While the act of creating is rarely linear or comfortable, it can indeed be enjoyable and meaningful. What greater feeling is there than a finished draft, an idea for a song, or a sketch twinkling with potential? Recently my craft has provided me a living, but for many years I wrote because I had to. Every morning, around the same time, I wrote for hours. I fell in love with writing because it gave me purpose; inadvertently it also gave me a cistern for self-discovery and self-education. From time to time I wake up laughing at the fact that I get paid to do what I immensely love—a blessing that never dulls or escapes my reflections. I always return to the fact that I would do it even if I wasn’t getting paid.
That love we have for our art is perhaps one of the most important qualities of creativity. The love, not for outcomes, but for the process that lets us find out what’s inside of us, to remind us why we’re alive, to create value for others, is as precious as time and close friends.
The renown psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wanted to study where, in every day life, were people really happy? He studied artists and scientists, trying to understand what about their work or their use of time that made it worthwhile. Was it money, fame, fortune, purpose?
In his timeless and fantastically researched book, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, he explains why enjoyment is so critical for creativity:
“Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Without this trait poets would give up striving for perfection and would write commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at least twice as much as they do at the university, physicists would stop doing basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better and the expectations more predictable.”
This enjoyment, which fosters what he called “flow,” was when we enter a state of near-unconscious ecstasy: we lose track of time, our environment, and ultimately ourselves. We are enraptured in the work, where our focus is as intense as a child looking through the window of an ice cream store on a summer day. This state of flow is a surefire sign that the work we’re doing is meaningful and fulfilling—that something within it ignites our curiosity, where rewards are secondary, but most importantly we do it because it would kill us not to.
Csikszentmihalyi describes the 9 feelings of enjoyable work:
“The flow experience was described in almost identical terms regardless of the activity that produced it. Athletes, artists, religious mystics, scientists, and ordinary working people described their most rewarding experiences with very similar words. And the description did not vary much by culture, gender, or age; old and young, rich and poor, men and women, Americans and Japanese seem to experience enjoyment in the same way, even though they may be doing very different things to attain it. Nine main elements were mentioned over and over again to describe how it feels when an experience is enjoyable:1. There are clear goals every step of the way.2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.4. Action and awareness are merged.5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.6. There is no worry of failure.7. Self-consciousness disappears.8. The sense of time becomes distorted.9. The activity becomes autotelic.
“Well, you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is so great. You can’t continue to work or continue to see the end of the work because you’re jumping ahead of yourself all the time. The idea is to be so . . . so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re, uh, making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it. Without undue regard for the words you’re using. It’s meaning carried to a high order. It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication. When you’re working on something and you’re working well, you have the feeling that there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying.”
Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention are one of those books that fundamentally changes the way you view creative careers, the creative process, and everything in between. There are so many things that are masterfully addressed—parenting, personality, environment, luck, failure, how culture views the “creative types” and more—that play a role in our careers and creative expression.