Have you ever had an instance when you were so immersed in an activity that you forgot about yourself and everything around you? Or perhaps you were so “in the zone” that you felt as if time had slowed down or sped up? This is a phenomenon in Psychology that is referred to as “flow.” It is an experience when you are highly engaged and so focused on the activity at hand that you forget about everything around you. This is an experience that many athletes often allude to. Take for example Kobe Bryant who describes what it is like to be in flow or in the zone:
You get in the zone and just try to stay here. You don’t think about your surroundings or what’s going on with the crowd or the team. You’re kind of locked in.
When you get in that zone, it’s just a supreme confidence… things just slow down. You really do not try to focus on what’s going on because you can lose it in a second. You have to really try to stay in the present, and not let anything break that rhythm.
Although this experience is most cited by athletes, it is something that everyone is capable of experiencing and has experienced in the past. Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, experiencing this high level of engagement can have a profound impact on the overall quality of your life. Not only can it help you cope with pain and suffering, but it can also make your life more rich, intense, and meaningful. Furthermore, research suggests that flow experiences are associated with increased individual and team performance.
What does flow look and feel like?
According to two of the leading researchers on this topic, Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2009), these are the characteristics of flow:
- Intense focus and concentration on the present moment
- A merging of action and awareness (Your focus and awareness are on what you are doing. If you are not in flow, you might be cleaning the house, but your focus is on the TV show you watched last night. Alternatively, if you are in flow, you are cleaning the house and your focus is entirely on what you are cleaning).
- Loss of self-consciousness (You lose a sense of self and are not aware of yourself in that present moment. Your ego is non-existent. You’re not focused on what other people are thinking about you and nor are you focused on how you feel).
- A sense that one can control one’s actions (It’s not that you feel like if you are in total control, because if you felt that, then you probably were not in flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s more that the issue of control, or a lack of it, does not even come up. In general, there is a sense that you are capable and can dictate what to do next in the activity).
- A distortion of time (Either you feel that time has passed slower or faster than normal. You’re not aware of time when you are in flow. However, when you leave the state of flow, you look at the time and often feel as if it passed at a much slower or faster rate than you would have expected)
- Experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding (You enjoy the activity and the experience for the sake of it. There might be an end extrinsic goal in mind, but the flow experience itself is intrinsically rewarding).
Generally, when you are in flow, you’re not feeling any particular emotion (largely because of the loss of self-consciousness). However, when you get out of flow, you often feel happy. In his book on creativity and flow, Csikszentmihalyi writes that “in the long run, the more flow we experience in daily life, the more likely we are to feel happy overall” (p. 123). However, whether or not flow in daily life increases happiness largely depends on the activity that is producing flow. The activity must be complex and contribute to some personal, professional, or cultural growth. For example, a flow activity such as playing baseball or chess would lead to increases in happiness (personal growth), but an activity such as gambling would not (no meaningful growth).
How to get into flow.
To enter a state of flow, a few conditions must be met:
- A balance between the challenge of the activity and the level of skill you have (A task that is too easy for you will leave you bored whereas a task that is too difficult will leave you anxious or uneasy. To enter a state of flow, you must engage in an activity where the challenge of the activity is equal to or slightly greater than your skill level. Of course, challenge is subjective. A professional athlete would find running a mile to be easy whereas I would find it quite challenging. The challenge you engage in should be based on your skill level and vice versa)
- Clear proximal goals that provide immediate feedback about the progress being made. (think SMART goals here. The SMART goal you select should be challenging as well to meet the criteria of the previous condition. However, the goals you have should also be specific and easy to follow. A goal to “become a better basketball player” will not induce flow, whereas a goal to “make 80% of my free throws” has a better chance).
Practical tips to get into flow.
What I have shared above are the minimum requirements or conditions that must be met to enter a state of flow. However, I wanted to share a few additional suggestions and provide some examples of how you can introduce more flow and engagement into your day to day life.
- Have clear and specific goals in mind. As I said before, it is better to be as specific as possible. Try breaking down larger goals into smaller goals. What is the very next step you need to take to achieve your larger goals?
