How to be more creative

Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often.
——Steven Kotler

This post will be largely prescriptive, generally imparting the prescriptions of others. The shortest version I can give you is this: (1) Meditate; (2) do the work. Just about everyone who generates prescriptions for creativity includes some version of get some alone time, get out in nature or spend some time in silence. And just about everyone says you have to show up and do creative work for creativity to really shine through.

There is one concept I will attempt to explain briefly, without getting as deep as the sources will. That concept is flow. If you’ve ever leveled up in your coding or writing or work or athletic endeavor, perhaps not even noticing that hours and hours passed, you’ve been in flow. The technical term for flow is “transient hypofrontality” — that is, your frontal cortex goes into overdrive for a short period of time.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (you’ll remember him from part 2 of this series) did the seminal work on flow in the 1970s and managed to codify it in a 1990 book. The punchline is that flow creates optimal performance and, in turn, happiness and fulfillment.

Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist, and his research has generally leaned that way, looking at how flow manifests and some of the things that can regularly get you into flow (like something you enjoy that is somewhat, but not too, challenging).

Journalist Steven Kotler has largely become the how-to-get-into-flow and what-to-do-with-it guy. He “discovered” flow after having been in bed for years recovering from Lyme disease and getting dragged out surfing. He went to figure out why surfing made him feel better, and he learned about flow.

Among his books are two focusing on flow: one in extreme athletes (The Rise of Superman) and one in teams from the military to companies and even to individual experience (Stealing Fire, co-written Jamie Wheal).

Kotler has since designed his life around flow, and teaches others to do the same.

In the second installment of this four-part series on creativity, we mentioned that we would discuss specialization vs. generalization this part, and I think near the top is a good place for that.

The obvious argument for specialization is that you can’t become the best at very many things. The obvious argument against it, though, is that if the thing you’re the best at becomes obsolete, you either have to create a new niche for the thing you’re already good at, or scrap it and start over.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to get even very good at a lot of things, but you can get pretty good at several, and innovation often comes from combining disciplines. James Altucher calls this idea sex.

On top of that, if you know enough about several different things, you can hire specialists in those things to combine their expertise. As more and more fields become available, it gets more difficult to become a polymath. Csikszentmihalyi (from Creativity):

Sometime after Leonardo da Vinci it became impossible to learn enough about all of the arts and sciences to be an expert in more than a small fraction of them. Domains have split into subdomains, and a mathematician who has mastered algebra may not know much about number theory, combinatorix, topology — and vice versa. Whereas in the past an artist typically painted, sculpted, cast gold and designed buildings, now all of these special skills tend to be acquired by different people.

There are, of course, polymaths in the world still. You might not put very many of today’s standouts in the same league as a Leonardo or even a Ben Franklin, but when you consider someone like Richard Branson or Elon Musk, there are still a few hanging around.

If you take the “learn a bunch about a bunch of stuff and hire specialists” route, Fuller has some reflection. The people who commanded ships and understood trade routes and knew where to get what and really held the puppet strings of kings and tribal leaders, Fuller calls “Great Pirates.”

They stayed afloat, Fuller asserts in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, thanks to their “comprehensive capabilities” and by hiring people who weren’t smart enough to see the whole picture — that is, specialists without a wide view.

But these Great Pirates got cocky, and didn’t keep up with new discoveries in the world. They knew nothing of electromagnetics, and when World War I ended, they had to give up their positions — you have to keep up or you don’t get to stay on the top of the food chain.

For most of human history, Csikszentmihalyi writes, only gods were creative. Every religion has an origin myth; someone or something creates the universe, world, people, animals, etc., while people are just trying to live. Only in the past few thousand years do we get creative writings, artwork and invention.

As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Elkhonon Goldberg writes that information and processes change really fast these days, and when that happens, everyone becomes involved in the creative process, or at least has the opportunity to do so.

Goldberg predicts that within a few generations — maybe even just one — the blurring of boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds will be nearly complete, and that will have implications for the way the brain functions:

The rapidly accelerating ‘novelty curve’ will have a profound impact on our minds and brains by forcing every one of us to be a consumer of innovation to an unprecedented degree, and understanding the impact this constant exposure to novelty will have on the ‘consumer brain’ is a challenge facing neuroscience.

