Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I recently ran a book club at work discussing Range, and CB mentioned that this book is less Gladwellian and more nuanced covering a similar theme.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of "Flow" fame is a psychologist, and takes a qualitative user research approach to the subject of creativity. He conducted interviews with 91 people that were deemed creative because of their impact on a field or because they helped to create a new one. He selected industry vets: people aged 60 and above from a variety of fields and cultures. Overall some gems but not without issues especially towards the end, where the book becomes less psychology and more self-help.

Trend towards specialization. Imagine three people: one a physicist and a musician and one that is both. All things equal, the specialists would probably be better at their crafts than the one that has chosen to split his attention between both. This naive treatment clearly foreshadows the possible benefits of the two fields interacting with one another. Like cross-training in sports.

Creativity and unhappiness?: Mihaly's research disconfirms the trope of the restless and miserable creative soul. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky aren’t unhappy because they are creative but because of their residence in a nearly collapsing Russian empire. American poets that commit suicide do it because of their social circles and their poor compensation.

Creativity is social: the author presents a socially mediated view of creativity. Society ultimately decides if you are creative or not. If you think you are creative but nobody else agrees, you might just be a kook!

Three kinds of creativity:

  1. Brilliant: People with varied interests and a quick wit. Great conversationalists.
  2. Personal Creativity: People who see the world in a unique way, different from others.
  3. Creativity: People who change the world by introducing some new concept, technique, or invention. This is the emphasis of the book and what the author means by

There isn’t any correlation between these types. Many brilliant people are not creative. Many personally creative people don't have any impact. But creative people change the world in some significant way. This notion of Creativity reminds me more of the distinction Novelty creation invention innovation terms. Feels like the sense is after is the strongest: innovation. It must have impact.

Paradoxically whether someone is Creative or Personally Creative depends on society. Bach was not recognized as creative until several generations after his death when Mendelssohn re-discovered him. So you would have to say that he was only posthumously creative. Weird flex, but the author embraces it. Other examples include John Donne, a 16th century poet, who fell into obscurity only to be revived in the 20th century by TS Eliot. Van Gogh who was never recognized during his life.

Talent is also orthogonal to creativity. You might just be in the right place at the right time. Genius is also not required, and most creative people don't identify as such. Genius is mostly a label others apply to describe the most standout individuals.

Three requirements for creativity:

  1. Domain: an area of inquiry.
  2. Field (community): the gatekeepers in this area, the scene and people
  3. Individual: using the symbols of a Domain, a person creates something that is approved by the Field.

(Somewhat weird distinction between 1 and 2. Domain is the subject, field is the people.)

Why are there so many great architects and painters in the Italian Renaissance? Obviously not because some individuals (3) randomly got really creative. It’s more about the domain (1) and field (2). In other words, it’s the collective scenius that empowers individuals (see Four ingredients for Scenius). This is an insightful reminder. Still individual administrators and patrons can help or hurt here. For example the Medici played their part in catalyzing this Renaissance.

  • Filippo Brunelleschi's Duomo at Florence.
  • Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise.

Structured vs. diffuse domains: Some domains are structured and so it’s easy to understand great contributions to the domain quickly. A student can chime in with a groundbreaking idea and professor may be able to evaluate it on the spot. (Eg. physics). Others are diffuse and so insights take many years to properly evaluate. (Eg. personality psychology).

Interesting framing on culture. Culture is something that rank orders attention. If all paintings are equally worthwhile, there is no culture. This is inherently a competitive process.

Traits of creative people

Curiosity is a key trait found in all interview subjects. If you don’t remain curious, you are unlikely to persevere in adversity (see What can increase curiosity). Many people in the sample tended to follow their interests (see Follow your interests).

Many were the beneficiaries of cultural capital from their upbringing. Coming from a family of books and broad interests all lead to an advantage.

Also you needed a basic amount of social skills to enter into a field and convince people of your worth. Even Isaac Newton, notorious for his antisocial ways, had to convince an early mentor of his promise.

Creative personality? Not really a thing, argues the author. But he thinks that people that are creative tend to have a complex personality, containing multitudes of personas within one individual. They are often able to express a lot of different emotions and be a bit unpredictable. This resonates and reminds me of AC and AK and IB and other great designers I've worked with.

Contradictory traits: According to Jung, every strong suit has a shadowy side. This is very clearly an inspiration for Joe Edelman and well expressed in the game we played at HumSys called Out of Character game. The author provides a list of contradictory traits that a creative person typically has. Ordinarily this would be asinine, but the way this is presented in the book is generative and not prescriptive.

