Saturday, January 17, 2015

Flow and Creativity

In our last group discussion Professor Arvan mentioned an interesting point that under what circumstances people would be creative and whether it’s possible to make everything, including those seemly non-creative, routine work, becomes creative work. At that point it reminds me of what I’ve learned about creativity in one of my Psychology class. And also I looked up the reading list and was interested in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. I simply searched the author and found his talk on TED really inspiring.
According to the concept given in my psych class, creativity is something relevant and original. And when we say people are creative, we often talk about divergent thinking, which means the thoughts expand outward to different directions. Then I realized that creative people have the right characteristics to make them get into the flow and create. First is intrinsic interest. So people who are engaged in creative work are not motivated by other rewards. (And in fact, extrinsic rewards would distract people from achieving their best, according to experiments.) They do things out of interest and enthusiasm. The second important thing is that they have extensive knowledge and skills, which acquired by long-time patient hard working. As Czikszentmihalyi mentioned in the video, it takes whole 10-year practice to make someone to be an expert in one field. Thus expertise enables people to have more opportunities to be in flow and be more creative because they have more extensive knowledge on hand to use.
Czikszentmihalyi actually defines flow in the video. He described it as a state when “challenges are higher than average and skills are higher than average. … you are doing what you really like to do ”. So I try to find the time when I was in flow and doing creative work. One thing came up with me was that I picked up playing piano recently. I actually started learning piano when I was five or six. After few years practice I did well and got some certificates, which I believe the purpose was to make me more competitive in future education rather than interest. Then when I was nine I just dropped it. After all these years I did try a couple of times when I was in high school but I gave up due to the time occupation. This winter break when I tried to pick up piano, it was so difficult for me. And I didn’t remember a lot of music theories and skills. The frustration held me some time but I still tried to keep playing every day. The reason is that there is some piano music pieces I really love and I missed the feeling to playing piano for a long time. Because it was out of interest, when I practice I do feel one hour like five minutes. Then I’m sure that I was in flow. The process might be frustrating and challenging, but it is pleasure. This kind of pleasure and satisfaction is different from the feeling when you are relaxed lying on the coach, watching TV and eating ice cream. It is flow because it makes me reach a higher level, and makes me creative and work hard at the same time. But I could say that when I was young, practicing piano didn’t bring me into flow. At that time all I care is how much time was left and when can I finish and hang out with my friends. The same thing could be quite different to the same person.

So there’re some questions we might discuss and think about. When do you find yourself in flow? And do you have totally different experience with one thing? Do you think it is possible to make non-creative work into creative? Maybe interest is a key point to make people be creative and flow. In terms of searching for what you really want to do, what do you think about two approaches? Find your interest first and then search for what interest you, so that you have better chance to be in flow. Or you accept first and then try to develop interest later to be in flow? And if you have any other ideas you want to talk about please comment as well.


  1. There are many bits in this piece. Perhaps we should take on each bit in itself before getting to the questions in the last paragraph. I will take on just one here - this is the extrinsic/intrinsic motivation part.

    Consider well known artists and composers who make their living by producing works of art or writing musical compositions. As engaged as they might be in their work, they no doubt want to get paid for it and care about the business aspect of what they do. So there seems to be some elements of extrinsic motivation here, even for people widely regarded as being very creative. I may have mentioned during our course that I recently read a fictionalized biography of Vincent Van Gogh. He was poor much of his life, often went hungry, and for that reason he was obsessed with having his paintings sell.

    So this bit on extrinsic or intrinsic motivation needs to be looked at more carefully. You might ask why you tried the piano again over the break (as distinct from how you felt while you were playing). What got you to do it? Whatever it was, it was motivation of some sort.

    1. Yes. I totally agree that there must be some extrinsic motivation for people who make a living with producing art or writing music pieces. But for those genius in creative work production, such as Vincent Van Gogh, the initial motivation would probably be the intrinsic interest in it. And later on things changed because no one was willing to pay for his work. Of course artists would be willing to sell their work at high prices. Because it is a sign that their work are highly appreciated. So maybe the reward going along with the creative work is just one aspect that artist enjoyed. While the intrinsic motivation is still dominant in initiating people explore their talent and keep work hard for a long time.
      And for some artists who didn't do well in market may face more basic problem such as in short of money to live through. They would definitely be more interested on the reward rather than the creation process itself. Just like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs claims, people pursue higher satisfaction only they can meet basic needs for living and safety.
      I started playing piano. As I put more efforts in it, I found myself improved a lot. So it's like a process of challenging myself to do something I gave up before. But the most important reason is the desire to learn to play some beautiful pieces I really like.

  2. I certainly agree with the point that you have made during the post: "Maybe interest is a key point to make people be creative and flow." To be honest, while I was reading about the post, all the thoughts in my head were "In order to be creative, the person has to be absorbed into it. This activity is also known as 'the flow.' However, in order to gain 'the flow,' one needs enough amount of interest that allows him or her to get absorbed into that creative flow." I would like to discuss about this the next time we meet.

    For now, let me get back to the topic, about 'the flow' itself. For me, as i have mentioned above in my comment, I find myself in the flow when I feel it is necessary for me to be in the flow. To elaborate, the interest is the baseline for this flow to happen. If I don't find it necessary for the work to generate flow inside me, no matter how hard I try, the flow won't really come.

    I think it depends on what kind of work for a non-creative work into a creative work. For instance, it is kind of an extreme example to take into account, but lets say there is a factory (sweat-shop) work which is extremely repetitive. Even before we try to go and make it creative, we have to think about the question 'does it have to be creative?' As I have said, this might be a somewhat extreme example, but I think you would understand that there are some similar context in education settings (such as doing the statistics with program R, I've been through it, and it's all about making things exact and clear without mistakes after learning how to use the program.) Other materials can be encouraged for the program followers to be in a creative situation. (Actually, thinking about it now, I guess we need to define the term 'creative' a little bit to a concrete extent in order to make things be more clear, but I will just use the term somewhat vaguely.) I would refer to our econ 490 class last semester, although we did not create too much flow inside the class. Instead of memorizing the concepts that were given by professor Arvan in the excel hw sheets, we could have tried to search the terms and try to understand some of the background information relevant to the topic. For instance, I remember searching about the different forms of price discrimination while it was introduced in the pooling and seperating equilibriums. I took hours to search for a clear explanation of single crossing property, and was trying to relate the information rent with the mentioned topic since I did not have any prior understanding to it before. It might not be suitable for these activities to be called 'creative,' but it really gave me the flows, since I felt like understanding these things perfectly. (Yes, I failed to understand them perfectly, and they did not come out in the midterm..)

    1. As I have said, I truly believe interest is the most basic thing that is needed to create 'the flow.' I agree that the 'extensive knowledge and skills' would help people getting into the flow, since more proficiency would definitely make things easier while someone would devote him/herself into the field. However, I would really want to say that personal dedication to the topic, or in other words, the 'need' that could persuade that person into dedicating for the subject. I think this might be one of the subjects that we should give spotlight to when we further talk about the flow, since making them feel necessary to do something would be a strong encouragement factor to get them into learning something by themselves for their own needs (which I believe would make the strongest and most efficient outcome.)