What keeps us engaged with creativity – or any project or endeavor?
Psychologists have distinguished two main sources: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.
Looking within ourselves for inspiration for a job, creative project, or pretty much any significant activity, versus looking outside, can have very different impacts on what we choose to do, and how we use our energy.
Motivation and creativity at all ages
Jessica Koehler PhD notes that experimental psychologist Beth Hennessey “became interested in why she was seeing declines in motivation and creativity within her students as they moved from kindergarten to second grade.”
Hennessey commented about motivation and creativity:
“Over the years, my colleagues and I have discovered that intrinsic motivation, the motivation to engage in an activity out of sheer interest in and excitement about a task, is essential for creativity; and extrinsic motivation, motivation driven by someone or something outside the task itself, is almost always detrimental.”
video: “Cultivating Intrinsic Motivation and Creativity in the Classroom” | Beth Hennessey | TEDxSausalito
Koehler continues: “According to hundreds of studies conducted by Hennessey and other researchers in this field of study—across all ages and walks of life—Hennessey and her colleagues found six specific intrinsic motivation killers that by extension kill creativity:
- Expected Reward
- Expected Evaluation
- Restricted Choice
- Restricted Time
“This list should make many of us pause as the motivational killers are commonly used strategies within schools and places of employment.”
Koehler adds a couple of “Final Thoughts” as a homeschooling parent:
“Clean up your toys or you will lose your tech hour!”
“These utterings are often heard in our house. Using operant behavioral strategies is effective when we need swift compliance.
“However, for domains of learning that necessitate the utilization of creative processes, we should be wary of purely operant methods.
“Instead, cultivate intrinsic drive by using what we know from experimental research—design environments that facilitate the development of competence, autonomy, and relatedness to nurture creativity.”
She adds that Earl Nightingale famously said: “Creativity is a natural extension of our enthusiasm.”
Koehler agrees: “Natural curiosity about the world inspires our imaginations and sparks creative thought. We must protect this intrinsic drive to enable creativity to thrive.”
Photo and text are from her article
Motivation For Creation: Understanding The Intersection Of Intrinsic Drive And Creativity.
See other articles on her Medium page.
[Also see my Medium page.]
Author and teacher Elizabeth Gilbert addresses motivation in her book “Big Magic”:
“You are not required to save the world with your creativity.
“Your art not only doesn’t have to be original, in other words; it also doesn’t have to be important…
“I would prefer that you made your art in order to save yourself rather than to save or relieve us.
“The results of my work don’t have much to do with me. I can only be in charge of producing the work itself.”
From her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.
*Note – The above is an affiliate link (and perhaps others on this page), which means the company pays me a commission, if you choose to purchase. There is no extra cost to you. See details in note below the end of this article.
Learn more about Gilbert’s perspectives, and about her online course designed to “learn how to pursue a life driven more by curiosity than fear” in article: Creativity Workshop with Elizabeth Gilbert.
“Do what you love, because creative breakthroughs take years of hard work.” R. Keith Sawyer
Many creative people have talked about how they experience getting their ideas and motivation to create.
Creative inspiration may show up mysteriously, “out of the blue” – and for a good part of human history, it has been explained as a gift from a supernatural being, a Muse.
At least some people still embrace that idea, or at least like to use the reassuring concept.
Novelist and author Steven Pressfield writes in his book “The War of Art” about pulling in creative power when we are doing creative work:
“Power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
In his Introduction to the book, writer and instructor Robert McKee comments, “I, on the other hand, believe that the source of creativity is found on the same plane of reality as Resistance [the “dark antagonism” to creativity]. It, too, is genetic. It’s called talent…”
[The painting above is one of many examples of artists being “visited” with inspiration: “Kiss of the Muse” by Paul Cezanne. I have also used it in several other articles of mine, including Creative Talent: Genetics, A Muse, Or Hard Work?]
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One kind of inspiration or motivation to create is to deal with difficult life circumstances.
Andrea Ashworth wrote her memoir “Once in a House on Fire” as an adult, recalling how much she and her sisters suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse from two stepfathers.
