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In part 1 of my interview with Tim Attaby we talked about psychology, teaching and whether or not creativity is effective. This time we talk about laughter, the creative force behind many relationships.
To me, one of the biggest signs of creativity is being able to think and to use wit. So, I’ve always kind of felt that you were outwardly creative. We used to skate together, we used to play video games, I remember all of that stuff, but I really remember that we used to laugh and make jokes a lot. That’s one of the things that’s always been important to me in my life, and I think that’s a high sign of creativity which is overlooked quite a bit.
Yeah, I think that’s probably true. I think that it’s funny that you say that, because I actually had the exact same feeling about you. That you were like one of the funniest mother fuckers that I’ve ever known in my life. (laughs) I’m serious. You’re just like absolutely hilarious. I agree, and I think that humor, to try and not get too psychological, brings an ingredient to a relationship that is definitely creative. If you think about it, like if you watch Comedy Central, there are people who make lots and lots of money that I think have zero sense of humor. I just don’t understand it. I just don’t think it’s funny, but they make buttloads of money. So, is that person creative and effective? I guess so, but it’s still relative. As soon as I see Dane Cook on TV, I turn it off, because I can’t stand the guy. (laughs) That’s an example of someone that you can say is creative and effective, but I just don’t understand. I think that humor is something that is very personal. You are either with people who understand your humor or you’re not. I think that’s one of the things that’s a real staple of my marriage. My wife and I have a very similar sense of humor. I think it’s one of the things that I love the most about her. She just makes me laugh. For absolutely no reason, she’ll say some stupid thing, and I’ll just die laughing.
It’s a type of creativity, but it’s also a component to a successful relationship. If you have two people who have two different senses of humor, then that can really make that relationship awkward. It can change the nature of the relationship. It can determine going from acquaintance to an actual relationship. I have people that I respect professionally, but I can’t really have extended conversations with them because I just don’t get them. Their way of laughing and thinking about the world is something that I don’t agree with or I just don’t think it’s all that funny. Like you, one of the things that’s really important to me is to laugh. If I can’t laugh, then there’s something going wrong.
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on your life?
That’s a good question.
I’d probably have to say my main graduate school mentor, who at times I had a very conflictual relationship with. I find myself at least professionally saying things that he said and thinking about things in a way that I thought that he would. I would have to say that professionally it was probably graduate school that changed me. When I came into graduate school I was definitely not what I would consider to be well centered. I wasn’t necessarily insightful. I had a certain level of intellectual curiosity about a lot of different things but as far as being emotionally centered and being able to build strong mutual relationships with people I don’t think I was probably as good at that. I think through school, but a large part of that was probably the therapy I was in as well, I think it helped me.
And to be honest, all of the patients that I’ve worked with as well have been inspirations, as well as learning things. I’ve learned more things about life, how different industries work and learned stuff about different people than I would have ever known had I not been in this business. So, I think that I’ve learned a lot about life through people, working in therapy and learning about things sort of vicariously.
I would have to say that it’s a combination of mentors and patients, as far as getting me up until I met my wife and I think that she inspires me in different ways. My wife also being in the business is a blessing and a curse. We’re at this place now to where we can really call each other out without even thinking about it. It’s like what you’d imagine two mental health practitioners do. “Oh, you’re acting like your father right now.” And it’s stuff like that where in some circles it might be seen as an attack, but because it’s so much of what we do, we can say things like that to where it’s like you actually stop and think, “Oh, yeah. You’re right. I am doing that. Aren’t I?” (laughs) So, that’s the blessing part. The curse part is that there’s sometimes that I just don’t want to think about that stuff. Sometimes I don’t want to be told that I’m acting like my mother or acting like my father, but I end up having to look at it anyways.
I think finally it’s kids. (laughs) They make you think about things so differently, and it can be such a painful mirror to have a kid. I’m typically not a morning person. So, waking up early in the morning usually takes about an hour to get into the full swing of things. It’s even something simple like, I’m talking to my son and he asks, “Daddy, why do you have a funny face?” I didn’t even realize that I had a funny face, but I’m scowling or growling and I’m totally not even aware of that. The thing that I’ve learned from being a father is how to be different in the world. I find myself more intrigued by other peoples’ kids, more interested in other kids than I ever was before, because I just hadn’t had the experience with it. I think it’s definitely softened me up in numerous ways.
So, I think that is the other thing that has inspired me. I’d like to think about myself as, if my kids grew up as if they knew absolutely everything about me, inside and out, everything that I’ve done, would they be proud of me? I think that’s sort of where I find myself now, living my life, thinking about things, and the behaviors and actions that I choose. Is it something that I’d want my kids to know about? If the answer is no, then it usually ends up being a pretty easy choice as well. “Then I can’t do that.”
