Nov
07

Creative Productivity & The Creative Theorists- Part 3, Csíkszentmihályi

How can imagination become creative productivity? How can artists fuse the work of creative theorists to their gifts to help others to innovate? So far both Basadur’s Creative Problem Solving Profile and deBono’s Six Thinking Hat Theory have provided a structure that is relatively easy to understand, adapt and implement. But with our next creative theorist, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, quickly that clarity disappears into the murky world of “flow”.

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) is a Hungarian psychology professor, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 22. Now at Claremont Graduate University,  Dr. Csíkszentmihályi is a distinguished professor of psychology and management in the school of organizational and behavioral sciences. He is also the Founding Co-Director of the Quality of Life Research Center. The QLRC is a non-profit research institute that studies “positive psychology”; that is, human strengths such as optimism, creativity, intrinsic motivation, and responsibility.” Prior to his work at Claremont, Mihaly, was the head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and of the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College.

Flow

Mihaly is known for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, and in particular for his years of research and writing on the ideas around life’s “flow.”  He is the author of a number of books on the topic including:

Having devoted 30 years of research to how creative people live and work, in his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people need to be happy and be in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter (Csíkszentmihályi,1990). The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Csikszentmihalyi saw optimal activities in the "flow" channel moving outward as skills are gained. In short, flow can be described as a state where attention, motivation, and the situation meet, resulting in a kind of productive harmony or feedback.

To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results. The flow state also implies a kind of focused attention, and indeed, it has been noted that mindfulness, meditation, yoga, the Alexander Technique, and martial arts seem to improve a person’s capacity for flow.

 

Why is flow essential to creative productivity?

“Creativity is often defined as a parallel construct to intelligence, but it differs from intelligence in that it is not restricted to cognitive or intellectual functioning or behavior. Instead, it is concerned with a complex mix of motivational conditions, personality factors, environmental conditions, chance factors, and even products.” (Feldhusen and Goh, 1995)  The concepts of Flow, fit nicely into this construct.

In his book Flow Csíkszentmihályi lists a number of facts (not all of which have to be present) to create an experience of flow.

1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities).

2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.

5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

What personality traits do those posses who frequently achieve creative “flow”?

According to Csíkszentmihályi, creative personalities are different from others, because of their complexity. Creative individuals show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an “individual,” each of them is a “multitude.”

Here are 10 paradoxical traits Csíkszentmihályi believes are often present in creative people.

1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest.

They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm. Yet it is surprising how often individuals who in their seventies and eighties exude energy and health remember childhoods plagued by illness. It seems that their energy is internally generated, due more to their focused minds than superior genetics. This does not mean that creative people are hyperactive, always “on.” In fact, they rest often and sleep a lot. The important thing is that they control their energy; it’s not ruled by the calendar, the clock, an external schedule. When necessary, they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately recharge their batteries. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work. This is not a bio-rhythm inherited with their genes; it was learned by trial and error as a strategy for achieving their goals.

2. Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time.

How smart they actually are is open to question. It is probably true that what psychologists call the “g factor,” meaning a core of general intelligence, is high among people who make important creative contributions.The earliest longitudinal study of superior mental abilities, initiated at Stanford University by the psychologist Lewis Terman in 1921, shows rather conclusively that children with very high IQs do well in life, but after a certain point IQ does not seem to be correlated any longer with superior performance in real life. Later studies suggest that the cutoff point is around 120; it might be difficult to do creative work with a lower IQ, but an IQ beyond 120 does not necessarily imply higher creativity.Furthermore, people who bring about an acceptable novelty in a domain seem able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent. 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. These are the dimensions of thinking that most creativity tests measure and that most workshops try to enhance.

Another way of expressing this dialectic is the contrasting poles of wisdom and childishness. As Howard Gardner remarked in his study of the major creative geniuses of this century, a certain immaturity, both emotional and mental, can go hand in hand with deepest insights. Mozart comes immediately to mind.

3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.

Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility. There is no question that a playfully light attitude is typical of creative individuals. But this playfulness doesn’t go very far without its antithesis, a quality of doggedness, endurance, perseverance. Nina Holton, whose playfully claims wild germs of ideas are the genesis of her sculpture, is very firm about the importance of hard work: “Tell anybody you’re a sculptor and they’ll say, ‘Oh, how exciting, how wonderful.’ And I tend to say, ‘What’s so wonderful?’ It’s like being a mason, or a carpenter, half the time. But they don’t wish to hear that because they really only imagine the first part, the exciting part.

4. Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality.

Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality. Great art and great science involve a leap of imagination into a world that is different from the present. The rest of society often views these new ideas as fantasies without relevance to current reality. And they are right. But the whole point of art and science is to go beyond what we now consider real and create a new reality. At the same time, this “escape” is not into a never-never land. What makes a novel idea creative is that once we see it, sooner or later we recognize that, strange as it is, it is true. Most of us assume that artists—musicians, writers, poets, painters—are strong on the fantasy side, whereas scientists, politicians, and businesspeople are realists. This may be true in terms of day-to-day routine activities. But when a person begins to work creatively, all bets are off.

5. Creative people trend to be both extroverted and introverted.

Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted. We’re usually one or the other, either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines and observing the passing show. In fact, in psychological research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits that differentiate people from each other and that can be reliably measured. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously.

6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time.

Creative people are humble and proud at the same time. It is remarkable to meet a famous person who you expect to be arrogant or supercilious, only to encounter self-deprecation and shyness instead. Yet there are good reasons why this should be so. These individuals are well aware that they stand, in Newton’s words, “on the shoulders of giants.” Their respect for the area in which they work makes them aware of the long line of previous contributions to it, putting their own in perspective. They’re also aware of the role that luck played in their own achievements. And they’re usually so focused on future projects and current challenges that past accomplishments, no matter how outstanding, are no longer very interesting to them. At the same time, they know that in comparison with others, they have accomplished a great deal. And this knowledge provides a sense of security, even pride.

7. Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.

Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping. When tests of masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers.This tendency toward androgyny is sometimes understood in purely sexual terms, and therefore it gets confused with homosexuality. But psychological androgyny is a much wider concept referring to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturing, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender.  Creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.

8. Creative people are both rebellious and conservative.

Creative people are both rebellious and conservative. It is impossible to be creative without having first internalized an area of culture. So it’s difficult to see how a person can be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic. Being only traditional leaves an area unchanged; constantly taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as an improvement. The artist Eva Zeisel, who says that the folk tradition in which she works is “her home,” nevertheless produces ceramics that were recognized by the Museum of Modern Art as masterpieces of contemporary design. This is what she says about innovation for its own sake:”This idea to create something is not my aim. To be different is a negative motive, and no creative thought or created thing grows out of a negative impulse. A negative impulse is always frustrating. And to be different means ‘not like this’ and ‘not like that.’ And the ‘not like’—that’s why postmodernism, with the prefix of ‘post,’ couldn’t work. No negative impulse can work, can produce any happy creation. Only a positive one.”

But the willingness to take risks, to break with the safety of tradition, is also necessary. The economist George Stigler is very emphatic in this regard: “I’d say one of the most common failures of able people is a lack of nerve. They’ll play safe games. In innovation, you have to play a less safe game, if it’s going to be interesting. It’s not predictable that it’ll go well.”

9. Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.

Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well. Without the passion, we soon lose interest in a difficult task. Yet without being objective about it, our work is not very good and lacks credibility.

10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment.

Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment. Most would agree with Rabinow’s words: “Inventors have a low threshold of pain. Things bother them.” A badly designed machine causes pain to an inventive engineer, just as the creative writer is hurt when reading bad prose.Being alone at the forefront of a discipline also leaves you exposed and vulnerable. Eminence invites criticism and often vicious attacks. When an artist has invested years in making a sculpture, or a scientist in developing a theory, it is devastating if nobody cares.Deep interest and involvement in obscure subjects often goes unrewarded, or even brings on ridicule. Divergent thinking is often perceived as deviant by the majority, and so the creative person may feel isolated and misunderstood. Perhaps the most difficult thing for creative individuals to bear is the sense of loss and emptiness they experience when, for some reason, they cannot work. This is especially painful when a person feels his or her creativity drying out.Yet when a person is working in the area of his of her expertise, worries and cares fall away, replaced by a sense of bliss. Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Without this trait, poets would give up striving for perfection and would write commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at least twice as much as they do at universities, and physicists would stop doing basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better and the expectations more predictable.

Csíkszentmihályi’s theory of Flow, and how it is created, certainly builds a clear case for artists to use his or her artistry- in its pure form- to illustrate and teach others Csíkszentmihályi concepts of flow. Csíkszentmihályi’s theoretical constructs provides the necessary framework to communicate how the arts can facilitate creating an environment for creative productivity and innovation to emerge.

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