“Occasionally it is possible to arrive at a creative discovery without any preparation… 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.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, p. 83
So, as you’re probably aware of by now, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about creativity lately. I know I’m a total poser (being a financial analyst and all), but I’m really enjoying it and I think I’m learning a lot. Not just facts, really, but more of a shift in mindset. I’m starting to look at things a little bit differently. I find I’m more conscious of what’s going on in my environment and am trying to have my eyes and ears open for potential issues to discuss in my writings here.
Anyway, in doing all this research, I picked up a book at the library by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks-SENT-me-hi”, I think) that the quote above is excerpted from. Csikszentmihalyi is a professor at Claremont Graduate University, but is probably most well known for his work produced while he was at the University of Chicago. In the book, he’s interviewed 90-some people who have demonstrated creativity in many walks of life; from poetry to physics. He defines creativity in a more unique, exclusive way than most folks do; it’s how he set the criteria for who he’d include in the study. However, the criteria isn’t important for this discussion. In any event, he’s trying to find commonalities that apply to the nature and process of creativity that transcend disciplinary boundaries.
The quote talks about the beginnings of the “creative spark”; the idea or problem that presents itself to be solved. He asked all of his interview subjects where the ideas for their work came from, and while the subjects would allow for the occasional spontaneous occurance (the example Csikszentmihalyi sites in the book involved Roentgen and the discovery of radiation), they presented the summary above as holding true in the vast majority of cases. Prepared minds are ones that have read and researched and puzzled over an interesting theory or problem for long periods of time.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m beginning to see this tendency in my own life. From having spent time thinking and reading about creativity lately, I’m finding myself more open to noticing things that relate (even tangentially) to my studies in my daily life. This is something that I never would have noticed before I started looking for it. It’s kind of like when you’ve just bought a new car. Suddenly, you’ll start seeing all kinds of similar makes and models on the road where you’d never seen them before. It’s not because everyone else recently bought the same car, it’s because you’ve suddenly become more sensitive to the cars that were already there.
There are two habits that are critical for ensuring you’re prepared to handle the problems that present themselves to you. The first is called “ubiquitous capture”. It’s a term that has become popular over the last few years as a result of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. Allen’s premise is that an empty mind is a productive mind. If you have ideas rattling around in your head that you’re trying to remember, that uses up valuable mental energy; energy that could be better channeled toward creating something valuable. So, in any and every situation, you have to be prepared to get any thoughts down on paper or some other permanent record. This way, you’re not worred about remembering something.
Because of Allen’s book, I’ve started to carry around a little notebook wherever I go. I’m not a big GTD proponent, but this is one aspect I really like. If I don’t have my notebook available, I can write myself a short little note on my cell phone to jog my memory for when I do get back to my notebook. In this way, I don’t ever have to worry about forgetting an idea for an essay to write, or an observation, or whatever. I can continue to focus on the world around me, allowing me to be ready for even more ideas that may present themselves.
The second habit is practice. To begin being prolifically creative, you’ll first need to become prolific. Write, draw, paint, sculpt, whatever it is you do: do it a lot. You’re not going to be very good at it when you start out (prime example: this website). But the longer you do it, and the more constructive criticism you receive, the better you’ll get at whatever it is you’re doing. I’ve often heard the saying “luck is where opportunity and preparedness meet”. I think you could substitute “creativity” for “luck” in this statement, and it’d still be true. You’ll begin to see what works and what doesn’t, you’ll apply what you’ve learned in new and different ways, and you’ll eventually find the voice you’ve been searching for.
photo courtesy: Photo Monkey