Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

In short

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention is an exploration of the creative process and the lives of creative people. It’s based on ~100 interviews of successful creative individuals from various fields (poets, physicists, to business leaders). Overall it’s an intriguing read and especially the replies from the interviewees are interesting and shed a lot of light on the creative process. But don’t expect a rigorous analysis of what makes people creative – it’s mostly a narrative on the psychology of creativity and the domains in which it appears.

In the end I would say it’s a worthwhile read to understand the environment of creativity and how creative people view their own accomplishments and lives, but it’s not as useful or strong as Csikszentmihalyi’s other famous book, on states of flow.

For more details and reviews go to Amazon.

Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

Creativity and attention

Creativity requires leftover attention. Meaning that we need to have the time and wealth available to focus on problems or ideas that are not necessary for immediate survival. This is why there are ‘centers of creativity’ (such as Greece in 5th century BCE and Paris in 19th century), places where wealth allowed people to experiment.

Centers of creativity are often found at the intersection of cultures. Places where lifestyles, knowledge, and beliefs differed and where people could combine new ideas more easily. In contrast, uniform cultures would require a larger investment of “attention” to see new ways of thinking.

Domains are increasingly becoming more complex, and as a result it will be more and more difficult to master multiple domains. The idea of a Renaissance man, an expert in multiple areas, is simply unrealistic nowadays. “Therefore, it follows that as culture evolves, specialized knowledge will be favored over generalized knowledge.”

But this doesn’t mean that specialization is good – creativity is often found at the boundaries between several domains.

Creativity can make everyone’s life more interesting and fulfilling. Csikszentmihalyi writes that people are born with two tendencies: 1) a conservative tendency (preservation-focused, saving energy) and 2) an expansive tendency (exploring, seeking novelty and risk). The second one leads to creativity. Of course we need to have both tendencies, but the first is often more ‘natural’ to us, it requires no outside support. The expansive tendency, one the other hand, needs cultivation – if there is no opportunity to be curious then the start of creative behavior is often halted.

Where is creativity?

Creativity is not an individual phenomenon (although it does look like that). Rather creativity is found “in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context”

And because we tend to think creativity is individual, it’s easy to miss that the biggest drivers for creativity lay outside of individuals. Take the creative centers of gravity described above.

The domain itself is also essential to boost or hinder creativity. “Three major dimensions are particularly relevant: the clarity of structure, the centrality within the culture, and accessibility.” So places where knowledge is documented and structured, central, and easily accessible will have a leg up when it comes to creativity.

If a domain boosts or hinders creativity, a specific field determines whether or not a novelty or innovation is worth it. Only few new things will become a part of the culture after all.

Fields themselves also affect the process of creativity in a few ways:

  • Is the field reactive or proactive? The latter would stimulate and promote novelty.
  • Does the field have a narrow or a broad filter? Depending on the level of conservatism, some fields only allow a few novelties to enter the domain. Others allow many more and, as a result, those fields tend to change more quickly.
  • Is the field well-connected to the rest of the system? An example: after the invention of the nuclear bomb, there was a broad level of support (and funds) in society for nuclear research which allowed for quick innovation.

So having discussed the domain and the specific field, there is of course the individual. Most studies focus on the person itself, and assume that the key to creativity is found there. But this doesn’t mean that there’s a single characteristic that’s responsible for creativity. There might be some that help creativity, but being in the right place at the right time (i.e. being lucky) is of high importance.

“[A] good creative person is well trained. So he has first of all an enormous amount of knowledge in that field. Secondly, he tries to combine ideas, because he enjoys writing music or enjoys inventing. And finally, he has the judgment to say, “This is good, I’ll pursue this further.”” – Jacob Rabinow

Creative personality types

“Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals. If nothing else, this distinguishes them from the rest of us.”

Being creative requires curiosity, interest in what things are and how they work, openness to experience, and paying attention to how processes happen and, consequently, seeing how novelty can have potential.

In terms of personality characteristics, Csikszentmihalyi writes that while he is hesitant to define personality traits (since creativity is complex, and likely cannot be explained by components alone), it is usually complexity that defines creative people. Meaning: exhibiting traits that for most people are separate.

