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? ----- BODY: When I first learned that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (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 Lotka Curve. Alfred Lotka 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 long tail and power law 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 status quo. 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 novelties produce. 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 to me:
  1. great energy, "bounce"
  2. convergent thinking
  3. playfulness, openness to new experience
  4. imagination, fantasy
  5. extroverted, sociable
  6. ambitious, proud, creative
  7. sensitive, feminine (not particularly aggressive)
  8. traditional, conservative (not particularly rebellious)
  9. attached, involved, passionate
  10. suffering, vulnerable, insecure (not particularly joyful, strong, or self-confident)
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 somesuch. (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 Mark Strand:
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 meaning. 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 children! (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. -----