In our interview, she talked about how writing the memoir was “a real sanity-saving exercise” and way to deal with her past, and then be able to move on to writing fiction.
She had found journal writing as a child was a kind of emotional buffer against the abuse she experienced. She said,
“I wouldn’t have known that’s what it was then, but I know I found it a very sweet pleasure. And I found reading and writing a sanctuary.”
From my post: Writer Andrea Ashworth on Developing Creativity.
Also see article Creativity and Therapy Can Help Us Deal With Trauma
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Writer Amy Tan refers to a kind of Muse inspiration, saying in an interview:
“I think I was pushed in a way to write this book (The Hundred Secret Senses) by certain spirits in my life – the yin people. They’ve always been there, I wouldn’t say to help, but to kick me in the ass to write.
“I’m educated, I’m reasonably sane, and I know that this subject is fodder for ridicule. But ultimately, I have to write what I have to write about, including the question of life continuing beyond our ordinary senses.”
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“Before the dance of inspiration and perspiration can begin, there must be some raw material, some spark of inciting energy.”
From the book The Soul of Creativity: Insights into the Creative Process by Tona Pearce Myers.
Actor Rose McGowan relates an experience that may be common for many creative people: being inspired by seeing someone else’s artwork or other form of creative expression:
“After saving my allowance for ten years, I flew to Paris when I was 15 years old. When I visited the Musée Rodin, I was profoundly inspired by the story and the pain of Camille Claudel. Her diminutive sculptures — much smaller in stature to Rodin’s — led me to become an artist.”
That is a quote in the book The Art of Discovery: Hollywood Stars Reveal Their Inspirations.
See more quotes in my post: Creative Inspiration: Books with Artist Quotes.
[The brain image above is from my article Do Artists Have Unique Brains?]
As writer Maria Popova notes in her article, it was “before the invention of the polio vaccine.
“Bedridden for weeks, with a prognosis of never being able to walk again, she found hope in singing during that harrowing time at the hospital a hundred miles from her home.
“And yet she did walk again — an extraordinary walk of life that overcame polio, and overcame poverty, and pernicious critics to make Mitchell one of the most original and influential musicians in modern history, the recipient of eight Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement.”
[Click image to view larger, and read Mitchell’s quote on creativity.]
The article refers to the book: Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words – Conversations with Malka Marom.
Columnist, essayist, author Meghan Daum writes of Joni Mitchell’s creative work: “The artist who puts herself out there is not foisting a confession on her audience as much as letting it in on a secret, which she then turns into a story.”
From review: In ‘The Unspeakable,’ Meghan Daum is candid and guilt-free by Heller McAlpin, of Daum’s book: The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion.
Inspiration or hard work?
Professor of psychology R. Keith Sawyer was asked, “What advice can you give us nongeniuses to help us be more creative?”
His answer: “Take risks, and expect to make lots of mistakes, because creativity is a numbers game. Work hard, and take frequent breaks, but stay with it over time. Do what you love, because creative breakthroughs take years of hard work.”
He added, “Most of all, forget those romantic myths that creativity is all about being artsy and gifted and not about hard work. They discourage us because we’re waiting for that one full-blown moment of inspiration. And while we’re waiting, we may never start working on what we might someday create.”
Prof. Sawyer is author of the book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation.
Quoted in my article Positive Obsessions To Be Creative – which begins with a quote by actor Edward Norton: “Sometimes creativity is a compulsion, not an ambition.”
[This article is one of several excerpts from my book Developing Multiple Talents: The personal side of creative expression.]
Artist and choreographer Twyla Tharp would probably agree with Sawyer, and comments that discipline and routine are “as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.”
[From her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.]
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Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman relates inspiration to a key element of doing any kind of demanding work, including creative expression. He writes:
“Another incredibly important, but often overlooked, activator of intrinsic motivation is inspiration.
“Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way a person perceives of his or her own capabilities.
“Inspiration is also transcendent of our more self-serving concerns and limitations.
“Finally, inspiration involves approach motivation, in which the individual strives to transmit, express, or actualize a new idea or vision… inspiration involves both being inspired by something and acting on that inspiration.”
From his book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.