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Personal Growth

Why Creative People Need to Be Eccentric

Do you ever feel like your regular habits are a little bit crazy? We investigate why eccentricity is essential to doing great work.

Creative people have a reputation for eccentricity. It’s not hard to see why when we consider the habits of some well-known creatives.

Like Truman Capote:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping.

Or Friedrich Schiller, as described by fellow poet Stephen Spender:

Schiller liked to have a smell of rotten apples, concealed beneath his desk, under his nose when he was composing poetry. Walter de la Mare has told me that he must smoke when writing. Auden drinks endless cups of tea. Coffee is my own addiction, besides smoking a great deal, which I hardly ever do except when I am writing.

[from “Creativity”, ed. PE Vernon] Or artist Maurice Sendak:

All of my pictures are created against a background of music. More often than not, my instinctive choice of composer or musical form for the day has the galvanizing effect of making me conscious of my direction… A favorite occupation of mine, some years back, was sitting in front of the record player as though possessed by a dybbuk, and allowing the music to provoke an automatic, stream-of-consciousness kind of drawing.

[From “Creators on Creating”, Ed. Frank Barron, Alfonso Montuori, Anthea Barron] Or Victor Hugo:

He gave all of his clothes to his servant, admonishing him NOT to return them until he (Hugo) had completed his day’s work.

Or novelist Orhan Pamuk:

In the mornings I used to say goodbye to my wife like someone going to work. I’d leave the house, walk around a few blocks, and come back like a person arriving at the office.

Many people would classify these examples as ranging from harmless eccentricity to borderline insanity, but if you’re an artist or professional creative, you can probably relate to some of them. And having spent 15 years coaching creatives and observing their work habits up close, they look perfectly normal – even essential – to me.If we recall last month’s piece about the effect of mundane routines on creativity, this kind of behavior starts to make sense. Remember the three characteristics of a hypnotic trigger:

  1. Uniqueness– it should be something (or a combination of things) you don’t associate with other activities, otherwise the effect will be diluted.
  2. Emotional intensity – the kind you experience when you’re really immersed in creative work.
  3. Repetition  – the more times you experience the unique trigger in association with the emotions, the stronger the association becomes.

When these three elements are present, the trigger has the effect of inducing the particular state of consciousness that is essential for creative work. In the case of daily routines, repetition is most prominent; but when it comes to bizarre working practices, uniqueness is probably the most powerful element.Capote doubtless smoked and drank coffee at other times, but the unique combination of lying down + puffing + sipping came to be so strongly associated with his writing process that he could not even ‘think’ unless he was lying down. And note that Spender says he hardly ever smoked except when writing. Apparently the apples reminded Schiller of his youth, wandering lovestruck through the orchards in autumn. He couldn’t have known it, but the neuroscientists now tell us that the olfactory nerve has a strong connection with parts of the brain responsible for storing and recalling emotional memories. For Sendak, music has similarly powerful emotional and creative associations. Hugo’s instructions to his servant were ostensibly to stop him walking out into the hotel corridor, imprisoning him in his room so he had to work. But the fact that he was not the only writer to work naked suggests that the birthday suit can also act as a creative trigger. But why did Pamuk leave “for work” every morning, only to walk straight round the block and back through his own front door? He explains very clearly how important it was for him to separate the stimuli (triggers) of his home and work life:

I have always thought that the place where you sleep or the place you share with your partner should be separate from the place where you write. The domestic rituals and details somehow kill the imagination.

Whenever he could arrange it, Pamuk went to a workplace outside his home. But he and his wife once spent a semester in the US while she was studying, and he had nowhere to work but their tiny flat; the ‘circular commute’ was a last resort, a parody of a daily routine that acted as a trigger for his imagination and got him out of the domestic mindset, if not the flat itself.And just to show I’m as normal as the next creative, you may like to know this article was composed in my usual manner – fueled with coffee, walking up and down my office, dictating to the laptop via speech recognition software, listening to techno and wielding a wooden samurai sword. — How About You? How eccentric are your creative work habits? Do you have any little rituals or props that look strange to others, but feel essential to your creative process?

Comments (281)
  • Bobby_joe

    after working in many ad agencies with great creatives groups, i can tell you this article is full of it!!!!!!! nonsense and a total cliche.

    great creative minds dont need gimmicks. actually, this article is contributing to perpetuating the cliche and the hiring of mediocre minds that just pretend to look the part.

  • Antonino Herrera

    someone said here that they go to toilet with a glass of wine and a cigarette …. the real eccentric is going there with a bottle of gasoline.

    lo escéntrico no se define, se es.

  • Candacehw

    Creative people see things differently. Coffee, cigarettes and horizontality are not what you are looking for.

  • Collin Vine

    I remember one time while studying for a test, I took my notes and repetitively walked up and down the 6 flights of stairs in the library. I never before retained so much information in such a short period of time and I aced that test!

  • Amira Alamoudi

    Every 5 pages I study I get to write one tweet!

  • Cranky

    What about cocaine or marijuana or absinthe? Or perverted monkey sex?

  • Ashley Quenan

    I can’t function at all if things are what I would deem “out of place.” Messes, clutter–Even just knowing they’re around without actually seeing them–Make it impossible for me to work. Before I start on any sort of creative endeavor, I have to clean the hell out of my apartment. Then I have to shower and have a cup or two of coffee.

