As part of our continuing series where I share highlights of some of my favorite books that have shaped the way I approach business and leadership, I’d like to introduce you to Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Over the past several years, I’ve become more and more fascinated by what it means to be a creative professional. This has led me to read several books on the subject, including Creativity.

Much of my perspective on this topic has been shaped by The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, which centers around building practices into our lives to ensure we bring to others our best ideas, energy, and enjoyment. As with many things, the more I dove into the art and science of creativity, I saw a whole new world emerge.

The concept of creativity is important for two primary reasons:

  • Most things that are interesting, important, and human are the result of creativity.
  • In moments when we are involved creatively, life feels more fulfilling.

I know this is true for me, and I suspect it is true for you as well.

One of the nuances around creativity is the idea of “flow.” I recently shared some insights on flow from another recent read, The Rise of Superman. One person who has focused much of his research and writing on flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Creativity. In fact, he is credited with defining flow as we know it today. Let’s dive into his research on creativity and how it can serve as a central source of meaning in our lives.

Creativity Defined

“Csikszentmihalyi says, “Creativity is an act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.”

There is not a formula or prescription for a creative person, but most of them share a common theme: complexity. Many creatives have thoughts and actions that are more extreme than most. Here are 10 characteristics of complexity found in creative individuals. See which ones resonate with you.

  1. High physical energy, but happy to be quiet and at rest
  2. Smart, but also naïve
  3. Playful, with a light attitude about life
  4. Alternate between fantasy and imagination
  5. Demonstrate characteristics of extroversion and introversion at the same time
  6. Humble and proud at the same time (“existence-proof” – assuming it can be done)
  7. Opposite gender roles, with men carrying more stereotypically feminine characteristics and vice versa
  8. Traditional and conservative, as well as rebellious and iconoclastic
  9. Passionate and objective
  10. Sensitive to both suffering and delight

Embracing complexity (and ultimately creativity) helps us experience immense enjoyment and productivity, while making a positive contribution to society and to the lives of those around us: family, customers, team members, neighbors, and more.

Understanding Our Tendencies in Order to Harness Creativity

Csikszentmihalyi says that each of us is born with two contradictory sets of instructions that shape our lives:

  • Conservative tendency: where our instincts for self-preservation and energy management come from
  • Expansive tendency: where our instincts for novelty, exploring, and risk live

If we do not cultivate our expansive tendency, our conservative tendency will dictate our actions, resulting in a lower quality of life.

The Evolution of a Creative

Our creative lives are formed in various stages. The early years are first shaped by being born with exceptional genes, enjoying a supportive environment, and often being in the right place at the right time. These characteristics alone do not make someone creative, but they provide a good head start for anyone willing to put in the work.

The college years and early part of our careers are some of the highest points of creativity, as we begin to find our voice in our vocations and families. Research indicates that our creativity peaks in our 20s and 30s, with the highest frequency and amount of creative outputs produced. Finally, creative aging takes on new territory as we focus more on the quality of creative thoughts and actions over quantity.

How to Cultivate Curiosity and Creativity

So, how do we develop our curiosity and creativity throughout life? A few ideas from Csikszentmihalyi:

  • Wake up each day with a specific goal in mind. For some, this might be exercising first thing in the morning. For others, it might be meditating, reading a couple chapters, or writing in a journal. Whatever it is, set an intentional goal that you can complete each day.
  • Try to enhance the quality of each experience. For example, this could mean putting additional time and effort into preparing fresh food to enjoy with someone else, rather than ordering in.
  • Increase complexity in life. This could be as simple as driving a different way to the office or as intense as moving to another part of the country or world.

As Csikszentmihalyi points out, creativity is more about the process than the product. We often think of creativity as a significant accomplishment or an innovative, well-known discovery. However, there are mountains of untold stories of people who have pursued creativity purely for the sake of creation and enjoyment alone. For instance, Julia Cameron is credited with the idea of Morning Pages, or writing three pages, long-hand, upon waking. In her noteworthy book, The Artist’s Way, she writes, “Focused on the process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure.”

Here’s to Enjoying the Creative Process and Living a Life of Adventure

We are all in a unique phase of our creative process. As professionals, we have each built expertise in our domains and can continue expanding our knowledge and access. Srinivas Rao, the host of The Unmistakable Creative podcast, calls on people to pursue creativity for its own sake by creating for an audience of one: ourselves. The joy is in the process.

Let’s live our lives with adventure. There is tremendous value in creativity, but pursuing our creativity as part of a regular process is the key to unlocking our best selves and our best work.

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