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Eccentricity & Creativity

“I hope I'm becoming more eccentric. More room in the brain.”—Tom Waits

A number of artists acknowledge that being unconventional is something positive.

Reese Witherspoon has said her parents supported her ambitions to be an actress, and that, growing up in Nashville, “Being a Southern eccentric was the big influence in my family. [The standard was] How weird can you be?”

Many people considered gifted and talented may also be viewed as eccentric, based on personal style or behavior that, like their talent, is outside social norms.

According to historian Daniel J. Boorstin, for example, Beethoven’s apartments numbered more than 60, as he kept moving on to a new one (mentioned in his book The Creators). Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist, commented in an interview that during the previous nine years the longest she has been in one place was three weeks.

Such a propensity for unusual living arrangements is one signal of being an eccentric, according to neuropsychologist David Weeks in his book Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness.

The title is indicative of mainstream society’s ambivalence about those at the outer edges—a society which has historically relegated people with unappreciated or suspect talents to the fringes of the culture in ways, if not to involuntary residence at an institution.

Vincent Van Gogh [1853 - 1890] has been quoted about some of the negative attitudes he experienced: “What am I in the eyes of most people, a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person—somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then—even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody has in his heart.”

In a newspaper interview, writer Michael Dwyer commented on another kind of social reaction to eccentric individuals: “Several people warned me about Tim Burton. He is decidedly eccentric, they whispered, totally wrapped up in his wild imagination, and consequently, very difficult to interview.”

But Dwyer went on to say, “Perhaps they were confusing the man with his movies, because they got it all wrong. Burton proved to be delightful, very talkative and bubbling with enthusiasm, when we met recently in London in a cosy little Notting Hill Gate hotel.”

Another newspaper article said, “It seems bizarrely appropriate that the enormously risky Tolkien trilogy The Lord Of The Rings is being made by a pot-bellied, barefooted, shaggy-haired Kiwi whose production company is called Wingnut Films.

“Peter Jackson is a bit of a wingnut. As a man, he is a bona fide eccentric who shows up for interviews without shoes and socks while looking more like a Hobbit than a human.”

Thankfully, Burton and Jackson have exploited their “wild imaginations” for the pleasure of many of us.

But when a gifted person’s inner drive toward self-actualization is blocked or hindered, by low self esteem, unresolved dependency needs, shame, depression, abuse, fear, or other factors, their very sense of aliveness may be eroded.

For those who are talented and able to engage their choice and willingness to follow their unique visions—even at the risk of being labeled strange, weird or eccentric—their aliveness and health may be enhanced.

Dr Weeks posits that, far from being aberrant and unhappy, eccentrics “experience much lower levels of stress because they do not feel the need to conform”.

Another example of someone following their own unique vision is inventor entrepreneur Dean Kamen. A British newspaper article once profiled him as a “visionary oddball” who “still manages to stand out as a true brilliant eccentric”.

The self-taught son of a comic book artist, he is the multimillionaire holder of more than 150 patents and the recipient of dozens of honorary doctorates… he holds the world record for the longest uninterrupted period of wearing denim.

“No matter what the occasion, he wears the same outfit: blue jeans, denim work shirt and a pair of Timberland boots… lives near Manchester, New Hampshire, in a hexagonal house that he designed himself… Mr Kamen also owns an island off the coast of Connecticut, which he calls North Dumpling. It has its own flag, navy and currency—one note has the value the pi. The island also boasts a mutual non-aggression pact with the US signed by Mr Kamen and President Bush senior.”

The serious side to Mr Kamen’s brilliance first emerged when he was a college undergraduate.

“He invented the first drug-infusion pump…. Project Ginger [his self-balancing personal transporter called Segway] was born out of his previously best-known invention, the iBot, the first wheelchair capable of climbing stairs.”

One of the defining characteristics of giftedness is entelechy, a term derived from the Greek word for “having a goal”. As described by psychologist Deirdre Lovecky, “entelechy is a particular type of motivation, need for self-determination, and an inner strength and vital force directing life and growth to become all one is capable of being. Gifted people with entelechy are often attractive to others who feel drawn to their openness and to their dreams and visions. Being near someone with this trait gives others hope and determination to achieve their own self-actualization.”

This is perhaps also one of the qualities that make eccentrics so engaging and endearing.