So that’s been the final edge of the mold as far as the people that I think have influenced me.
Lalli’s Question: How do you disconnect your work and home life? Do you think It’s better to care about patients too much or too little, and has your work ever affected your home life?
Okay, so that’s like five questions by the way. (laughs) So, remind me if I don’t answer them.
Disconnecting never happens. At least for me, it’s impossible to be a good therapist and to be able to just shut off. It just can’t happen. I’ve never been able to figure out a way to do it, and I think that people who claim that they do are either lying (laughs) or they’re not doing something very well. They’re doing something else to forget about work, and in a lot of cases that ends up being stuff that’s not very effective in the long run. For me, there has never been a way to disconnect. You’re always thinking about patients. You’re always worrying about them. You’re always wondering about what you did the last session, and how you’re going to do things better. It just doesn’t turn off. You get used to it. You find ways to do other things. For me, video games have been away to have a total disconnect from the world.
When I was seeing patients, and even now, I still think about patients that I saw. It’s impossible for me to disconnect from that, and it’s the same for my wife. If you’re not thinking about your patients then you’re doing something wrong. It’s a little judgemental. If somebody says, “When 5 o’clock comes after my last patient, I turn off and do something else.” Either that person does a really good job of compartmentalizing their life, or they’re lying.
Has it ever affected my family life? I think one of the benefits of being in a relationship with somebody who has a very similar job is that we can come home and talk about our day and we know what each other is talking about. We not only can hear it, but both of us can empathize with the other person because we’ve been in that situation. She can come home and talk about a very difficult family session that she had with the kids and family, and I can relate to that, because I’ve been in that situation. Or I can say, “I don’t know what to do with this person. They said this. They have this problem, but they said this as well.” She can say, “What about this? What about this? Or what about this?”
That’s been one of the perks of being married to someone in the business. I can take it home, but there’s actually a real benefit for me taking it home. I can get some additional consultation on it. So, bringing it home in that sense has been a real benefit. I can’t say that it’s been a detriment overtly. It can be distracting at times, because I can sometimes think about it too much to where I’m not really present at home. I think at this point, my wife is pretty good at calling me out, and saying, “What are you doing? Where are you right now? You’re not talking to me.” So, I can kind of snap out of it a little bit.
I would hate to think that I was a person who cared too little for a patient. My wife is much more neurotic than I am. I’m much more laid back. She really, really thinks about her patients to the point that it can interrupt her sleep. She’ll wake up thinking about them. Although it’s annoying at times for me as a spouse, I would love to be her patient. I want my doctor to be thinking about me all the time. If I’m coming into somebody to get help, I want my doctor to be losing sleep over me thinking about ways that they can help me. I don’t want to have the doctor that can shut off. I don’t want to have the doctor that can go home and not think a thing about work. I don’t want that person. I would much rather ere on the side of thinking too much than thinking too little.
Wanda’s question: Since you moved to San Francisco what’s one thing that would have inspired you to pick up a pencil and paper and start drawing?
I live on a hill. The property we live on is 19,000 square feet. Huge property! 80 percent of that property is uphill. My backyard actually climbs up the side of a hill to the top of it. So, I can actually hike up my backyard to the top of the hill. When I stand up there I can see everything. The folks across from us have some tall trees, but when I hike up to the top of the hill I can see everything in the west bay. So, I can see San Francisco, I can see Sausalito, I can see the Golden Gate, I can see the Bay Bridge, and it’s absolutely amazing at about 5 o’clock at night. It’s the most awesome sunsets in the world. So, if I had any actual physical type of artistic ability, I could very easily set up a canvas and start painting. It’s just amazing, because you can see the bay, but you can see past the bay into the Pacific Ocean. You can see the entire San Francisco skyline, and the Golden Gate. When there’s fog rolling in it’s just absolutely amazing. Unfortunately we’re just renting, so we’re going to have to move at some point.
I want to thank all of my guests that allowed me to take some time out of their day to talk about creativity. Be sure to read all of the Untapped Creativity interviews with Jeni Herberger, Nicole Dobbs, Elizabeth Lalli-Reese, Lynda Campbell, Wanda Dobbs and Tim Attaby.
In my final interview for Untapped Creativity, I caught up with an old friend thanks in part to Facebook. Tim Attaby, not his real name, is currently a professor of psychology in San Francisco, and I had a blast reconnecting with him, laughing and talking about creativity. If you’ve ever wondered how creative psychology can be or even the psychology of creativity then Tim will teach you.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are today.
In my senior year, I took a general psychology class. It was the only one that was offered. I took it because I heard that it was easy, and I was completely and utterly fascinated by it. I never heard anything about it. I didn’t know anything about the major theorists behind it, but I was just totally enraptured by it. I guess it sort of rocked my world, so to speak. (laughs) It made me rethink everything.