- Track your progress and know how well you are doing. Again, you need frame the activity so that it provides you feedback. In some instances, it is simple. When playing basketball, I can easily see how I am doing from moment to moment as I know whether I made or missed a shot. It is harder when I am a creator or inventor of some kind. For example, if I am a music composer, how do I gauge whether or not the combinations of notes I am creating are good or bad? How do I get feedback? In those instances, it is more difficult to get feedback, but the idea is the same. One solution is to internalize your field’s criteria of judgement so that you can give feedback to yourself rather than having to wait to hear from an expert. In other words, try to internalize and learn what other musicians view as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music. How does your music compare to that? Or, what story is your music trying to convey and is the music you have created successfully doing so?
- Balance challenge and skill. An AP math student won’t be able to get into flow doing simple arithmetic whereas a fifth grader wouldn’t be able to get into flow studying Calculus. You have to see where you are at and do something that is equal to or slightly above your skill set. Because you cannot really adjust your skill level in the short-run, try adjusting your challenge level. Rather than shooting 15 feet away from the basketball hoop, try shooting 10 feet away from the hoop first. With creative pursuits such as writing, composing music, or anything involving creating something from scratch, there is an added difficulty because you have less control. For example, as a blogger, how can I increase the challenge of my writing? Do I type with one hand instead? Not exactly. Perhaps I choose a topic that’s harder to research. When I hit writer’s block, I might tell myself to start off with just writing a paragraph summary rather than an entire page and then expanding the paragraph to a page afterward.
- Avoid distractions. Remember that three key symptoms of flow are (1) merging of action and awareness, (2) the loss of self-consciousness, and (3) distortion of time. Distractions can easily disrupt flow and even prevent you from getting into flow in the first place. When trying to get into flow, find a place where you won’t be so easily distracted. Perhaps go to a coffee shop rather than staying at home where your family will keep interrupting you. Disable the clock on your computer so you won’t keep looking at it every five minutes to see how much work you have done. However, distractions, of course, can come in many forms. They can be more serious such as health, family, or financial problems. While you will not have control over all these distractions, try to minimize the ones that you can control. For example, if you live a healthier lifestyle, you will have less personal health-related distractions.
When people think about flow or engagement, they often think about momentary experiences. However, I think that we should aim to make it more of a lifestyle. The more engaged you are with each experience and activity, the richer your life will be and the less time you will spend ruminating over painful and difficult aspects of your life. You just won’t have the mental capacity or interest to do so. Furthermore, I think flow is a critical factor in one’s personal and professional development.
Think about it. I hate exercising. However, if I can find a way to induce flow while I’m exercising, I won’t hate it as much (since I won’t be focused on the displeasure of the exercise). When I finish exercising, I’ll feel happiness and satisfaction with the fact that I have exercised. That will help improve both my mental and physical health. Also, it is an endless cycle. Because flow is addictive and intrinsically motivating, the more you experience flow, the more you want to keep experiencing it. This means I’m more likely to keep seeking activities (such as exercise) that will induce flow.
If you haven’t done so already, check out my previous post where I talk about the different stages of creativity and how you can leverage each stage when trying to come up with creative ideas and solutions.
In this post, I want to talk about the traits and personality of creative people. What do all creative people have in common? Is there a formula that exists which determines whether or not a person will be creative? If so, is it genetic or can we mimic it? Simply put, what makes a creative person creative?
In his book on creativity, author and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses the insights he acquired from interviewing dozens of creative individuals. He identified ten dimensions that make up the creative personality:
1. Physical Energy vs. Rest
Creative individuals are great at balancing when to rest vs. when to exert a great deal of physical energy. They can work long hours and come across as energetic and enthusiastic, but they also take a significant amount of time to rest and recuperate.
