TITLE: Creativity, Productivity, Discipline, Flow
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: March 04, 2005 4:06 PM
DESC: What can we learn from the habits of creative and productive people to be more creative and productive ourselves?
(whose name is pronounced 'me-HI chick-SENT-me-hi')
would be speaking here, I hoped that he might be able
to help me to understand better the role of
flow in learning
and programming. These ideas have been on mind
occasionally through experience with the Suzuki
method of piano instruction and Alan Kay's comments
on the same in his
talks at OOPSLA.
When I left the lecture room last night, I was a
bit disappointed with the talk, but as time passes
I find that its ideas have me thinking...
Csikszentmihalyi opened by explaining that his
interest creativity began as a child in Hungary.
Many of his family members were artists and lived
rich lives, but most people he knew lived "fragile
lives", all too sensitive to the vagaries of war
and economy. He chose to study creative people
to see how everyone can live a better life, a less
fragile life, a beautiful life.
Through his studies, he came to distinguish "small
c" creativity and "big C" Creativity. To some
degree, we all are creative in the small-c way,
doing things that enrich our own lives but do not
receive recognition from the outside world. Big-c
creativity is different -- it produces ideas that
"push our species ahead". At first, the use of
recognition to distinguish quality of creativity
seemed incongruent, but I soon realized that
creative ideas take on a different form when they
move out into the world and mingle with the rest
of a domain's knowledge and culture. Csikszentmihalyi
came back to this nugget later in his talk.
Big-C creativity is rare. Defining it is impossible,
because every definition seems to over- or
underconstrain something essential to creativity
from our own experience. But Csikszentmihalyi
asserted that society values Creativity for its
ability to transform people and cultures, and
that it drives creative people to "pursue to completion"
the creative act.
To support his claim of scarcity and to begin to
expose the culture's role in recognizing creativity,
Csikszentmihalyi presented some empirical studies
on the relationship between individuals' contributions
and their disciplines. The first was the so-called
was an eminent biophysicist of the early 1900s. In
the mid-1920s, he identified a pattern of publication
in scientific journals. Roughly 60% of all people
who publish publish only one journal article. The
percentage of people who publish two articles is much
smaller, and the percentage of people who publish
more articles falls rapidly as the number of articles
increases. This creates an L-shaped graph of the
function mapping number of publications onto the
percentage of contributors at that level.
The second was Price's Law. He referred not to
the law from physics, which describes a model of
gravitational collapse and the "strong cosmic
censorship conjecture" (a great name!), but to
another model of contribution: one-half of all
contributions in any domain are made by the
square root of all potential contributors.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, Price derived
his law from data in a large variety of domains.
I do not have citations to refereed publications
on either of these models, so I'm at the speaker's
mercy as to their accuracy. The implication is
substantial: in any group, most people contribute
little or nothing to the group. Perhaps that is
stated too strongly as a generalization, because
a single publication or a single piece of art
can make a major contribution to the world, belying
the creator's point on the Lotka Curve. But if
these models mean what Csikszentmihalyi claims,
culture and even narrower domains of discourse
are driven forward by the work of only a few.
I don't think that this will alarm too many people.
It sounds just like the
that dominates discussion of the web and social
networks these days.
Finally Csikszentmihalyi got around to describing
his own results. Foremost was this model of how
creativity and ideas affect the world:
The culture transmits information to people. Some
people are happy to keep it at that, to absorb knowledge
and use it in their lives. These folks accept the
The creative person, though, has the idea that he
can change the world. He produces a novelty and
pushes it out for others see. Only a small percentage
of folks do this, but the number is large enough
that society can't pay attention to all of the
A field of discourse, such as an academic discipline
or "the art world", selects some of the novelties as
valuable and passes them onto the culture at large
with a seal of approval. Thus the field acts as a
gatekeeper. It consists of the critics and powerbrokers
esteemed by the society.
When there doesn't seem to be enough creativity for
rapid change in a domain, the problem is rarely with
the production of sufficient ideas but in
the field's narrow channel for recognizing enough
important novelties. I suppose that it could also
come back to a field's inability to accurately evaluate
what is good and what isn't. The art world seems to
go through phases of this sort with some regularity.
How about the sciences?
Csikszentmihalyi has devoted much of his effort
to identifying common characteristics in the
personalities of creative individuals. The list
of ten characteristics he shared with his audience
had some predictable entries and some surprises
I'm not surprised to see high energy, openness to new
experience, ambition, passion, ... on the list. They
are just what I expect in someone who changes the
world. But Numbers 7, 8, and 10 seemed counterintuitive
to me. But some reflection and further explanation
made sense of them. For example, #7 is a simplification,
on the notion that historically many of the biggest
contributors of ideas and works of art to society
have been men. And these creative men tend to have
personality traits that society usually associates
with women. This element works the other way, too.
Major female contributors tend to have personality
traits that society usually associates with men.
So this element might more accurately be labeled
outside society's gender expectations or
(And before anyone feels the needs to rain flame
down on me a lá the recent Larry Summers
fiasco, please note that I recognize fully the
role that socialization and and other social
factors play in the documented history of male
and female contributions to the world. I also
know that it's just a generalization!)
