Mentors and masters

Telemachus_and_Mentor_cropIn the epic poem the Iliad, Odysseus was absent twenty years; first at war and then wandering on the long route home. Meanwhile his son Telemachus grew to an adulthood. Having pity on the basically fatherless youth, the goddess Athena disguised herself as an old man, took on the pseudonym “Mentor”  and became his guide.  For the novice in creative and experimental fields finding an appropriate mentor with experience and the willingness to advise seems almost essential.

Choosing a mentor often starts around college age as students seeking to further their experience in creative and research fields search for someone of standing that they can relate to  and latch on to. But mentors are real people, not deities that have set themselves up as guardians. Why would they want to enter into this kind of relationship? One obvious answer, is for the ego boost.  It is a great self-esteem builder to have someone select you as their role model, especially in fields where success is based on subjective judgment. Second would be a desire to maintain quality of creative work in their  area. However, a voluntary mentorship takes time away from the mentor’s own productive work, so this kind of relationship is not widespread.

Often mentorships are organized  programs in upper levels of education.  The tendency in many Master’s level creative writing programs is for the instructor to essentially perform the duty of a mentor among a small hand-picked group. Mentors unlike instructors, can only work with a few individuals, making this kind of relationship in education elite and partial (Churchman 1984). This may also lead to marginalizing those individuals that differ from the instructor. The Iowa Writers Workshops were initially promoted as collaborative. But by members own account, the weight of  praise and criticism came from the instructor. These workshops were also know for being male dominated (Bishop) .

However, look into another field, such a s science,  and slightly differing models for the mentor appears.  Male science field students tended to choose mentors who had distinguished themselves in the field and rarely chose a female mentor. While the female seem to be split in their criteria, with some seeking professional expertise and others concerned with the interpersonal aspects of the relationship. The females often preferred a mentor who provided encouragement (Dowdall, 1979).

Those who reached the highest acknowledgement in the realm of science, the scientific Nobel laureates,  were familiar enough with their specific domain that they selected both the university and potential mentors  “doing work at the frontiers of the field” (Zuckerman’s 1977). They did not just receive knowledge from mentors but also a socialization into the culture science that helped the students discern what the scientific community viewed as important problems and sophisticated solutions.

It is that socialization, basically an introduction into the tastes and sensibilities of the domain, that seems to be the driving force for most creative individuals seeking mentors,  no matter what field.

Illustration “Calypso receiving Telemachus and Mentor in the Grotto” by William Hamilton – Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -
Bishop, Wendy. “Teaching undergraduate creative writing: myths mentor and metaphors” Journal of Teaching Writing .pp 83-102
Churchman, Deborah. “Fertile Times for Creative Writing: More College Courses Every Year.” New York Times 8 Jan 1984: 42-43
Dowdall, Jean. 1978. “Mentors in Academe: the Perceptions of the Protege”, American Sociological Association Annual Meetings
Zuckerman,  Harriet. 1977. Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States, New York, The Free Press
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Wanted mentors: Dead or Alive

Old_Man_with_Water_StudiesIn the city of Florence Italy stands the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore with a massive dome, a masterpiece in its day, built without centering supporting (wooden framework to hold up dome while mortar dried), it took centuries before anyone could build a larger one. The architect Filippo Brunelleschi was a goldsmith by trade. He learned his secrets of architecture by examining  the work of Roman builders who died centuries before him. In the sketch book of the more popularly know Leonardo da Vinci is the diagram of a unique machine for lifting heavy weights to great heights. He didn’t invent it; Brunelleschi did. However, da Vinci observed and recorded this machine in use after its real inventor died (King 2000).

Think about person who influenced you the most: stable and accepting, hard and demanding, fitting into society or rebelling against it. Or did they create amazing things? One of those generic writing prompts that students (and the people who grade the writing samples) hate the most is “Describe the most influential person in your life.” Students feel constrained to show this  imperfect  person in glowing terms, with interesting flaws omitted in favor of complimentary vagueness. Some try to explain how their goal in life has been to emulate a celebrity, but they only know notable accomplishments and not enough personal information to peak anyone’s interest. So the rule is typically: Do not attempt to write about someone you do not know personally.

