Posted by: mikeduckett | November 2, 2011

Creativity: Getting In The Zone

‘When I were a lad’ my dad, who was a very practical engineer would say to me “OK if you’ve thought about it [the issue] now go and forget it – do something else – you’ll know the answer soon enough”. Of course I thought “oh great; that’s a real help!” However, he was often right and I would have an ‘Aha’ moment sometime much later.

Later as a psychology undergrad I remember hearing about the classic 5 stage model of the creative process:

Immersion: becoming immersed and deeply curious about an issue

Incubation: Chewing over the ideas and then just letting them settle into the subconscious domain to make connections with other, until now unrelated ideas

Insight: The ‘Aha’ moment when a new creative idea comes into the mind – often unannounced. (see New Insights on the Creative Brain)

Evaluation : criticising and deciding if this really is useful (the cold light of day test)

Execution: The bit where you just have to elaborate, twist and tweak to make the idea into something workable and real. It’s the hard bit of Edison’s saying, “creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”

Because it’s such a valuable state to tap into no matter what your station in life, there’s plenty of  ‘top 10 ways to get creative’ lists out there along with more gurus than you can shake a stick at! Like most areas of performance I think the creative state is just too individualised to lend itself to generic lists of tips. For some people I’ve worked with, facilitating their personal metaphor for this abstract and complex state has been very valuable to them to help understand and express themselves. (e.g. Like a Kid In a Sweetshop)

Now the best known expert on the state of ‘flow’ (as per athletes getting into the zone), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has turned his attention to flow and creativity.  He’s interviewed a large range of people known for their creativity working in the arts and humanities, the sciences and various business sectors, looking for the common thread in personality, upbringing and environments. But if you’re hoping for the secret keys to becoming more creative his opening remarks will disappoint: “There are no simple solutions…….and a few unfamiliar ideas.

Looking for the creative personality type is perhaps a lost cause as he can’t identify any personality traits that clearly define creativity and he can only say with confidence that what makes creative personalities stand out is complexity. Indeed you and I may regard these people as being full of contrasts: if you like your people to fit nice categories; cooperative and responsible then you may be surprised to find they are both cooperative and aggressive; both responsible and irresponsible. They can be both energetic and yet sleep-in a lot. They can be both introvert and extrovert. They can be both humble and proud. They can both fantasize and be rooted in reality (creative people are original without being bizarre).

One thing that struck me was none of these highly successful creative inventors, scientists, artists and business people were in it for the money. Just as Csikszentmihalyi’s other work on flow-states shows, these people enjoy the creative task as its own reward, regardless of any extrinsic result or incentive.

So is there anything here to help you get into your own creative zone more often? Well there is a list of sorts but not of the ‘top 10 secrets’ type; more of a set of suggested experiments, which at the very least will help broaden your experience of life. The idea is that we can all step out of a one-dimensional existence of who we think we are and try on some of the contrasting viewpoints to add some complexity.

  • Try to be surprised every day: e.g. stop and look for the unusual
  • Try to surprise one other person every day: e.g. ask the question you wouldn’t normally dare to
  • Wake up a with a clear goal to look forward to: find something meaningful to achieve every day
  • Make time for reflection and relaxation:  typical activities to stimulate subconscious processing are tasks that are enjoyable and distract your attention e.g. walking, showering, driving etc

Finally, Csikszentmihalyi uses a metaphor I like when he encourages us to try on new ways of thinking such as always entertaining the opposite conclusion – instead of “I got the sack because the boss doesn’t like me”, what if  “I got the sack because I don’t like the boss?” – he says “breaking habits is a little like breaking your own bones” …….I leave you to think how!


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