Logically, this makes sense. When you think about creativity, the one thing I always say is that it is a result of conscious, hard work. This requires immense dedication and physical energy. At the same time, however, one of the stages of creativity is incubation which suggests that periods of rest and distraction are critical for coming up with new ideas and solving problems you are stuck on. The key thing with creative people is that they are aware of when they are most energetic vs. when they are least energetic and adjust their schedules accordingly. Csikszentmihalyi (2009) writes that “the energy is under their own control — it is not controlled by the calendar, the clock, or an external schedule” (p. 58).
Pay attention to when your energy levels are high and when they wane, and try to adjust accordingly.
2. Smart vs. Naive
Are smarter people more creative? Well, not necessarily. Creative people have the potential to be more creative, but often times, people with high IQ get complacent and (1) don’t put in the effort necessary to be successful and (2) lose the curiosity necessary to be creative.
There are two types of thinking that affect our creativity — convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking is generally measured by IQ and involves us being able to think logically and rationally to solve a problem with a fixed answer. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is related to curiosity and is the ability to come up with new ideas when there is no clearly-defined solution. Both types of thinking are essential for creativity. We need divergent thinking to come up with ideas and think outside of the box, but we need convergent thinking to decide on the feasibility and value of the ideas we have generated.
Creative individuals are smart in the sense that they are experts in their domain, but they retain a sense of childishness or naiveté as they are capable of approaching problems with a fresh mind and as if they know nothing about the problem.
3. Playful vs. Disciplined
To develop a creative product, you must work hard and stay disciplined. You must be driven and persevere in the face of adversity. However, in addition to this discipline, creative people are often playful, cheerful, and sometimes even silly. In other words, they are both responsible and irresponsible. For example, individuals may be playful or carefree when it comes to how they approach their relationships with others, yet they are extremely serious and disciplined when it comes to mastering their craft.
4. Imaginative vs. Realistic
You might think that whether you are more imaginative or realistic depends largely on the type of creativity you are focused on. For example, an artist is probably more imaginative whereas a scientist is more realistic. However, creative people are generally capable of both. They can come up with new ideas (imaginative), but they are also capable of executing and pursuing only those ideas that make sense (realistic). As Csikszentmihalyi (2009) states, “the novelty they see is rooted in creativity” (p. 63).
In a way, this is related to how we need to be capable of both convergent and divergent thinking. We need to be imaginative to generate ideas, but we also need to be realistic and decide how to make those ideas useful.
5. Introverted vs. Extroverted
You might think that creative people are more introverted. After all, if the key to creativity is hard work, then they probably don’t have much time or interest in interacting with others. They’re just working. However, as I stated in my previous post, this idea that creativity is about individual work is a myth. More often than not, creative people value collaboration as it promotes the exchange of ideas and allows you to extract value from others who may be experts in domains that you are less proficient in.
You need to have moments of introversion so that you can get the work done and convert ideas into products, but you also need to have moments of extroversion so that you can generate ideas and learn from what is around you.
If you want to be creative, learn to be comfortable in your own company so that you can focus and work when needed, but also learn to be comfortable around others so that you can share ideas and learn from the world you are living in.
6. Ambitious Vs. Selfless
This could also be viewed as proud vs. humble. You would assume that people who are both creative and have ‘made it’ in terms of success are arrogant, yet you would find that many of them are humble and sometimes even self-critical. They seem to possess a certain degree of humility that gets them to continue working hard to master their craft. They don’t let success get in their head and don’t take what they have for granted.
These individuals are ambitious and aggressive, for if they were not, they would lack the drive necessary to create. However, they are often also selfless in that their focus is on their craft, not on themselves. They are willing to sacrifice their time and comfort for the sake of the project they are working on. If a person was too humble, they would not believe they are capable of change and creativity, and therefore, would not pursue it. On the other hand, if a person was too proud, they would feel entitled and not put in the effort required to create.