  • Wenhayey

    everthink is created and recreated better

  • Heidi Helm

    I absolutely MUST be listening to music when sitting down to work – but that pretty much goes for all times. I also work best when there is someone around. They don’t have to talk to me or work with me, just be in close enough proximity that I don’t feel totally alone. Sometimes if I am stuck on something I either need to get out and get moving (biking, jumping rope) or take a nap. It’s true – often answers come to me while I am sleeping. I am a very lucid dreamer.

  • David

    I guess this means I’m not very creative. I have nothing.

  • tanelteemusk

    I listen to loud rock music. Drink some coffee while I work. Then at the same time I chat with a friend and when I hear a good tune I grab my guitar from right next to me and try to come up with some awesome riffs. All basically at the same time.
    I’m a good example on how chaos breeds creation.
    Oh btw I do flash stuff for a living.
    Awesome article. Thanks.

  • Matt Touchard

    I must be clean-shaven, having used only the best UK-branded shave cream, prepped with bespoke shaving oil by Aidan Gill. Then, decked out in a vintage, 1970s glamrock shirt, tight bellbottoms and have enough pommade in my hair that could wax all the longboards at Waikiki. Thin mens socks and black suede Mark Nasen footwear. An IWC Russian Skeleton Diver’s wristwatch, wound fully on left wrist. Microfiber Bjorn Borg mens underwear in black.
    In addition, a glass of 1989 La Mission Haut Brion at 59º should be within arm’s reach. A full CD carrier, replete with music by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, Ladytron, Sweet, T-Rex, Johnny Winter, Imelda May, Jeff Beck and Massive Attack. Incense should be burning in three separate locations, all with Madagascar Vanilla. There should be various magazines scattered about for inspiration: Paris Match, Motor Trend, Playboy, VegTimes, Creem, Vintage Guitar and Dwell.
    I will then have two female, 5’10” blonde twins (aged 22 to 26) burn sage supplied by Chief Ed Tall Bear of the Nez Pearce Tribe, while chanting praises to the Wolf and Eagle spirits. I will have all of my dogs in my studio, resting comfortably. On a guitar road stand near my work station, I will have a 1952 Gretsch Synchromatic 400, 1959 Fiesta red Fender Stratocaster, 1955 Gretsch Silver Jet, a 1977 BC Rich Eagle Supreme and a Marine Band Harmonica in the key of G. One glass slide with a 1934 National Steel Guitar in its case.
    A new, unused, Bienfang drawing tablet with Caran d’Aches Pencils, and an Eberhard-Faber white eraser. The Jura Espresso machine must be ‘pret’ and ‘chaud’… ready with mini Espresso cups with ‘Lavazza’ logo. The Air Conditioning must be not lower than 68º, nor higher than 71º.

    That’s about it.
    Eccentric enough?

  • Chantelle Bracken

    20 year old fine arts student: I take a bus to the city ‘commuting’ with all the business men when really i’m going to sit in a cafe and leisurely sketch. Something about listening to electro and gliding on the motorway really motivates me to create. I also dress up for this occasion. Fantastic Article!

  • Chantelle Bracken

    Oh. Are these eccentricities imperative to attaining the ‘creative consciousness’ or just placebos, or just procrastination.

  • Mark John Hiemstra

    Wow, did you ever miss the point. For some creatives, certain stimuli allow them to access their creative mind, or an aspect of it that is required at the moment. It doesn’t matter if the stimuli is, as we see in the examples, a walk around the block, a cup of coffee, or some rotten apples. And some people work better with certain conditions, regardless of their level of creativity. I love to write on my laptop while lying on the couch with SportsCenter in the background. I do some of my best writing that way. Doesn’t mean that I don’t see things differently the rest of the time.

  • Mark John Hiemstra

    Another one completely misses the point. Read it again.

  • Dalia Fatani

    Creative triggers are sometimes hard to maintain speciLly with kids and chores in e ery corner of the room!

    When I must submit a creative job I make sure I have my ear plugs on, and on top of that my sound isolating head phones with the music on.

    Tidying up is essential 😉

  • Alison

    I agree 100% with the tidying up aspect! I can’t “think” when life’s detritus is sprawled out around me.

    On the other hand, I like to be out of my house to write, in a coffee shop. I’ll also often get those “flashes of inspiration” that I jot down on any available paper object – envelopes, parking tickets, bills – and then I’ll elaborate on them at home. But the creative rush seems to happen when a variety of experiences come together.

  • Alison

    There’s a difference between getting the mind to wander to be inspired; and pretentiously insisting on a “gimmick” in an office full of other creative people. There’s also a difference between inspiration and getting the work done. Both are important and I’ll bet those creative groups have their own rituals when they’re stuck.

  • Angelrey T

    Everything needs to be spotless clean/organized or I can’t concentrate on my work. Procrastination?

  • buelteman

    A couple thoughts here: First, “inspiration” is for amateurs. Professional creators don’t have time for that kind of drivel. Second I’ll quote the great Paul Chelko: Starvation among artists is a myth invented to ease the pain of mediocrity among the hacks.” ‘Nuff said.

  • Poopoo


  • Angie

    My creative needs aren’t that eccentric, yet. I suspect they will be after I start writing more. I just need the house to be quiet and I work best at night.

  • Brano

    NORMAL is what we have to fear of – NORMAL PEOPLE – the enemies of progress and happiness

  • Emiliozarro

    Then it seem you not be doing it right!!!!!

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