However, give this assignment to students who show promise of great creativity and the results with be different. They will paint a vivid picture of the person that inspired them, warts and all. Or they will describe in detail the influence from the works of a person they have never met. According to Simonton (1984) eminent creative people are influences the most by associates working in the same field with them and secondly by paragons in their domain of creativity, whose life and work they follow without being personally acquainted.

Still creative people need living, breathing mentors – associates and patrons – to help steer them through the often discouraging  journey of producing original work.  The patronage of de’ Medici family assured Brunelleschi  of the resources necessary to keep working on the dome.  E.P. Torrance’s (1983) long term study following the life of students with higher creative scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking,  found that having a mentor was significantly related to level adult creative achievement. This was particularly true of the females. You may not be surprised to find that even though female had higher creative scores, over half the female students had male mentors, while a very small percentage of the males had female mentors. Creative ability of the mentor was secondary to their knowledge of careers and business.

According to Torrance “Regardless of their own views, (they) encourage and support talented individuals in expressing and testing their ideas …. They protect individuals from the counter-reactions of their peers long enough to permit them to try out some of their ideas. They keep the structure of the situation open enough so that  can occur.” (Torrance 1995)

Drawing: Leonardo da Vinci c. 1513, public domain

King, Ross (2000). Brunelleschi’s Dome. Walker Publishing (Penguin Books in 2001)
Simonton, D.K. (1984) Popularity, Content and Context in 37 Shakespeare plays Poetics. 1986, Vol. 15, p 493 – 510.
Torrance, E.P. (1995) Why Fly?: A Philosophy of Creativity. New Jersey: Ablex
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What kind of childhood?

Club_03_VorbereitungenAccording to a review of research on the childhood of exceptionally creative individuals  “The growth of creativity in a young person suggests the effects of powerful nurturing and support” (Piers 2000).  But what is suggested may not actually be occurring.  For psychologists, like Maslow, who see creativity resulting from an enriched environment, it  would make sense that very creative individuals have a caring and supportive situation in childhood. Only the records of these individuals and their own recollections indicate that creative genius often comes from a harsher, less than ideal environment.

By their own report many creative individuals recall stern, and almost cruel parenting in which acceptance was not unconditional, but based on performance. Their talent was often supported by another family member, usually the father. However many describes  their upbringing as “more correct than warm” (Gardner 1993). Often home experiences were reflected in the creative products  of actors and writers, and perhaps the conflicts in the home actual contributed to the ability to conjure dramatic scenes and poignant plots (Goertzel 1962). The difficulty with finding the correlation between a demanding home life and creativity is that most information on the childhood and adolescence period of creative individuals comes from a relatively small number of sources, not a large enough population for a quality sampling (Piers 2000).

A biographical study of over 500 renowned creative individuals uncovered another seemingly negative childhood experience.  “Orphanhood” seems to be a more frequent plight for them. The death of one or both parents during the individuals’ childhood was somewhere between two to three times more common than for the general population (Eisenstadt 1978). Illness also seemed to be a greater problem with approximately 25% of renown creative individuals suffering serious or chronic illness in their childhood years (Goertzel et al 1978).

However, we should not assume the these difficulties outweighed the advantages that were typically available to the exceptionally creative person as a youth. Prior to this century notable authors, artists, musicians, and renown scientists and theoretical mathematicians came almost exclusively from the middle and upper classes. It would have been difficult to make their mark of originality without the additional education and opportunity that disposable wealth could provide (Cox 1926).

So it seems the childhood of many prominent creative people had a larger dose of unpleasantness in it, but that stress may have been the impetus that drove them to concentrate so intently on their gift.