In undergrad, I knew that was the area I was interested in. My first semester I took an intro to psych course, and had sort of the same experience that I had in high school. In my second semester of my freshman year I turned into a psych major.
I finished college relatively quickly, because my parents said, “Either you come back home for summer, or you work, or you take summer classes.” I didn’t want to work. I knew that. And I definitely didn’t want to come back home. So, the only other option I had was to take summer classes. I took full summer loads, and got out in three and a half years. It was busy, but there’s another history. I sort of separated from a lot of friends. They started getting into a lot of stuff that I was not so interested in getting into anymore. So, I had a relatively clean break after my freshman year. I mean it wasn’t pretty, but it was a clean break. I didn’t have a whole lot of social connections and a lot of distractions. I was like, “I’ll just get through this as quickly as I can.”
I got into grad school in Arkansas. I was really interested in personality, personality assessment tests, and stuff like that. When I got into grad school that was the main thing that I focused on, at least for research and dissertation. I was there for about five or six years and built up a great group of friends. The people that I started with were five other people that I’ve stayed connected with. We were in each others’ weddings and we stayed really connected all the way through.
To complete your degree you have to do an internship. So, I ended up at Mass General in Boston. Did my internship there, did my post-doc there, and liked it so much that I ended up staying on. I was a staff psychologist there for four years. Part of the training that you get, at least in the PhD program, you can be a teaching assistant and actually teach undergrad courses. So, I taught two general psych courses and two abnormal psych courses as a graduate student, and loved it. I had no idea that I’d like it. I just took it, because I didn’t want to take other classes. Not because I was really motivated or particularly interested in teaching, but I absolutely just fell in love with it.
When I went to Mass General, it was almost entirely a clinical gig. Seeing patients, doing testing, working in a number of different units as far what they focus on like substance abuse, in-patient psychiatry, and out-patient testing. So I had six years of pretty much straight clinical work doing research on the side like going to conferences, and being able to get publications out. Towards the end I was starting to get opportunities to teach residents about psychological assessment, and I co-taught an assessment seminar. I started getting the itch and started remembering how much I loved teaching. It was also a point in my personal life where I had gotten married, had a kid, and my wife and I were sort of thinking about where we wanted to end up. We wanted to make a decision kind of early on, because if we could avoid it, we didn’t want to be in a position where we moved in the middle of school. So, our kids wouldn’t have to regroup and find new cohorts and friends and stuff like that.
We had this decision to make. There are lots of great things about Boston, but we are not Bostonians. It’s a totally different culture there — definitely from Texas and Arkansas. She’s from Texas, too. Culturally, we weren’t really satisfied. We didn’t really have a lot of social connections up there either. We were there mostly for the prestige of the place we were working at. We decided we would kind of play the field a little bit, and if we both got jobs in the same area then we would think about moving. We really only looked at California. (laughs) We really weren’t interested in living anywhere else.
I ended up applying for this job that I got which is a core faculty member on a small campus. Well, the campus that I’m on is small, but Alliant has colleges all throughout California and internationally as well. I would say maybe 70% of my time now is teaching, and I love it. I was really, really busy at the hospital, but I’m probably twice as busy now as when I was doing full on clinical work. But I’m twice as happy. The opportunities that I’ve had being able to teach students and develop my own skills as an instructor and a mentor, I just really enjoy. That’s put me where I am now.
Do you find similarities between clinical work when you were working with patients and working with students now?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Some students probably should be patients. In my personal perspective, relationships make the world go round. There are no clinical diagnoses that occur in a vacuum. So in other words, even the relatively minor, simple phobia or something like that. Everything that hits a clinical level has an impact on somebody’s relationship. That’s an extreme version, but a relationship between a student and a mentor, that’s a relationship. If the student is doing things that they’re being self-defeating, they’re sort of being passive aggressive, or they’re sort of going down the tubes, and they’re not aware of it. Part of the art of being a mentor is being able to sit that student down, and talk to them about that without it being a therapeutic relationship. Without being a therapist. Without being a supervisor. Without there being a power differential in the relationship. Sitting down with them, and saying, “You’ve been doing this a lot. I’m really worried that if you continue to do this that you’re going to run into a lot of problems not only with the patients that you work with, but in your work relationships with colleagues and stuff like that.” There are numerous occasions where I’ve had to have those types of interventions with students that are based on my training as a clinician.
I know most people may not necessarily label psychology as a creative industry. Would you define being a clinical psychologist and a teacher as being creative? And in what ways would you say those jobs are creative?
