On Creativity, Success, Priorities, and Personality

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There are two classes of human beings. One has ideas, which it believes in fully, perhaps, but modifies to bring about ‘success.’ The other class has ideas which it believes in and must carry out absolutely; success or no success. The first class has a tremendous majority, and they are all slaves. The second class are the only free people in the world.

~Robert Henri

Several times in recent months people asked what advice I have for beginners. In response, I generally quote the words of Edward Weston: “If I have any ‘message’ worth giving to a beginner it is that there are no short cuts in photography.” I then qualify that there are, in fact, a great many shortcuts in photography if one is interested primarily in making popular or salable photographs. Edward Weston’s advice holds true only in the sense that there are no shortcuts to creative and expressive photography, which to me are the most important and personally rewarding aspects of pursuing photography as art. These qualities—creativity and expression—are also what interests me most as a viewer of other people’s photographs. To be sure, these qualities are not common because they are difficult to accomplish, but that is exactly why I revere them. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “the heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic.”

With so much writing about photography today dedicated to things you can buy and to recipes you can follow to make “successful” photographs, I think it’s eminently important for photographers to give thought and to distinguish clearly whether their primary motivation is success or creativity. Although success and creativity are not mutually exclusive, each comes with some risks and rewards that the other does not. Also, the pursuit of success and the pursuit of creativity require different mindsets and strategies. As a result, what may constitute good advice for a photographer motivated primarily by success may prove to be poor advice for a photographer motivated primarily by creativity, and vice versa.

Take for example the plethora of tutorials—articles or videos—attempting to reduce such things as visual composition into templates, rules, or formulas; or even to analytical ways of thinking. These tutorials may undoubtedly increase one’s odds of making successful photographs as measured by such metrics as volume, popularity, or sales (to wit, many authors of such tutorials follow their own formulaic advice with proven success, often ensuing from beautiful but decidedly uncreative work). But to pursue such templates or analytical thinking almost certainly will hinder one’s odds of making truly creative work. More important, to pursue such advice will almost certainly prevent one from experiencing the rewards that come from maintaining an open, creative mindset as a way of going about life.

On the other hand, articles promoting the value of such things as mindfulness or originality may lead to frustration and dissatisfaction among those who prioritize success above creativity. These people may return from even the most sublime of places feeling disappointed if their experience did not yield successful photographs. Oftentimes, the disappointment may be further compounded by guilt for feeling disappointment.

While the risks and rewards of material success are likely intuitive to most, the risks and rewards of creativity often are not obvious to those who have not experienced them firsthand. In terms of reward, perhaps the most important distinction between creativity and success is this: creativity is most rewarding as an attitude toward life—in enriching and deepening a person’s inner experience—and not as a means to any end (whether that end is improving one’s odds of making good photographs, finishing some project, or achieving fame and fortune). Put another way, the rewards of prioritizing creativity over success are ongoing and sustained, while the rewards of prioritizing success over creativity are anecdotal and short-lived—an effect known as the hedonic treadmill.

In terms of risk, the most important distinction is this: creativity is not guaranteed to ensue from any formulas or directions. You can’t force creativity; you can only invite it and hope it accepts the invitation. Also, creativity is not guaranteed to result in successful or useful products. This means by necessity that one who prioritizes the rewards of creativity above those of success must implicitly accept the possibilities of failure, of prolonged unproductive periods, and of little material return relative to time and effort invested. The pursuit of creativity therefore demands greater courage, grit, and self-confidence than the pursuit of success. Indeed, some of the most creative works in history were originally met with doubt and criticism. Some creative geniuses went to their graves before their works ever received recognition, let alone monetary value.

To prioritize creativity above success is to find rewards in the process of making art, in thinking about art, in experimenting and exploring, in being mindful and receptive to new possibilities, and not in any product of art. This may seem unintuitive to some but studies show that this approach in fact has the power to enrich an artist’s life more than the pursuit of finished products. As Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire put it in their book, Wired to Create:

“Those who are more motivated to develop a final product (agreeing with statements like, ‘I work most creatively when I have deadlines,’ ‘If I don’t have something to show for myself, then I feel I’ve failed’) tend to score lower in creative potential and intrinsic motivation and higher in stress and extrinsic (reward-oriented) motivation. Those who derive enjoyment from the act of creating and feel in control of their creative process tend to show greater creativity than those who are focused exclusively on the outcome of their work.”

To be clear, I am not proposing that prioritizing creativity above success is necessarily the right approach for everyone. In fact, it may be the wrong approach for many. To know whether creativity or success should be your top priority, I recommend taking one of many freely available online personality tests, particularly those measuring the “Big Five” personality factors: extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and agreeableness.

Material considerations (e.g., earning income) aside, those who stand to benefit most from prioritizing creativity above success are those who score higher than average in openness to new experiences, and below average on conscientiousness—the quality of being motivated by achievement and having the discipline to turn ideas into products. Those who score higher than average on conscientiousness likely will benefit more from making success their primary priority. Such people in fact may drive themselves to frustration and dissatisfaction if their efforts to be creative are unsuccessful.

To give you a sense of where creative artists tend to fall on the Big Five personality traits, a 2006 study by Mark Batey and Adrian Furnham concluded (according to an article by Furnham) that “Artists are significantly higher on Neuroticism than nonartists; lower on Extraversion than nonartists; higher on Openness than nonartists; lower on Agreeableness than nonartists; lower on Conscientiousness than nonartists, and higher on Psychoticism than nonartists.”

When it comes to deciding whether your living experience will be richer if you prioritize creativity over success or the other way around, the perennial advice holds: know thyself.


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10 thoughts on “On Creativity, Success, Priorities, and Personality

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  1. This is a great, well written article. I try to be creative, but often I feel it is document photography (of nature). But hell, whether I come home with photos I like or no photos at all, I still will have enjoyed being out in nature. So if I do get a photo that I like, that is a bonus.

  2. Another fantastic read, Guy. A+ thinking – I love how you juxtaposition these ideas in a way that does not put others off.

    1. Thanks, Matt. The more we learn about personality, the clearer it becomes how little choice we have to decide who we are. Most of it is dictated by things a person never consciously chooses: genetics, upbringing, social/cultural context, life experiences, even things like nutrition all affect who one becomes. It’s too easy to judge ourselves and others for having or lacking certain personality traits, but when you realize how little control we have in these matters it’s also easier to accept differences. Nietzsche offered one of the most profound bits of advice in all philosophy: become who you are. Too many people try to become people they think they should be. Some even succeed. But in the end if you try to be a person you’re not, no matter how much you may want to be that person, you will be miserable.

      1. So true. It took me long time to realize this truth and has made my onward path easier.

  3. This is a beautifully written blog post. Photography for success or Creativity! I loved that you brought in personality and frankly it makes an impact reading your blog post. I am more on the Creative side, and love photography as an art to express my creativity and it not the source of income for me. Thank you again for this thought provoking blog post.

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