Date of Publishing:
November 27, 2016

2008 © USGS, Science for a Changing World, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio magnetic and gravity maps and data.

The Personality and Motivation of a Dizzy Creator

Maya Shmailov

In Tom Sawyer Abroad, Mark Twain narrates a beautiful conversation that takes place between Tom and Huck while they are travelling in a fantastical hot air balloon.

During their trip, Huck decides that their geography professor is a liar. The reason the professor is perceived as such is because Huck deduced that, according to how fast and in what direction they were floating they should have passed Illinois and arrived at Indiana. When Tom confronts him on this point, Huck explains that the professor’s map showed that Illinois is green and Indiana pink, therefore they are still over Illinois as the scenery is completely green with no pink in sight.I find this story intriguing because most people are realists like Huck, and learn about gender, science, culture, religion, and art from pre-charted maps. For Huck, maps teach you facts, they teach you the extent of a boundary. Reality should be in line with this, because facts do not tell lies.

© Charles L. Webster and Company, 1894

For Tom, this was not the case. He understood that the map is a tool for learning and not a mirror of reality.

In the world of science for example, the interpretations that surround scientists and science with special believability often become cartographic. Science, and in fact each of its distinct branches, becomes a space on maps of culture, bounded off from other territories, labeled with landmarks that show the traveler how and why it is different from other regions. But these maps are episodic rather than transcendent or timeless and every so often a branch of science is expanded, forming new branches as boundaries are redefined and extended.

But what characterizes these people who defy norms, who disregard conventional boundaries, institutionalized norms, and accepted reward and evaluation systems – people who, in fact, not only view conventional boundaries as ridiculous but do not see boundaries to start with? To quote Marcel Proust: „The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.“

Typically, characterization of the scientist – a creator – almost always emphasizes the objectivity of the work and describes the scientist’s cold, detached observation without any emotional feeling, without discussing his or her process of discovery. The scientist is typically portrayed recognizing a problem and searching for its solution. But there is more to it. Because all great movements are ultimately human-powered, to understand one’s creation is to explore and understand one’s personality and motivation, which are closely tied.

But what is the motivation of these creators? What exactly drives them? The fact of the matter is, as many studies show, creative people, people who redefine the world we live in, regardless of field, are very deeply and emotionally involved in their work, and are an essential tool in the process of creation and discovery. In brief, motivational theory centers on four major human urges positioned along two axes: belonging versus independence and stability versus mastery (or taking risks). These categories of motivation link most closely with the stages defined by Abraham Maslow (Motivation and Personality, 1954).

While we all negotiate along these poles on a daily basis, these urges are in a struggle when in a state of crisis or transition period in our life. This struggle between the poles is something most of us have experienced at least once when we tried to find out who we are. We wobble, just like a roly-poly doll, between the need to belong and the need for independence and self-expression, between the need for stability and taking risks. If we are lucky and have the support we need, we find a balance and allow our inner core to get out – the wobbling diminishes (but never really ends). This exploration of the self is, of course, a constant process of negotiation along these poles. But when we try to bury who we really are or adapt to the world despite our urges, we struggle. Then comes a life crisis: when we again feel that reality as we know it changes. Under the illusion that „time is running out“ we have an urge to find out or define who we should be – we get out of balance, wobbling from pole to pole because there is a part that has been suppressed for a long time that now seeks expression.

The process of self discovery at times of transition leads to rigorous jumping along these poles in a state of dizziness, beyond the normal. It is like a roly-poly doll shifting from one side to the other, constantly seeking its balance but often getting lost, sacrificing one end of these continua to the other.

For most who tend to seek balance, the lack of it leads to a state of crisis and loss of control; for explorers, boundary crossers, and creative personalities, this is in fact what drives their works. They become master roly-polys, embracing this staggering movement and learning to make the best of situations.

While it might seem that this is deliberate action, studies show that it is the personality traits of outsiders that make this roly-poly movement very natural. The following personality traits are common to groundbreaking scientists:

  • They actively seek experience and action. Being independent and not subject to group standards and control, they are more observant than others and have high autonomy. As they are egocentric, this makes accumulation of experience possible, allowing them to center on what is really important to them.
  • They also like resolvable disorder. Having a high tolerance for ambiguity, they can carry through the search period, or “stay in the cloud“ (as Uri Alon calls it) during the process of discovery without rushing toward a solution or finding the way from A to B.
  • They have strong egos, which allow them to regress to preconscious states with the certainty they will return, and are without fear of failure. They take high risks without worrying about failure because they have no doubt that they are still on the right path.
  • Interpersonal relations are of low intensity in their life and they are often perceived as asocial. They marginalize themselves into states of isolation and in a sense are opportunistic, with little loyalty to others. One the other hand, they build a support network of very few people, and nurture these connections.
  • They are preoccupied with things and ideas more than with people.
  • They like to take risks and rarely depend on luck.

In my research I also found that they may have positive traits like self-confidence, alertness, unconventional thinking and behavior, and obsessive commitment to their work. But these personality types also may have negative traits: self-confidence merges with narcissistic behavior, egotism, and self-absorption fueled by arrogance. They also can be master manipulators, maneuvering between self-deprecation and self-admiration, marketing their brands to a number of audiences.

But at the crossing point of these two axes, between stability and risk, between the urge to belong and the urge for independence, there lies a core. This core, this inner voice, defines who we are:, our true identity, features of which we might have lost and buried, seeking belonging or independence, seeking stability or taking risks. We are just like the roly-poly doll, once out of equilibrium, moving from one end to the other in the state of dizziness until we reach the state of balance, the crossing point, a certain clarity of who we are. But this is not something one can expect, to be born with or to train one to get to the state of balance. It’s a process: a magnificent and exquisite process of navigation through the unknown, of miserable failures, of discovery and of building a new world. Like in the tale of the Chinese bamboo, you need enough nurture, watering, and the patience of many years for the shoot to spring and the bamboo to start growing meteorically. Only due to this patience does a root system develop, allowing bamboo to withstand the harshest winds, the burning sun, or even monsoons.