“Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“The only way to stay creative is to oppose the wear and tear of existence with techniques that organize time, space, and activity to your advantage. It means developing schedules to protect your time and avoid distraction, arranging your surroundings to heighten concentration, cutting out meaningless chores that soak up psychic energy, and devoting the energy thus saved to what you really care about.”

Like his previous book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi attempts here to get at what it means to spend your life in a meaningful way. This time, his focus is on creativity: what it is, how it works, and what we can do to live a more satisfying and creative life. A daunting and ambiguous task, to be sure.

To study creativity, Csikszentmihalyi starts by defining what ‘creativity’ is: to be sure, many people are brilliant and interesting, but leave no lasting impact on their culture or society. Many are personally creative in our everyday lives. Perhaps we build a custom headboard for our bedroom or think of a faster way to do the dishes. Both of these forms of creativity are important, but the type of creativity that this book is primarily concerned with is the type that pushes a person to advance a domain, whether it be science or the arts, and has a lasting impact on the culture.The Leonardos, Edisons, Picassos, or Einsteins of any given field.

With the help of a team of graduate research assistants, Csikszentmihalyi conducted extensive interviews with a wide range of creative people. The men and women he interviewed are from all types of different professions, from sculptors and businessmen to scientists and social reformers. Each participant was at least 60 years old coming to so coming to the end of their distinguished career. A few that were asked declined to participate, citing the ability to turn down frivolous research studies as the key to their continued success.

What follows is a nuanced study of what creativity is and how it feels to practice it. Some of the people who I felt had the most interesting quotations were Madeline L’Engel, Hilde Domin, and Jonas Salk. Each came from a less than optimal background and in the beginning showed no evidence of their later eminence but nonetheless eventually reached the pinnacle of their respective professions. In the end, there is no ‘secret’ formula to creativity, but the book ends with a few simple suggestions that mostly work to cultivate a sense of curiosity and critical thinking.

Further Links:
My review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s previous book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
A summary of the Creative Personality, written by the author for Psychology Today.
A 15 page abstract of the author’s research: “In order to want to introduce novelty into a domain, a person should first of all be dissatisfied with the status quo. It has been said that Einstein explained why he spent so much time developing a new physics by saying that he could not understand the old physics. Greater sensitivity, naivety, arrogance, impatience, and higher intellectual standards have all been adduced as reasons why some people are unable to accept the conventional wisdom in a domain and feel the need to break out of it.”
Quotes and Anecdotes: The Process of Cultural Evolution ; A Definition of Creativity ; Anticipation and Commitment: The Story of Motorola ; Being a Good Ancestor ; and The Axemaker’s Gift.
Buy on Amazon: Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention

Stuff of Interest:
false consciousness
perpetual motion machine–a physical impossibilty “Oh ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists.”— Leonardo da Vinci, 1494
Lorenzo Ghiberti, Gates of Paradise
convergent and divergent thinking–Convergent thinking is measured by IQ tests, and it involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer. Divergent thinking leads to no agreed-upon solution. It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas.
peripatetic method
the poetry of Anthony Hedcht and Hilde Domin
Vivaldi concerto
deficit motives–“Wilson has been a ceaseless worker all his life. A painful childhood instilled a certain amount of insecurity in him, which he decided to overcome with a relentless drive modeled on an idealized Southern heritage long on pride, sacrifice, and discipline. These were what the current psychological jargon calls deficit motives, based on efforts to compensate for undesirable early experiences.
Road to Damascus–An important point in someone’s life where a great change, or reversal, of ideas or beliefs occurs. Based on the conversion of St. Paul to Christianity.
centrifugal and centripetal forces–centrifugal forces move away from a center while centripetal forces move toward a center.


An idea or product that deserves the label “creative” arises from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a single person. It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively. And a genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.

The excitement of the artist at the easel or the scientist in the lab comes close to the ideal fulfillment we all hope to get from life, and so rarely do. Perhaps only sex, sports, music, and religious ecstasy—even when these experiences remain fleeting and leave no trace—provide as profound a sense of being part of an entity greater than ourselves. But creativity also leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and complexity of the future.