He lists 10 pairs of personality traits where creative people often bounce from one extreme to the other:

  1. “Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.” The move between periods of active work and taking a lot of rest. Their energy, and schedule, are under their own control and is not guided by a calendar or by others.
  2. While creative individuals are usually smart, they are also naive at the same time.
  3. Creative individuals are playful and disciplined, and can move between periods of responsibility and irresponsibility.
  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.”
  5. Create people can both exhibit extroverted and introverted tendencies.
  6. Creative individuals are humble and proud.
  7. Most people are either masculine or feminine, but creative people escape from this rigid definition and have aspects from both definitions.
  8. Creative people are rebellious and independent, but they cannot be creative without first understanding the domain in which they work.
  9. While creative individuals are passionate about what they do, they also have be objective about it as well.
  10. “Finally, the openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.”

The creative process

“Robert Galvin says that creativity consists of anticipation and commitment. Anticipation involves having a vision of something that will become important in the future before anybody else has it; commitment is the belief that keeps one working to realize the vision despite doubt and discouragement.”

The creative process has been described in five steps:

  1. Preparation: immersing into an area or issue that is interesting or curious.
  2. Incubation: ideas start to form subconsciously, connections are made.
  3. Insight: the light bulb moment when an insight or solution becomes conscious.
  4. Evaluation: a period in which the person evaluates if the insight is valuable (and / or worth pursuing further)
  5. Elaboration: the “actual work”, translating the insight or idea into reality.

Of course this process is a simplification, and does not follow the exact five steps. In reality they probably overlap and recur more often before the process is finalized.

Creative breakthroughs often happen when an idea from one domain is grafted to another. Even though creative people might not describe themselves as interdisciplinary, it’s often where the best ideas happen. This is also a caution against (over)specialization.

All respondents in the study agree that letting ideas simmer subconsciously is of importance. Freeman Dyson describes it as follows: “I am fooling around not doing anything, which probably means that this is a creative period, although of course you don’t know until afterward. I think that it is very important to be idle. I mean, they always say that Shakespeare was idle between plays. I am not comparing myself to Shakespeare, but people who keep themselves busy all of the time are generally not creative. So I am not ashamed of being idle.”

After this period of incubation, it’s key that the good ideas are separated from the bad ones – which is often the difference between the most creative and less creative people. Everyone has ideas, but having the ability to separate them early in the process prevents wasting time and effort.

Location, location, location

Even though it seems that creative people can work in the most diverse of places, their environments still matter a lot.

Especially in science, but also in art, it can pay off to be close to major laboratories, journals, institutes, or conferences – new voices are heard more quickly there. But there’s also a risk: these are also the places where pressure is intense, which might hinder creative incubation.

Some creative people seek out inspiring environments. Bellagio is one of those creative places, with many famous visitors throughout the ages – from Pliny the Younger, to Leonardo da Vince.

Even though it’s difficult to prove scientifically that these environments help creative works, individual accounts suggest that it might help. Provided, of course, that the environment one seeks out is inspiring to that individual personally.

It’s not just sitting and watching inspiring environments that seems to work, Greek philosophers used the peripatetic method. Meaning: discussing ideas while walking through the courtyards.

Interestingly, a study that randomly asked (ordinary) people throughout the day to rate their levels of creativity, found that the highest ratings occurred in some form of semi-automatic activity. Like walking, driving, or swimming. So fully focusing on a problem, or being busy, is not a recipe for peak creativity.

“When we think intentionally, thoughts are forced to follow a linear, logical — hence predictable — direction. But when attention is focused on the view during a walk, part of the brain is left free to pursue associations that normally are not made.”

Inspiring or stimulating environments can be good for creating new insights, but when it comes to the preparation and elaboration periods (arguably the longest periods of creative work) a more familiar, comfortable environment seems useful. Beethoven composed on small pieces of paper, and Einstein wrote his theory of relativity on a kitchen table for example.

Finally, creating a schedule of timetable for work is very personal. What is important for creativity is not whether one plans every minute, or has no plan at all, but whether or not the person is in charge of their own time, if they can set their own schedule.

The lives of creative people

Being a childhood prodigy is not necessary for later creative endeavors. There are examples of children being very gifted in a domain during childhood, and other examples of people only making major steps in midlife. But what seems to be a common thread is curiosity: creative people feel inspired by problems and mysteries, and try to solve them from an early age.

Parental influence is important in developing a child’s creative interest. Some examples include treating kids as adults, being honest with them, shaping interest in different areas, guidance (especially for kids that lack proper schooling or have a marginal upbringing), setting expectations, and, maybe most importantly, shaping their character.

It helps to be born in a family where intellectual behavior is practiced (34% of the sample had fathers doing an intellectual job, such as writer, professor, or scientist). Interestingly coming from a middle class background is a disadvantage – the sample included more people from poor backgrounds and upper-class ones, but not middle class.