7. Masculine Vs. Feminine
When we think about the more traditional and stereotypical views on what men ought to be or what women ought to be, we think that men are more dominant and aggressive, whereas women are more nurturing and sensitive. What creativity research suggests, however, is that creative women are generally more dominant and aggressive than other women, whereas creative men are generally more sensitive and less aggressive than other men. What does this exactly mean? Simply put, creative individuals generally have the strengths of their own gender, but also possess the strengths of the other gender. In other words, creative men and women are both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’
8. Traditional and Conservative vs. Rebellious and Iconoclastic
When we think of creative people, we think of those who break the rules or those who deviate from the norm. After all, if they didn’t deviate from the norm, they wouldn’t be considered creative. This is partly true, but also consider that to be creative, you must be a master of your domain. You must be an expert in your field. Therefore, you must learn the rules before you break the rules. Creative individuals are traditional in the sense that they know about their craft inside and out. A classical music composer, for example, is generally well-versed in music theory and possesses the knowledge and techniques of past composers. However, they also challenge the norm, try new ideas, and explore new techniques.
9. Passionate Vs. Objective
Obviously, creative individuals are passionate. If they were not passionate, they would not create. However, passion generally comes with a degree of bias. If you’re passionate about a sports team, you’re more likely to marvel at their greatness and deny their deficiencies. We’re generally very passionate and biased when it comes to ourselves and our work. Makes sense. However, creative people are also objective. Objectivity allows individuals to detach themselves from their work and view it with a less biased mindset. This is likely to increase credibility and bring to light some of the areas of improvement when it comes to their work.
10. Enjoyment Vs. Pain
Many times, we think of creative individuals as disturbed people who had traumatic childhoods or perhaps those who are often depressed and melancholic. Is that true? There are certainly a lot of cases out there of people who are very creative who did have terrible childhoods or are very depressed. However, the key to creativity is not pain. It’s openness and sensitivity. Creative people are generally very open-minded and sensitive. This sensitivity makes them vulnerable to pain. However, it also makes them open to a great deal of enjoyment.
Creative individuals are generally strong in divergent thinking. Unfortunately, because abstract ideas or ideas that deviate from the norm are not quickly accepted, individuals are prone to feeling isolated or misunderstood. It can lead to an emptiness of a sort. However, when you do come up with an idea that you feel is worth pursuing, you often feel a sense of joy. There’s this unique satisfaction or excitement that cannot be found from following the norm.
Creative people are introverted but also extroverted. They’re traditional but also rebellious. They can experience great joy but also are vulnerable to great pain. So what does this mean? If there is one word that I want you to take away from this post, and if there is one word that describes creative people, it is complexity. Creative people are complex. It is rare to find people who can operate on both ends of the spectrum, but that is why creative people are rare. Creative individuals are able to adjust their approach based on the task at hand. They are able to put in the effort needed to generate and develop ideas and solutions, but they are also able to reach out and collaborate with others so those ideas and solutions are recognized.
In my previous post, I debunked some commonly held beliefs on creativity. Mainly, I discussed that creativity is more of an action than a trait and that it is the result of conscious and hard work, not an ‘aha’ moment that you’ll have as you sit and wait for inspiration. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, just click here.
In this post, I want to talk about the different stages of creativity and how you can leverage each stage to help you come up with original ideas and develop creative solutions to problems that you may be having with your work or in your organization.
Stages of Creativity:
The most popular creativity framework identifies five stages of creativity. In his book on creativity, Csikszentmihalyi states that breaking down creativity into five stages can be a bit too simplified and even misleading, but it does offer a valid and simple way to organize the complexity associated with creativity. So while reading the five stages, it is important to not fixate on each individual stage and instead focus on the general process of how creativity works.
1) The first stage is preparation.
The preparation stage is when you become curious and immersed in a problem that you find interesting. A problem could be as simple as you locking yourself out of your car or as complicated as high turnover in your workplace due to low employee morale. You might say that most forms of creativity do not have a problem (e.g., art, music, writing), however, I would actually disagree. For example, when I write blog posts, my problem is – how do I create engaging and valuable content? When you’re composing a musical score, your problem might be something like – how do I convey a specific emotion throughout the entire composition with a specific instrument? When trying to ‘be creative’, you need to have a problem, or a question, in mind that you want to solve or answer. Just think of it this way – if you didn’t have a problem or a question in mind, then you would have no need to be creative!
