Penn. Organizational Dynamics Prof. Steven F. Freeman
Creativity and Innovation in
Organization and Work

Course Info | Course Topics | Class Sessions | People & Orgs | Video | Links | Quotes

Martin H. Levinson (1997) Mapping Creativity with a Capital "C"

ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 0014164X, Winter97/98, Vol. 54, Issue 4

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and author of the best-selling book Flow, spent five years (between 1990 and 1995) interviewing a selected group of one hundred exceptional individuals in an effort to make more understandable the mysterious process by which men and women come up with new ideas and things. He published his results as a book titled Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: HarperCollins, 1996). Each of the interviewees was chosen because he or she made a difference in a major domain of culture, e.g., Robertson Davies, Mark Strand, Nadine Gordimer in the arts; John Bardeen, Stephen Jay Gould, and Rosalyn Yallow in the sciences; John Read, Robert Galvin, Irving Brooke Harris in business. Through them, the author illustrates what creative people are like, how the creative process unfolds over a period of a lifetime, and what conditions encourage or hinder the generation of original ideas.

Using his well-known "flow" theory, which he based on his study of those conditions that make life meaningful and enjoyable, Csikszentmihalyi explores how these individuals have found ways to make flow a permanent feature of their lives and at the same time contribute to the evolution of our culture. According to the author they have become creative with a capital "C."

He also identifies two other types of creativity. The first type, most often encountered in ordinary conversation, refers to persons who express unusual thoughts, who are interesting and stimulating -- in other words people who appear to be unusually bright. A brilliant conversationalist, a person with varied interests and a quick mind, may be called creative in this sense. Unless they also contribute something of lasting significance, Csikszentmihalyi would label them as "brilliant" rather than creative. The second type of creativity refers to people who experience the world in novel and original ways. These are individuals whose perceptions are fresh, whose judgments are insightful, who make important discoveries that only they know about. The author refers to such people as "personally creative" and writes about them in a chapter of his book ("Enhancing Personal Creativity").

Creativity with a capital "C" involves individuals who, like da Vinci, Edison, or Einstein, have changed our culture in some important respect. Their achievements are by definition public and it is this group that interests Csikszentmihalyi the most. He believes that creativity at this level can be observed only in the interrelations of a system made up of three main parts.

The first of these is the "domain," which consists of a set of symbolic rules and procedures. Science is an example of a domain, or in a more refined sense we can view chemistry and physics as domains. Domains are in turn part of what we call culture, or the symbolic knowledge shared by a particular society, or by humanity as a whole.

The second component of creativity is the "field" which includes all the individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain. It is their role to decide whether a new idea or product should be included in the domain. For example, in the visual arts the field consists of art teachers, curators of museums, collectors of art, critics, and administrators of foundations and government agencies that deal with culture. It is this field that selects what new works of art deserve to be recognized, preserved, and remembered.

The third component of the creative system is the "individual." Creativity occurs when a person using the symbols of a given domain such as psychology, mathematics, engineering, or medicine has a new idea or sees a new pattern, and when this novelty is selected by the appropriate field for inclusion into the relevant domain. The next generation will be exposed to that novelty as part of the existing domain and if they are creative they will change it further. Occasionally creativity involves the establishment of a new domain. Csikszentmihalyi points out that it could be argued that Galileo started experimental physics and that Freud carved out psychoanalysis from the existing domain of neuropathology. Although he doesn't specifically mention it, general semantics can be considered a new domain that was established by Alfred Korzybski. (Csikszentmihalyi did present the 1996 Korzybski Memorial Lecture.)

This domain of general semantics has been responsible for over 150 doctoral dissertations, two regularly published journals, and many books. There is also a field of experts in the subject (editors of the journals, or graduate school professors) that reviews new contributions to the discipline. Some have suggested that the set of problems general semantics has had in becoming a more established domain include: (i) the confusion of the name "general semantics" with "semantics"; (ii) interpretation of "non-Aristotelian" as "anti-Aristotelian"; (iii) having its base outside academia; (iv) and the difficulties many have in reading Korzybski's seminal work Science and Sanity.

Csikszentmihalyi notes that it is important to be aware that creative ideas vanish unless there is a receptive audience (the field) to record, implement, and recognize them as new and innovative. For example, the artist Raphael can be called creative when the community is moved by his work and discovers new possibilities in his painting. But when the field considers his paintings mannered and routine, as was the case at certain points in history, Raphael can only be called a great draftsman, perhaps even a personally creative individual, but not creative with a capital "C."

The author also discusses ten pairs of apparently antithetical traits that are often present in creative persons. Such persons seem able to integrate the opposing extremes in each trait. The following are capsule descriptions of these traits:

1. Creative individuals have great physical energy, but they are often quiet and at rest. The important thing is that their energy is under their own control -- it is not controlled by the calendar, the clock, or an external schedule.