Importantly, it’s not about striking a bland balance in between the two poles, but about knowing when to practice each extreme, and be flexible in switching between the poles as needed. I found this to be very insightful. Polarity strategy — alternate between poles rather than finding middle ground

  • Energetic, yet able to scale back energy as needed. For the mood or the flexibility. Sexually driven yet practicing abstinence.
  • Smart enough to master a field but naive enough to ask probing questions that others might take for granted.
  • Able to practice both divergent and convergent thought. Flexibility and originality is important for divergence. But you still need to converge. Good judgement and recognizing a viable problem is extremely important there. If most people have a 5% success rate in their ideas but you can achieve 50%, you have a much higher chance of striking gold.
  • Playful but disciplined.
  • Introverted sometimes but extroverted at other times. You need time to focus and write, but also key to know the field and get feedback from peers.
  • Masculine and feminine features. Psychologically androgynous.
  • High highes and low lows. More pleasure, fun, excitement about the intrinsic pleasure of the process of doing the work. Simultaneously, after the euphoria of completion expires or when you are blocked (eg. Writers block), there are low lows.

Important: you can’t just seek novelty. To strive to be unique is to be like anything BUT something. This is a negative framing and rarely generative. Similar critiques to postmodernism (not modernism), and denazification. (See Positive visions are necessary)

Creative process

  1. Prepare
  2. Be fortunate while slacking
  3. Synthesize

Inspiration from real life. Writers and poets are often inspired by important events in their life. Usually suffering. Artists often take copious cut outs of visuals they find in the world. Scientists have a less direct connection from experiences. But early experiences often drive people into the field. Maybe they aren’t athletic. Or naturally gravitate towards books. More specific examples:

  • Planck, Heisenberg, driven by a sense of awe from exposure to the outdoors and tall peaks and night sky.
  • Linus Pauling inspired by his father's pharmacy combining two substances into a totally new one.

Presented vs. discovered problems. This is a great framework, which is very similar to Hill climbing vs hill finding. Many creative people discover problems, and this requires a certain amount of slack.

The need for slack: why do we need slack at all? It seems that Many creative people tend to sleep on a problem, or take a long break between hard bouts of work, or favoring silent walks and drives to work, or going for a run to take a break… and that is when the insight comes. Something happens when the mind is given a chance to rest. Resilient systems need slack.

(Note to self: I don’t do this enough. I’m always listening to something in my downtime. I should enjoy more quiet walks.)

Why does this happen? Maybe it's the same thing that happens when you sleep? Sleep cements connections that matter, and cleans up others that don't (see Sleep has a profound effect on memory and learning)

So much creativity comes from combining ideas from different domains. Even the electronic fuel controllers for jet engines invented by Frank Offner came from synthesizing ideas from cybernetics with physics!


Csikszentimihalyi is most famous for his book called Flow, and it's woven into this book, but feels a bit out of place (full list Csikszentimihalyi's flow for reference).

The secret to life is to experience flow from as many things as possible. Then everything you do will be worth doing for its own sake. Conditions of flow are often met in games. Related to the Game mindfulness — detect games around you.

Internalize the field Key ability: internalize the field to have a good sense for what the field will accept and what they will not. Have a lot of ideas and then critically have a good razor for separating those that are good from those that are not.

Creativity and place

People love going to nice places to do creative stuff. Aspen conference is at a world class resort. Salk institute is right on the beach. There is no evidence for or against physical beauty helping creativity, largely because there is no way to make such an RCT study happen.

Creativity and walking. Perhaps a prepared mind will be more effective in a beautiful setting? Very speculative. Part of the benefit of walking is that your mind is focused on the surroundings, introducing more distraction. It adds slack. (I should do regular walking 1:1s with my in-person reports.)

A space to be creative. Key for creativity: a special placed tailored to your needs, a place are comfortable and you are fully in control. (My house is desperately missing this.) Kenneth Golding worked from a cabin overlooking Rockies and used the hot tub regularly. Jonas Salk worked in a studio with a piano and an easel. Living a life of personal creativity seems like a worthy goal.

New domains across disciplines

True creativity unlocks whole new fields

Meandering paths

Many creative people take a very indirect path to get to their ultimate destination. This is the thesis of Range as well.

Michael Snow, a famous Canadian artist, musician and composer is an example of someone that takes insights from one domain and applies them to others. He has touched film, installation, sculpture, photography, and music, a shocking breadth.

