On “Creativity” by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (this is *not* a book review)
I have been thinking for quite some time about having a section just dedicated to books I like and find useful (btw, I love books! – I know, no matter how much enthusiasm I put into this simple sentence, it still makes my friends’ 7-year old son roll his eyes and adopt a “Really? Really-really?” attitude, so you are excused for doing the same). I have been putting this off, though, simply because I am no great authority in … anything, to be honest, let alone books, so who am I to do any book reviews?
However, I still *really* love reading and learning, and I know you are, too, so perhaps some of you may decide to humour me and give some of these titles a try. They may not change your lives (though they may, actually), but at least I know they will give you reasons to pause, reflect, learn for the sake of learning, and feel a whole lot better about it at the end.
Without further ado, therefore, the title I’m really, really, really! hooked on at the moment (did I say ‘really’?) is Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. I wish I could tell you all about it, but the thing is that I haven’t finished it yet. Still, it’s made me highlight more passages than any other book so far, which is both cool and a bit scary perhaps (I’ll reflect on this later). Through talking to lots of Creative people (Mihaly starts by distinguishing ‘Creativity’ from ‘creativity’, and his reasoning sounds sensible to me), Mihaly gives all of us (and mainly himself, as I make out, as he does come across as one of those wonderful people who never stop learning) lots of insights into how Creatives approach the tasks they set themselves, as well as how they see the concept of Flow and how they get into it (for Flow, there’s a video at the end with Mihaly’s TED talk on this topic).
Not only that, but it has also been terribly exciting (I know, I know, now I sound like ‘Mistress Mary, quite contrary’ – and you totally have to read The Secret Garden next/before/during reading Creativity, whatever rocks your boat) to learn about the influence which upbringing (who would have thought! the “comfortable middle classes” statistically do not have the best track record at sparking and nurturing creativity – and this is, of course, a big understatement), family circumstances (you really don’t have to be born in a family of geniuses to become one, though it does help on some levels), school (don’t expect a lot of praise for the great sausage machine, but do look out for the huge difference individual inspirational teachers can make), and even natural surroundings can have on a child’s curiosity and motivation and how these are sustained into adulthood.
I really love the relaxed, conversational, at times very funny and at other times extremely direct style of the book. I also love the way in which it is not authored to awe the reader with the life of the intellectually famous – in the 21st century I think we should be a bit beyond worshipping real or fictitious creatures (though we’re clearly not, for a bizarre reason). Instead, the book is totally honest, clear, friendly, and downright inspiring! It presents creativity as a conjectural result of the ‘domain’, the ‘field’ (the group of experts in that domain at a point in time), and the ‘person’ who is under scrutiny at the same point in time influencing each other. It just talks so much sense and it always backs it up with what the Creatives said!
Thus it puts your mind at rest that, although you may not have got a Nobel Prize, you are still a worthy being if you control your propensity for idleness and primary instincts (which tend to be satisfied very early in Maslow’s hierarchy). All you need to get your head around is to learn for learning’s sake. The book has examples from science, as well as art, and it always stresses the fact that we do not need the recognition of a ‘field’ in a particular ‘domain’ in order to lead fruitful and meaningful lives of constant discovery, sharing, and nurturing others’ learning (although, again, it helps if we do). You may not change the culture you live in with your thoughts and discoveries, but you can still make an awful lot of difference to those around you.
Those mainly driven by financial gains will probably not be animated by a whole bunch of new and exciting ideas once (if?) they finish the book, which is in keeping with the difference between creative people always going above and beyond for the sake of feeling better having learnt something new, and the exotelic individuals (I won’t spoil your joy of looking into ‘autotelic’ v. ‘exotelic’).
Conclusion? Well, I’m only about a third into the book and I am already thinking of ways I may be able to persuade Mihaly to come to Leeds and speak to my students. So far this is a wonderful, wonderful book! I leave you therefore with Mihaly (and don’t forget about the Secret Garden, either):