In his book Creating Minds, Howard Gardner, using poet T.S. Eliot as a prime example, refers to the “marginality of the modern creative figure; caught between cultures, ‘inhabiting’ diverse time periods, experiencing painful personal anxieties and disjunctions on the border of mental disturbance.”

This sense of “marginality” also shows up in Weeks' list of 15 qualities, possession of at least 10 of which qualifies one as an eccentric:

nonconforming; creative; strongly motivated by curiosity; idealistic (wanting to make the world a better place and the people in it happier);

happily obsessed with one or as many as six hobbyhorses; aware from early childhood of being different; intelligent, opinionated and outspoken;

convinced that you are right and the rest of the world is wrong; non-competitive (not in need of reassurance or reinforcement from society);

unusual in eating habits or living arrangements; not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people except to convert them to your point of view;

possessing a mischievous sense of humor; single; eldest or only child; a bad speller.

His list compares well with common traits of gifted individuals.

One example of such a creative figure is acclaimed illustrator Gorey (Edward St. John Gorey, 1925 - 2000). A Salon.com article said, “In high school, according to… a friend, ‘He painted his toenails green and walked barefoot down Michigan Avenue, which was rather shocking in those days.’ … as a French literature major at Harvard, …he was given to wearing capes and numerous rings…”

A prominent aspect of having exceptional talents is a uniqueness of being that makes finding peers difficult.

Gardner notes that innovative dancer Martha Graham, along with biologist Barbara McClintock, anthropologist Margaret Mead, writer Virginia Woolf “and other pioneering twentieth-century women… had to create her own paragons, her own role models… Not surprisingly, she ended up inspiring many female artists, making it easier for them to find or create an audience for their distinctive mode of expression”.

Such uniqueness often shows up early in life for men, but Weeks found is that “a female eccentric holds back until her children grow up, then she may get rid of her husband and there is a blossoming of her eccentricity and creativity.”

According to biographies of gifted people in many areas, and to research studies reported by the Institute for Advanced Development in Denver and elsewhere, one of the key personality traits often accompanying extraordinary talent is introversion.

According to Boorstin, Leonardo da Vinci in one of his prolific notebooks wrote, “The painter must be solitary. For if you are alone you are completely yourself, but if you are accompanied by a single companion, you are only half yourself.”

Perhaps one dynamic of eccentricity is an embracing of qualities and behavior that helps assure such welcome isolation.

Mary Rocamora heads an adult school in Los Angeles that attracts gifted adults, and has been counseling accomplished writers, actors and other creative professionals for more than 24 years. She chooses to wear unconventional clothing, such as shoes handpainted with colorful designs, and coveralls she makes herself.

She finds real value in this form of eccentricity: “It keeps me from growing up, it keeps me a kid,” she explains. “To me, the greatest danger for anybody that’s gifted is to start becoming a grownup and taking it all seriously. And a lot of gifted people do that—start getting all caught up in the business of their creativity, and they grow up and lose a lot of that childlike spontaneity that you need, the part that isn’t judging, isn’t restrained.

“And I don’t want to be perceived as anything other than as a sort of kid. I'm not in an Armani suit, like an appropriate professional person”, she adds, noting she has dressed differently all her life, and that doing so helps connect people with her: “I didn’t want clients to see me as anything other than a peer, and if anything to see me as some kind of a fruitcake that they could laugh about—and they like to do that. It’s a place in them that they hold me; it’s not that I'm less esteemed or respected, but when they think of me they don't think of that, they think of all this nuttiness, and it gives them a giggle.”

In entertainment and the arts—fields that richly encourages and reward personal behavior and style that in other contexts might be shunned and condemned—many actors and entertainers relish and nurture their eccentricity, to the delight of other people.

In a Los Angeles Times article by Bruce Newman, Candice Bergen (‘Murphy Brown’) was profiled as someone who also benefits from not “growing up” and from keeping a mischievous attitude and sense of humor— another of Weeks’ traits of eccentrics.

Garry Marshall, who played her boss on the series was quoted, “She has a wonderful way of being like a little kid. She just gets into being that bad little girl. Many years ago, I was at Debbie Reynolds' house doing some work, and Candice was there because she used to hang around with Carrie Fisher… They were making a little noise, so Debbie went into their room and said, ‘What are you girls doing?’ She’s yelling at them! They’re having a slumber party! And they said, ‘We’re bad. We’re being bad.’ And I think Candice still has a lot of that in her.”

