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Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
Setting the Stage
This book is about creativity, based on histories of contemporary people who know about it firsthand. It starts with a description of what creativity is, it reviews the way creative people work and live, and it ends with ideas about how to make your life more like that of the creative exemplars I studied. There are no simple solutions in these pages and a few unfamiliar ideas. The real story of creativity is more difficult and strange than many overly optimistic accounts have claimed. For one thing, as I will try to show, an idea or product that deserves the label "creative" arises from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a single person. It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively. And a genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.
Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives for several reasons. Here I want to mention only the two main ones. First, most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the results of creativity. We share 98 percent of our genetic makeup with chimpanzees. What makes us different--our language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology--is the result of individual ingenuity that was recognized, rewarded, and transmitted through learning. Without creativity, it would be difficult indeed to distinguish humans from apes.
The second reason creativity is so fascinating is that when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life. The excitement of the artist at the easel or the scientist in the lab comes close to the ideal fulfillment we all hope to get from life, and so rarely do. Perhaps only sex, sports, music, and religious ecstasy--even when these experiences remain fleeting and leave no trace--provide as profound a sense of being part of an entity greater than ourselves. But creativity also leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and complexity of the future.
An excerpt from one of the interviews on which this book is based may give a concrete idea of the joy involved in the creative endeavor, as well as the risks and hardships involved. The speaker is Vera Rubin, an astronomer who has contributed greatly to our knowledge about the dynamics of galaxies. She describes her recent discovery that stars belonging to a galaxy do not all rotate in the same direction; the orbits can circle either clockwise or counterclockwise on the same galactic plane. As is the case with many discoveries, this one was not planned. It was the result of an accidental observation of two pictures of the spectral analysis of the same galaxy obtained a year apart. By comparing the faint spectral lines indicating the positions of stars in the two pictures, Rubin noted that some had moved in one direction during the interval of time, and others had moved in the opposite direction. Rubin was lucky to be among the first cohort of astronomers to have access to such clear spectral analyses of nearby galaxies--a few years earlier, the details would not have been visible. But she could use this luck only because she had been, for years, deeply involved with the small details of the movements of stars. The finding was possible because the astronomer was interested in galaxies for their own sake, not because she wanted to prove a theory or make a name for herself. Here is her story:
It takes a lot of courage to be a research scientist. It really does. Imean, you invest an enormous amount of yourself, your life, yourtime, and nothing may come of it. You could spend five years working on a problem and it could be wrong before you are done. Or someone might make a discovery just as you are finishing that could make it all wrong. That's a very real possibility. I guess I have been lucky. Initially I went into this [career] feeling very much that my role as an astronomer, as an observer, was just to gather very good data. I just looked upon my role as that of gathering valuable data for the astronomical community, and in most cases it turned out to be more than that. I wouldn't be disappointed if it were only that. But discoveries are always nice. I just discovered something this spring that's enchanting, and I remember how fun it was.
With one of the postdocs, a young fellow, I was making a study of galaxies in the Virgo cluster. This is the biggest large cluster near us. Well, what I've learned in looking at these nearby clusters is that, in fact, I have enjoyed very much learning the details of each galaxy.
I mean, I have almost gotten more interested in just their [individual traits], because these galaxies are close to us-well, close to us on a universal scale. This is the first time that I have ever had a large sample of galaxies all of which were close enough so that I could see lots of little details, and I have found that very strange things are happening near the centers of many of these galaxiesvery rapid rotations, little discs, all kinds of interesting things-I have sort of gotten hung up on these little interesting things. So, having studied and measured them all and trying to decide what to do because it was such a vast quantity of interesting data, I realized that some of them were more interesting than others for all kinds of reasons, which I won't go into. So I decided that I would write up first those that had the most interesting central properties (which really had nothing to do with why I started the program), and I realized that there were twenty or thirty that were just very interesting, and I picked fourteen. I decided to write a paper on these fourteen interesting galaxies. They all have very rapidly rotating cores and lots of gas and other things.Creativity
Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Copyright © by Mihaly Csikszent. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Csikszentmihalyi
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