Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Why Loving the Process Is Important to Creativity and Flow

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.
If a state of flow is crucial for honing our skills and the fruition of our ideas, how, then, do we enter a state of flow on a regular basis? The Poet Mark Strand reflects on this:

“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.

The History of Philosophy in an Infographic

“Let not the youngest shun philosophy or the oldest grow weary of it,” said Epicurus to Meniceus in a letter. “To do so is the equivalent to saying either that the time for a happy life has not yet come or that it is already past.”

And yet, it’s not a default choice to turn to philosophy as a guide to learning to live well. Depending on your experience in traditional education, philosophy may have been one of those subjects that was pushed to the side like vegetables, either because it was too abstract or because the kind of critical thinking that’s necessary to delve into the subject is seemingly too tiring (this also applies, sadly, to science, art, and math).

The Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry; to make sense of and thereby free ourselves from the hold of our griefs and fears.”

Like religion or sports, there isn’t one right school of philosophy to follow, the same way there isn’t one way to exercise or practice faith. How we “respond to the soul’s cry” is idiosyncratic, and finding a practice that suits us is a worthy endeavor to help us live better. So much of what we call wisdom—knowledge guided by a moral compass that helps us live well—has been talked about for centuries but is often buried, misconstrued, or taken out of context.

I was sent this beautiful infographic on the long history of philosophy—a necessary reminder that humans have been working hard to not just figure out why we’re here but more importantly how we should live. Studying this infographic made me appreciate the different schools of thought throughout human history—some forgotten and some making its return.

(Thanks to Roslyn from SuperScholar.org for sending me this)

Imagine from: http://superscholar.org/comp-history-philosophy/

Imagine from: http://superscholar.org/comp-history-philosophy/


Why Overthinking Kills Creativity and Athletic Performance and How to Quiet The Mind

“Fear doesn’t go away,” said Steven Pressfield in The War of Arta must-read for everyone. “The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

What is this battle that we face when we aspire to create or when we engage in competitiveness? It’s easy to believe that it’s an external battle of removing distractions and trying to control our environment, but what champions and successful artists understand is that the internal battle is where the war is won. If you’ve ever played a sport or engaged in an artistic activity, you’ve felt it: there’s a voice in your head that tries to sabotage you and make you nervous. It makes you question your shot, stance, posture, style, and form. You go from the freedom and enjoyment of playing to the fruitless realm of judging.

Bad art and weak athletic performance all stem from the same seed: overthinking.

My friend Greg Ciotti recommended me this fantastic gem of a book called, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey. At first, reading about tennis didn’t seem at all interesting—and Greg admonished that this book was a perfect example of damn good writing—but within the first few pages it was obvious that this wasn’t completely about tennis; it was a book about our internal struggles that affect our performance.

In the foreword, written by legendary coach Pete Caroll, he said:

“Introduced to The Inner Game of Tennis as a graduate student years ago, I recognized the obvious benefits of Gallwey’s teachings in regards to performance in individual sports. As I grew more familiar with the benefits of performing with a quieted mind. … Once you understand the principles of the Inner Game, you will be able to quiet your mind, focus clearly, and truly play the game”

We’ve all heard the maxim, “You are your own worst enemy.” This means that whatever is causing us great stress is not outside us but within us. As an avid basketball player, this is too true. Sometimes an opponent’s insults can get in my head, making me angry, and in turn, greatly hindering my performance. If I miss a shot one too many times, I scream and curse, disrupting my focus and performing worse than before. In writing or drawing, I can overthink my words or pencil strokes, to the point where nothing gets written or drawn.

Gallwey called it the Self 1 and Self 2—the same way Daniel Kahneman posited that our brains are comprised of two systems. Galleway said:

“We have arrived at a key point: it is the constant “thinking” activity of Self 1, the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exists when this mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached.
When a tennis player is “in the zone,” he is not thinking about how, when or even where to hit the ball. He’s not trying to hit the ball, and after the shot he doesn’t think about how badly or how well he made contact. The ball seems to get hit through a process which doesn’t require thought. There may be an awareness of the sight, sound and feel of the ball, and even of the tactical situation, but the player just seems to know without thinking what to do.”