Before we get into prescriptions and doing the work, I want to roll things back to our discussion of flow, and dig a little deeper.

First off, it should be noted that flow is a work state. We might feel happy after a flow session; we might also be drained.

“When we are in flow,” writes Csikszentmihalyi, “we do not usually feel happy — for the simple reason that in flow we feel only what is relevant to the activity. Happiness is a distraction … it is only after we get out of flow, at the end of a session or in moments of distraction within it, that we might indulge in feeling happy.”

Csikszentmihalyi goes on to summarize the nine aspects of the flow experience:

  1. “There are clear goals every step of the way.”
  2. Immediate feedback (e.g., does a note sound right?)
  3. Balance between skill and challenge. When skill is too high, we’re bored; too much challenge, we’re overwhelmed.
  4. Concentration, a merger of action and awareness
  5. We don’t notice distractions
  6. “While in flow, we are too involved to be concerned with failure. Some people describe it as a feeling of total control; but actually we are not in control, it’s just that the issue does not even come up.”
  7. “Self-consciousness disappears”
  8. “Sense of time becomes distorted.”
  9. “The activity becomes autotelic” — that is, an end to itself. Most activities are exotelic — we do them to reach a larger goal. An autotelic activity is done for itself, like getting lost in a book or while running.

Kotler and Wheal push flow a step further, into a realm reminiscent of what Plato called “ecstasis.”

“Plato described ecstasis as an altered state,” they write, “where our normal waking consciousness vanishes, completely replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence.”

It’s really an altered state, and that’s a big money business in the U.S. We spend more money on altered states (drugs, alcohol, porn, extreme sports, concerts, festivals, clubs, etc.) — upwards of $4 trillion annually — than we do on maternity care, humanitarian aid and K-12 education put together, they write.

Kotler and Wheal drill down the feelings we get in ecstasis, related to flow, to four elements:

  • Selflessness
  • Timelessness
  • Effortlessness
  • Richness

They summarize these feelings by their acronym, STER.

I’m sure you can see the benefits of all 13 of these attributes when it comes to not only creativity, but general productivity.

Let’s next discuss knowledge and doing work.

It’s rare, writes Csikszentmihalyi, for a truly creative achievement to come during a lightbulb moment. Instead they usually come after years of hard work. And maybe a little luck, of course, but, to paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, the harder people work, the luckier they tend to get.

“Occasionally it is possible,” Csikszentmihalyi continues, “to arrive at a creative discovery without any preparation. The fortunate person simply stumbles into a wholly unpredictable situation. But usually insights tend to come to prepared minds, that is, to those who have thought long and hard about a given set of problematic issues.”

“There are, of course, innovations that spring from a flash of genius,” Peter Drucker writes in an essay in The Innovator’s Cookbook. “Most innovations, however, especially the successful ones, result from a conscious, purposeful search for innovation opportunities, which are found only in a few situations.”

“Above all,” Drucker writes, “innovation is work rather than genius. It requires knowledge. It often requires ingenuity. And it requires focus.”

How much work? How much knowledge?

Most creatives across fields (music, science, math, art, what have you), Goldberg writes, are subject to a “10-year rule” — they need about 10 years of mastery in the existing knowledge of their field before making a truly consequential contribution (there are of course, exceptions).

Csikszentmihalyi writes that you have to know the rules of something before you can change the rules. For example, a musician has to be able to play an instrument before being able to write a new song on it; an inventor must understand aerodynamics and physics before being able to improve on an airplane design.

Goldberg points out that innovation doesn’t tend to invent a new area of human endeavor; rather, creativity builds “on a particular body of knowledge, experience, and skills unique to that content area.” Of course, sometimes an innovation will create a new branch of knowledge — think Pythagoras‘s contribution to mathematics — but it grows off an existing tree.

Further, notes Csikszentmihalyi, to be creative, a person must be curious and deeply interested in a domain, and also have access to it, through schools, education or having enough money to acquire knowledge in the area. A genetic predisposition for a given domain might be important, he adds, but sensory advantage isn’t required (El Greco had vision problems and Beethoven was deaf when he did his best work). A sensory advantage may drive interest in a field, though, giving the individual a running advantage in that field — if you were really good at designing houses, you might be predisposed to innovation in architecture.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes about serendipity and hints at what we earlier referred to as “idea sex.” “Serendipitous discoveries,” he writes, “often involve exchanges across traditional disciplines.”

