When The Creative Instinct Rivals Traditional Success

Seekers of creativity are often working very hard to articulate their own vision of life in order to disassociate with any messages sold to them by society or sold to them for the sake of convenience.

Positive Disintegration is a theory I've studied closely because it offers unconventional insights into high achievement while reworking the common definition of success.  

Quick Recap: At levels one and two of this five-stage theory, common models of accomplishment and ambition are absorbed and left unexamined.  The person forfeits any individual mission to the outside voices of others. At levels three, four, and five, however, the rules of achievement are re-written, tested scientifically by the self, and scrupulously redefined.  Creative activities assist with reflection and growth as the person obtains a unique and integrated personality.  

At level three, a dynamism called the creative instinct may take over and compel someone into a life of unplanned creative activities or entrepreneurial pursuits.  Towards the bottom of this post, I will share my personal experience with this.  


Rejecting The Tried and True For... Who Knows What?

Whatever "level" we find ourselves at, honestly analyzing our driven nature is a tricky task.  We need to sort out where our thoughts and ambitions come from.  

  • What thoughts are your own?  
  • What thoughts come from the core circle of people you surround yourself with?
  • What thoughts are driven by a desire to impress?
  • What thoughts are driven by a desire to belong?

Whether intended or not, the Theory of Positive Disintegration helps to explain the wide variety of odd behavior found among individuals given the label "creative".  

For example, to the confusion of many friends and family members, some reject societal positions they could easily obtain.  Some gifted individuals are not impressed by their own high-achievement if it stunted their original voice (causing enormous disappoint in the self).  

High Achievement For Others Vs. High Achievement For the Self

Whatever your personal thoughts about labeling people creative, the term itself doesn’t determine whether such people become incredibly arrogant with their skills or incredibly humble with them.  The term also doesn’t determine whether their high achievement balances short-term hyper-focused selfishness for the sake of longer-term greater good or selfish climbing for the sake of self-aggrandizement.

To explain further, this quote and several others that follow address different forms of self-actualization:

"There are stark contrasts between definitions of actualization that focus on competitive achievements and Dabrowski’s definition, which holds up "empathy and compassion for others” as moral exemplars.  For example, Hollinger and Fleming define actualization as "the achievement of societally valued and normatively defined high level/ high status educational and career goals commensurate with talent and ability, which ironically falls at the lower levels according to Dabrowski’s model.  In practical terms, a woman with a "What’s in it for me?” mentality who attains a position of power with little or no concern for others could be described as "actualized” according to Hollinger and Flemming. However, she would be described as "egocentric” and "brutally ambitious” by Dabrowski and would be placed at the lowest levels of human development until she learned to examine her own behavior, reflect upon her choices, and consider the effect of her choices upon others."

- Teaching and Counseling Gifted Girls by Susan K. Johnsen and James Kendrick

The above paragraph came from a chapter based on a study where high achieving women at an Ivy League College were tracked down 35 years later to see how they compared to Dabrowski’s five-stage model.  

Here are some other insightful quotes from this chapter:

"Their purposes were like "callings,” and their need to act on those callings surpassed many of their other needs, specifically the need for approval from others and the need for financial security.  The actualized woman had deep personal insights and felt there were deep purposes to most of life’s activities...Dabrowski distinguished between actualized individuals with personal purpose and insecure individuals who need others to validate their self-worth.”

"The researchers were amazed at the levels of optimism revealed by the actualized women... At higher levels of Dabrowski’s model, the choice to grow is conscious.”

"Dabrowski stressed a dual commitment to human relationships and moral purpose.  In fact, deep moral purpose (self-actualization) was not possible without meaningful relationships.”

"They were not willing to set aside their contribution to society.  They owned their own sense of purpose in life and did not sublimate their own goals for the goals of their spouse, children, or others.  Their altruism came through their careers and volunteer accomplishments.”

As a young woman reworking my identity and going through several personal evolutions, I appreciate coming across information like this.  


Personal Story

Looking over my own life, a few specific moments serve to crystallize my confusion about traditional success, creativity, and the balance between being true to oneself while also helping others.  

Below are times when I felt torn between what was expected of me and a creative calling I wanted to make time for.

