An attribute that many creative people possess is a strong inner rebel. Some creativity and psychology theorists agree that creative individuals are often “nonconformists” and “creative rebel(s)” (Weiner 138-139). Strong inner convictions aid creative people in facing external challenges, adversity, even critics. The anthropologist Margaret Mead was known to keep all her hate mail in a drawer. When she needed a boost, she would read the letters and allow her strong dissenting energy to rise.

Pushing up against those in control of us strengthens resolve. Pushing up against boundaries is needed for novelty and innovation, even risk-taking. Early childhood psychologists point out that rebelliously creative individuals have more fully integrated the positive aspects of the “terrible two” stage of childhood development. They know how to push up against authority, know how to “say ‘no’”, take a stand, and are not as likely to be swayed easily by others.

Faking rebelliousness won’t work, though. If individuals try to be different or confront from some inauthentic place, they will likely fail. According to artist Eva Zeisel, the former will fail because trying “to be different is a negative motive, and no creative thought or created thing grows out of a negative impulse. No negative impulse can work, can produce any happy creation. Only a positive one.” (Csikszentmihalyi 72)

This essay explores the relationship of rebelliousness and creativity. Creativity theorists Csikszentmihalyi, Helson and Weiner agree that there are many traits inherent in creative individuals. They also agree that rebelliousness is one characteristic of creativity. This essay will analyze these theorists’ concepts of rebelliousness as it relates to creativity.


According to Csikszentmihalyi’s typology of the “complex” creative personality, there are typically ten characteristics of “real” creative people. Rather than focus on single characteristics, though, he stresses artists’ flexibility and ability to embrace paradox and ambiguity. Therefore, they are able to be both smart and naïve, both playful and disciplined, both extroverted and introverted, and so forth. He argues that their personalities are more complex than most in that they tend to be able to “move from one extreme to the other as the occasion requires” and “with equal intensity and without inner conflict” (57).

One polarity frequented by creative people is rebelliousness and iconoclastic on the one end and traditional and conservative on the other. Creative individuals often challenge (even seem to enjoy challenging) tradition and traditional beliefs, customs, and values. They are willing to break with the safety of tradition, when necessary. Risk-taking is important. The economist George Stigler agrees, “I’d say one of the most common failures of able people is a lack of nerve. They’ll play safe games.” He goes on to say that an example of playing it safe is adding a little bit here and a little bit there so that the knowledge base of a domain grows ever so slowly. In doing so, safe-players are lulled into complacency, addicted to the status quo. Stigler advocates that instead of being mediocre, we should become innovators and basically channel rebellious energy in ways that are “interesting” and creative rather than safe and predictable.

The flip side of rebelliousness and independent is traditional and conservative. Csikszentmihalyi claims that “it is impossible to be creative without having first internalized a domain of culture” and its rules (71). Internalization can only happen when an individual believes in the importance of a domain of culture and agrees to learn and adhere to its rules. In this way, all creative individuals have to be conformists to some degree. However, being only traditional is unduly safe and can leave a domain unchanged and stagnant. Nonetheless, innovation itself requires “adding on” to the knowledge base of a domain. Csikszentmihalyi cautions that constant change without regard to the past “rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as an improvement” (72).

In her studies of creative women, Helson found that most possess traits of “rebellious independence, narcissism, introversion, and a rejection of outside influence” (246). Most reject outside influences in their work, search for and often find a remarkable integration and simplification of life despite obstacles. Most possess strong intellectual drives and highly developed levels of concentration. Helson argues that while many adopted their fathers’ “attitudes toward work and achievement,” they received “relatively little attention or affection” from their fathers (247). This, she claims, caused them to be more autonomous and self-reliant.

According to Weiner, there are intrinsic factors in the American experience whereby nonconformity has become germane to creativity in general and American creativity, specifically. He traces causes to America’s “classic prototype of the ‘self-made man’” (125); “importance of freedom of religion” (127); guarantees of “free speech, assembly, print, and belief” (127); reverence of “the early pioneers and frontiersmen” (137); as well as “admiration for the American revolutionaries, the religious ‘dissenters,’ the ‘lonesome cowboy’ heroes of western novels and films, the Marlboro Man of commercials, and even the beatniks, hippies, and the Rebels Without a Cause,--as can be seen in the strong American ‘highway literature’” (137).

“So strong is this image of the rebellious, creative individual” continues Weiner, “that many of our society’s creative heroes are routinely viewed as mavericks and iconoclasts” (138). “Even violent criminals, like Jesse James, Clyde Barrow, and Butch Cassidy have been romanticized in film as independent-minded, rebellious outlaws, creatively outwitting the authorities until the end” (138).

Historically, this country’s forefathers – the Pilgrims - were religiously creative zealots escaping religious tyranny in Europe. They were willing to “protest, dissent, to go one’s own way” (126). Their Protestant declaration was a statement of rebellion against papal authority, largely due to perceived corruption in the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. This means that America’s value towards religious freedom is built on religious rebelliousness, or “righteousness.” Religious rebellion is at the core of many Christian-based theologies. Jesus and most religious leaders are considered rebel minorities against the religious and political majorities of their time. Weiner argues that part of the “mythology of the creative rebel” is due to a minority standing up in the face of compromise and conformity against the majority in power.

To Weiner, some values of the creative rebel are “rejection of collectivism” and “refusal to accept limits and barriers others take for granted” (138). However, in some places where mass conformity is highly valued, creative rebels don’t fit in. These individuals don’t seem to conform well in military and highly structured educational institutions. For example, psychologists who carried out tests on thousands of soldiers in the 1950’s found that “those individuals who were most creative were, of course, least suited to following orders” (139). Also, in school, highly creative persons often receive bad grades and do poorly. Receiving high grades is more often a sign of conformity than of intellectual prowess or creativity.


It is clear that rebelliousness and creativity are interrelated. Creative theorists Csikszentmihalyi, Helson and Weiner agree that rebelliousness is a key characteristic of creativity. Csikszentmihalyi argues that rebelliousness and independence is the polar opposite of traditional and conservative. He claims that creative individuals are flexible at moving between poles. Helson’s study shows that creative women are rebellious, independent, and reject outside influence. Weiner argues that there are intrinsic factors in the American experience whereby nonconformity has become romanticized, as in film and superheroes. He also argues that creative rebels don’t do well in places where conformity is valued (i.e., military and highly structured educational institutions).

One of the advantages of a rebellious nature is developing a strong sense of self. Creative people tend to be less concerned about what others think. Perhaps this is why these words of dancer Crystal Boyd are so frequently quoted today: "Work like you don't need money. Love like you've never been hurt. And, dance like no one's watching."


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Helson, R. (1976). Women and creativity. In A. Rothenberg and C. Hausman (Eds.), The Creativity Question (242-249). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Piirto, J. (2004). Understanding creativity. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Philip Johncock


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