Illustration “Club 03 Vorbereitungen” by Christian Wilhelm Allers – Buch “Club Eintracht” von C.W. Allers. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Cox, C.M. (1926) The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses. Volume IIin Genetic Studies of Genius, edited by L.M. Terman. California: Stanford University
Eisenstadt, J.M. (1978) Parental Loss and Genius. American Psychologist. March 1978, p211 – 223.
Goertzel, V. and Goertzel, M.G. (1962) Cradles of Eminence. London: Constable.
Goertzel, M.G., Goertzel, V. and Goertzel, T.G. (1978) Three Hundred Eminent Personalities. San Francisco: Josey Bass.
Gardner, H. (1993) Creating Minds. New York: Basic Books.
Worth, Piers J. (2000). “Localised creativity: a life span perspective”. PhD thesis, The Open University.
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Beyond Self-Confidence

800px-2445_-_Milano_-_Università_statale_-_Adolfo_Wildt_(1868-1931)_-_Sant'Ambrogio_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto,_22-Feb--2008Now the more creativity is the mantra of business, the educational institutions have been informed that they need to encourage rather than quash creativity. The recurring theme of the difficulty in getting along with creative people has recurred.  So what exactly makes creative people unlikeable for some of the population? Recent research at the University of North Carolina (Silvia et al, 2011) pinpointed the offensive characteristic as arrogance.

Similar to much research conducted on larger populations, this one used college students who self-reported information on creative abilities and personality traits. A lot of the traits measured did not seem to matter. Creative people described themselves as both extroverted and introverted, emotional and rational, conscientious and unconcerned.  The agreeableness did not seem to have a bearing on creativity either, except for one aspect.

Highly creative students scored lower than average on the honesty-humility scale. They were not any more angry than the average person, but they were more arrogant.  According to the study “This finding is consistent with past work on arrogance, which is captured by the pretentiousness and immodesty defined by low honesty-humility.” Even though creative people can cooperate and are not overly hostile, their feeling of entitlement because of perceived ability irks others.

This characteristic is not the same as narcissism in which people rate themselves more highly in leadership and performance than others and responded with violent behaviors when their ego is threatened.  Arrogance is more of a type of social interaction than a consistently held internal  perception. It is manifested when in the company of others by exaggerating one’s own importance and being critical of others.  The person who shows arrogance  may actually have a lower than average self-esteem.

However, arrogance in creative individuals tend to be countered by a greater openness to experience, which correlates to a willingness to accept other ideas -but not all of them.  In this case there is a feeling of superior judgment, not defending own ideas as much as one’s own judgment.  Creative people can sympathize and compromise with others, but they still believe that they know better.

Sant’Ambrogio, sculpture by Adolfo Wildt (1868-1931) – Photograph by Giovanni Dall’Orto
P.J. Silvia., J. C. Kaufman, R. Reiter-Palmonc, B. Wigert, B. Cantankerous creativity: Honesty–Humility, Agreeableness, and the HEXACO structure of creative achievement. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 51, Issue 5, October 2011, Pp 687–689
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Longer or shorter life?

grimm's grave wRecently while reading articles about research on creativity I found contradictory conclusions. That  is not terribly uncommon when it come to creativity research. However, these sets of findings are interesting because it adds fame to the mix. Fame is something the individual does not necessarily control. Granted there are some creative people who purposely hide their works (such as Emily Dickenson) and others who spend more time flaunting their work than creating it (like Salvador Dali). However, one cannot discount the impact that notice from the surrounding society has on a creative person’s life.

The most publicized of these studies, by C. R. Epstein and R. J. Epstein, was published in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.  Despite being from Australia, the researchers decided to use the New York Times as the gauge of fame.  Under the assumption that anybody with an obituary in the New York Times had obtained some degree of fame in their field, they examined the age at death and occupation of these people so see if there was a correlation between types of careers and lifespan.

Who dies the youngest? It was no surprise to see creative performers such as musicians and actors at the top of this list. In fact what shocked me was that the median age at death of years for this group was as old as 77.1 years. The notoriety of dying  young  in mid-career is more easily recalled because actors and musicians typically stop performing long before they reach their seventies.  I tend to forget about these older performers and am mildly surprised to find they were still alive a few days ago, when I hear of their death.