Convergent thinking and conservatism also seemed
out of place on the list, but they make sense when
I consider Csikszentmihalyi's systemic model of
the flow of contributions. In order to affect the
world, one must ordinarily have one's idea vetted
by the field's powerbrokers. Rebelliousness isn't
usually the best means to that end. The creative
person has to balance rule breaking with rule
following. And convergence of thought with ideas
in the broader culture increases the likelihood
of new ideas being noticed and finding a natural
home in others' minds. Ideas that are too novel
or too different from what is expected are easy
to admire and dismiss as unworkable.
This talk didn't deal all that much with
Csikszentmihalyi's signature issue, flow, but
he did close with a few remarks from folks he
had studied. Creators seem to share a predilection
to deep attention to their work and play. In such
moments, the ordinary world drops beyond the scope
of their awareness. He displayed a representative
quote from poet
- great energy, "bounce"
- convergent thinking
- playfulness, openness to new experience
- imagination, fantasy
- extroverted, sociable
- ambitious, proud, creative
- sensitive, feminine (not particularly aggressive)
- traditional, conservative (not particularly rebellious)
- attached, involved, passionate
- suffering, vulnerable, insecure
(not particularly joyful, strong, or self-confident)
The idea is to be so ... so saturated with it that
there's no future or past, it's just an extended
present in which you're, uh, making meaning. And
dismantling meaning, and remaking it.
I'm guessing that every programmer hears that quote
and smiles. We know the feeling--saturation, making
Csikszentmihalyi closed his talk with a couple of
short remarks. The most interesting was to refute
the common perception that Creative people are
prone to living dissolute lives. On the contrary,
the majority of the folks he has studied and
interviewed have been married for all of their
adult lives, have families, participate at their
churches in in civic organizations. They have
somehow come to balance "real life" with sustained
episodes of flow. But, true to Personality Trait
#10 on the list above, they all feel guilty about
not having spent more time with their spouses and
(At this point, I had to leave the talk just as the
question-and-answer session was beginning. I had
to pick my daughters up from play rehearsal. :-)
This talk has led me to a few thoughts...
With so many great books to read, now that I have seen
Csikszentmihalyi speak, I doubt that I'll read "Flow"
any time soon. But I think its ideas will continue
to percolate in mind.
- If the world is changed by a rather small number
of contributors, where does that leave the rest
of us? Certainly, we can be creative and improve
our own lives as a result. But we can also improve
the lives of those around us. And we shouldn't
think that we will never have effects beyond our
local world. Contributions of the small sort can
sometimes lead to effects we never anticipated.
- Csikszentmihalyi mentioned the significant role
that luck plays in both the creative act and its
entry into the culture. I liken this to making
money in the stock market. Most of the growth
in the market occurs on a few days of extreme
growth; if you want to make money, you have to
be in the market when those unpredictable days
pass by. You can try to time the market, but the
risk of being out of the market for a few days
is much higher than the marginal increase you
may achieve. Likewise, moments of inspiration
happens sometimes when you least expect them.
The key is to be active, engaged, and
aware. If you are doing when inspiration
comes, you will be able to capitalize. If you
are dawdling or wasting time on the web, then
you'll miss it.
And, to the extent that we can stimulate an
environment in which the creative moment can
occur, you need to active, engaged,
and aware. That is a major component of the
success that we see in highly productive people.
- I believe that a person can cultivate the
personality traits shared by creative people.
Some are easier to practice than others, and
what's toughest to cultivate differs from person
to person. I'm sociable but not extroverted,
so I have to work at engaging people more than
some other folks. And, while I think I'm
relatively insecure compared to other academics,
I don't naturally expose myself as vulnerable.
But these are habits as much as anything, and
they can be unlearned. Some folks may have
gifts that give them a head start to being
creative and productive, we all can be, if we
choose to work hard to change.
- What about the agile software community? The
agile approaches encourage "small" practices,
the sort of small-c creativity that can improve
the developer's life and the developer's company.
But they can also improve the lives of clients.
And I believe that the cumulative effect of simple
practices, can be a qualitative difference in
how we behave -- from which large-c Creativity
can emerge. If a person has the right mindset,
they can sometimes make great leaps in understanding.
- Many people have engaged in practices we now call
agile for decades. But a select few decided to
"go public", to try to change how software is
built in the world. They sought to bring social
attention to these ideas and to build a new
community of discourse. The folks who started
the folks who have tried to take these ideas
into the testing community... they are engaging
in big-c Creativity, even as it emerged from
lots of little acts -- and even if they hadn't
- I suspect some of the leaders of the agile
movement did start out with the intention of
changing the world. Guys like Kent Beck, Ward
Cunningham, and Alistair Cockburn have a vision
that they want to bring to the community as a
whole. I admire them for their ambition and
energy. I also admire that they are willing to
learn in the public and adapt. For example, Kent
learned a lot in writing and promoting XP
Explained, and now he has written a second
edition that embodies what he has learned --
and he tells readers upfront that it's different,
and that he has learned.