Therefore, the first part of the preparation stage is to find a problem. The second part of the preparation stage is to acquire information. Once you have identified a problem, you need to learn everything about the problem. What has been done by others in the past to solve a similar problem? Where have they succeeded or possibly failed? What skills are required to solve this problem? You need to now obtain that knowledge and acquire those skills to solve the problem (if you do not have it already). For example, if you wanted to evoke joy in your musical composition, you would need to have knowledge of music theory and of the major scales. Perhaps you would listen to what other composers have done in the past. If you have low employee morale, perhaps you acquire information through an employee engagement survey or you assess what other organizations are doing to mitigate this problem.
The stage of preparation might seem quite complicated and tedious, but the good news is that you probably already have a good degree of knowledge about the problem. However, if you want to be creative, you have to be open to always acquiring more knowledge.
2) The second stage is incubation.
So you’ve identified the problem and acquired a lot of information, so what now? This is when you take a step back to allow your mind to process this information and let the unconscious mind get to work. This is when you take a break and go do something unrelated. Go to the gym, make a new recipe for dinner, or work on a different problem that’s unrelated.
The reason you do this is because the conscious mind tries to solve problems in a linear and logical manner. However, when we hit a wall and are struggling to produce anything meaningful, it’s best to let the unconscious mind take over for a bit as it can develop unexpected combinations and patterns that can help us come up with a creative solution.
This might seem contradictory to what I said in my previous post about how creativity is not just about waiting for an ‘aha’ moment, however, it’s not. This stage is only effective if you do conscious and hard work during the preparation phase. Your unconscious mind will only come up with creative solutions if you create the right mental conditions and feed it enough information to put unexpected combinations together.
So, why or how does incubation work? How does it eventually lead to a possible ‘aha’ or ‘Eureka’ moment? One theory is that even though you’re not focusing on the problem consciously, your unconscious mind is still working hard to solve it. Another theory is that your mind is exhausted, and during the incubation period, you’re giving your mind the rest it needs so that it can relax and recover. A third theory states that when you’re stuck on a problem, your mind is fixating on the wrong solution. By incubating and doing something else, your mind becomes less attached to the wrong solution and may even forget about the wrong solution. I could spend an entire blog post talking about the different theories that are out there for why incubation works, but the important thing to know is that it works. Incubation is most effective when you focus on a task that is completely unrelated to the problem you’re trying to solve.
3) The third stage is the ‘Aha!’ moment.
Did you ever have that moment when you can’t find something, such as your keys, and you give up? Then you do something completely unrelated and, randomly, you remember where they were? That is a classic ‘aha’ moment. It is when you have that seemingly random insight that everyone glorifies. Of course, as I said, what we rarely see is the continued effort that occurs before (and after) this moment. Also, when you retrospectively look back, you’ll often find that the insight you had is not random but actually quite connected and rational. It just may have occurred at a random time. Nevertheless, this is an important moment.
What happens though if you do not have that ‘aha’ moment? Do you just keep waiting in that incubation period until something comes up? Well, no. If you do not have an ‘aha’ moment, you can always revisit the problem and see if a fresher mind allows you to solve it, or at least get closer to solving it. You can always go back to stage one and acquire more information. Sometimes the lack of a Eureka moment is insufficient knowledge. Regardless of whether you have that moment or not, however, make sure that you do not just keep on waiting. It is okay to occasionally take extended breaks from your problems, particularly if they are complex, but do revisit them and keep acquiring more information as needed.
4) The fourth stage is evaluation.
This is a very important step as it is deciding whether or not the insight you obtained from the ‘aha’ moment is worth pursuing. Not all insights or ideas you generate are good or useful. For example, you might decide that the solution to your low employee morale problem is to give everyone a raise, however, it turns out to be a poor solution because it is costly and the real problem is that management doesn’t appreciate their employees.
