Creativity is the central source of meaning in our lives. For a host of reasons. Yet, the real story of creativity is far more formidable and strange than what meets the eye and mind. It is also much more difficult to comprehend than what several optimistic accounts — scientific, or otherwise — have claimed.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a noted professor of psychology. His work, Flow, first published in 1990, exemplifies the creativity exemplar; it also demystifies the element and its raison d’être. In so doing, it tells us how the creative label has evolved from the synergy of several sources, and not just from the mind of a single individual.
Agreed that Csikszentmihalyi’s novel credo of creativity and the flow experience is not as simple as it may sound on the surface; it is complex. Yet, it is comprehensible and articulate to anyone who wants to know the what-is-what-and-not of creativity as a whole — the sum of the parts and part of the whole.
Csikszentmihalyi’s work does not also celebrate creativity with coloured glasses; it debunks, no less, what has, until now, been held so dearly as the gospel truth. Notes the psychologist, “It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively... A genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a light bulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.” Csikszentmihalyi’s basic plank is based on histories of contemporary people — over one hundred interviews with some of the best brains in their respective fields of activity, including researched examples of the likes of Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and several other genii, down the ages. It’s all about people who knew, or know, about creativity first-hand.
Csikszentmihalyi’s book first begins with a summary of what creativity is; it, thereafter, goes into the precise physics of the manner in which creative people work and live. Next, it takes the ‘bull by its horns:’ of how to make your own life more like that of the creative exemplars studied in the process.
Creativity is broadly classified not as something which emerges like the proverbial drop of a hat, or accident. Whatever is interesting, important, and human, is the result of creativity. To highlight a point. “We share 98 per cent of our genetic make-up with chimpanzees. What makes us different — our language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology — is the result of individual ingenuity that was recognised, rewarded, and transmitted through learning. Without creativity, it would be difficult, indeed, to distinguish humans from apes.”
Csikszentmihalyi’s next reasoning is relatively down-to-earth and comprehensible. Creativity, he says, is so fascinating that when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of our lives. He adds, “The excitement of the artiste with the easel, or the scientist in the lab comes close to the ideal fulfilment we all hope to get from life, and so rarely do. Perhaps, only sex, sport, music, and religious ecstasy — even when such experiences remain fleeting and leave no trace — provide as profound a sense of being a part of an entity greater than ourselves... Creativity leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and complexity of the future.”
For better or worse, says Csikszentmihalyi, our future is now closely tied to human creativity. The inference is obvious — the outcome of it all will be determined in large measure, wholly and substantially, by our own dreams, and our struggles to make them real. He argues that creativity isn’t a prerogative of supreme beings alone. The Homo sapiens, as Csikszentmihalyi argues, is riding the crest of evolution, thanks to human craft and creative hunger, aside from the emergence of great machines, and harnessing of energies, which have transformed the face of our living planet. It’s a revelation. This is not all. The psychologist also admits, cheek by jowl, that he’s not too sure whether this transformation will help the human race or cause its downfall.
Creativity, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is also the cultural equivalent of the process of genetic changes that result in biological evolution, below the threshold of consciousness. It’s just the opposite of cultural evolution. To understand creativity is, therefore, not within the framework of straight-line thinking; it is actually related to ‘studying’ individuals who seem most responsible for a novel idea, or a new thing. The spark, says the professor, is necessary — because, without air and tinder there would be no fire.
Csikszentmihalyi’s work is not about just creativity that we all share. It is the understanding of creativity. It traces a historical percept, and precept of creativity, and it looks into what the concept, per se, is all about. It does not accept the popular belief that creativity is some sort of mental activity, or insight that occurs inside the heads of some special people. Rather, it is a spin-off that evolves by way of interaction between a person’s thoughts and one’s socio-cultural context.
Creativity is also a much confused, misunderstood word. It is used to cover far too much ground. Csikszentmihalyi, therefore, uses his work to cut through the fog and offer a different phenomenon, a trinity so to say, that may legitimately be called by a familiar name: brilliant, personally creative, and creative. What about the genii, you may well ask. A genius, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is an individual who is both brilliant and creative — at the same time.
A mind with some stable content to it, to cull an aphorism, is much richer than one without. In other words, it is a mistake to assume that creativity and rote learning are incompatible. Some of the most original scientists, for instance, have been known to have memorised music, poetry, or historical information expansively.
A person who can remember stories, poems, lyrics of songs, cricket statistics, chemical formulae, mathematical equations, historical dates, biblical passages, and wise quotations has several advantages over one who has not cultivated such a skill. The consciousness of such a person is independent of the order that may or may not be provided by the environment. One can also always amuse oneself, and find meaning in the contents of one’s mind. While others need external stimulation — television, reading, conversation, or drugs — to keep their minds from drifting into chaos, the person whose memory is stocked with patterns of information is autonomous and self-contained. What’s more, such a person is also a much more cherished companion, because s/he can share the information in his/her mind and, thus, help bring order into the consciousness of those with whom s/he interacts.
To bring home the point, lock, stock, and barrel, Csikszentmihalyi uses his famous ‘flow’ theory to explain the creative process and shows how the concept can enrich us all. Creative persons, he says, differ from one another in a variety of ways, but in one respect they seem to be unanimous — they all love what they do, not with the hope of achieving fame, or making money, but for the opportunity to do the work they enjoy doing. Most creative people agree that they do what they do primarily — because it’s fun.
What is Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ in understandable lingo? It’s the individual’s devotion to his/her vocation — one which has stretched that capacity and involved an element of novelty and discovery. You may also call it ‘optimal experience’ — one that gives credence to childhood experiences, including prodigious curiosity, parental influence, retrospection, school, awkward years, and disappointments, which have a bearing on creativity. The pattern is, no less, identical to one’s later years — college and profession, supportive partners, careers, ‘generativity,’ taking a stand, and so on.
Age, observes Csikszentmihalyi, is no yardstick to measuring our relationship with creativity. Age actually has got something more to do with physical and cognitive capacities, habits or personal traits, relationships etc. It takes the domain of the word on creative urges — of something that is released by style, a joyful responsibility. It also places as much emphasis on convergent and divergent thinking, and the primal idea, even instinct, of choosing a special domain for oneself. Well, the whole idea may not be free from dangers, all right. Is there a way out? Yes, there is. You could do away with them, if your domain does not lie with the extremes. In Csikszentmihalyi’s insightful axiom, “As you learn to operate within a domain, your life is certainly going to be more creative. It may sure not be something that would be recorded in history books, but it’d be something that denotes that you have lived a full and creative life.”
Inference? When you are keyed to be inventive, as well as competent, nothing can stop you from experiencing the ‘flow’ experience and to being originally creative.