For an artist or athlete to get to a point of comfort where they naturally behave without self-judgement is a daily practice, and never a destination.

Gallwey shares his wisdom on the mindset of overthinking and why returning to that essence of playing is so essential:

“As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes. . . . The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation, which is miscalculation, sets in. . . .
Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. “Childlikeness” has to be restored. . . .”

This “childlikeness” is synonymous to the concept of play. Play is when we are intrinsically motivated to pursue an activity. It gives a sense of meaning and fulfillment, regardless of praise or outcomes. We simply do it because it makes us feel alive—or rather, because we must, because there are no other choices.

Almost every coach that I’ve had in my life concluded their motivational speeches with, “Go out and have fun.” Back then I never understood why a great speech would be end this way, but by developing an understanding of that wisdom, it now makes perfect sense.

Quieting the mind is what brings us back to that essence of play, where we discard self-judgements and allow for self-expression to breathe. Inadvertently, this state of mind allows us to wholeheartedly express our creativity. Gallwey said [emphasis mine]:

“For most of us, quieting the mind is a gradual process involving the learning of several inner skills. These inner skills are really arts of forgetting mental habits acquired since we were children.
The first skill to learn is the art of letting go the human inclination to judge ourselves and our performance as either good or bad. Letting go of the judging process is a basic key to the Inner Game; its meaning will emerge as you read the remainder of this chapter. When we unlearn how to be judgmental, it is possible to achieve spontaneous, focused play.”

The critical step to understand here is that the moment we assign a value of judgement to an action—this is good or bad—is the moment we engage in overthinking. Gallwey expresses this through the lens of tennis:

“What does this have to do with tennis? Well, it is the initial act of judgement which provokes a thinking process. First the player’s mind judges one of his shots as bad or good. If he judges it as bad, he begins thinking about what was wrong with it. Then he tells himself how to correct it. Then he tries hard, giving himself instructions as he does so. Finally he evaluates again. Obviously the mind is anything but still and the body is tight with trying. If the shot is evaluated as good, Self 1 starts wondering how he hit such a good shot; then it tries to get his body to repeat the process by giving self-instructions, trying hard and so on. Both mental processes end in further evaluation, which perpetuates the process of thinking and self-conscious performance. As a consequence, the player’s muscles tighten when they need to be loose, strokes become awkward and less fluid, and negative evaluations are likely to continue with growing intensity. . . . As a result, what usually happens is that these self-judgements become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

The ultimate goal of an artist and athlete is to return to that essence of play, to view the outcomes of their actions as a source for learning. Gallwey stresses the importance of this throughout the book because it’s seemingly the only way to counter our mind’s natural ability to self-assess everything we do. This is effortless for children because they haven’t formed the habits yet—notice how their fear of failure is amiss when engaging in new activities, and notice how ours, as we get older, is the sole reason why we never find out what’s inside us.

Gallwey talks about learning and playing:

“To me it makes sense to build any system of instruction upon the best possible understanding of natural learning, the learning process you were born with. The less instruction interferes with the process of learning built into your very DNA, the more effective your progress is going to be. Said another way, the less fear and doubt embedded in the instructional process, the easier it will be to take the natural steps of learning. One way to gain insight and trust in natural learning is to observe young children learning before they have been taught, or to observe animals in the act of teaching their young.”

What usually follows our ability to play and stay focused is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called being in a state of “Flow.” Athletes call it “being in the zone” or having a “hot streak.”

Gallwey said:

“In fact, someone playing “out of his mind” is more aware of the ball, the court and, when necessary, his opponent. But he is not aware of giving himself a lot of instructions, thinking about how to hit a ball, how to correct past mistakes or how to repeat what he just did. He is conscious, but not thinking, not over-trying. A player in this state knows where he wants the ball to go, but he doesn’t have to “try hard” to send it there. It just seems to happen—and often with more accuracy than he could have hoped for. The player seems to be immersed in a flow of action which requires his energy, yet results in greater power and accuracy. The “hot streak” usually continues until he starts thinking about it and tries to maintain it; as soon as he attempts to exercise control, he loses it.”

