Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

There’s a lot of meaty goodness to Creativity, and some sleepy time too, but overall it’s insightful and instructional. The backbone of Creativity is interviews with 91 exceptional individuals by Csikszentmihalyi and his students at the University of Chicago. Their primary goal? To demystify the creative process.

But before we delve into the guts of the book, let’s start with Csikszentmihalyi’s presuppositions:

1. Creativity is defined as “a process by which a symbolic domain in the culture is changed” (where “domain” = a field or discipline, e.g., physics) and,

2. Creativity requires not only inventive individuals, but a culture, and a domain (comprised of a field of experts) that validate and foster such work.

Not sure about you, but the author’s assumptions feel restrictive to me—and a tad elitist and exclusionary. I get it, Csikszentmihalyi needs to define creativity to establish criteria for selecting individuals to interview and to set boundaries for framing his research. But when we start drawing hard lines around what constitutes creativity that excludes the work of those that aren’t among the powerful leaders or influencers in a field or supported by such individuals, I get funny about that kind of stuff.

Plenty ‘o creativity emerges on the fringes—in fact, this is where it typically starts before it moves to the mainstream. So, let’s be crystal clear about Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of creativity and creative individuals: Csikszentmihalyi’s creatives in review are those that have already received the full “Good Housekeeping” stamp of approval by the experts in their domain and, subsequently, by our broader culture—the masses. These are “insiders” – a wholly different animal than the “outsiders” explored in The Tenacity of the Cockroach (my review of that book here.)

Having just finished, Wired to Create, also on the topic of creativity, I was incredibly fascinated by the section in Creativity that explored the creative personality. And why not? I got to compare/contrast two expert viewpoints—Csikszentmihalyi’s and the Kaufman + Gregoire team. Love that!

In Wired to Create the authors acknowledge that creatives are masters at cultivating a wide array of attributes while effortlessly adapting to changing circumstances; however, they spend more time delving into specific behaviors that distinguish creatives from non-creatives, such as imaginative play or solitude.

Source: Cool tat from BestPickr

By contrast, Csikszentmihalyi spends more time exploring the “effortless adaptation” of creatives. He asserts that creatives have dialectic personalities—or the ability to move from one extreme to another as the occasion requires. He examines ten diametrically opposed traits that are present in creatives:

1. Physical Energy v. Quiet and Rest: Creatives work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm.

2. Smart v. Naïve: or another way of looking at this pair would be the poles of wisdom and childishness. Creative geniuses often have a certain immaturity. Think Mozart.

3. Playfulness v. Discipline: A bouncy, light attitude is typical of creative individuals. But this playfulness doesn’t go far—doggedness, perseverance and endurance kick in fast. Hard work is necessary to bring a novel idea to life.

4. Imagination and Fantasy v. Sense of Reality: Creative people tend to alternate between both states often. Great art and great science require a leap of imagination to a world that is different from our own, without going so far as to enter La La Land.

5. Extroversion v. Introversion: Most people tend to be one or the other. Creative individuals seem to embody both traits.

6. Humble v. Pride: Most creatives recognize that they are but one of many experts in a domain with a rich history. This awareness tends to keep egos in check. But with great knowledge comes a sense of confidence, security, and pride.

7. Masculine v. Feminine: Creative individuals tend to escape rigid gender stereotyping. One study found that talented and creative young girls were more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys were more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers.

8. Rebellious and Independent v. Traditional: To excel in a domain, a creative individual must learn the “rules” and garner the respect of peers. This requires reverence for tradition and a good dose of political savvy.

“This idea to create something different is not my aim. First, you have to be able to function a long life, and you can’t always try to be different. Secondly, wanting to be different can’t be the motive of your work…no creative thought or created thing grows out of negative impulse. No negative impulse can work, can produce any happy creation. Only a positive one.” ~ Ave Zeisel, Artist

9. Passionate v. Objective: Without passion, creatives lose interest in a difficult task. Yet without being objective, their work is not good and lacks credibility.

10. Suffering and Pain v. Enjoyment: Creatives have greater sensitivity than the rest—they feel more deeply. But when they are working in their area of their expertise, cares fall away, and the joy of creation kicks in.