“It takes a lot of courage to be a research scientist. It really does. I mean, you invest an enormous amount of yourself, your life, your time, and nothing may come of it. You spend five years working on a problem and it could be wrong before you are done.” –Vera Rubin

When all goes well, the drudgery is redeemed by success. What is remembered are the high points: the burning curiosity, the wonder at a mystery about to reveal itself, the delight at stumbling on a solution that makes an unsuspected order visible. The many years of tedious calculations are vindicated by the burst of new knowledge. But even without success, creative persons find joy in a job well done. Learning for its own sake is rewarding even if it fails to result in a public discovery.

So we switched our views of the relationship between gods and humans. It is not so difficult to see why this happened. When the first myths of creation arose, humans were indeed helpless, at the mercy of cold, hunger, wild beasts, and one another. They had no idea how to explain the great forces they saw around them—the rising and setting of the sun, the wheeling stars, the alternating seasons. Awe suffused their groping for a foothold in this mysterious world. Then, slowly at first, and with increasing speed in the last thousand years or so, we began to understand how things work—from microbes to planets, from the circulation of the blood to ocean tides—and humans no longer seemed so helpless after all. Great machines were built, energies harnessed, the entire face of the earth transformed by human craft and appetite. It is not surprising that as we ride the crest of evolution we have taken over the title of creator.

Just as the sound of a tree crashing in the forest is unheard if nobody is there to hear it, so creative ideas vanish unless there is a receptive audience to record and implement them. And without the assessment of competent outsiders, there is no reliable way to decide whether the claims of a self-styled creative person are valid.

If we want to learn anything, we must pay attention to the information to be learned. And attention is a limited resources: There is just so much information we can process at any given time. Exactly how much we don’t know, but it is clear that, for instance, we cannot learn physics and music at the same time. Nor can we learn well while we do the other things that need to be done and require attention, like taking a shower, dressing, cooking breakfast, driving a car, talking to our spouse, and so forth. The point is, a great deal of our limited supply of attention is committed to the tasks of surviving from one day to the next. Over an entire lifetime, the amount of attention left over for learning a symbolic domain—such as music or physics—is a fraction of this already small amount.

As cultures evolve, it becomes increasingly difficult to master more than one domain of knowledge. Nobody knows who the last Renaissance man really was, but sometime after Leonardo da Vinci it became impossible to learn enough about all of the arts and the sciences to be an expert in more than a small fraction of them. Domains have split into subdomains, and a mathematician who has mastered algebra may not know much about number theory, combinatorix, topology—and vice versa. Whereas in the past an artist typically painted, sculpted, cast gold, and designed buildings, now all of these special skills tend to be acquired by different people.

Therefore, it follows that as culture evolves, specialized knowledge will be favored over generalized knowledge. To see why thus must be so, let us assume that there are three persons, one who studies physics, one who studies music, and one who studies both. Other things being equal, the person who studies both music and physics will have to split his or her attention between two symbolic domains, while the other two can focus theirs exclusively on a single domain. Consequentially, the two specialized individuals can learn their domains in greater depth, and their expertise will be preferred over that of the generalist. With time, specialists are bound to take over leadership and control of the various institutions of culture.

To have a good life, it is not enough to remove what is wrong from it. We also need a positive goal, otherwise why keep going?

Despite the multiplicity of domains, there are some common reasons for pursuing them for their own sake. Nuclear physics, microbiology, poetry, and musical composition share few symbols and rules, yet the calling for these different domains is often astonishingly similar. To bring order to experience, to make something that allows humankind to go beyond its present powers are very common themes.

When asked why he decided to become a poet at the age of seven, György Faludy answered, “Because I was afraid to die.” He explained that creating patterns with words, patterns that because of their truth and beauty had a chance to survive longer than the body of the poet, was an act of defiance and hope that gave meaning and direction to his life for the next seventy-three years. This urge is not so very different from physicist John Bardeen’s description of his work on superconductivity that might lead to a world without friction, the physicist Heinz Maier-Leibnitz’s hope that nuclear energy will provide unlimited power, or the biochemical physicist Manfred Eigen’s attempt to understand how life evolved. Domains are wonderfully different, but the human quest they represent converges on a few themes. In many ways, Max Planck’s obsession with understanding the Absolute underlies most human attempts to transcend the limitations of a body doomed to die after a short span of years.

