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Graduate Student Bookshelf: Creativity

This is a book review of Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

You may know Csikszentmihalyi from his piece Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in which defines flow as a state of “deep enjoyment,” or “total involvement” in a task he describes as “flow.” In Creativity, he goes back for more interviews to inform his psychological theories, but this time, restricts it to creative geniuses. Men and women, scientists and poets, Nobel Laureates and struggling artists – they’re all there. What do such people have in common? What happened in their formative years? What kinds of lives to they aspire to lead? What drives them to continue creating in their chosen fields?

First, a word about flow, which Csikszentmihalyi casually refers to in this book. A premise of Flow, the book, is that flow, the psychological state, gives only happiness in the moment and satisfaction with life in general. He describes the appearance of flow in just about every hobby, activity, and job you can imagine: the physical focus required of ballet dancers and rock climbers; the intellectual absorption required of scientists, engineers, musicians, and philosophers; the interpersonal flow of a conversation with a friend; the pleasures of problem-solving for a talented plumber and a Italian grandmother in her garden. In any case, flow is recognized by a loss of a sense of self, a loss of a sense of time, and a satisfied sense of meaning. This is another great book for any grad student to pick up and read through.

In Creativity, however, one might argue he is pinpointing the characteristics of experts at flow. I love that Csikszentmihalyi includes both scientists and painters, caring little for the distinction between the creativity of a physicist and that of an artist. There’s no technical vs. creative or logical vs. emotional here; both are necessary for creative success, be it in the arts or the sciences. And so experts of both were included in his interviews, and their stories summarized on the pages of this book.


A troubled childhood. A solitary genius. A bohemian lifestyle. There are plenty of stereotypes surrounding a creative mind, but how many of them are true? While creative persons interviewed here had mixed childhood experiences, and most made fairly traditional life choices (family came up often as interviewee’s greatest achievement), a comfort with solitude seemed to hold true.

As we know from studies of young talented people, teenagers who cannot stand being alone tend not to develop their skills because practicing music or studying math requires a solitude they dread. p. 65

Many creatives reported time alone as being productive – even times of rest. Time alone is required for practicing a musical instrument, crafting literary pieces, or working through mathematical proofs. Even working in a lab can be a solitary process. It’s important to be comfortable with that to hone in on those skills.

Unscheduled time is also important. There were various reports of waking up in the middle of the night with a breakthrough idea. Some will schedule time for letting the mind wander – take a walk, meditate, give your brain time to think. Even if this is approached from an ‘idle,’ unscheduled perspective, it may well be the time the brain is able to spontaneously make unnoticed connections. Sleeping on a problem can bring solutions – so can walking on it. Getting out in nature seemed a favorite past time, and not only of the biologically inclined creatives included in the book.

[C]onstant busyness is not a good prescription for creativity. It is important to schedule times in the day, the week, and the year just to take stock of your life and review what you have accomplished and what remains to be done. . . . You should just indulge in the luxury of reflection for its own sake. Whether you intend it or not, new ideas and conclusions will emerge in your consciousness anyway – and the less you try to direct the process the more creative they are likely to become. p. 353-354

Make no mistake, most of the interviewees are self-diagnosed workaholics. But there is definitely such a thing as too busy, and they recognize the benefit to giving the mind time to wander. Based on his interviews, Csikszentmihalyi concludes that “this should involve some physical or kinesthetic component” with possible “activities that facilitate subconscious creative processes” being “walking, showering, swimming, driving, gardening, weaving, and carpentry.” Yes, driving. The author is emphatic that one’s car is increasingly like one’s castle, and a long drive is an increasingly popular means of clearing one’s head.

Creatives were inclined to have a certain level of rosy-colored-glasses syndrome. Some reported a childhood spent in wonder in everyday things. It was a wonder they never grew out of. As adults, they tend to view even the common parts of their lives with fresh eyes, a habit that supplies them with constant surprises.

The “troubled childhood” stereotype was less certain, with varied responses as to the positive or negative experiences of their youth, although most responded that they had at least one very inspiring teacher (this was especially true of the scientists). While not all got involved in their trade early in life, most developed skills they would use later early on. A poet who didn’t write until later in life had learned multiple languages early on as she was forced to move around the world; a scientist spent lots of time in nature, carefully inspecting bugs and plants and the like.

With few exceptions, adult relationships seemed stable and monogamous. There was not much of the carefree, bohemian lifestyle sometimes ascribed to creative individuals. Instead, not only did many respondents report a single, stable, lifelong marriage, but attributed their success to this marriage (even in some cases that ended in divorce; divorces were amicable in such scenarios). The creative geniuses reported a sense of internal peace and increased, more stable happiness levels after their marriages, and when asked what their greatest achievement was, the perennial favorite answer among these prestigious individuals was overwhelmingly, “my family.” A supportive spouse was credited with freeing up creatives to really focus on their arts. Happy marriages boosted life satisfaction. Raising children gave a deep sense of meaning, and among the childless, teaching was a popular means of filling this need. There’s nothing quite like a stable home life to keep those creative juices flowing and provide emotional stability.

What about later in life? The elder creatives interviewed reported irrepressible zest for life. These were people who always saw new mountains to climb, new problems to solve or crafts to pursue to give them new joys. They weren’t people who saw aging in a negative light. Although some fields, such as mathematics, tend to favor younger crowds (breakthroughs often depend on a youthfully quick mind), other fields (poetry, music, art, science) rely more on thoughtfulness and insight, giving their practitioners the option to improve with age and experience.

This constant self-improvement was a common theme throughout many of the interviews, enough for Csikeszentmihalyi to make a point of it at the end. He muses, “Strangely, in our culture we spend billions of dollars trying to improve our looks, but we take a fatalistic attitude toward our personal traits – as if it was beyond our abilities to change them” (p. 359). Instead of this fatatlistic, “Let me be myself!” attitude, he argues for cultivating positive habits with the potential to increase personal creativity, including habits that stretch us beyond our natural inclinations. Introverts practicing small talk and extroverts practicing solitary meditation, for example, are suggestions he gives, based off of his interviews, as pro-creativity strategies.

And finally, a word to all those STEM students – some creative hacks might make your work move along smoother. Of the author’s scientific interviewees, there were “several scientists who claim that the only difference between them and their less creative colleagues is that they can tell whether a problem is soluble or not, and this saves enormous amounts of time and many false starts” (p. 61).

There’s plenty of tips to glean from Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, and it’s always interesting to hear from the creative geniuses he quotes throughout the book’s pages. Both Flow and Creativity are great summer reads for overworked grad students looking for some sage productivity advice.

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