By RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR
Creativity is the central source of meaning in our lives. For a host of reasons. Yet, the real story of creativity is far more formidable and strange than what meets the eye, and mind, and much more difficult to comprehend than what several optimistic accounts — scientific or otherwise — have claimed.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology, to cull an exemplar, demystifies creativity and its very raison d’etre. In so doing, he shows us how the creative label evolves from the synergy of many sources, and not just from the mind of a single person.
Csikszentmihalyi’s novel credo is simple and complex. It debunks what has, until now, been held so dearly as the gospel truth. Notes the good professor, “It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively. A genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a light bulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.”
More Than History
Csikszentmihalyi’s basic plank is based on histories of contemporary people — nearly one hundred interviews with some of the best brains in their respective fields of activity, including researched examples of the likes of Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and several other genii, down the ages. It’s all about people who know about creativity first-hand.
Csikszentmihalyi’s work begins with a summary of what creativity is; it goes into the exact chemistry of the way creative people work and live.
Next, it takes the bull by its horns: of how to make your own life more like that of the creative exemplars who have been studied in the process.
Creativity may broadly be classified into two main categories — not as something which, sort of, emerges like the proverbial drop of a hat, or an accident. Whatever is interesting, important, and human, is the result of creativity. To highlight a point. “We share 98 per cent of our genetic make-up with chimpanzees. What makes us different — our language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology — is the result of individual ingenuity that was recognised, rewarded, and transmitted through learning. Without creativity, it would be difficult, indeed, to distinguish humans from apes.”
Csikszentmihalyi’s second reasoning is more down-to-earth, and comprehensible. Creativity, he says, is so fascinating that when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of our lives. He adds, “The excitement of the artiste with the easel, or the scientist in the lab comes close to the ideal fulfilment we all hope to get from life, and so rarely do. Perhaps, only sex, sport, music, and religious ecstasy — even when these experiences remain fleeting and leave no trace — provide as profound a sense of being part of an entity greater than ourselves. But, creativity also leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and complexity of the future.”
For better or worse, says the author, our future is now closely tied to human creativity. The inference is obvious — the outcome of it all will be determined in large measure, both wholly and substantially, by our own dreams, and our struggles to make them real.
Creativity isn’t a prerogative of supreme beings. The Homo sapiens, observes the professor, is riding the crest of evolution, thanks to human craft and appetite, aside from the emergence of great machines, and harnessing of energies, which have transformed the face of our living planet. It’s a revelation. Not only that. The professor also says that he’s not too sure whether this transformation will help the human race or cause its downfall.
Genetics & Consciousness
Creativity is the cultural equivalent of the process of genetic changes that result in biological evolution, below the threshold of consciousness. It’s just the opposite of cultural evolution. To understand creativity is, therefore, not within the framework of straight-line thinking; it is studying individuals who seem most responsible for a novel idea, or a new thing. The spark, says the professor, is necessary — because, without air and tinder there would be no flame.
Csikszentmihalyi’s work is not about creativity that we all share. It is the understanding of creativity. It traces a historical percept, and precept of creativity, and it looks into what the concept, per se, is all about. It does not accept the popular belief that creativity is some sort of mental activity, or an insight that occurs inside the heads of some special people. Rather, it is a spin-off that evolves by way of interaction between a person’s thoughts and a socio-cultural context.
Creativity is a much confused, misunderstood word. It is also used to cover too much ground. Csikszentmihalyi perceptive work cuts through the fog and offers a different phenomenon, a trinity so to say, that may legitimately be called by a familiar name: brilliant, personally creative, and creative. What about the genii? A genius, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is a person who is both brilliant and creative, at the same time.
In so doing, the good professor also uses his famous “flow” theory to explain the creative process and shows how the concept can enrich us all. Creative persons, he says, differ from one another in a variety of ways, but in one respect they seem to be unanimous — they all love what they do, not with the hope of achieving fame, or making money, but for the opportunity to do the work they enjoy doing. Most creative people agree that they do what they do primarily because it’s fun.
A Question Of Flow
What is Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow?” It’s a person’s devotion to his/her vocation — one which has stretched that capacity and involved an element of novelty and discovery. You may also call it an optimal experience. It gives credence to childhood experiences, including prodigious curiosity, parental influence, retrospection, school, awkward years, and disappointments, which have a bearing on creativity. The pattern is identical to the later years too — college and profession, supportive partners, careers, generativity, taking a stand, and so on.
Age is no yardstick to measuring our relationship with creativity. Age has got something more to do with physical and cognitive capacities, habits or personal traits, relationships etc., It takes the domain of the word on creative urges — of something that is released by style, a joyful responsibility.
The good professor’s work also places as much emphasis on both convergent and divergent thinking, and the primal idea, even instinct, of choosing a special domain for oneself. But, there may be some dangers. Is there a way out? Yep, there is. You could do away with them if your domain does not lie with the extremes. Writes Csikszentmihalyi, “As you learn to operate within a domain, your life is certainly going to be more creative.” It may sure not be something that would be recorded in history books, but something that denotes that you have lived a full and creative life.
Inference? Be original, as well as competent.