You can’t be a good teacher without having some level of creativity. I spent quite a lot of time thinking about, “What is creativity?” I sort of see it as a problem-solving technique whether it’s a creative art or whether it’s trying to figure out how you’re going to pay the bills next month. Creativity is really everywhere.
I guess I see it as having two parts. There’s creativity such as problem-solving where you’ve got an obstacle that you’ve got to overcome. It’s a poet that has some sort of internal conflict they’re not able to resolve. They use their pen to help them work through their problems. Or you’ve got a class that you’re going to teach, and you’ve got this material that you plan on teaching. But you left it on the couch at home, and now you’re at work and it’s five minutes before class starts. You’ve got to think of a way to run a three-hour class without boring people to death. I think the creativity plays into both of those, though they are different types of creativity.
The second part to creativity is whether it’s effective or not. I can tell you scores of stories of people who are really, really deep into substance abuse and addiction, and those are probably some of the more creative people I’ve met in my life. They’ve got to find a way to make money in order to sustain their habit, but they don’t work because of their habit. It takes so long for them to do what they need to do to get money, and then to get the drugs. So, they’ve got to sort of have a day-to-day plan of what they’re going to do. When this plan doesn’t work they’ve got to have an alternate plan. When that doesn’t work they’ve got to have another plan. That, to me, is also creativity. It’s not particularly effective in the long run. So, that’s where I see creativity as having a couple of parts, and not just you’re creative or you’re not creative. I think everybody is creative in their own way, but there’s different levels of effectiveness as to whether their creativeness actually helps them solve their problem in a way that makes their life better.
How does creativity fit into your life?
Going with that definition of creativity, I think that it pops up all the time with kids. Having kids really does change everything as far as how you think about the world, how you plan about the world. My four-year old the other day was asking about — either we were listening to the radio or he heard my wife and I talking, but the word religion came up. He asked, “Daddy, what’s religion?” (laughs) That to me is creativity, because you can’t tell a four-year old a standard definition of what religion is. You’ve got to come up with a way that a four-year old can understand it. So, I think that creativity pops up all the time with kids, because it’s just a totally different mindset. As adults we’re so used to not thinking like that to have to kind of step outside. “Why can’t you just get it? Why can’t you just understand what religion is?” You have to think like a four-year old. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. (laughs)
I think that’s sort of a daily occurrence for me. Finding ways to be constructive, and be either helpful or corrective, but doing it in a way that’s not damaging. Doing it in a way that’s not pejorative or demeaning. That, to me, is creativity, because again it’s solving a problem in a unique way, or non-normative way I guess.
I teach a late class, and sometimes I don’t get home until 2. My wife wakes up early the next morning to go to work. She works all day. So, another part of creativity for me is trying to figure out how to have a successful marriage in amidst both of us working and having two kids. Finding pockets where we can watch movies, or even just lying in bed and having a conversation are ways that you kind of have to be creative in trying to solve a problem. Having more than one objective in my life requires being able to think outside the box. I could just wake up, go to work, come home, eat dinner and go to sleep. It just doesn’t work like that. If you want to be effective, and I guess that’s how it ties into happiness, that level of creativity in day-to-day things is about trying to feel satisfied. Trying to have satisfactory and well-being in your life. It’s much different to have kids and a wife than to live on your own. You only have to take care of one person when you’re by yourself.
Have you ever seen a person that is tormented by their creativity? That glamorized view of the tortured artist who is so creative, but they just can’t deal with their creativity.
I guess I can think of clinical examples. People that I’ve worked with. I think you see that a lot with, this is a little bit stereotypical and doesn’t apply to everyone, writers. There’s a large number of great writers that have had some pretty serious psychiatric problems. So, I think that that creativity can get in the way of effectiveness. You can be creative and be ineffective at the same time. When I say ineffective I mean “Is something working for you?” Do you feel good, and is your life is better, or at least doesn’t get worse. When things are ineffective, you don’t feel well either physically or emotionally. Things aren’t working out the way that you hoped they would. That’s my definition of ineffectiveness.
I think you can definitely be creative but ineffective. And get sort of trapped in that creativity where there is so much that you need to get out, but for whatever reason you’re not able to get it out in a way that is effective for you. What’s effective for me is not necessarily effective for you. It’s a relative concept. I don’t know that I’ve ever met somebody who is not creative. I don’t know that I’ve ever met somebody who doesn’t have some sort of level of creativity in them somewhere. That’s not saying that everybody is effective, because obviously they’re not. But I think everybody has a level of creativity. Everybody has a way to solve problems that they run into, but it doesn’t work well for everybody.
Be sure to check out part 2 of my interview with Tim, and don’t forget to check out the other great Untapped Creativity interviews with Jeni Herberger, Nicole Dobbs, Elizabeth Lalli-Reese, Lynda Campbell, and Wanda Dobbs.