Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

What is the key to happiness? How do we find meaning in the chaos of life? And why do our best ideas comes when we least expect them? These questions are the domain of psychology theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His answer derives from Flow, a concept he outlined in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow basically means “gettin in the zone.” I’m responding to one of his follow-ups from 1996, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, which examines how Flow impacts “Creativity.” Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes Creativity (with a capital “C”) from other forms of creativity in ways I find problematic, but the distinctions and theories are useful as I look for inspiration and happiness in life.

Flow is a state of complete immersion in what you’re doing. You know the feeling. You’re working on something, and then you hit this point where it all starts to click. You know what you have to do, you have clear goals and clear feedback as you’re working, so your self-consciousness disappears and you go for it. It’s been hard work, but suddenly it feels effortless as your skills rise to meet the challenge. You lose track of time. You ignore all distractions, you might even forget to eat dinner. You find you’re enjoying the process so much that the work you’re doing becomes an end in itself, something worth doing the work for its own sake independent of the goal. Any combination of these conditions can enable Flow. it doesn’t just come about from creativity and work, but also from conversations, relationships, and everything else in life. Csikszentmihalyi believes that the secret to a happy life is to learn how to get flow from as many life activities as possible.

In contrast to Flow, people can also derive pleasure from what Csikszentmihalyi calls Entropy. Entropy is the urge to relax, find comfort, and conserve energy. This is a natural part of our evolution as a species; we seek safe environments for survival. Flow is an important part of our survival, too, because it is the way we figure out how to survive. Csikszentmihalyi believes that some people’s pleasure centers are more stimulated by the discovery of novelty than others, and these people are more likely to be Creative.

Creativity, as defined by Csikzentmihalyi, does not exist within any one of us. Rather, Creativity is part of a system with three components: First, there is a Domain, like math, science, sculpture, music, or the more specific sub-domains like thermodynamics and skweee. Then there are the Gatekeepers to the Field who determine what gets passed along to future generations by overseeing the genetic makeup of this domain (“memes” = “genes” of culture, which is not automatically inherited). Finally, there is a Person who introduces novelty into an existing domain, or creates a new domain, and if it’s accepted by the gatekeepers to the field, then that is Creativity.

To be a Person who gets involved in an act of Creativity is like being a person who gets into a car accident. Some traits (outlined below) make it more likely, but it also has lots to do with being in the right place at the right time. Like an environment where you have access to a Domain and a Field and the ability to communicate your ideas to the right audience in order to have a cultural impact. That’s the scale of Creativity we’re talkin about. So Csikzentmihalyi asserts that artists like van Gogh and Bach were not Creative at the time of their deaths, because they had failed to communicate their work to the gatekeepers of their domains, and their existence had little influence on the culture. Bach’s work was considered conservative compared to the classical trends taking hold at the time, and his Creativity wasn’t born until much later as his music came to influence Mendelssohn and became part of the cannon. Same might be said about Lou Reed and countless other artists who we think are pretty damn Creative in hindsight. Having worked as a music curator for websites and radio stations, I believe that the most creative music often slips under the radar of the gatekeepers who really matter. I’m not saying I was ever a key gatekeeper, but things pass me by, too. With so much creativity in our PO Box and inbox every day, it’s a shame to think that the stuff that makes it into MoMA or Pitchfork is the only stuff that is truly Creative. I hear there’s a lot of nepotism in the art world, and hype and whatnot, so it’s really interesting to implicate gatekeepers in the Creative process. And I wonder how this theory might be updated for the era of the Internet where the agency of any one person to determine what work has the potential to become Creative is decreasing every day as our myriad gatekeepers diffuse across the web to generate memes en masse…but I digress!

Creativity the book is based on interviews with 91 people over the age of 60 who have had a serious Creative impact on their domains. They come from a variety of domains—including poetry, business, astronomy, psychology, biology, chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, sculpture, film, tv, music and more. I hadn’t anticipated the prominence of science and business in a book on creativity, but was surprised to find a lot of universals in everyone’s responses. From these interviews, Csikzentmihalyi deduced that Creative people are Complex.