Not far behind this group are athletes (77.4 years),  and then people that worked in creative fields such as artists, writers and composers (78.5 years). But to put this whole study in perspective you need to realize most of the obituaries in the New York Times were for men, and the average  life expectancy for a male in America  is 75.6 years. The individuals in this population were not just well known in their fields, they were wealthier and with wealth comes another set of parameters for longevity.  However the women in this study died at an average of 78.8 years, younger than female average of 80.8, but most of them were performers and athletes.[1]

The next study shows how longevity seems to increase chances for fame in the very group whose life is most shortened by it – the actors and actresses. The life span of all those ever nominated for an Academy Award in a leading or supporting role were compared to life span of those in the acting in the same movies, and born in the same eras who never achieved this distinction.  In total, the life span of 1649 performers were analyzed to show that Academy Award winners lived 3.9 years longer than the other actors and actresses.  Still both groups, the award winners at 79.7 years, and the others at vs. 75.8 years were in the range of average life spans. In this case better health that led to increased longevity may have been the cause rather than result of increased fame, because it allowed the performers to have longer careers and participate in more films. [2]

However, when the lifespan of screenwriters was examined, the reverse was true. Academy Award winning screen writers lived 3.6 years less than less famous screen writers (74.1 versus  77.7 years).  But you may have noticed something else was reversed. These statistics, based on fame in California instead of recognition in New York, show the performers living longer than those working in the creative field, the screen writers.[3]

So there is really no conclusion to be drawn on how creative careers affects longevity, or how fame affects it either. But as I look at these studies, I find the typical fate of these populations seems much better than those few performers whose names are splashed across the media because their careers ended foolishly in midstream.

[1]Epstein, C.R. and Epstein, R.J. (2013), Death in The New York Times: the price of fame is a faster flame. QJM (2013) 106 (6): 517-521
[2] Redelmeier D.A. and Singh S.M.(2001) Survival in Academy Award-winning actors and actresses. Annual of Internal Medicine. 2001 May 15;134(10):955-62.
[3] Redelmeier D.A. and Singh S.M.(2001) Longevity of screenwriters who win an academy award: longitudinal study. BMJ. 2001 Dec 22-29;323(7327):1491-6.
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The relationship between age and creativity

aged023All the buzz around declining creativity deals with this factor as measured by tests. These tests typically take less than an hour and scores are based on lists of ideas or little snippets of work.

When creativity is measured by the actual value of real products different trends appear. Comparing creative products to determine which are more innovative and original is much harder. The very act of creativity means producing results that don’t resemble those produced by others. There is no score based on number of answers or amount of elaboration. Instead a group of people, respected in the particular field, must all view and judge the entire body of work from the sample in order to rank individual works. This kind of assessment is not easy to perform with a huge sample.

For example, in a recent joint study by Harvard and University of Washington (Davis and Weinstein, 2013) the researchers compared samples of visual art and creative writing by teenagers published between 1990 and 2011 to determine if creativity was increasing or decreasing.  Their conclusion was improvement existed in visual work, which showed greater sophistication and complexity, and a decline in the writing, which became simpler and more mundane. Davis concluded that “there are markers of creativity — like complexity and risk-taking and breaking away from the standard mold — that appear to have changed.” However, only fifty examples of writing were reviewed.[1]

Judging by actual products also changes the findings of creativity based on age. Children are not known for producing masterpieces of art, literature or music. But neither are elderly people. Lehman, (1962) found creative scientific achievement, as well as that in the arts was a bell curve with a single-peak as a function of age.[2]

Simonton’s study of the lives of creative geniuses led him to conclude that poets and mathematicians tend to peak the earliest of the disciplines in producing creative work.  Anyone who had studied English literature may recall that the many of the romantic period poets didn’t live past their thirties. There are exceptions to this trend for poets of course, such as  Robert Frost whose most well known work were written in his late forties and after.  Yet each of these had a time when their creative production rose fairly rapidly and then declined until their death. Novelists, philosophers and biologists seem to peak later and decline more slowly. This difference may be a result of the complexity of the product and ambiguity of their fields.[3]

Just as there is no single factor contributing to the creativity of individuals, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to age and creativity. There are just trends that may not always hold true, because as all creative people know, rules are meant to be broken.

