flawed) thinking that led to the advice.

Solution: spend eighty percent of your time on the metacognitive skill of learning how to reach better results in the other twenty percent of your time.

The average writer is often told that to be a better writer requires you to write a certain quota of words per day.

Using a metacognitive approach, you might ask, “instead of just writing more, how do I learn to write better stories?” The task would then be a deliberate, daily study and refinement of the question itself.

Further questions: Do I need to write better stories, or do I need to learn what stories are made of? Are there different types of stories? If so, which types to I want to learn to write? Are there any role models for me to learn from? How do they learn to write? How are those role models similar and different to me in my journey as a writer? How do the parts of their skillsets fit into my approach? If I alter my approach in one way, what effects will that have on my prior ways of doing things?

You will discover masters of the craft. You will find the first principles of your art, and every word you write will stand on that foundation. Look back in a few years and you may no longer recognize those old works as your own.

You may only spend twenty percent of your time writing. Instead of pouring the other eighty percent into the abyss of “consistent hard work”, you can rest assured that every finished piece will echo forward from the greatest sources that you have been able to find.

The real skill development is not the skill itself, but continual improvement of the learning process.

This is true in engineering as well as the arts, and especially in areas where there are no established best practices. Many artistic fields have no obvious blueprint for what’s “good” and how to create works of high quality. You will have to create and continually refine your own set of best practices, and hold yourself to them with each new effort.

Sanity for artists: what your therapist won’t tell you (and why artistry is not a direct route to psychotherapy at all)

In the world of psychotherapy, great emphasis is placed on psychological “abnormality”.

In the non-therapeutic world, the idea of “normal” is a social control tactic used to shame those who deviate from the majority’s consensus on how a “sane” person “should” (or really, _must_) act.

From the time of Sigmund Freud onward (actually, Aristotle), it has become fashionable to psychopathologize creativity as a form of madness. Hollywood further nurtures the “crazy artist” stereotype because it makes for a cheap dramatic thrill and easy comedic punchlines. This closely tracks the fallacy that successful artists and scientists are “geniuses”, and all geniuses are also crazy.

There is some truth to the idea — a disproportionate number of great artists have been manic-depressive (and perhaps some familial association with schizophrenia), for example.

The number of mentally ill artists is miniscule compared to those who simply love art and want to create it.

So how can you keep sane in a world where any hint of being “artsy” will prompt the manipulative idiots in your life to whisper, scream and howl about how “crazy” you must be?

Simple answer: realize that they are simply acting in a normal, socially manipulative way, and that’s how people are when there’s more than one human in a room.

Vital Contact

Artistry — and science, and engineering — often requires turning away from the world for extended periods of time. In order to acquire skill in a domain, this “introversion” must be enacted for hours every day, over a period of years. Some estimate that roughly a decade is required to rise from novice to attain practical mastery.

Psychojargon regards this intensive introversion as a “loss of vital contact will reality”. Expert armchair psychoanalysts (like your parents, perhaps) may mis-diagnose an artist’s mentality as a form of psychosis or dissociative disorder.

Many, perhaps most, creatively successful and prolific people have learned to turn inward. This is often due to some involuntary form of isolation from the outside world in their youth or young adulthood.

“Normal” people find other, more ordinary external stimuli: aimless socializing in desperate need of others’ love and approval; materialistic greed for status objects and money; and normal human obsession for sex and reproduction. Creative people somehow re-route that time and energy into artistic and/or scientific pursuits.

In other words, all successful artists, scientists and engineers are at heart, a bunch of hardcore geeks and nerds.

Social Butterflies and Inner Demons

Collaboration is often essential, yet a supremely well-socialized person will be inevitably be constrained by the collective opinions of those in his or her peer group. It’s harder to be creative when you’re balancing other people’s expectations against your own creative impulses. Creative isolation provides oxygen for the spark of an idea to ignite within a well-prepared mind.

The average person recoils at the prospect of being alone with their own thoughts, in no small part because their own minds are foreign resonance chambers of unfounded fears and imaginary enemies. A creative person, however, can choose not to be self-destructive — the abuse of drugs or other people, for example — in favor of accepting all of those “voices in my head” (although if the voices feel as though they are not yours, please seek professional help). Acceptance frees the mind from self-censorship and internal persecution regarding any strange or unexpected thought. This is a separate skillset that I may tell you more about later.

The Perfect Passion Project

The process of rising to a level of creativity where others care about your work may, paradoxically, require you to stop caring so much about what others think of your work.

Re-route the passion for approval, money and sex into the creation of a world that must first become more than real in your own mind.

A science fiction filmmaker doesn’t stare wishfully at the moon or sit on the couch getting high and drunk with friends while watching movies. The filmmaker spends years working on the skills (perhaps using the “Inverse 80/20 rule” above) to make real his or her own vision of Moon, Mars, Pluto and beyond.

A writer doesn’t fret about not having the “right” friends or sit on dating sites wishing for Prince or Princess Charming to magically appear. The writer learns to build fascinating character relationships and construct story worlds so compelling that the reader will never want to leave.

A visual artist or illustrator doesn’t fall into the typical consumer’s traps. Consumerist traps include trying to find mass-produced beauty in fashion magazines and engaging in the endless fool’s errand of shopping in boutique stores. The artist learns to take even simple objects and discover the perfection of what can be seen within them. This requires a re-wiring of the mind from demanding perfection outside, to creating perfection inside and learning to express it in visual form.

“Perfection” here can be the perfect tension of asymmetry or a marvel of the immaculately grotesque. The work itself does not attempt perfection. Perfectionism is perhaps the only truly debilitating illness to afflict creative people. Perfection here is the embodiment of the question: “how close is this work to the vision that compelled me to create it?” and that is the essence of a lifelong pursuit. Perfection is infinite, in that it always lies one step down the path; at the next step and then the next. This is a life in art. If that is madness, why would anyone settle for the consensual hallucination of creativity-deprived “sanity”?

Further Reading:

1. Bipolar Disorder and Creativity. Written by Neel Burton for Psychology Today.
2. Do Creativity And Schizophrenia Share A Small Genetic Link? Maybe. Written by Angus Chen for NPR.
3. Secrets of the Creative Brain. Written by Nancy C. Andreasen for The Atlantic.