Ilya Romanovich Prigogine had a deep interest in music, art, and philosophy but was convinced to become a lawyer by his parents. So he studied law but wasn’t satisfied with its mechanistic applications. So he began studying the psychology and then neurochemistry of why people commit crimes. Finding this was too ambitious of a scope he refocused on the neurochemistry of cells. This led him to disapprove systems and his Nobel prize. What a polymath, dang. I'm only more impressed by the man. (See Dissapative far from equilibrium systems).

Developing creativity

Stories of early precocity are often confirmatory. A sense of inner consistency demands that people who have achieved greatness should have done it from an early age. But in practice, it’s hard to predict if someone will become creative at a young age. One consistent pattern: curiosity and deep interests as young children.

In many cases parents play a key role. Treat your kid like a peer, an adult and don't talk to them.

Expose your kid to the vast variety of life at an early age. This is a key role of any good parent. This includes sports, arts, music, sciences, mathematics, travel, literature, etc. (Rhymes a lot with Give kids a sampling period)

School: The effect of school is generally pretty negative or neutral. Not generally something that is recalled. But a teachers influence is often significant. They often push a gifted student towards their interests and at a level that exceeds that of the rest of the class. But not too hard so as to keep them interested. (I should focus on the teachers at our kids school as opposed to the school itself. How can I quickly evaluate them given the parent teacher limited time?) That said many great creative people didn’t have a specific teacher-muse they cited.

The Teenage Years Suck: most creatives tend not to be too popular because they are engrossed with their interests. They might not be as sexually active and tend to spend more time “in the nest”. In most cases the peer group is not intellectual. Nobody in the group recalls teenage years fondly.

Luck. World War II enabled many women to enter hard sciences because the men usually occupying the seats were all away fighting in the war.

Stable family life. Also extremely important and common among creative people. Pauling's politically incorrect advice: find a wife that will just take care of all of the home life for you.

Creative aging? Surprisingly many people interviewed had a pretty steady output from 30 onward. Some people peak towards end of life. Frank Lloyd Wright architected the Guggenheim at 70! (This does strike me as a bit self serving: firstly, the author is himself not young.)

Crystallized intelligence: A decline in energy is common with age, but skills continue to get honed even at old age. You can sometimes think sharper and faster as a result of what the author calls "crystallized intelligence". Discipline and attitude also improves over age. Seasoned creative subjects had already achieved greatness, and so many experienced less pressure, and could be more trustful of their instincts.

One big challenge I resonate with is to find time to keep doing the core work, since people tend to accumulate administrative responsibilities with age.

How to be more personally creative

The narrative devolves into a case study and then closes as a self help book. Becoming Creative is tricky and dependent on many factors like match quality, and buy-in from your field. But you can reliably become more Personally Creative, which according to Mihaly is intrinsically fulfilling.

Specific advice for cultivating curiosity:

  1. Try to be surprised every day. Stop and look at the new car. Try a new dish. Actually listen to your colleague for a Life is nothing but a stream of experiences. The more widely and deeply you swim in it, the richer it will be.
  2. Try to surprise at least one person every day. Express an opinion you wouldn’t normally reveal. Ask a question you’d not normally ask. Break your routine: invite someone to a show! Experiment with your appearance. (Feels a bit edge lord)
  3. Write down what surprised you and your most surprising action each evening. Review your notes weekly. (I think this is generic advice for keeping notes and in general I’m very much in favor.)
  4. Follow sparks of interest broadly. Be open to learning. Follow your interests

Self help continues. Try a randomly sampled diary to see what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy. Do more things you enjoy and fewer things you don’t enjoy. (At this point the advice becomes a bit farcical, and I can't help but wonder if reading a book about how to become more creative is a bit like reading a book about how to get better at your tennis serve. My point is that creativity feels very tacit and requiring praxis.)

Anyway I think his framing of personality change is somewhat unattractive. For me the Strength is a skill framing is generative here. It’s better to think of these things as skills than tweaks to one’s personality. Here are 3 in particular:

  1. Learn to foster traits that are complimentary to your main mode. If introverted, see what it’s like to be extroverted. What are the pros and cons of each? What feels good about it? What scares you about it? Again, Out of Character game is a great way to deliberately practice this.

  2. Especially important for creativity is the ability to switch between convergent and divergent modes of thinking. See Diverge and converge modes of thinking.

  3. Aim for complexity. Too much integration means you are a caricature of yourself; easily predicted and one dimensional. Too simple. Too much differentiation means too end up being just a random assortment of unrelated ideas. Too chaotic. See Cynefin framework.

Interesting tidbit on relationships: it’s important to be able to shift moment by moment from our own viewpoint to that of another.

We can see depth only because looking with two eyes give us slightly different perspectives. How much deeper can we see when instead of two eyes we rely on four?