I have always looked upon the task of scientist as bearing the responsibility for persuading his contemporaries of the cogency and validity of his thinking. He isn’t entitled to a warm reception. He has to earn it, whether by the skill of his exposition, the novelty of his ideas, or what. I’ve written on subjects which I thought had promise which haven’t amounted to much. That’s all right.

Perhaps being creative is more like being involved in an automobile accident. There are some traits that make one more likely to be in an accident—being young and male, for instance—but usually we cannot explain car accidents on the basis of the driver’s characteristics alone. There are too many other variables involved: the condition of the road, the other driver, the type of traffic, the weather, and so on. Accidents, like creativity, are properties of systems rather than of individuals.

Without a good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and in how they work, it is difficult to recognize an interesting problem. Openness to experience, a fluid attention that constantly processes events in the environment, is a great advantage for recognizing potential novelty. Every creative person is more than amply endowed with these traits.

But being intellectually brilliant can also be detrimental to creativity. Some people with high IQs get complacent, and secure in their mental superiority, they lose the curiosity essential to achieving anything new. Learning facts, playing by the existing rules of domains, may come so easily to a high-IQ person that he or she never has any incentive to question, doubt, and improve on existing knowledge. This is probably why Goethe, among others, said that naïveté is the most important attribute of genius.

This dialectic is reflected by the way that, many years ago, the artists we studied responded to so-called projective tests, like the Rorschach or the Thematic Apperception Test. These require you to make up a story about some ambiguous stimuli, such as inkblots or drawings, that could represent almost anything. The more creative artists gave responses that were definitely more original, with unusual, colorful, detailed elements. But they never gave “bizarre” responses, which normal people occasionally do. A bizarre response is one that, with all the goodwill in the world, one could not see in the stimulus. For instance if an inkblot looks vaguely like a butterfly, and you said that it looks like a submarine without being able to give a sensible clue as to what in the inkblot made you say so, the response would be scored as bizarre. Normal people are rarely original, but they are sometimes bizarre. Creative people, it seems, are original without being bizarre. The novelty they see is rooted in reality.

But usually insights tend to come to prepared minds, that is, to those who have thought long and hard about a given set of problematic issues. There are three main sources from which problems typically arise: personal experiences, requirements of the domain, and social pressures.

You cannot transform a domain unless you first thoroughly understand how it works. Which means that one has to acquire the tools of mathematics, learn the basic principles of physics, and become aware of the current state of knowledge. But the old Italian saying seems to apply: Impara l’arte, e mettila da parte (learn the craft, and then set it aside). One cannot be creative without becoming dissatisfied with that knowledge and rejecting it (or some of it) for a better way.

The influence of historical events on the arts is less direct but probably not less important. It could be argued, for instance, that the breakaway from classical literary, musical, and artistic styles that is a characteristic of the twentieth century was an indirect reaction to the disillusion people felt at the inability of Western civilization to avoid the bloodshed of World War I. It is no coincidence that Einstein’s theory of relativity, Freud’s theory of the unconscious, Eliot’s free-form poetry, Stravinsky’s twelve-tone music, Martha Graham’s abstract choreography, Picasso’s deformed figures, James Joyce’s stream of consciousness prose were all created—and were accepted by the public—in the same period in which empires collapsed and belief systems rejected old certainties.

The creative process starts with a sense that there is a puzzle somewhere, or a task to be accomplished. Perhaps something is not right, somewhere there is a conflict, a tension, a need to be satisfied. The problematic issue can be triggered by a personal experience, by a lack of fit in the symbolic system, by the stimulation of colleagues. Or by public needs. In any case, without such a felt tension that attracts the psychic energy of the person, there is no need for a new response. Therefore, without a stimulus of this sort, the creative process is unlikely to start.

Scientists often describe the autotelic aspects of their work as the exhilaration that comes from the pursuit of truth and of beauty. What they seem to describe, however, is the joy of discovery, of solving a problem, of being able to express an observed relationship in a simple and elegant form. So what is rewarding is not a mysterious and ineffable external goal but the activity of science itself. It is the pursuit that counts, not the attainment.

When ordinary people are signaled with an electronic pager at random times of the day and asked to rate how creative they feel, they tend to report the highest levels of creativity when walking, driving, or swimming; in other words, when involved in a semiautomatic activity that takes up a certain amount of attention, while leaving some of it free to make connections among ideas below the threshold of conscious intentionality. Devoting full attention to a problem is not the best recipe for having creative thoughts.

