chapter 5 - the flow of creativity
- creative persons differ from one another in a variety of ways, but in the one respect they are unanimous: they all love what they do. yet many others in the same occupations don't enjoy what they do, se we have to assume that it is not what these people do that counts but how they do it.
programmed for creativity
- by random mutations, some individuals must have developed a nervous system in which the discovery of novelty stimulates the pleasure centers in the brain. Just as some individuals derive a keener pleasure from sex and other from food, so some must have been born who derived a keener pleasure from learning something new.
- so we too share this propensity for enjoying whatever we do, provided we can do it in a new way, provided we can discover or design something new in doing it. This is why creativity, no matter in what domain it takes place, is so enjoyable
- another force motivates us, and it is more primitive and more powerful than the urge to create: the force of entropy. if we didn't have this built-in regulator, we could easily kill ourselves by running ragged and then not having enough reserves of strength, body fat, or nervous energy to face the unexpected.
- we are generally torn between two opposite sets of instructions programmed into the brain: the least-effort imperative on one side, and the claims of creativity on the other
- however, unless enough people are motivated by the enjoyment that comes from confronting challenges, by discovering new ways of being and doing, there is no evolution of culture, no progress in thought or feeling.
what is enjoyment?
- this optimal experience is what I have called flow, because many of the respondents described the feeling when things were going well as an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.
- nine main elements were mentioned over and over again to describe how it feels when an experience is enjoyable
- there are clear goals every step of the way - in contrast to what happens in everyday life, on the job or at home, where often there are contradictory demands and our purpose is unsure, in flow we always know what needs to be done
- there is immediate feedback to one's actions - again, in contrast to the usually state of affairs, in a flow experience we know how well we are doing
- there is a balance between challenges and skills - in flow, we feel that our abilities are well matched to the opportunities for action. in everyday life we sometimes feel that the challenges are too high in relation to our skills, and then we feel frustrated and anxious. or we feel that our potential is greater than the opportunities to express it, and then we feel bored.
- action and awareness are merged - one-pointedness of mind is required by the close match between challenges and skills, and it is made possible by the clarity of goals and the constant availability of feedback
- distractions are excluded from consciousness - another typical element of flow is that we are aware only of what is relevant here and now
- there is no worry of failure - while in flow, we are too involved to be concerned with failure. the reason that failure is not an issue is that in flow it is clear what has to be done, and our skills are potentially adequate to the challenges
- self-consciousness disappears - in flow we are too involved in what we are doing to care about protecting the ego. yet after an episode of flow is over, we generally emerge from it with a stronger self-concept; we know that we have succeeded in meeting a difficult challenge. we might even feel that we have stepped out of the boundaries of the ego and have become part, at least temporarily, of a larger entity
- the sense of time becomes distorted - generally in flow we forget time, and hours may pass by in what seem like a few minutes. or the opposite happens.
- the activity becomes autotelic - whenever most of these conditions are present, we begin to enjoy whatever it is that produces such an experience. at this point the acitivity becomes autotelic, which is greek for something that is an end in itself. most things in life are exotelic: we do them not because we enjoy them but in order to get at some later goal. In many ways, the secret to a happy life is to learn to get flow from as many of the things we have to do as possible. if work and family life become autotelic, then there is nothing wasted in life, and everything we do is worth doing for its own sake.
the conditions for flow in creativity
- creativity involves the production of novelty. the process of discover involved in creating something new appears to be one of the most enjoyable activities any human can be involved in.
clarity of goals
- in certain conditions, the creative process begins with the goal of solving a problem that is given to the person by someone else or is suggested by the state of the art in the domain. moreover, anything that does not work as well as it could can provide a clear goal to the inventor.
- or the goal may emerge as a problem in the domain - a gap in the network of knowledge, a contradiction among the findings, a puzzling result. here the goal is to restore harmony in the system by reconciling the apparent disparities.
- for artists the goal of the activity is not so easily found. in fact, the more creative the problem, the less clear it is what needs to be done. discovered problems, the ones that generate the greatest changes in the domain, are also the most difficult to enjoy working on because of their elusiveness. in such cses, the creative person somehow must develop an unconscious mechanism that tells him or her what to do.
knowing how well one is doing
- the solution seems to be that those individuals who keep doing creative work are those who succeed in internalizing the field's criteria of judgment to the extent that they can give feedback to themselves, without having to wait to hear from experts.
- many creative scientists say that the difference between them and their less creative peers is the ability to separate bad ideas from good ones, so that they don't waste much time exploring blind alleys.
balancing challenges and skills
- the pursuit of a creative problem is rarely easy. in fact, in order to be enjoyable it should be hard, and of course so it is, almost by definition. it is never easy to break new ground, to venture into the unknown. when one starts out, the difficulties may seem almost overwhelming.
- the creative person is not immune to the conflict between the two programs we all carry in our genetic inheritance.
- to be able to cope with such problems, the creative person has to have a great many personality traits that are conducive to discovery and hard work, including the ability to internalize the rules of the domain and the judgements of the field.
- the strategies creative individuals develop are not always successful. they take risks, and what is risk without an occational failure? when the challenges become too great for the person to cope with, a sense of frustration rather than joy creeps in - at least for a while.
the merging of action and awareness
- but when the challenges are just right, the creative process begins to hum, and all other concerns are temporarily shelved in the deep involvement with the activity.
- many of the peculiarities attributed to creative persons are really just ways to protect the focus of concentration so that they may lose themselves in the creative process. distractions interrupt flow, and it may take hours to recover the peace of mind one needs to get on with the work. the more ambitious the task, the longer it takes to lose oneself in it, and the easier it is to get distracted.
- many of our respondents were thankful for their spouses for providing a buffer from exactly these kinds of distractions. this was especially true of the men; the women sometimes mentioned pointedly that they also would have liked to have a wife spare them from worries that interfered with their concentration on work.
forgetting self, time, and surroundings
- when distractions are out of the way and the other conditions for flow are in place, the creative process acquires all the dimensions of flow.
creativity as autotelic experience
- this then brings us back to where we started this chapter and the observation that all of the respondents placed the joy of working ahead of any extrinsic rewards they may receive from it.
- certainly all of these people seem to have heeded their own advice. none pursued money and fame. some became comfortably wealthy from their inventions or their books, but none of them felt fortunate because of it. what they felt fortunate about was that they could get paid for something they had such fun doing and that in the bargain they could feel that what they did might help the human condition along.
flow and happiness
- first of all, when we are in flow, we do not usually feel happy - for the simple reason that in flow we feel only what is relevant to the activity. happiness is a distraction
- it is only after we get out of flow, at the end of a session or in moments of distraction within it, that we might indulge in feeling happy.
flow and the evolution of consciousness
- the problem is that it is easier to find pleasure in things that are easier, in activities like sex and violence that are already programmed into our genes. it is much more difficult to learn to enjoy doing things that were discovered recently in our evolution, like manipulating symbolic systems by doing math or science or writing poetry or music, and learning from doing these things about the world and about ourselves.
- neither parents nor schools are very effective at teaching the young to find pleasure in the right things. adults, themselves often deluded by infatuation with fatuous models, conspire in the deception. they make serious tasks seem dull and hard, and frivolous ones exciting and easy. schools generally fail to teach how exciting, how mesmerizingly beautiful science or mathematics can be; they teach the routine of literature or history rather than the adventure.
- it is in this sense that creative individuals live exemplary lives, they show how joyful and interesting complex symbolic activity is. they have struggled through marches of ignorance, deserts of disinterest, and with the help of parents and a few visionary teachers they have found themselves on the other side of the known. they have become pioneers of culture, models for what men and women of the future will be - if there is to be a future at all. it is by following their example that human consciousness will grow beyond the limitations of the part, the programs that genes and cultures have wired into our brains. perhaps our children, or their children, will feel more joy in writing poetry and solving theorems than in being passively entertained. the lives of these creative individuals reassure us that is it not impossible.