Can everyone be creative all the time?

No.

First, before a person can focus their energy on being creative, they need to satisfy their more basic needs.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow came up with his groundbreaking Hierarchy of Needs, published as A theory of human motivation.

In it, he outlined the theory that people need to satisfy their most basic needs before they can focus on more complex needs. Any living being, whether it is a human or a worm will be preoccupied with finding food if it is truly starving, and this will override more complex thoughts and desires like thinking about how they fit into society.

In general, there are five layers of basic needs in humans, going from the most basic to the most complex:

  1. Physiological: The need to stay alive (Food, Water, Breathing, Warmth, Rest)
  2. Safety: The need to avoid danger and feel secure (Security, Safety. This is sometimes provided by a protector, such as in infants)
  3. Love & Belonging: The need to feel connection with other individuals and society (Affection, Relationships, Friends, Family)
  4. Esteem: The need to stability and respect from others in society, and self-respect (Strength, Freedom, Self-respect, Accomplishment, Appreciation)
  5. Self Actualisation: The feeling like you are doing what you can and must do (Creativity, Reaching potential)

These five levels are usually shown as a pyramid, with the most basic Physiological needs shown as the base upon which all other needs build on one another.

A more modern version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has also been created, showing the even more basic needs which are more important that Physiological needs:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Creativity

What is interesting here is how creativity and self expression sit at the very top of the pyramid. This shows that creativity may be one of the most advanced things that we all can do, and yet to a degree it also shows that in order to produce our best creative work, we need to ensure our more basic needs are met first.

While we may often talk about the “starving artist”, there has probably never been a situation where an artist has literally starved themselves to death purely as a piece of creative expression. The urge to eat, breathe and survive is always stronger.

However, if the other more basic needs are met, every person is likely to have something that drives them:

Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.

The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions. It is not necessarily a creative urge although in people who have any capacities for creation it will take this form.

The clear emergence of these needs rests upon prior satisfaction of the physiological, safety, love and esteem needs. We shall call people who are satisfied in these needs, basically satisfied people, and it is from these that we may expect the fullest (and healthiest) creativeness.

So not everyone expresses their Self Actualisation in the same way. Some people may be creative through artistic endeavours, some may do it in other fields. But it can all be creative.

Interestingly, this is supported by research in other animals, which usually only exhibit curiosity when their basic needs are being met. For example, Orang Utans which are well cared for in supportive captivity and have their basic needs met all the time are significantly more curious their their wild counterparts who need to take care of themselves and are in more danger.

Research also shows that people are likely to be productively creative when they are happier, indicating that their other basic needs are being met.

What I also find fascinating is that this model might indicate why people might put more importance on the more basic needs (especially Safety) when they have more responsibility. When an individual is no longer just looking to provide for themselves, but becomes a parent, or a leader in a company where their decisions affect the well-being of other people, they are likely to become more protective and value activites which improve safety, and thereby reduce risk. This could be why research shows why managers prefer selecting less creative ideas, and keep funding projects which have previously worked but are failing. It might also show why people are often unwilling to take on the ideas or innovation projects of other people, because they feel a threat to their safety due to the unknown nature of the change.

Finally, it also shows why not only physical safety but Psychological Safety is so important for teams to do their most innovative work.

Limitations of the Hierarchy model

Many people interpret the pyramid representation as indicating that all of the more basic needs need to be satisfied before the more complex layers on top can begin. This is not the case:

This statement might give the false impression that a need must be satisfied 100 per cent before the next need emerges. In actual fact, most members of our society who are normal, are partially satisfied in all their basic needs and partially unsatisfied in all their basic needs at the same time. A more realistic description of the hierarchy would be in terms of decreasing percentages of satisfaction as we go up the hierarchy of prepotency. For instance, if I may assign arbitrary figures for the sake of illustration, it is as if the average citizen is satisfied perhaps 85 per cent in his physiological needs, 70 per cent in his safety needs, 50 per cent in his love needs, 40 per cent in his self-esteem needs, and 10 per cent in his self-actualization needs.

Maslow himself indicated that the importance of each level is just a generalisation, and will have different importances and strengths for different people. For some people, Esteem Needs might actually be more powerful than Love & Belonging, and for other people Self Actualisation feels like the dominant need:

There are other, apparently innately creative people in whom the drive to creativeness seems to be more important than any other counter-determinant. Their creativeness might appear not as self-actualization released by basic satisfaction, but in spite of lack of basic satisfaction.

The model has also been criticised by other psychologists and academics for being very hard to experimentally test and validate.

But overall, the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs is an excellent indicator why some people seem to thrive creatively, whereas others feel anxiety about trying different things.

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Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time
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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.