Creative people are Complex because they have 10 paradoxical traits. Normal people typically only show one side of these dichotomies, but they have normal personalities, while Creative people are able to show both extremes. They are…

  1. Energy / Control – rhythm of activity followed by idleness (for reflection).
  2. Smart / Naive – good judgement, but enough doubt for divergent thinking.
  3. Playful / Discipline – Once you come up with a fun idea, sculptor Nina Holton asks “can you translate it into a piece of sculpture? Or will it be a wild thing which only seemed exciting while you were sitting in the studio alone?” For discipline, Jacob Rabinow likes to “pretend I’m in jail.”
  4. Imagination / Reality – see the future without losing touch with the past because reality is multifaceted and constantly changing. When Creatives look at a Rorsach, they see something novel that nobody has ever seen before, but it’s not bizarre, like now that they mention it you might see it, too.
  5. Introvert / Extrovert – Traditionally, psychology finds these to be the most reliable quantifiable personality traits. But creatives can express both. You need other people to keep up with the Domain and The Field, and for inspiration, but you also need alone time to master the Domain and get certain types of creative work into a format that translates to other people.
  6. Humble / Proud. (Selflessness / Ambition) – Creatives are self-deprecating and humble because they are often just drawing connections between work that others have already done. But at the same time they are confident that they can do what they set out to do (and that’s how they get it done).
  7. Masculine / Feminine – With psychological androgeny, you can double your repertoire of perspective!
  8. Rebellious / Traditional – Takes risks within a framework. “To be Different is a negative motive. No creative thought or creative thing grows out of a negative impulse.” -Eva Zeisel, artist
  9. Passionate / Objective – believe in your work, but able to assess its merit objectively using internalized understanding of The Field and The Domain.
  10. Pain / Enjoyment – Gotta enjoy hard work because “No Pain No Gain” is key to Flow.

I think these are a little subjective and arbitrary, but also insightful. One core idea is that seeing things from multiple perspectives aids creativity, and so if you can oscillate between the spectrum of personality traits, that helps.

OK so if we fail to cultivate these personality traits, and Creativity is dependent on luck and gatekeepers, what can we do, as individuals? Well, Creativity can only come to “prepared minds,” and it turns out there is lots we can do to prepare our minds (and get in the zone while we’re at it).

Csikzentmihalyi believes it is helpful to take a non-linear view of psychology’s traditional 5-step Creative Process

  1. Immerse / prep – can be subconscious – curiosity
  2. Incubation – ideas churn, making nonlinear connections below threshold of consciousness (which is linear).
  3. Insight – “Aha!” moment. There may be several!
  4. Evaluation – Is the idea worth pursuing? Internalized criteria of Domain/Field factor in
  5. Elaboration – time/work. “Creativity is 1% inspiration 99% perspiration” -Edison.

Just remember that the process is not linear; it’s iterative.

Creativity starts with a problem. Some problems are “presented” to us, while others are “discovered.” The questions that we come up with for ourselves—and the answers to questions that nobody had ever thought to ask—are often the most Creative.

The most interesting part of Creativity is Incubation time leading up to the insight. We know that we can prepare our minds to come up with ideas by immersing ourselves in knowledge, and we can work hard to realize our ideas, but where does that raw beautiful inspiration come from? This part is kind of a mystery.

Probably like you, I’ve always been baffled by the way that my mind comes up with its best ideas when I least expect them. Like while I’m washing dishes, or riding a bike, or just waking up until I realize I’m late for work and gotta get movin! I was pleased to find some rationale for this in Csikzentmihalyi’s book. Incubation is a time of subconscious thought-simmering. If you need creative inspiration, and you sit in one place and think about it really hard, you’ll just get linear consciousness. Instead, after you’ve disciplined your mind with information, go do something else for a while. Give yourself room for mental meandering without radio/tv/conversation. Do an activity that feels effortless the way that Flow does, like going for a walk or drive, or put yourself into a new environment where something unexpected can enter your subconscious as you sense your new environment. Inspiration comes from the  subconscious, which often makes uncensored, irrational connections between disparate ideas. They’re connections that consciousness would reject, but if your subconscious has one that is good enough, it’ll let you know.

I think my subconsciousness already sorta understood these concepts (Flow, the System of Creativity, the complex/paradoxical traits of Creative people, and the Creative Process). But now that my consciousness is more acutely aware of them, I find them very inspiring and will take them into account. Even if Creativity is a role of the dice, Csikzentmihalyi’s book offers great insight for preparing our minds to induce lots of Flow and Happiness. With this in mind, I think we are well-prepared for some truly Creative moments here at ITP!

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