That’s something Csikszentmihalyi echoes: “Creativity,” he notes, “generally involves crossing the boundaries of domains.”

“Serendipity,” Johnson continues, “needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries. Otherwise your ideas are the carbon atoms randomly colliding with other atoms in the primordial soup without ever forming the rings and lattices of organic life.”

To summarize: Innovative people might stumble upon a new branch of study, but it’s in an existing field. And by and large, people who make advances in a field, or expand the field with a new branch, have a very firm grasp on the field, have been working in it for a while, and are generally hard workers.

These are the many parts associated with creativity and innovation, according to Goldberg *and you’ll recognize some of these from the section above):

  • “Salience: The ability to pose central problems and ask important questions.”
  • “Novelty: An interest in, and the ability to find solutions for, problems not tackled before.”
  • “Ability to relate old knowledge to new problems: … The ability to recognize familiar patterns in seemingly new and unique problems.”
  • “Generativity and mental flexibility: The ability to generate multiple and diverse approaches to a problem is essential to the creative process in science.”
  • “Drive and doggedness: … An ability to deploy sustained effort toward tackling a problem.”
  • “Mental wandering: The mysterious capacity for the productive and seemingly effortless pursuit of ideas wherever they take you.”
  • “Mental focus: … The ability to systematically pursue a logical train of thought.”
  • “Iconoclastic frame of mind: … Driven by a sense of dissatisfaction with the intellectual, scientific or artistic status quo.”
  • “Romance with central societal and cultural themes: A creative individual’s worth must be recognized by society as important and valid in order to survive.”
  • Societal grace: Leonardo was known for social suaveness and adaptability; Caravaggio for his lack of both. “In certain instances, these attributes may even spell the difference between immortality and oblivion.”
  • A favorable cultural milieu: Society has to be open to innovation and creativity.

Csikszentmihalyi also defines five steps that creative processes follow:

  1. Preparation: becoming immersed in something that makes you curious
  2. Incubation: Ideas churn around in the subconscious and “unusual connections are likely to be made.”
  3. Insight: Aha! The Eureka! moment
  4. Evaluation: Decide whether the insight is worth pursuing
  5. Elaboration: Doing the work; the 99% perspiration Edison talked about

Anyone who’s had children will know that the urge to create — to make something from nothing — is innate. You can’t stop kids from doing it: they’re perpetually inventing.
—— Brian Eno

Let’s talk prescription.

We’ll start, first, with a little wander off the path, combining work and flow. Goldberg says that shutting off conscious thought can be useful, but only in a specific way. By “shutting off conscious thought,” I mean what Goldberg calls “mental wandering,” or “hypofrontal mental wandering.” If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because a couple thousand words ago, we referred to a flow state as transient hypofrontality.

Goldberg argues that mental wandering is good for “filling in the gaps” after a solid, deliberate attempt at solving problems. We already know that silence — and sleep, in particular — gives our brains the room to process what we’ve learned; this is an extension of that. If you just can’t solve a problem, stop thinking about it for a few.

Csikszentmihalyi offers a few suggestions for enhancing your own personal creativity:

  • Foster curiosity and interest, just to learn new things
  • Cultivate flow
  • Form good habits
  • Form different personality traits (such as introversion vs. extroversion or optimism vs. pessimism)
  • Find problems — “creative people are constantly surprised”
  • Choose a specialization
  • Then, see the process

Nancy Andreason offers these tips in The Creative Brain.

  • “Choose a new and unfamiliar area of knowledge and explore it in depth.”
  • Meditate every day (or spend time “just thinking”)
  • “Practice observing and describing”
  • “Practice imagining”
  • “Turn off the TV”
  • Read with your kids
  • “Emphasize diversity” in experiences
  • “Ask interesting questions”
  • Go outside
  • Listen to music

You’ll notice those are largely extensions of things we’ve talked about: foster curiosity, get some quiet, get to work, and keep going.


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