When I was in college, I developed a voracious appetite for reading that I didn’t have when I was younger. Almost overnight, I became a bibliophile and a recognized face at local book shops. I wasn’t reading merely for pleasure, however, but was seeking knowledge and insight. I was at a crossroads in my life and I had an inchoate sense that books might somehow help me find my way forward.
And that they did. It wasn’t always the particular content of the books that I found most helpful, but discovering what topics I, A.J., naturally gravitated to. In other words, the books served as a sort of mirror for seeing myself and my interests more clearly. I began to feel that there were pieces of me scattered across these book shelves; all I needed to do was find them and fit them together.
After several years of devouring stacks of books, my foundational beliefs and interests were becoming increasingly apparent. And around that time I was surprised to discover a new desire bubbling up in my consciousness—an interest in writing my own books. Having never been a prolific reader or writer as a child, it caught me a little off guard. Nevertheless, the notion of clarifying and synthesizing ideas through writing proved irrevocably tantalizing.
For the first time, the basic contours of my career path seemed clear: I wanted to read, research, and write. Although I had yet to fill in all the details, the essential foundations were in place. And over the following couple decades, I proceeded to pen four books and myriad online articles.
Writers are notorious for drawing on our personal lives and concerns for material and inspiration. We’re constantly wrapped up in our minds and problems. Out of this sea of ideas and experiences, we’re looking for something that strikes us as interesting or important enough to fuel a writing project. One concern I keep circling back to is the relationship between personality and creative interests. Namely, what are the personality factors that guide us toward creative versus more conventional types of careers or interests? This will comprise our focus for the remainder of this post.
Personality Traits in Creative Careers
In most jobs and careers, employees are trained to do things in a certain way, to adhere to a set of clearly defined roles and duties. Like “cogs in a wheel,” they’re expected, for all intents and purposes, to behave predictably rather than creatively or autonomously. Much to the bewilderment of creative types, many people don’t seem to mind this type of work. Assuming the pay and working conditions are favorable, they will faithfully carry out their job duties without much fuss.
Similar to entrepreneurs or business owners, creatives at some point discover they don’t like following rules or taking directives from someone else. Instead, they want to control the course and nature of their work from start to finish, from conception to finished product. The key word here seems to be autonomy—propelled by a desire for individuality, independence, and creative control.
Autonomy only tells us part of the story, however. Small business owners also tend to value autonomy, but that alone doesn’t make them creative. Creative types don’t just create once (e.g., starting a business), but are compelled to do so continuously. Creating, more so than maintaining, is their bread and butter. So while creatives invariably crave autonomy, it alone doesn’t fully differentiate them from more conventional workers.
Myers-Briggs Intuition (N)
Not long after discovering the Myers-Briggs, I learned of the connections between Intuition (N), abstract ideas, and creative work. This was a real life-changer for me. It was as though the path I was envisioning for my life—reading, researching, and writing—had been captured in this single concept of Intuition. Not only did this further clarify and substantiate my self-understanding, but it inspired me to learn and write about Intuitive personalities so others could enjoy similar “aha” experiences.
One of my aha moments was learning that Intuitives are far more likely to pursue creative careers—whether artistic, scientific, or technologic. Central to the Myers-Briggs conception of Intuition is the idea, the abstract essence from which all creation springs. Creators are, at bottom, idea people. The converse isn’t always true, however. While it’s true that idea people are typically creative, not all are driven to be creators. Some enjoy exploring ideas (or percepts) for their own sake, but aren’t compelled to embrace an overtly creative path.
Big Five Neuroticism & Mind Wandering
While I’ve long understood the centrality of autonomy and Intuition to the creative temperament, only recently have I come to appreciate the relevance of another personality factor—what the Big Five calls Neuroticism.
In a recent post, I discussed the relationship between Neuroticism, mind wandering, and creativity. Most important for our purposes here is that mind wanderers exhibit an inward focus. Intentionally or not, they frequently attune to their own thoughts and feelings. And while mind wandering often has negative concomitants (e.g., worry, anxiety, low moods), it can also serve as a portal to creative ideas. In other words, the same mechanism that begets fret and worry can spawn creative insight. Hence the age-old notion of the melancholic or neurotic artist.
Neurotic Introverts seem particularly disposed to taking refuge in independent creative work. There’s a sense in which Introversion and Neuroticism work in the same direction, namely, toward greater solitude. For Introverts who are easily stressed or overwhelmed, being alone can feel like an oasis. Indeed, it may be the only place they feel completely safe and at home. Spending time alone also opens the door to introspective mind wandering and, if the stars align, to creative inspiration.
Neurotic Extraverts may also be drawn to creative engagement. Because of their Extraversion, however, they’re less apt to retreat to solitude. Instead, many prefer to exercise their creativity collaboratively. Their creative juices are stirred when bouncing ideas off friends or colleagues. Mind wandering itself can also look different for Extraverts. Many tend to mind wander aloud—immediately vocalizing whatever comes to mind.
In theory, we could drop any of the above attributes—autonomy, Intuition, or Neuroticism—and still find individuals performing creative work. Although personality factors offer insight into the intrinsic contributors to creativity, they say little about extrinsic factors that may encourage (or discourage) one from pursuing a creative path.
Craving the popularity and lifestyle of a rock musician, for instance, might be enough to motivate some people to learn and compose music. Moreover, some cultures tend to respect and reward creativity and innovation more than others. Birth order may also play a role. If an older sibling is already a successful creative, one might seek an entirely different path for self-distinction. So although inborn personality traits are clearly important, they only give us part of the total picture.
Will It Stick?
Returning to my story, I was inspired by the fact that writers seemed to be dealing with what I saw as most important about life—the world of ideas. So even if my personality profile had been different, I may have jumped on the creative bandwagon, at least for a while.
At times we’re possessed by ideals that push us beyond what’s typical or expected for our personality. But if they take us too far beyond our natural wheelhouse, we eventually peter out and dismiss it as a mere “phase.” In other words, we can transcend our natural personality for a while, but it often has a way of reeling us back to reality. We see this in individuals who regretfully decide that they chose the wrong career or college major. Despite their initial enthusiasm for the career path, they eventually realize, through some combination of experience and self-reflection, that it wouldn’t work for them in the long term. In many cases, this involves a run-in with our type’s inferior function, which, despite its initial luster and intrigue, ultimately proves unsustainable.
Ideally, our career path—be it creative or otherwise—will not only align with our interests and values, but will also be sustainable, something we can enjoy for the long haul. Unfortunately, discovering our best path is rarely easy or straightforward, especially for creative types. If you’re in this boat, we encourage you to explore our online course, Finding Your Path as an INFP, INTP, ENFP or ENTP, which has helped many of our readers clarify their personality, life purpose, and career path.