Elementary School

I was at a teacher conference with my mom in first grade. The teacher called me “creative,” but with an overall disapproving tone.  I remember leaving the meeting and associating the word “creative” with being a trouble maker and someone not able to follow directions.  To this day, I still don’t let it sink in when people call me creative. I have a hard time taking it as a compliment. Some part of me rejects it because there’s a girl inside who wanted to be called “smart” instead (whatever that means)?!  Does smart mean following directions? Hmmm….

Middle School

Anorexia functioned as a way to calm my overstimulated nature and slow down my thoughts.  Instead of worrying about being creative, I had only enough energy to follow the program set for me and obtain “high marks” in activities the community would notice or approve of.  I remember being in a school play and being so weak the director said to me, “You need to eat so you have the energy to learn the dance.”

As a highly sensitive person not used to criticism, I felt like I had been yelled at.  So I went and journaled in the bathroom while embarrassed. I realized I wanted to write more instead of pretending to have fun with friends (when I was really just dancing to try to burn calories and being in a lot of school activities so I wouldn’t have to go home and be watched eating).

High School

While regaining my mental health, I started playing guitar and writing songs the summer after my junior year.  Early that fall, after my first big assignment for AP English, I remember sitting in the basement and bawling my eyes out.  I wanted to write about my own ideas instead. I could see the entire year ahead of me - working hard to get straight A’s, trying to be in every activity possible, being busy from sun up to sundown, and never having the space to work on my own projects.

 I decided to drop out of some sports in order to play guitar after school. Everyone was worried about me and thinking I was withdrawing (or my disease was isolating me again) when actually, I was finally making some choices and not caring what other people thought.


In a similar vein, I went to community college because I wanted to prioritize making music on my own while starting to get paid for it.  As someone who had constantly fretted over perfect grades, this confused my supportive group of highly-accomplished friends (these awesome and kind women are all lawyers, doctors, or have Ph.D.’s at this point).  As I predicted, community college was less demanding and allowed me to focus on creative outlets. I lived in my parents' basement while saving money and learning to be a musician.

(Learning to play music isn't a pretty process. Whatever unfortunate person would’ve been my freshman roommate really dodged an unpleasant experience.)

In My Career as a Teacher

Last year, as an extremely pregnant woman, I was reading an excellent book to some elementary students called What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada. The message in this book hit me so hard emotionally, I walked away from those cute little kids thinking for the rest of the day about this odd conundrum I was in (once again).  

It occurred to me I HAD AN IDEA (but had no idea when I’d make time for it). I still hadn’t recorded the 30 songs about history I wrote before becoming pregnant. I still hadn’t recorded my sixth album.  I still hadn’t started a blog about creative living and history because I was finishing my master’s. I still hadn’t….


In order to respect myself, I’ve recently pushed pause on moving ahead in a traditional sense in order to start this blog.  I still haven’t recorded the history songs, but writing feels like an excellent creative start.

How about you?  Are there times when you feel pulled between traditional success and creative ideas that won’t leave you alone?  Have you found a way to merge the two?




10 Replies to “When The Creative Instinct Rivals Traditional Success”

    1. Thank you for stopping by the site. I hope the article helps you sort out some approaches to creativity as well.

  1. The thoughts that you post are, well, amazing. You clearly have a gift for teaching.

    Somewhat serendipitous that I read your post after watching Adam Grant, “The surprising habits of original thinkers.” TED talk – How do creative people come up with great ideas? I posted it to twitter and you may have seen it? I enjoyed watching it and you may too. Here’s the link at TED Talks:

    1. Thanks for stopping by the site! I am a huge Adam Grant fan. He’s an author where I can trust my mind will be blown by every book. I highly recommend putting the time in to read the entire book Originals and track down more of his interviews on the web. Enjoy!!!

  2. I sympathize. As a creative person myself, I have realized that I need to give some time every day to the creative process. Moving forward a little on some project helps me feel I’m making progress.

    As for ideas that won’t leave you alone, it always helps to write them down and outline them a bit. That way, they are saved. Sooner or later you’ll have a chance to look at them again, and if you are still excited by them, you can start working on them in earnest. There’s always the chance that you might look at them later and go “meh” in which case you’ve saved yourself time which you can then spend working on what really is important and exciting to you.

    1. Thank you for stopping by the blog Michaela. I’m trying to give myself a little time each day as well. It makes such a difference to my well-being! I’m always working on improving my note-taking process too. Thank you for the tips!

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