In a previous blog post I talked about the book Creativity by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi. In it he gives a “prescriptive” remedy for the person looking to break their current pattern and unleash their unique creativity.
If creativity is something that you struggle with, and you’re looking to really advance your own creative abilities, I strongly encourage you to read in detail his book and put into action the advice given. In essence his advice fits into four general categories:
Step 1: Become Like A Kid Again, Cultivate Curiosity
Children have a massive advantage over adults in the creative department. Their entire world is one of discovery, wonder and awe. Many adults, with age, lose their sense of wonder, and sense of discovery. Creative individuals however are able to maintain a sense of curiosity throughout their life. The more curious you are, the more creative you’ll be. That is what the research suggests. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has some suggestions about how you can increase your curiosity. First, try to be surprised by something each day. Don’t assume that you have the whole world figured out. Allow yourself the freedom to be marvelled. Next, try to surprise at least one person every day. Do or say something unexpected. Breaking your own routine of behavior can actually trigger your own creativity. Finally, take inventory of your discoveries and if something sparks your interest then follow it. Buy a book on it. Listen to a podcast about it. Do a little research about it on the Internet. All these things will unleash curiosity, which will facilitate creativity
Step 2: Learn To Cultivate Flow In Everyday Life
This step is important because it helps us to “enjoy” the process of being curious. Flow, as previously described is the act of channeling all of our energy and focus to the pursuit of individually chosen and personally meaningful goals. When we do this we eliminate psychic entropy. These moments tend to be the most meaningful, or “optimal”, in our life. However, if we don’t have a goal that we are pursuing (or our goals are externally imposed and not meaningful to us personally) then our thoughts will eventually resort back to their default state of restlessness (and distraction), boredom or anxiety. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi notes that we can channel Flow by doing the following: first, wake up in the morning each day with a specific goal to look forward to. This is the art of “intentional living”. Creative people wake up each day excited to create. They aren’t drug out of bed. This is because they truly believe that what they are attempting to accomplish that day is creative and meaningful. If you think your life isn’t meaningful then just start this habit by thinking of a single meaningful goal that you might accomplish in a day. Do that long enough and you’ll be amazed at how your outlook changes.
The next method of channeling flow is to throw your whole self into what you do. If you do anything particularly well, that act will become more enjoyable to you. If you are enjoying it you will facilitate creativity more naturally. As Dr. Csikszentmihalyi notes,
“whether writing a poem or cleaning the house, running a scientific experiment or a race, the quality of experience tends to improve in proportion to the effort invested in it”.
When we invest psychic energy into our self-directed goals the activity becomes intrinsically rewarding. This means that the journey itself becomes the reward, not just the destination. Creativity is channeled by flow by asking a simple question in each activity you engage in, “how can I apply flow conditions to this activity?” You are then forced to think. You are forced to think how a routine or mundane activity can be turned into a flow experience by channeling focus, setting a specific goal, and putting all your energy into the pursuit. This is powerful.
As Dr. Csikszentmihalyi states:
“Eventually you will master the most important skill of all, the metaskill that consists in being able to turn any activity into an occasion of flow. If the autotelic metaskill is developed enough, you should be able to enjoy any new challenge and be on the way to the self-sustaining chain reaction of creativity.”
Finally, to keep things enjoyable you have to constantly improve the complexity of it. This is fundamentally why creativity can lead to a lifetime of enjoyment. Creativity causes us to expand what we know and what we accept as settled. It causes us to look for new solutions to old problems. This is enjoyable. We cannot enjoy the same activity over and over again, unless there is an element of new challenges and new opportunities. Fundamental to the concept of Flow is the concept of rising challenges to meet our ever-growing skill set.
Step 3: Develop Habits That Protect Your Energy And Your Ability To Focus
The third step to cultivate your creativity is to cultivate habits that protect our energy and our ability to focus. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi advises,
We must erect barriers against distractions, dig channels so that energy can flow more freely, find ways to escape outside temptations and interruptions. If we do not, entropy is sure to break down the concentration that the pursuit of an interest requires. Then thought returns to its baseline state – the vague, unfocused, constantly distracted condition of the normal mind.
This step is really about taking control of our consciousness, and what our mind focuses on, and not allowing ourselves to be distracted by things that aren’t really that meaningful.
There is a humorous sidebar to this principle concerning the lives of Steve Jobs and Albert Enstein. Those who have studied the lives of these creative genius know that they both made conscious choices to “eliminate choice” when it came to their daily wardrobe. For Jobs it meant his trademark black turtleneck, jeans and sneakers. For Einstein it was baggy sweaters and slacks. Both men document that this was a conscious choice to free themselves from “having to think” about something that they considered meaningless. So what can we do to build up habits to take control our consciousness.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi suggests the following: first, take charge of your schedule. This can be difficult with work or other demands, but for some people their creative drive is best channeled early in the morning or late at night. So a mid-day nap may not be a bad thing (if possible). We have to figure out our own patterns of energy and shape our days to accommodate those patterns. The next point is that we have to ensure proper time is allocated to reflection and relaxation. Being constantly busy is not a good recipe for creativity. As the eastern proverb goes, when the mind is clear inspiration often follows. Additionally we need to shape our space. Our surroundings can have a critical impact on our creativity. On a micro level this would extend to your “creative workspace”. Do you have one? However, on a greater application it could be your geographic location. Some people are highly sensitive to sun depravation, or feeling crowded in an urban center. This is something to seriously think about. You may feel “trapped” in an area right now, but it is a real shame to go your entire life without tapping your creativity, when in actually a simple move would stimulate your creative juices.
The final suggestion is to find out who you really are. Find out what you like and what you don’t like. Determine with clarity what you value. There is really only one you. You need to know that that “you” consists of. Then, most importantly, you need to have the courage to do more of what you value, and less of what you don’t. It seems so simple, but it’s not. However, it is very clear that the more you are doing things that you like, and the less you are doing things that you don’t like, the more creative you will be.
Step 4: Internalize What You’ve Learned Into Your Personality And Seek Complexity
Step four is really about incorporating steps one through three into our personality, in other words our “habitual way of thinking, feeling, and acting, as the more or less unique pattern by which we use psychic energy or attention.” It can be very difficult to change our personality. Not only is it the product of years of socialization and habit, but it is genetically imprinted on us as well. However, we are capable of changing and adapting our personality to one that is more closely aligned with the personalities of creative people.
To this end Dr. Csikszentmihalyi gives three suggestions. First, we must be constantly willing to develop in areas that we are lacking. Creativity is channeled through personality development as follows:
The point here is that everyone can strengthen the missing end of the polarity. When an extrovert learns to experience the world like an introvert, or vice versa, it is as if he or she discovered a whole missing dimension to the world…In all of these cases, a new realm of experience opens up in front of us, which means that in effect we double and then double again the content of life.
When we double the experience and content of our life our mind is opened up to the possibilities of what we were missing in a closed view. This motivates us to continually open the realms of our consciousness to discover new possibilities. That process is the process of creativity.
Next, we need to shift often from openness to closure. Creative people, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi notes have the uncanny paradoxical ability to be open and receptive at times but completely focus minded and at times even stubborn in their pursuits at others. They are able to shift between these two perspectives easily and effortlessly. They know when they should be open to further discovery and perhaps outside interpretation or assistance, but they also know when they need to pursue what they know in their heart to be correct, even if others disagree. Being about to bounce between mindsets again doubles the experience of life and makes it possible to find creativity at both poles.
Finally a creative personality will continually aim for and seek complexity. A continual desire for increased complexity necessitates a creative outlook. You cannot increase the complexity of any act, environment, relationship or endeavor unless you are creative enough to think outside of the current setting into a new possibility of what could be. Complexity is rooted in an understanding of what currently is, and the prospect of what the future could hold. The first form of complexity that everyone should seek out is the continual complexity of the self.
As Dr. Csikszentmihalyi notes,
“By fully expressing the tendencies of which we are capable, we become part of the energy that creates the future.”