We need a supportive symbolic ecology in the home so that we can feel safe, drop our defenses, and go on with the tasks of life. And to the extent that the symbols of the home represent essential traits and values of the self, they help us be more unique, more creative. A home devoid of personal touches, lacking objects that point to the past or direct toward the future, tends to be sterile. Homes rich in meaningful symbols make it easier for their owners to know who they are and therefore what they should do.

Curiosity and drive are in many ways the yin and the yang that need to be combined in order to achieve something new. The first requires openness to outside stimuli, the second inner focus. The first is playful, the second serious; the first deals with objects and ideas for their own sake, the second is competitive and achievement oriented. Both are required for creativity to become actualized.

As powerful as poetry is, it does not resolve all one’s problems. Mastering a symbolic style—be it poetry or physics—does not guarantee one will also bring order to those events that lie outside the rules of the domain. Poets and physicists may back in the beautiful order of their craft as long as they are working at it, but they are as vulnerable as the rest of us when they step back into everyday life and have to confront family problems, time pressures, illness, and poverty. This is why it becomes to tempting to invest more and more energy into one’s work and forget everyday life—in other words, become a workaholic.

“Human beings are the only creatures who are allowed to fail. If an ant fails, it’s dead. But were allowed to learn from our mistakes and from our failures. And that’s how I learn, by falling flat on my face and picking myself up and starting all over again. If I’m not free to fail, I will never start another book, I’ll never start a new thing.” –Madeline L’Engle

Love and death may not have changed for thousands of years; but the way we understand them changes each generation, in part as a result of what we know about other facets of life.

In terms of what we have learned from this study, it is possible to single out seven major elements in the social milieu that help make creative contributions possible: training, expectations, resources, recognition, hope, opportunity, and reward. Some of these are direct responsibilities of the field, others depend on the broader social system.

After hope, one also needs to have real opportunities to act in the domain. It has been said that the great musical creativity that blossomed in Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in large part due to the fact that each aristocratic court that ruled the many principalities had to have an orchestra to amuse itself and to show its superiority over the others. There was constant interest in and competition for new musical talent. A Bach, Handel, or Mozart had no difficulty in having his music performed and then evaluated by an eager crowd of connoisseurs. If there are fewer creative classical composers now, it is probably not due to a lack of talent but to a dearth of opportunities to display it.

Similarly, public recognition and acclaim are certainly not necessary to truly creative persons, yet they are not rejected either. Creative persons are often arrogant and egocentric, but they are also insecure and can benefit from approval. Being at the cutting edge isolates a person from his or her fellows, and it helps to feel appreciated. In one of the most high-powered research institutions in the country, where many a Nobel Prize was won, there used to be an associate director whose main job was to pay a daily visit to each scientist’s lab and marvel at his or her latest accomplishments—even though he often had little idea what they were. This practice was based on the strong belief that a pat on the back does wonders for creative productivity, and apparently not without cause.

The only way to stay creative is to oppose the wear and tear of existence with techniques that organize time, space, and activity to your advantage. It means developing schedules to protect your time and avoid distraction, arranging your surroundings to heighten concentration, cutting out meaningless chores that soak up psychic energy, and devoting the energy thus saved to what you really care about.

You will not know what ails you unless you can attach a name to it. The first step in solving a problem is to find it, to formulate the vague unease into a concrete problem amenable to solution.

How you define a problem usually carries with it an explanation of what caused it.

Robert Galvin of Motorola trained himself to do a simple mental exercise: Whenever someone says something, he asks himself, What if the opposite were true? Imagining alternatives to what others hold to be true is probably going to be useless 99 percent of the time. But that one other time the practice of flipping to a divergent perspective might generate an insight that is not only original but also useful.

Too many people assume that most of the world is off-limits to them. Some consider art as being beyond the realm of possibility, others sports or music. Or dancing, science, philosophy—the list of things that are “not for me” can be endless. And it is true that some domains just don’t agree with some people. But generally the problem is that cultural resources are underutilized. Either because of ignorance, low self-esteem, or habits of thought established early, we discount the possibility that we could enjoy and be good at many of the things that make others happy. It took several years of jail for Malcolm X to realize the power of religion and of politics, and to discover that he had gifts for both.

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