In 1990, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote one of the classic books on creativity, Flow. We opened our tallying of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time with Flow because the book is about optimal experiences, “those times when people report feelings of concentration and deep enjoyment,” and many people either access that feeling or wish to access that feeling at work. In that book, Csikszentmihalyi provides his theory behind the flow state and argues that such an unconscious contentedness is not as unpreditable or fortuitous as most people think. Instead, achieving flow can be practiced by studying the people who are able to achieve flow predictably when participating in certain activities, such as surgeons who access a flow state quite regularly while performing surgery.
In 1996, Csikszentmihalyi wrote Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, and it has recently been republished in paperback by HarperPerennial under its Modern Classics imprint. A decade and a half later, it seems a natural progression from a more general study of the creative process in Flow to researching and writing a book which meant to “study creativity as a process that unfolds over a lifetime, [because] no systematic studies of living creative individuals existed.”
Csikszentmihalyi is very careful in the opening chapters of the book to clarify what “creativity” is in the context of this study. “It does not deal with great ideas for clinching business deals, new ways for baking stuffed artichokes, or original ways of decorating the living room for a party. These are examples of creativity with a small c, which is an important ingredient of everyday life, one that we definitely should try to enhance. But to do so well it is necessary first to understand Creativity.” I use this quote from the many pages in which he defines creativity largely to give an example of his writing style: while he is discussing both theory, psychology and philosophy within, he isn’t afraid to make the topic approachable and inject some lightness into the proceedings.
Ultimately, while Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that there are all sorts of creativity and/or creative people, for the majority of the book he wants readers to limit their scope of the topic to this:
Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one. And the definition of a creative person is: someone whose thoughts or actions change a domain, or establish a new domain. It is important to remember, however, that a domain cannot be changed without the explicit or implicit consent of a field responsible for it.
The word “domain” can be replaced with “field” or “culture.” Anything that has accepted rules which can be broken through discovery and innovation, as the subtitle emphasizies. Csikszentmihalyi believes strongly that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. True creativity (with a capital “C”) must both be collaborative and, to some degree, be accepted by the domain it tries to reform.
Therefore, to understand creativity it is not enough to study the individuals who seem most responsible for a novel idea or a new thing. Their contribution, while necessary and important, is only a link in a chain, a phase in a process. To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or that Albert Einstein discovered relativity is a convenient simplification. It satisfies our ancient predilection for stories that are easy to comprehend and involve superhuman heroes. But Edison’s and Einstein’s discoveries would be inconceivable without the prior knowledge, without the intellectual and social network that stimulated their thinking, and without the social mechanisms that recognized and spread their innovations.
It reminds me of going to a museum where a certain exhibit might include both the traditional and the avant-garde. Many of us hew toward the traditional and wonder how the work that pushes boundaries of what we expect art to be really qualifies as art. But we accept that there are other people in the art world that know enough about the history and potential of art to understand where the avant-garde or the modern fits into the larger scope. Or possibly another artist takes elements of the traditional and introduces an element of edginess to create art that pushes the boundaries forward just enough to make the piece palatable for mass acceptance, thus bringing that small element into the more common lexicon of what most people refer to as art. Creativity is accumulative and progressive.
Despite his requirement that creativity change or alter an existing domain, for Csikszentmihalyi, creativity really about the process itself, not the result. For example, a scientist who spends 10 years of her life researching what ends up to be a failed idea still contributes and changes the domain even if the result is not what she had envisioned. That part of the creative process is out of our control.
Then what is the purpose of studying creativity if we can’t better understand how to produce results? Csikszentmihalyi would undoubtedly say that is not the point, because he believes that “when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.” In other words, creativity can lead to or generate flow, an “optimal experience” we all strive for. In addition, studying creative people, as Csikszentmihalyi does here in interviews with “ninety-one exceptional individuals,” simply contributes to the greater good as well as individual quality of life.
The book is broken into three main sections and within each section is a mixture of quotes from interviews and a detailing of the creative contributions of the interviewees’ work intertwined with his own research, deductions and ruminations on creativity. The first section, “The Creative Process,” deals with the fundamental aspects of creativity with such chapters as “The Creative Personality” and “The Work of Creativity.”
One thing about creative work is that it’s never done. In different words, every person we interviewed said that it was equally true that they had worked every minute of their careers, and that they had never worked a day in their lives. They experienced even the most focused immersion in extremely difficult tasks as a lark, an exhilarating and playful adventure.
It is easy to resent this attitude and see the inner freedom of the creative person as an elite privilege. While the rest of us are struggling at boring jobs, they have the luxury of doing what they love to do, not knowing whether it is work or play. There might be an element of truth in this. But far more important, in my opinion, is the message that the creative person is sending us: You, too, can spend your life doing what you love to do….Even if we don’t have the good fortune to discover a new chemical element or write a great story, the love of the creative process for its own sake is available to all.
The second part, “The Lives,” itself has three sections: “The Early Years,” “The Later Years,” and “Creative Aging,” each looking at creativity over the span of a person’s life. Part Three is “Domains of Creativity” in which Csikszentmihalyi explores the domains in which creativity can and should innovate and push the previously established rules: the word, life, the future, culture, and personal creativity.
Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention is less prescriptive than Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. You aren’t going to learn ‘seven steps to becoming more creative!’ Instead, you will gain a fuller grasp of what creative contribution is and how people live truly creative lives.
Csikszentmihalyi does spend a late chapter on “Enhancing Personal Creativity,” which includes steps toward “learning to liberate the creative energy of wonder and awe, and then learning to protect it by managing time, space, and activity.” In general, people can use personal creativity to solve problems and to change a domain within our private lives. “As you learn to operate within a domain, you life is certainly going to become more creative. But it should be repeated that this does not guarantee creativity with a capital c. You can be personally as creative as you please, but if the domain and the field fail to cooperate–as they almost always do–your efforts will not be recorded in the history books.” While this reads like a somewhat dismissive reminder, I actually find it quite empowering. I love to cook, and putting a lot of energy into expanding my creativity in the kitchen can pay off for me personally in spades, but it doesn’t mean I have to consider becoming a chef or I will have failed to live a creative life.
And here is where I do think this book reads as slightly outdated. The Internet allows much more personal creativity to get “recorded in the history books.” The size of the “domain and field” that has to accept your work is much smaller (“the long tail”) but also much larger (in seconds, via the Internet, an Etsy site with handmade finger puppets can reach interested people internationally.) There is less of a division between that creativity with a “c” and Creativity with a “C.” And isn’t that what motivates us to be creative? To affect a domain–our domain–no matter what the size or scope with our work. Csikszentmihalyi does acknowledge this, and closes his book with this call to action:
Luck has a huge hand in deciding whose c is capitalized. But if you don’t learn to be creative in your personal life, the chances of contributing to the culture drop even closer to zero.
After all, leading an optimized kind of life, a life where flow plays a part in finding moments of happiness, is more attainable when we strive to lead a creative life. Creativity: The Psychology of Discover and Innovation will certainly get you thinking about how you can introduce more creativity into your life.