[1]Kelley, P. A decline in creativity? It depends on how you look, University of Washington News and Information, November 14, 2013
[2] Lehman, H. C. (1962). More about age and achievement. Gerontologist, 2, 141-148.
[3] Lehrer, J. ” Old Writers,” The Frontal Cortex, Posted on June 15, 2010
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Is creativity on a downhill slide?

02Just as the business world seems to be competing to attract creative workers, students’ scores on tests of creative thinking appear to be declining. Education professor at the College of William and Mary Kyung Hee Kim analyzed scores from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) for students from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Over the past few decades the score for students at all grade levels have been gradually going down in the United States. This is a steady decline as opposed to a drastic drop and is not necessarily related to number of years in school, as scores of younger students are also declining. The decrease is mainly in the ability to elaborate, or produce the wealth of details that support the main creative idea. According to Kim normative scores on the TTCT began the downward slide in 1984 or shortly after [1].

Is there a connection between the two? It may seem obvious that a scarce resource is more valuable but there may be another connection beyond that. The drive for creativity in business is aimed at bringing in greater profits. The first task is coming up with new “innovative” products, but innovation in and of itself does not sell products.  These are largely electronics, and electronics have long been complex to the point that most people do not use all of their capability.

The second part is convincing people that they “need” the product through the creative artistry of marketing and advertisement.  For example, new electronics such as tablets and smart phones actually have less capability as computers than earlier processors. People must be convinced that they must have the simplified, enhanced ability to reach and add to the vast pool of data on the web at any time. People also want to look cool doing so. It not just the ease and portability of new electronics that boost sales, it is their image.

But the very selling point of these items, the ability to connect to others and access vast amounts of information and entertainment may be leading to the lowering of creativity in students. The constant data influx leads people to superficial scanning. According to Nicholas Carr “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” [2] This lack of deep thinking may have led to the decrease in creativity.

Of course students attending school in 1984 rarely had access to a computer at home. The major innovation in 1984 was the mouse driven Macintosh with the graphic user interface; allowing anyone, not just the technologically minded, to use a computer. Availability and use of home computers took off rapidly from that point.  (1984 is also ironically the year the word “cyberspace” first appeared in a novel as the idea of an illusionary world of data streaming to humans by intelligent machines. )

The decline of creativity – does it go hand in hand with the creation of our most recent innovations?


[1] Kim, Kyung Hee (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285-295.
[2] Carr, Nicholas (2010) The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains | Magazine”. 2010-05-24. Retrieved 4 July 2010.
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Conforming to divergency

punk_edited-2My first experience with Odyssey of the Mind, a creative problem solving competition, involved a group of rather ambitious second graders. Rather than opting for the easier non-competitive primary challenge they insisted on doing one of the more difficult structural ones. They spent a lot of time trying to build a structure that actually functioned and coming up with a plot to tie everything together. We largely ignored practicing for the spontaneous problem solving.

They performed well on the long term problem, better than teams 3 or 4 grades ahead of them. But scored last in the Spontaneous Competition, which turned out to be an  impromptu exercise in divergent thinking.  Afterwards we sat around and brainstormed on what went wrong.  The question was “What would you take on a trip to the moon?” Only one answer had been given more than the minimum point, and as they recalled only one answer had been completely “out there.” One girl wanted to bring a shopping mall.

Part of their lack of “creativity” in divergent thinking was lack of experience. Now that they understood what was expected of them, they could practice spontaneous problems. The next time their scores soared. But I noticed that two of the students refused to give up practical answers and therefore could not come up with as many possible solutions. Restricting the search to an answer that really would work seemed to be a personal choice.

All of this musing on past experience with children and creativity brings me to a notion currently made popular by Sir Ken Robinson.  The idea is that children are born creative and the school systems educate the creativity out of them. After all research shows that 98% of children age three to five are creative but only 2% of adults 25 year olds are. [1] Actually only one researcher showed this.  It was a 1968 study by George Lands described in Breaking Point and Beyond, published by Lands and Beth Jarman.