2. Creative individuals seem to be able to employ two opposite ways of thinking "convergent" and "divergent." Convergent thinking is measured by IQ tests, and it involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer. Divergent thinking leads to no agreed upon solution. It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in selecting unusual associations of ideas.

3. A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility. Physicist John Wheeler illustrates the playful aspect of creativity when he says the most important thing in a young physicist is "this bounce, which I always associate with fun in science, kicking things around. It's not quite joking, but it has some of the lightness of joking. It's exploring ideas." As for discipline, the physicist Hans Bethe when asked what enabled him to solve the physics problem that made him famous replied, "Two things are required. One is a brain. And second is the willingness to spend long times thinking, with a definite possibility that you come out with nothing."

4. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other. Both are needed to break away from the present without losing touch with the past. Albert Einstein once wrote that art and science are two of the greatest forms of escape from reality that humans have devised. Great art and great science involve a leap of imagination into a world that is different from the present. The rest of society often views these new ideas as fantasies without relevance to current reality. But the point of art and science is to go beyond what is now considered real, and create a new reality. And what makes a novel idea creative is that once we see it, sooner or later we recognize that, strange as it is, it is "true."

5. Creative individuals seem to exhibit opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion. The stereotype of the "solitary genius" conflicts with the need of creative persons to exchange ideas and interact with others for intellectual stimulation. Although creative individuals often need to spend time alone, Csikszentmihalyi offers quotes that exemplify the importance of sociability. Physicist Freeman Dyson tells us "Science is a very gregarious business." Sculptor Nina Holton says "You really can't work alone in your place. You want to have a fellow artist come and talk things over with you. ..."

6. Creative individuals appear to be quite humble and proud at the same time. This may be so because they are aware that they stand, in Newton's words, "on the shoulders of giants." Their respect for the domain in which they work makes them aware of the long line of previous contributors, which puts their own work into perspective. Second, they are aware of the role that luck played in their own achievements. And third, they are usually so focused on future projects and current challenges that their past accomplishments, no matter how outstanding, are no longer very interesting to them.

7. Creative individuals tend to be androgynous. Although Csikszentmihalyi did not use any standard test to measure this trait, he comments that it was obvious that the women artists and scientists tended to be much more assertive, self-confident, and openly aggressive than women are generally brought up to be in our society. He mentions that perhaps the most noticeable evidence for the "femininity" of men in the sample was their great preoccupation with their family and their sensitivity to subtle aspects of the environment that other men are inclined to dismiss as unimportant.

8. Generally, creative people are thought to be rebellious and independent. Yet, it is impossible to be creative without having first internalized a domain of culture. And a person must believe in the importance of such a domain in order to learn its rules; hence he or she must to a certain extent be a traditionalist. But to be creative one must also be somewhat rebellious and iconoclastic. Being only traditional leaves the domain unchanged; taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as an improvement. Creative people seem to be able to balance these competing impulses to produce useful results.

9. Many creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well. The energy generated by this conflict between attachment and detachment was mentioned by many of the interviewees as being an important part of their work. The reason is that without passion one loses interest in a difficult task, yet without being objective about one's work, it tends to be not very good and lacks credibility.

10. The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain and yet also a great deal of enjoyment. Electrical engineer Jacob Rabinow comments "Inventors have a low threshold of pain. Things bother them." A badly designed machine causes pain to an inventive engineer, just as the creative writer is pained when reading bad prose. Additionally, standing alone at the forefront of a discipline can make one feel exposed and vulnerable. And it seems especially painful when one feels one's creativity drying out; then the whole self-concept seems jeopardized. On the other hand, when the creator is working in the area of his or her expertise, worries and cares often fall away. As poet Mark Strand says, "Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is 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 expectations more predictable."

Csikszentmihalyi finds it is not the hope of achieving fame or making money or even the thought of making a lasting contribution that drives creative individuals but rather the opportunity to do work they enjoy. He also discovered that although many creative people shared the above mentioned ten antithetical traits they also differed widely in personality type. And all the interviewees claimed that luck (being in the right place at the right time) and perseverance had much to do with their accomplishment. Also, each considered the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work.

Csikszentmihalyi believes it is important to nurture creativity not only in exceptional individuals but also in ourselves, to make our lives more meaningful, satisfying, and enjoyable. "Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives," he writes. "Most of the things that are interesting, important and human are the results of creativity. And when we are involved in it, and we all have the potential, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of our life."

By Martin H. Levinson, Director of PROJECT SHARE, a New York City school-based drug prevention program. He is also a member of the board of directors of the New York Society of General Semantics.
Copyright of ETC: A Review of General Semantics is the property of Institute of General Semantics, Inc. and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.
Date Page Created: Jan 22, 2012 Last Page Update: Jan 24, 2012