In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s mind, it’s the process of creativity that makes one’s life fulfilling.
In the 1990s, he interviewed 91 of the most successful people on Earth (including 14 Nobel Prize winners), from various disciplines, to uncover what it is that made them different.
As an accomplished psychology researcher himself, he knew that meaningful, creative work is high on the list of human needs, but there hadn’t been any great, systematic attempts at undressing what exactly such work may look like. That’s, of course, until his famous study.
After months and months of interviews and observations, Csikszentmihalyi and his team of researchers brought together everything they had learned and compiled it for comparison.
In such a broad mix of people – from artists to scientists to politicians – naturally, they found differences here and there but, at the same time, they also uncovered many similarities.
In every single case, for example, as he had predicted, the people cited their work as one of the core joys of their life. He also noted the importance of many things that now seem obvious – things like long-term perseverance, discipline, attention, and curiosity.
They all took great care to manage their health and energy, and each of them had learned to create a consistent personal rhythm and work environment through years of trial and error.
There is a chapter at the end of his book (based on the study) that narrows it down to ten key similarities possessed by them all; many that you would expect, a few that you wouldn’t.1
That said, the most interesting thing about the whole experiment is the conclusion that Csikszentmihalyi presents as to what creativity is and the pillars that hold it up as it works.
Contrary to popular belief, creativity isn’t just artistry alone, and nor is it solely about the qualities a person possess. It’s a way of life, one that has specific inputs and outputs.2
Creativity As a Product of Complexity
As we go on living, all of us change and adjust how we see reality. Your belief system in late-adulthood is likely to be very different from the one you held in early-adulthood.
This aligns with the message coming out of the literature in adult developmental psychology. Often, as we experience more, we slowly alter our interactions with the world around us.
In spite of this, however, one thing that most adults have in common is that there is a certain consistency in how they operate at any given point. You may have believed one thing in your 20s and now a contradictory thing in your 40s, but you didn’t believe them at the same time.
But in roughly 1% of the population, what we find is that they are at a stage of development, which is usually the final stage, in which they live in a complex and contradictory manner.3
It’s less about one extreme or another, but more so, it’s about knowing and balancing both of them at the same time and using whichever one is the most relevant at any given point.
The core input requirement for creativity that Csikszentmihalyi found across every person he interviewed was that they were all complex and contradictory people in this precise manner. Even beyond their surface-level similarities, this was the trait that connected everything.
They were both humble and proud at the same time. They were rebellious, but they were also conservative. They were not only passion-driven but also results-driven. They valued the role of discipline while also leaving room for random play. Each thing had its place.
This diverse complexity is what gave them the foundational tools to do new, original, and innovative work. They could attack their problems from a variety of angles as they needed.
In the life-long process of creativity, the inputs you bring to the table heavily inform the outputs that are produced. They define the range in which you are capable of operating.
To do interesting work, you have to be interesting. To produce complexity, you have to live it.
Meaning Is in the Intersubjective Reality
One of the distinctions that Csikszentmihalyi is quick to make is between lowercase-c creativity and capital-C Creativity. The latter being what he was trying to define concretely.
Lowercase-c creativity is the art of making connections between previously unconnected things. It’s something everyone does all the time. In this way, each one of us is creative.
Capital-C Creativity, however, is what distinguishes the people he had isolated for the study.
Great creative achievement isn’t just a product of doing new and innovative work in your own domain, or merely making original things for yourself, but it emerges as you disrupt culture.
What makes something meaningful is the relationship it has to other things. While doing good work in your own domain may be objectively relevant, and making something great for yourself may be subjectively important, meaning is only found in the intersubjective realm.
The intersubjective is neither objective or subjective. It’s the world of collective ideas that drive our cultural direction. It’s the realm that shapes what we value and what we believe.
For something to be considered capital-C Creative, it has to satisfy all three of these criteria: objectively important in your domain, subjectively valuable to you, and intersubjectively meaningful in a way that influences how society and its people operate and live.
This output into culture is why almost all of the subjects in the study found their work fulfilling.
There is no point, for example, developing a life-saving vaccine that stays in a lab. Similarly, writing a philosophy that alleviates spiritual suffering is limited unless others connect with it.
A truly creative life is as much about other people in the world and what they gain from your work as it is about how it makes you feel and what it accomplishes in the eyes of your peers.
All You Need to Know
Is the process of disrupting culture the only way to combine a life of creativity and fulfillment?
Only if we narrow our vision. While it’s nice to appreciate how certain models understand achievement and the way it interacts with the rest of us, they contain only a partial truth.
Although not all of us will live a life that produces something we consider capital-C Creative, we can all use this definition to help us enhance our lowercase-c creativity in daily affairs.
There are important lessons to take away from the two pillars we have identified and the way that they relate to fulfillment; lessons that are easily applicable to our own work and hobbies.
They are a reminder that it’s okay, and even beneficial, to embrace the complexity that comes with balancing contradictions. When you can see opposing extremes in a way that does them both justice, you allow a diverse range of inputs that open up new possibilities.
Similarly, when you look beyond just the objective results produced in your own domain or the subjective personal joy you gain from creation, a whole new world invites you in.
There is profound meaning that can be created in our intersubjective reality, in both big and small ways. As soon as you share your creativity outside of the limitations of your domain and your personal space, there is unbounded potential in the connections that are available.
Many people, by default, don’t see themselves as creative because they treat it as some mysterious force they don’t possess. But in truth, it’s just a matter of living and expressing.
You don’t need to chase a creative life to be fulfilled. You just need to avoid being boxed in.
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