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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)The second part to creativity is whether it's effective or not

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.

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