In this stage, you must evaluate the usefulness of your idea and decide whether or not it is worth pursuing. You might even find that you have a great idea, but it is not useful for this specific problem you are trying to solve. The evaluation stage, unlike stages 2 and 3, is fully conscious. To make the right decision, you must draw on the knowledge you acquired in stage one and possibly even acquire more knowledge to help you make your decision.
5) The fifth stage is Elaboration.
This is the hardest and the longest stage. This is where you must execute on your idea and transform your idea into reality. This is when you actually write the majority of your music composition or blog. This is when you implement your corrective action for low employee morale.
The important thing to note is that this is not just one large stage or process that occurs only after the first four stages are completed. In this process, you will often revert back to periods of preparation, incubation, and evaluation. Throughout this process, you will also continue to have small epiphanies that guide your work. Based on the vastness of the problem you are trying to solve, you will go through many iterations and need many insights to solve the problem you are trying to solve. Some problems may be solved in a few hours whereas others can take years.
If there’s one takeaway that you take from this blog post and my previous post, I hope it is that creativity is about conscious and hard work. I cannot stress this enough. It is about taking action and putting in a ton of effort. There are no shortcuts. There are moments of idleness and distractions involved, but those should be strategically implemented as a way to maximize your efforts. When you try to tackle your next problem or when you pursue your next creative endeavor, I’d encourage you to see how these stages play into your creative process.
In future posts, I will discuss more on how we can enhance our personal creativity and how we can increase creativity in organizations.
Creativity has become a popular term that we toss around when things are not going so well for us. In our personal lives, we say we’re just lacking that creative inspiration or that brilliant idea that is keeping us from publishing that book we’ve always dreamt about. At work, employers say that their organizations are not thriving because their employees lack creativity. Generally, when we think about creativity, we think about the ability to spontaneously come up with an original and transformative idea. However, that’s not creativity. That’s dumb luck. Creativity is something that requires a significant amount of time and effort. As Scott Berkun states in his book, to be creative, you must create!
The truth is that we have been fed this faulty perspective on creativity and act as if creativity is about inspiration or having some sort of revelation that allows you to produce something valuable overnight. Or perhaps it is a gene that only famous artists, musicians, or great thinkers possess. Unfortunately, when we think like this, it actually cripples our creativity because it encourages us to wait until we are inspired or have an ‘aha’ moment, and it dissuades us from taking action and putting in the effort required to come up with something creative.
So if this is not creativity, then what is it and how does one become creative?
To provide a more thorough analysis of creativity, I extracted some ideas from Keith Sawyer’s book, Explaining Creativity.
- Creativity should not be viewed as a talent or trait, but instead should be viewed as an action. The root word of creativity is ‘create’ and to be creative, or come up with something creative, you must create something. If you want to be creative, then create.
- Creativity is not random insights that you have, but instead, is mostly conscious hard work. Most creative people usually go through draft and draft and failure after failure until they come up with something valuable. Everyone has ‘aha’ moments, but there’s a lot that needs to happen before and after that moment create something of real value. If you want to be creative, then work hard and don’t be afraid to fail.
- Creativity is more likely to occur when you are an expert in your domain. Many people think that an ‘outsider’ is more likely to come up with a creative idea because they can bring a fresh perspective. However, in reality, an individual that is an expert in their domain is more likely to come up with a creative idea. This is because they have a vast body of knowledge in their domain and can form new patterns and combinations using that knowledge. If you want to be creative, become an expert in your domain.
- Creativity can be collaborative. Most people have this assumption that to be creative, you need to be isolated from the rest of the world and focused on just one thing. While it is true that you’ll need times of isolation to create, collaboration is a great way to learn from others and gain new insights. If you want to be creative, share thoughts with others.
- To become more creative, learn more about your domain, develop a strong work ethic, learn how to select and invest in good ideas as opposed to bad ones, and practice connecting already existing ideas together.
What I have presented is a quick summary of what is creativity and what it is not. In future posts, I will discuss the different stages of the creative process, how we can enhance our personal creativity, and what we can do from an organizational level to increase creative output in the workplace.