Most definitions of creativity include both originality and usefulness. Throwing usefulness out the window in a test of divergent thinking changes the results.  My second grade group learned how to increase their Spontaneous Competition scores not by being more creative, but by “conforming” to what the judges were seeking.  Children often respond the way that they think you want them to. If you want a large number of answers, they will readily “carpet bomb” without regard to usefulness.

Other researchers have not replicated this result of drastically reduced creativity in adults. A long term study of students who took the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking in the late fifties and early sixties found a significant correlation between children that scored high on the test and later real world creative achievement as adults (especially for  the males). [2] The creativity scores did show some fluctuation based on grade, but the percentage of creative younger students was not significantly greater than the percentage of older ones. Many of the younger students did not score as highly creative. One reason may be that the TTCT is not  just a one dimensional test of divergent thinking.

So if you’ve heard that research shows that children are born creative and it is educated out of them by society, think again. Society is made up of people, which includes children.  If creativity is the norm for young children, then that would be the predominate mode of society. But it isn’t. _________________________

Photo credits: Immanuel Giel,  Niko punkPuknáč, Quercusrobur  (CC by 3.0)
[1] From Glasgow, A conference in March, 2005, by the Scottish Book Trust,
[2] Mark A. Runco, Garnet Millar, Selcuk Acar, & Bonnie Cramond (2010) Torrance tests of creative thinking as predictors of personal and public achievement: A fifty-year follow-up.  Creativity Research Journal, 22, 361-368.
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Will the real imposter please stand up?

Steph _OC2_edited-2It’s popular now to claim to suffer from the “imposter syndrome.” Admitting that you’re afraid of being found out for not knowing as much as people think you know has become in vogue. Especially among women successful in business and those who act for a living.

The term was coined by two psychotherapists working with Georgia State University. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (1978) studied women, who despite continued success in academic fields, assumed that their success was due to factors other than their own ability. These woman came both from families in which another sibling was given credit for being the intelligent one, and families in which the they were told as girls that that could achieve anything. They concluded that “societal sex-role stereotyping appear to contribute significantly to the development of the imposter phenomenon. ” Their goal was to formulate a kind of therapy to overcome this problem.

Maybe these women do not really need therapy for this syndrome. It may not be a psychological affliction as much as a form of self -motivation and protection from societal rejection.  Purdue psychologists Shamala Kumar and Carolyn M. Jagacinski (2006), measured anxiety level and imposter feelings in students. Their study “found marked differences between men and women and their experiences of imposter fears. Women endorsed far more imposter fears than men.” But unlike the high scoring men, the women also felt “they must outperform others to feel competent,” basically acting more competitive. According to the New York Times (2008), a study at Wake Forest found those that scored highly on the imposter score, had higher views of their abilities when they felt their self-assessments were anonymous. They simply didn’t want to appear competitive, and lowering expectations for their performance was a form of protection.

Researchers studying gender stereotypes have found them to be extremely prescriptive. The qualities that gender stereotypes attribute to women and men “also tend to be the ones required of women and men.” In addition, “violations of gender stereotypes are met with various forms of punishment and devaluation.” (Prentice and Carranza, 2002). But what exactly are these stereotypes?

In comparison to the people in general, women are supposed to be warm, kind, interested in children, sensitive, patient and cooperative.  They are not supposed to be strong leaders, or ambitious, assertive, decisive, competitive,  and willing to take risks. Those are viewed as positive qualities for men.  And then some negative qualities, like being controlling or arrogant, are often ignored in men, but harshly criticized in women.

So when business women find themselves in a position where they seem to be showing the stereotypical male qualities, many admit to the imposter syndrome. But this is not necessarily true of highly creative women. Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) study of gifted teens uncovered the interesting observation that creative people tend to ignore stereotypical gender roles.  Talented females showed motivation to achieve and be dominant much more readily than their noncreative peers. They seemed openly tougher than the other girls.

The few women who gained success for their unique works in the arts were often criticized for being pushy and difficult (Piirto, 2002). Those who strove to find new discoveries in the sciences were often more introverted than their male counterparts, and did not receive acknowledgement for their work in their life time. There is not just a struggle to obtain resources for creative women, there is also the devaluation of work for not being what society expects.