In the same article, Bergen talked about appreciating the aspects of herself that help keep her engaged and successful in her work.

Referring to Knock Wood, her 1984 memoir in which she detailed the emotional estrangement she felt from her father, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, she said, “I was sort of ironically carping about my childhood a long time ago.”

“But now I just think it was so wonderfully eccentric. I probably feel closer to my father now than I did when he was alive. And I feel very grateful for that sense of wonder that pervaded my childhood, the sense of whimsy and fantasy that I'm incredibly nostalgic for now.”

Nicolas Cage has commented on the value he finds in being unconventional: “There’s not enough eccentricity in my life now… it’s important to keep that eccentric spirit alive, because when that goes, I think the work will go.”

In the article The Weirdo Route, creativity writer and consultant Edward De Bono cautions that “The weirdo idiom implies that creativity can only be applied by a special ‘breed’ of person. This absolves everyone else from needing to be creative. If only the ‘weirdo breed’ can be creative then there is no point, and no need, for anyone else to try. This is a very considerable danger. Creativity is made inaccessible to everyone else. The worship of weirdos implies the impossibility of creative skills for everyone else. This is directly contrary to my own belief that creative thinking is a skill that can be learned, practiced and used deliberately.”

But De Bono goes on to list a number of positive qualities that ‘weirdos’ often have: “They are strongly motivated to be creative. They put their energy in trying to create. Creativity is a top priority not just a peripheral luxury… If you spend more time trying to be creative you will be more creative… They are not satisfied with the things the way they are. They continually seek to do things in a different way. This ‘opposite’ of complacency is very important and powerful… They enjoy thinking. They enjoy being creative. They enjoy having ideas. Most people do not enjoy thinking at all… The rule-breaking, free-thinking of weirdos may encourage people to open up a bit.”

Those labeled eccentric are often considered at least benignly ‘mad’, if not actually psychotic, but based on his clinical practice and research, Dr Weeks says eccentric people “have these happy obsessive preoccupations, and a wonderful, unusual sense of humor, and this gives them a significant meaning in life. And they are far healthier than most people because of that”.

Anne Stahl also writes in the Epilogue to her thesis ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, “We should be more careful when using the term madness because unfortunately we often use it incorrectly to describe someone who is merely different from us… there might be a connection between creativity and eccentricity or odd behavior, not between creativity and madness.”

Dr Weeks feels that eccentrics are essential for the health of the social organism, for they provide the variety of ideas and behavior that permits the group to adapt successfully to changing conditions. All intellectual evolution depends on new ideas; they are the essence of science, of exciting new art, indeed of all intellectual progress.

He commented in a PBS interview that eccentric people “are permanently non-conforming from a very early age, and there’s a great overlap between eccentric children and gifted children. They develop differently, though. The eccentrics become very, very creative but they’re motivated primarily by curiosity. They have extreme degrees of curiosity, and they’re very independent-minded. Their other motivation is fairly idealistic. They want to make the world a better place, and they want to make other people happy.”

In one of his letters to readers on his website, Apple computer developer Steve Wozniak wrote, “It’s very unusual to decide just to be happy and nice. There are constant pressures to worry about more things and to approach life differently. The way that I avoid stress from these pressures is that I figured out very early on that I could be as different as I wanted and didn’t have to argue it or convince others of my rightness. They could be their own way and I could be mine and my happiness comes from believing in myself.”

Dr Weeks also said that his studies show “the ongoing creativity of the eccentric is far more enduring and permanent, and they draw from their inner wealth of experience… actually it’s the people who are eccentric who have the most vivid dreams who turn out to be the most original thinkers, and they’re the only people in the world that I know of who have both vivid dreams at night, when they’re asleep, and also a vivid visual imagination by day.”

Perhaps embracing eccentricity can more fully liberate our creativity.

Cover image and top image from Shutterstock.

This is a cross-post from Talent Develop.

Lisa A Riley, MA, LMFT is a Creativity Coach and has spent more than nine years working with creative individuals such as artists, actors, designers, musicians, writers, and actors. She “helps to empower clients to take steps towards enhancing their creativity and move closer to becoming the artist they envisioned themselves to be”. See her multiple ‘Products for Your Creative Success’ on her site The Art of Mind.

Douglas Eby, M/A Psychology, is a writer, researcher and online publisher on the psychology of creative expression and personal growth. He is author of the Talent Development Resources series of sites.

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