How different our lives become when understand this inner battle. How easy it is to coast through our lives, constantly judging ourselves, without any understanding of the consequences involved. The moment we let go and simply enjoy the activity itself, learning and relearning as we go, only then can we accumulate mastery over our skills and ourselves.

The Inner Game of Tennis is a short, fantastic, and insightful read. It will provide a newfound perspective on your inner narrative when you’re either facing a blank canvas or on the hardwood floor of a basketball court. The lessons is simple but yet equally difficult to embrace: Go out and have fun.

Why Compassion Is Necessary In a World That Stumbles Everyday

“The heart of compassion is really acceptance,” said vulnerability researcher and author, Brené Brown. “The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become.”

And yet, how difficult it is to accept ourselves when, by nature, we seek acceptance from others because of the way we’re wired. As Mathew Lieberman said in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, “The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

At what point in our lives do we lose compassion — the understanding that everyone is different, that it can’t be changed, and that it’s beautiful and necessary? Why do we lose that understanding, or rather, why is it so hard to embrace? As children, we accept others effortlessly, but once culture, media, influences from parents and environment come into play, we lose the ability to accept and instead we champion our ability to compartmentalize others to ultimately feel safe about who we are.

In Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two, American author Bret Lott give his one piece wisdom to a younger generation on how compassion is a learned trait and why this is an essential skill all throughout life. It’s easy to travel through life believing that “This is just the way I am” — meaning, it’s harder for me to change my mind so I’m just going to continue acting this way because it’s easy and self-serving. Rarely do we consider how our attitude and behavior not only obstruct us from living but from connecting with people who unintentionally add meaning and enrichment into our existence. It can become intentional, I think, when we learn compassion.

Lott says [emphasis mine]:

“Words of advice have no choice but to be condescending. That is, the idea of advice connotes that the one giving it knows more about the way the world works than than the one receiving it, when we are all of us stumbling pretty much blind. My parents did, your parents did. I do, you do. My children will, your children will. So set it straight in your head right now: You will stumble.
All that’s left, then, is the perfect truth that we are all stumbling together, so the only word of ‘advice’ I guess I’d want to give, if you’ll forgive my posing as though I know what I’m talking about, is to learn compassion. Unlike clairvoyance or intuition or the ability to grow blond hair instead of brown, compassion is a learned trait, a behavior that incorporates others into our own consciousness: We are in this together. It’s not something passed down at conception, not instilled in us at secret ceremonies. You learn it.
Real compassion comes from living each day we have with the knowledge we are all of us lost, leaving us with the only real reaction we can have to all the ugliness the world has to dish out at us: Either we do for others what we would want done for ourselves, or we perish, never knowing what joy and fruition our feeble lives are capable of finding.”

To “incorporate others into our consciousness” is a conscious choice, which requires us to pause and reflect in moments where we readily react without thought. I think it’s harder to be compassionate because our brains are great at categorizing cues to help us make snap decisions, which ultimately make our lives easier. If all throughout our lives people with dark-rimmed glasses cut us off and do things we despise, of course when we meet a person of this description at a party or event we may not be compassionate. We tell ourselves, whether we’re aware of it or not, Why give this person a fighting chance when I’ve met people like them before! Easier to give them the cold shoulder and risk any chance of having your expectations being wrong.

Alas, how natural it is to think this way but how unhelpful it is to the manifestation of our character and life. Maybe that person wears those glasses because they’re insecure and want to fit in. Maybe they’ve been wearing those glasses their whole life, before it got popular (again). Maybe they don’t see it as hipster-style the way you do. Maybe they can’t afford another pair.

Challenging our perception requires critical thinking and pause; reaching a different conclusion where compassion can thrive is courage, which is a catalyst for connection. When we have a hard time accepting others for who they are—I understand, some people are truly unbearable—it should be used as an exercise of self-awarenesswhy, exactly, am I feeling this way towards this person? When engaging in this exercise myself, the conclusion is almost always the same: It’s my profound misunderstandings that causes these frustrations and cynicism. When I understand my misunderstandings and get to that place of acceptance, not in a sense of hugging everyone and exchanging phone numbers, but rather to simply observe and accept what’s before me without any negative expectations or attitudes, I can free my mind of the burdens that obstruct me from truly living well. Maybe hugs ensue.