Carey B. (2008) “Feel Like a Fraud? At Times, Maybe You Should,” New York Times, February 5, 2008Top of Form
Clance, P.R. and Imes, S. (1978) The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice Volume 15, #3, Fall 1978
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996) Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People, HarperCollins.
Prentice, D.A, and Carranza, E. (2002) What Women and Men Should Be, Shouldn’t Be, Are Allowed to BE and Don’t Have to Be: The Contents of Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 269-281. Blackwell Publishing, USA
Piirto, J. (1991). Why are there so few? (creative women: visual artists, mathematicians, musicians). Roeper Review, 13(3), 142-147.
Shamala K.,and  Jagacinski C. M. (2006) Imposters have goals too: The imposter phenomenon and its relationship to achievement goal theory. Personality and Individual Differences 4, 147–157
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Competitive disadvantage for creative women

510px-Defense.gov_photo_essay_080814-A-8804H-006 Every time I hear someone ask how to intrinsically motivate students, I have to laugh inside. The very definition of intrinsic means to come from inside of a person, not from an outside source, such as a teacher, instructor, trainer or anyone else employed in the field of getting people to learn. But maybe I should tell them that they need not worry about intrinsic motivation. Although it is touted as a way to improve learning, when it comes to improving one’s level of recognition in a field – even recognition for creative accomplishments – extrinsic motivation seems to trump strictly internal goals every time.

Consider the root of competitiveness.  People work harder to do something not just to excel in their own sight, but to be recognized by the public as better than someone else.  The Olympic medalist who bemoans winning silver may have spent months of solitary training, but the crushed expression at coming in second reveals the high level of extrinsic motivation involved.

Men seem to compete more readily than women. Evidently the male characteristic of trying harder if someone else is paying attention starts young. It is noticeable early in grade school (Gneezy 2002).  Not only do the males make more effort when competing, they are more willing to take the risks. Why? Because they typically predict that they will perform better than they actually do. (Niederle & Versterlund 2005).

Many societies have placed a premium on competition. Even creative individuals  in the arts and sciences must compete for resources with which to do their work.  These resources have been habitually controlled by men (Simonton 1994). The decision to award these resources in often based on competition, and with creativity of ideas being a particularly subjective judgment, resources are often awarded to the most competitive people.  People who promote themselves as being the best win – not necessarily the people who are the best (Gneezy 2002).

It becomes obvious how this tendency carries over into the creative fields. F. Barron’s (1972) study of young artists at the San Francisco Art Institute and at the Rhode Island School of Design yielded similar observations. When the students were asked if they thought their work was “particularly unique or good40% of the men and 17% of the women agreed. These statistics were basically reversed when ask the flip question with 40% of the women and 14% of the men feeling that that their work was inferior to others at the institute. Interestingly, these were not real indications of quality. Overall the woman’s work was as high a quality as the men’s. Barron attributed this disparity to a difference in self image.

However, this self-image may be due to social conditioning, not innate differences between men and women. In the few matrilineal cultures in which women control the resources, they behave in a similar competitive manner to men of other cultures. (Gneezy & List 2013). It has often been noted that women can also be competitive. However, they tend to limit this to competition against other women, which is done in a more covert and less openly aggressive manner. To make an impact on the world with their creativity would require a different style of competitiveness. So what exactly occurs when women try this?

Photo: 2012 London Games. Defense.gov_photo_essay_080814-A-8804H-006.jpg/Public domain.


Barron, F. (1972) Artists in the Making. New York: Seminar Press
Gneezy, U. (2002) Gender and Competition, Do Competitive Environments Favor Men More Than Women? Capital Ideas, Vol. 4 No. 2 | Fall 2002
Gneezy, U. and List, J. (2013) Where Women Are More Competitive Than Men, Time
Niederle M., and Lise Versterlund, L. (2005) “Do Women Shy Away from Competition? Do Men Compete too Much?” NBER Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research , 1050 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138
Simonton, D. K. (1994). Greatness: Who makes history and why. New York: Guilford Press.
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