Monday, March 10, 2014

Creativity Beyond Creativity

We had been in line for well over three hours and we were finally approaching the man everyone was here to see.  I had only heard of the man from my roommates constant rants about how great he was, I was lured to go hear him speak out of curiosity about what could be so great about one single doctor.  After hearing him speak I was certainly impressed, but still more than agitated that I had waited almost 4 hours just for this guy to sign my roommates book.  When we approached the front of the table a man, who appeared to be in charge of the event, apologized for the long wait explaining, "Paul likes to take a little bit of time to get to know each person he meets."  Again I was impressed but could not help but maintain some skepticism about how great and kind everyone seemed to think this guy was.  Finally I walk up to him, Paul Farmer, and step to the side for my roommate.  He looks at me and asks where my book is, and I tell him I do not have one.  Of course, I had not purchased one because I did not have the interest in getting it signed.  He turns to one of the people helping him out and asks for her to bring him an extra book.  He asks me a few questions about myself while writing inside the new book's cover and then hands me the book saying "anyone who waited that long should get a book."  He then signed my roommates book after having a conversation with him, and then we left.

This short experience with Paul Farmer left me thinking that I really should get to know a little bit more about this man, who for no other reason than I waited a long time, gave me a free book along with a nice inscription and signature.  I took up my roommates long standing offer and began to read a book, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracey Kidder, which gave a small glimpse into the life of Paul Farmer.  The books describes Farmer's efforts in Haiti where he spends much of his time helping the poor get treatments and help for any disease or sickness.  While visiting Haiti weekly, he also works at the Harvard Medical School as a professor, and at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston as an attending physician.  Farmer also co-founded an international social justice and health organization; Partners in Health (PIH).

The symbol for Farmer's organization PIH (
As we have investigated what makes a person creative and have read some theories about the characteristics of a creative, it has been evident that Farmer falls into this category of a "big-C" creative.  Csikszentmihalyi lists 10 traits, sometimes contradictory, that often come together in a creative person.  While Farmer has almost all of these traits, a few are truly highlighted within him. Csikszentmihalyi first says that they are often very energetic people yet quiet and at rest.  This is easy to see with Farmer, who not only travels every single week, but travels within the places he arrives.  At one point in Mountains Beyond Mountains Farmer travels a very long distance, traversing mountains along the way (part of the inspiration for the book title), just to see a patient who could not make it to see him.  It is obvious that a vast amount of energy is needed for this, but he is also at rest in a sense once he reaches or is with a patient.  He is relaxed, calm, and never rushes his time with a patient, often to the displeasure of those who are trying to make sure he is everywhere he is needed.  Another trait that is mentioned is that creatives are often prideful and humble at the same time.  Farmer's success and life's work is definitely something to be proud of, and when he speaks you get a sense that he is confident, and is proud of what he has done.  But he also humbles himself by making it well known that there has not been anywhere near enough done by him and by everyone else to solve the issues of health care around the world.  One of the most striking things about Farmer that I think Csikszentmihalyi describes very well is the idea that he is rebellious, yet cultured.  Throughout Tracey Kidder's stories of Farmer, he often says the Farmer would ignore, "bend", or push past the rules to help someone who otherwise would have not received any treatment for their illness.  He also complains about how the system currently is put together, and is seen somewhat as a rebel against it.  At the same time, he is an attending physician, and works at one of the most prestigious medical schools around.  He also travels the world gaining an appreciation for all of the differences in culture and lifestyle.                
Farmer examining a patient (
Csikszentmihalyi also explains that creatives must be passionate about their work.  This very often comes at a cost to the creative that I think Farmer also experiences.  There is no doubting the passion that Farmer has for the work he does.  What stands out alongside this though, is what he must sacrifice for this passion.  He sees his wife and daughter infrequently, though still doing his best to see them more and more.  He also appears to sleep very little, and spends what time could be spent sleeping answering the hundreds upon hundreds of emails he receives every day.  I think this idea of passion coincides with the idea many other talk about with creatives being intrinsically rewarded for doing what they are doing.  Farmer does receive accolades and money for what he does, but what truly drives him is his passion to help others and to more specifically help those who are truly in need of that help and cannot seek it themselves.

After hearing and reading about all he's done I have often thought to myself, "What am I doing", or "How can I come anywhere near to doing what he's done to help others."  I let myself feel intimidated rather than inspired.  However, after voicing this to my roommate he told me, "I don't think Farmer wants you to do what he does, because most people can't, he just wants you to do what YOU can do."  And with that I added my own trait to what makes a truly great creative... They inspire others around them to begin to challenge, see, and think of things in a different light and although we may not be able to do what they did, they inspire us to do what WE can.

I highly recommend reading Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracey Kidder to learn more about Paul Farmer and what he does, or to read a book by Farmer himself (there are many).  


Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracey Kidder

The Creative Personality by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi   

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