Creativity: Don’t take it personally

I’m reading Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s (yeah, he’s the one who came up with the concept of flow) book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Creativity_book_cover.jpgCsikszentmihaly proposes a very interesting view of creativity, not as something individual or personal, but the result of fortunate interactions between individual productivity in a certain field and the encouragement and recognition of that productivity as novel and interesting by other people in the field.

He calls this a systems view of creativity and explains that it’s not enough for individuals to come up with ideas. If these ideas are not recognized and encouraged by peers, no significant contribution to society or culture happens.

I initially found Csikszentmihaly’s view of creativity counterintuitive (like most academic concepts ?) but I’m beginning to fall in love with it because it points out the importance of the environment for creativity.

Csikszentmihaly hints that a supportive, encouraging environment that invests attention and resources in potentially creative individuals might be more significant a variable than individual creativity itself.

Using the example of the Renaissance, and the extraordinary creations of the dome over Santa Maria del Fiore by Brunelleschi (photo) and the Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti (photo), Csikszentmihaly writes:

If these two artists had not been born, some others would have stepped in their place and built the dome and the doors. It is because of this inseparable connection that creativity must, in the last analysis, be seen not as something happening within a person but in the relationship within a system.

According to Csikszentmihaly, an environment (system) that fosters creativity has the following characteristics:

  • Provides support & encouragement in the form of attention to ideas
  • Provides resources to individuals so they can engage in creative processes
  • Provides stimulation through competition
  • Has a system in place for selecting good ideas and acting on them

So how do you, as an employer, teacher, manager, or academic administrator create a system (an environment) that fosters creativity?

<rant> Meeting every single idea or initiative with “we can’t…,” yes, but..” and/or “we tried that 10 years ago, and it failed” might not be the best way to go about it.</rant>

6 thoughts on “Creativity: Don’t take it personally”

  1. IN response to Dawn comments. What about working toward cognitive failure at times. Give them problems that their learning style won’t allow them to solve. BUt don’t give in. They have to solve it themselves. So you have to make this safe and it can take significant time.

    I don’t teach yet (Spring 2009) but I use this with my team to encourage them to grow their problem solving abilities. This concept is from Ken Bain’s Book What Great College Teachers Do.

  2. We encourage creativity first by making sure we understand each others strengths. We use the StrengthsFinder assessment. Then as best as possible we work to leverage those strengths in our daily job. This helps us be in the Flow more often. To me flow is the same as Right Brain or R-Mode. Creative insight comes from R-Mode (but L-Mode supports this). Then we brainstorm both as individuals and in a group about our bigger problems. This really helps us. We use Mind Manager to Mind Map our ideas which helps us be R-Mode when we are working with words which typically force you back to L-Mode.

  3. Yes, I’ve been working hard to unteach them. It’s an uphill battle with some of them, though.

    I’m really looking forward to reading others’ responses here.

  4. Dawn, I often encounter the same problem in my classes, and I found that the following help:

    1) unteach them. Students’ expectations about college have been conditioned by years of education. Strip them down, teach them new expectations.

    2) remove fear. They don’t experiment because they’re scared of a low grade. Encourage them, see drafts, reward risk-taking, ask them to create their own criteria for evaluating success. I keep telling them to take off and fly, and I’ll be there to catch them if they fall.

    Other teachers, what techniques have helped you foster creativity in the classroom?

  5. I am a big fan of systems views of most phenomena, so the idea of creativity as a process between the individual and his or her social and physical environment makes perfect sense to me.

    I am struggling right now with trying to foster creativity in my Campaigns classes. The biggest stumbling block I’m finding is not institutional, but the students themselves, who have not been encouraged to be creative in the past and feel lost and anxious without the structure they’ve been taught. I think next semester I’m going to concentrate even more on incorporating storytelling into the course from the very beginning, and try to make them more comfortable with experimenting and sharing.

    This semester, all of the “process” assignments during the planning stages are graded only for completion, and I encourage experiments as much as possible. My hope is that this approach will get them to focus less on coming up with “right” answers, and more on coming up with new ideas. It’s working better with some students than with others.

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