by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

Businessman with briefcase running in fear“A happy person is a creative person.”   ~ V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

Is the notion of the “Mad Genius” a figment of our imagination, or is it grounded upon scientific fact?

We shall explore the aforementioned notion in this installment of our six-part series, as we cover the 4th myth of creativity that was first put forth by Professor Theresa Amabile: “Fear forces breakthroughs.”

Myth #4: Fear Forces Breakthroughs
“Creativity is like chasing chickens!” That was what Christoph Niemann, a graphic designer and author of several books including children’s books, once said.

Yes, creativity can sometimes feel like you are frantically chasing something elusive. But Maria Popova, author and founder of, suggests that things could be the other way round, i.e. creativity feels like you are being chased instead, by chickens – menacing giant chickens, to be more precise! These scary birds are symbolic of the fear and anxiety that plague many an artist or anyone who is expected to produce creative works.1

But does that fear compel people to become more creative?

According to working artists David Bayles and Ted Orland, the authors of Art & Fear2, statistics reveal that most artwork is produced by non-geniuses who simply have the passion and dedication to face the daily practical and psychological challenges. The authors also highlight fear as a cornerstone of the obstacles which hinder, NOT enhance, the creative process.

Tears for Fears
Woman cryingPenn State researchers have found that the ‘fear of cognitive dyscontrol’ is a good predictor of depressive symptoms.3 This implies that we could also check out whether depressed – and by logic, fearful – people are more creative than ‘normal’ people.
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Arnold M. Ludwig, a former researcher at the University of Kentucky Medical Centre and currently Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry & Human Behaviour at Brown University, conducted a 10-year study on 1,004 men and women who excelled in an array of professions including art, music, science, business, politics and sports. Ludwig found that 59% to 77% of the artists, writers and musicians suffered mental illness (especially mood disorders) compared with only 18% to 29% among the less artistic professionals.4

So does Ludwig’s study provide evidence for the Mad Sad Genius or the Fearful Tearful Genius?

It is true that many related studies have shown higher rates of mood disorders among creative people, differing only in the magnitude of the results. But this does not mean that mental disorders or negative emotions cause people to become more creative. Quite the contrary – Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, shares in her book, Touched With Fire5, that the majority of people suffering from depression and bipolar disorder do NOT have extraordinary imaginations.

Bulb with finger pointing

Happy today, creative tomorrow

Amabile’s landmark ‘diary study’ in 1998 concurs with Jamison’s findings. After Amabile and her team had analyzed all the 12,000 journal entries by the participants, which describe their degree of fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, joy and love on a daily basis, Amabile found a positive correlation between creativity and the emotions of joy and love. At the same time, Amabile found a negative correlation between creativity and the emotions of anger, fear and anxiety. Moreover, participants were more likely to experience a creative breakthrough if they had been happy the day before. You could say that it was a virtuous cycle of creativity, and that one day’s joy predicts the following day’s creativity.

Concluding remarks
As a leader of integrity, never use fear to control your people. Instead, encourage your people to share their fears, and work out those fears within an open and safe environment. Listen to their fears and concerns from a non-judgmental perspective. Offer your people moral support, and execute concrete solutions where possible as soon as possible. Once you’ve helped your people to deal with their fears, they will be well on their way to turning the Fearful Tearful Non-Genius into a Fearless Happy Genius.

Photo credits
[Image 1 courtesy of Imagery Majestic; Image 2 courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, Image 3 courtesy of Khunas Pix ]