Csikszentmihalyi gives the reader a taste for his acclaimed work on optimal experiences (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) in one chapter entitled “The Flow of Creativity.” If you’ve ever been in “The Zone” you’ll recognize the process instantaneously. And you may even feel those awesome “Zone” triggers embedded deep in memory as I did. Funky how that happened.

1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
3. There is a challenge between challenges and skills.
4. Action and awareness are merged.
5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
6. There is no worry of failure.
7. Self-consciousness disappears.
8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
9. The activity becomes autotelic.

This is the process and mindset that creatives experience often—and it’s a big driver to their joy, in addition to the joy they get from the physical act of creating something from nothing.

Csikszentmihalyi’s section on “creative surroundings” was pure candy. The author asserts, “Even the most abstract mind is affected by the surroundings of the body.” Creatives have forever sought peace and inspiration in places of natural beauty—secluded inns, majestic forests, quaint towns—even makeshift but inviting corners of the home. Evidence suggests that even the earliest Chinese sages knew their physical surroundings deeply affected them by choosing to craft their poetry in places of beauty.

Funny we’ve been so slow culturally to grasp the “Big idea” of environmental impact on creativity and, more generally, on human flourishing. If we did, I dare say our stale and clinical hospitals, corporations, and other age-old institutions would not exist in the form they do today. And we’d be more careful to monitor the impact of the pace and volume of commercial development on our communities today.

I suspect the lack of hard data proving the power of positive environment is the reason behind our inattention to creating positive spaces in our institutions of government, business, health, and education. This is a shame. I think of the work I just completed for the University of Minnesota and Bruce Vento Elementary School communicating the process and outcome of their 5-year journey together to create a nurturing, trauma-sensitive environment to support the wellbeing and advance the learning of at-risk youth. Today, this kind of important environmental work happens often because of intuitive visionaries who know instinctively what fosters human achievement. In short, they aren’t waiting for the research report to come out to validate what they already know to be true. But I digress.

The remainder of Creativity explores the life stages of the creative and the forces that shape them, the domains of creativity and the important common features of the creative process that transcend them, the making of culture, and recommendations for enhancing personal creativity. There’s a lot of great stuff to percolate on in these sections. Csikszentmihalyi’s provocative thoughts on culture yanked me to attention. And I’m still perseverating on his words days later:

“Through history we see an ironic process that Hegel or Marx would have appreciated: a dialectic whereby the success of a culture develops within itself its own antithesis. The more well-off we become, the less reason we have to look for change, and hence the more exposed we are to outside forces. The result of creativity is often its own negation.”

Creativity is an entirely different animal than Wired to Create–more serious and cerebral, and a more robust body of work due to Csikszentmihalyi’s thirty years of experience in the space. But I give the Wired to Create team the nod for their prescription for increasing personal creativity over Csikszentmihalyi’s. Their takeaway lessons are actionable and motivational. Csikszentmihalyi’s recommendations felt a little bit like a laundry list of (now commonly accepted) good life habits to build. Okay, okay, they made me giggle a little in their simplicity, for example:

 Try to be surprised by something every day.
 Wake up in the morning with a specific goal to look forward to.
 To keep enjoying something, increase its complexity.
 Take charge of your schedule.
 Make time for reflection and relaxation.

Source: Very Intelligent Princess (really)

In all fairness to the author, this book was published in 1996. His recipe for success was more novel then, I’m sure. And besides, I gotta bow to this man: his work has provided a lot of fuel to the Creativity Ship. It’s easy for me to kick back in my Bat Cave and poke holes.

Creativity is a fine read for those who want to explore the nuance of creativity and creative geniuses by an expert in the field. It’s less useful for building skills than it is for gaining insight into the creative mind, process, and support systems. Csikszentmihalyi’s work has contributed significantly to the body of knowledge around creativity—including informing the work in Wired to Create. Both books are centered in positive psychology, the scientific study of human flourishing. And, frankly, anything that can enhance the human experience and help us each cultivate what is best within us, well, that’s always a good thing. Sign me up!

2018-02-12T12:07:43+00:00 February 11th, 2018|Book Review, Creativity, Psychology|Comments Off on Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention