Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention - by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

A genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.

It is practically impossible to learn a domain deeply enough to make a change in it without dedicating all of one's attention to it and thereby appearing to be arrogant, selfish, and ruthless to those who believe they have a right to the creative person's attention.


Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one. And the definition of a creative person is: someone whose thoughts or actions change a domain, or establish a new domain. It is important to remember, however, that a domain cannot be changed without the explicit or implicit consent of a field responsible for it.

Creativity must, in the last analysis, be seen not as something happening within a person but in the relationships within a system.

A person who wants to make a creative contribution not only must work within a creative system but must also reproduce that system within his or her mind. In other words, the person must learn the rules and the content of the domain, as well as the criteria of selection, the preferences of the field.

The Creative Personality

Are there then no traits that distinguish creative people? If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it would be complexity. By this I mean that they 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." Ten pairs of apparently antithetical traits that are often both present in such individuals and integrated with each other in a dialectical tension.

  1. Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest. They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm.

  2. Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time. How smart they actually are is open to question.

  3. A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.

  4. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other. Both are needed to break away from the present without losing touch with the past.

  5. Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.

  6. Creative individuals are also remarkably humble and proud at the same time. Another way of expressing this duality is to see it as a contrast between ambition and selflessness, or competition and cooperation.

  7. In all cultures, men are brought up to be "masculine" and to disregard and repress those aspects of their temperament that the culture regards as "feminine," whereas women are expected to do the opposite. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping.

  8. Generally, creative people are thought to be rebellious and independent. Yet it is impossible to be creative without having first internalized a domain of culture. And a person must believe in the importance of such a domain in order to learn its rules; hence, he or she must be to a certain extent a traditionalist. So it is difficult to see how a person can be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.

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

  10. Finally, the openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

The Work of Creativity

There are three main sources from which problems typically arise: personal experiences, requirements of the domain, and social pressures.

Problems are not all alike in the way they come to a person's attention. Most problems are already formulated; everybody knows what is to be done and only the solution is missing. The person is expected by employers, patrons, or some other external pressure to apply his or her mind to the solution of a puzzle. These are "presented" problems. But there are also situations in which nobody has asked the question yet, nobody even knows that there is a problem. In this case the creative person identifies both the problem and the solution. Here we have a "discovered" problem.

After a creative person senses that on the horizon of his or her expertise there is something that does not fit, some problem that might be worth tackling, the process of creativity usually goes underground for a while. The evidence for incubation comes from reports of discoveries in which the creator becomes puzzled by an issue and remembers coming to a sudden insight into the nature of a problem, but does not remember any intermediate conscious mental steps. Because of this empty space in between sensing a problem and intuiting its solution, it has been assumed that an indispensable stage of incubation must take place in an interval of the conscious process. The insight presumably occurs when a subconscious connection between ideas fits so well that it is forced to pop out into awareness, like a cork held underwater breaking out into the air after it is released.

After an insight occurs, one must check it out to see if the connections genuinely make sense. If everything checks out, the slow and often routine work of elaboration begins. There are four main conditions that are important during this stage of the process. First of all, the person must pay attention to the developing work, to notice when new ideas, new problems, and new insights arise out of the interaction with the medium. Keeping the mind open and flexible is an important aspect of the way creative persons carry on their work. Next, one must pay attention to one's goals and feelings, to know whether the work is indeed proceeding as intended. The third condition is to keep in touch with domain knowledge, to use the most effective techniques, the fullest information, and the best theories as one proceeds. And finally, especially in the later stages of the process, it is important to listen to colleagues in the field. By interacting with others involved with similar problems, it is possible to correct a line of solution that is going in the wrong direction, to refine and focus one's ideas, and to find the most convincing mode of presenting them, the one that has the best chance of being accepted.

The Flow of Creativity

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.

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way.

  2. There is immediate feedback to one's actions.

  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.

  4. Action and awareness are merged.

  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.

  6. There is no worry of failure.

  7. Self-consciousness disappears.

  8. The sense of time becomes distorted.

  9. The activity becomes autotelic.

It seems that surroundings can influence creativity in different ways, in part depending on the stage of the process in which a person is involved. During preparation, when one is gathering the elements out of which the problem is going to emerge, an ordered, familiar environment is indicated, where one can concentrate on interesting issues without the distractions of "real" life. For the scientist it is the laboratory, for the businessperson the office, for the artist the studio. At the next stage, when thoughts about the problem incubate below the level of awareness, a different environment may be more helpful. The distraction of novel stimuli, of magnificent views, of alien cultures, allows the subconscious mental processes to make connections that are unlikely when the problem is pursued by the linear logic learned from experience. And after the unexpected connection results in an insight, the familiar environment is again more conducive for completing the process; evaluation and elaboration proceed more efficiently in the sober atmosphere where the logic of the domain prevails.


There were many similarities also in the methods these writers follow as they ply their craft. All of them keep notebooks handy for when the voice of the Muse calls, which tends to be early in the morning while the writer is still in bed, half asleep. Most of them have been keeping diaries for many years. They usually start a working day with a word, a phrase, or an image, rather than a concept or planned composition. The work evolves on its own rather than the author's intentions, but is always monitored by the critical eye of the writer. What is so difficult about this process is that one must keep the mind focused on two contradictory goals: not to miss the message whispered by the unconscious and at the same time force it into a suitable form. The first requires openness, the second critical judgment. If these two processes are not kept in a constantly shifting balance, the flow of writing dries up. After a few hours the tremendous concentration required for this balancing act becomes so exhausting that the writer has to change gears and focus on something else, something mundane. But while it lasts, creative writing is the next best thing to having a world of one's own in which what's wrong with the "real" world can be set right.

Enhancing Personal Creativity

It is important to try as many domains as possible. Start with things you already enjoy and then move to related domains. If you like to read biography, you might try history. Swimming may lead to skin diving, to scuba, and then--why not?--to skydiving. Learning to operate within a new domain is always difficult, and love at first sight is rare. A certain amount of persistence is necessary. On the other hand, it makes no sense to persevere in an activity that gives no joy, or the promise of it.

  • Try to be surprised by something every day. Experience this one thing for what it is, not what you think it is. Be open to what the world is telling you. Life is nothing more than a stream of experiences--the more widely and deeply you swim in it, the richer your life will be.

  • Try to surprise at least one person every day. Instead of being your predictable self, say something unexpected, express an opinion that you have not dared to reveal, ask a question you wouldn't ordinarily ask. Experiment with your appearance. Comfortable routines are great when they save energy for doing what you really care about; but if you are still searching, they restrict and limit the future.

  • Write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others.

  • When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it.

  • Wake up in the morning with a specific goal to look forward to.

  • If you do anything well, it becomes enjoyable.

  • To keep enjoying something, you need to increase its complexity.

  • Find out what you like and what you hate about life. How can you learn the dynamics of your emotions? The first thing is to keep a careful record of what you did each day and how you felt about it.

  • Start doing more of what you love, less of what you hate. After a few weeks of self-monitoring, sit down with your diary or your notes and begin to analyze them.

  • Develop the internal traits that you lack. To start, it makes sense to identify your most obvious characteristic, the one that your friends would use to describe you--such as "reckless" or "stingy" or "intellectual." If you don't trust your own assessment, you can ask a friend to help. When you have identified a central trait, you can begin to try its opposite. If you are basically reckless, take a future project, or relationship, and instead of rushing into it plan your moves carefully and patiently. If you are stingy, splurge. If you are an intellectual, get someone to explain to you why football is such a great sport and try watching a ball game in light of this knowledge. Keep exploring what it takes to be the opposite of who you are.

  • Shift often from openness to closure.

  • Aim for complexity.

Problem Finding

  • Find a way to express what moves you.

  • Look at problems from as many viewpoints as possible.

  • Figure out the implications of the problem. As soon as you think of a good solution, it is useful to think of an opposite one. Even the most experienced person is often unable to tell in advance, just by thinking, which solution will do the trick. So first trying one way of going about the problem, then trying another tack for a while, and then comparing results often yields the most creative result.

  • Implement the solution.

Divergent Thinking

  • Produce as many ideas as possible.

  • Have as many different ideas as possible. Robert Galvin of Motorola trained himself to do a simple mental exercise: Whenever someone says something, he asks himself, What if the opposite were true?

  • Try to produce unlikely ideas.