School seems to have little effect on creativity (it might even be a threat that extinguishes creativity), although specific teachers are sometimes mentioned as influential.

During teenage years creative people are often less popular (more nerdy), less independent, and more lonely – curiosity and focus is odd compared to most peers.

When it comes to college, what sets creative people apart – besides curiosity – is drive. Whatever their calling, it still requires hard work, so drive is the ‘perspiration’ to the ‘inspiration’ (curiosity). This also continues when starting their career which also requires drive and a good dose of luck (being in the right place, at the right time).

Most creative people in the sample had stable marriages and families, and they often point to it as an indispensable help in their careers.

While creativity is often seen as a light bulb moment, a flash of inspiration, it more often is a long-term commitment – sometimes of a lifetime. Take, for instance, Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was in essence a slow collection of facts and hypotheses over years that resulted in a groundbreaking theory.

Creative individuals are often forced to create their own jobs and careers. There were no psychoanalysts before Freud, and no radiologists before Roentgen. This is also true for writers, artists and musicians: while those careers technically exist, they must create their own voice and there is no set formula for success.


Most creative people continue working throughout their lives. They may slow down in terms of ambition, but often remain just as focused on their projects.

The relation between age and creativity is unclear. Some say that most “great contributions” are made by their third decade of life, but total creative output remains steady between thirty and seventy. And some more recent studies also showed that not just quantity that remains steady, but the quality as well.

The respondents in the sample did not see much change in the ability to their work into later years, but some did mention physical and cognitive changes, such as lower energy.

What gave their life meaning in the end? Mostly it was their professional work and their families. This basically confirms “Freud’s deceptively simple answer to an inquiry about the secret for a happy life: “Love and work,” he said, and with those two words he may have run out of all the options.”

Culture and creativity

Society progresses by its creativity, we need people that break tradition, try new things and help find solutions to emergent problems.

“Survival no longer depends on biological equipment alone but on the social and cultural tools we choose to use. The inventions of the great civilizations — the arts, religions, political systems, sciences and technologies — signal the main stages along the path of cultural evolution. To be human means to be creative.”

But that doesn’t mean that all innovations are good (think: cigarettes, nuclear power, et cetera). The more we are able to change our environment, the higher the chance that we invent something that has undesirable results. Creation is inevitably also linked to potential destruction.

And in a way successful creativity is the seed of its own destruction. Successful cultures tend to get complacent, which leads to failure over the long-term. “If necessity is the mother of invention, secure affluence seems to be its dysfunctional stepparent.”

The higher the standard of living and comfort, the less incentive we have to change things. “The result of creativity is often its own negation.”

How to improve personal creativity?

So, as a whole, creativity has a clear positive impact. What are some ways to increase personal creativity?

To start with, it’s important to understand that success and fame from creative endeavors are rare and require a lot of luck. Not to mention access to a domain, training, and support. But even if creativity does not lead to success, it does make day-to-day life more enjoyable and rewarding for people. “When we live creatively, boredom is banished and every moment holds the promise of a fresh discovery.”

The author recommends the following steps to a more creative life:

1. Cultivation of curiosity, and paying attention to things

As we age we tend to lose the sense of wonder about the world, but without this life becomes routine. How do we cultivate curiosity?

  • Aim to be surprised at least once a day – try to look at unusual things, try a new dish in a restaurant, try to actually listen deeply to conversations. Key here is to stop living on autopilot and to stop to assuming you already know the answer; actually open up to experiences.
  • Aim to surprise other people – rather than being your predictable self, break your routine, show your true opinions, ask questions you normally wouldn’t ask.
  • Write these experiences down. Most creative people have a diary, notebook or lab records to record experiences. After doing this for a while, patterns of interest might start to form.
  • When you do find something that interests you, follow it. Don’t think you’re too busy, or that it’s not your business. Exploration is key.

2. Creating flow in daily life

The above steps help to revive curiosity, but unless it becomes an enjoyable experience it won’t last. The pursuit of new experiences and knowledge, and exploring your creativity needs to become self-sustaining.

  • Wake up with a specific goal in mind. Creative people are not necessarily more enthusiastic, but they often belief that there is something of meaning to accomplish that day. Most people probably don’t have a daily goal they are excited to wake up for, but it can be a good habit to at least think of one thing that’s worth waking up to.
  • Excellence makes things enjoyable. The quality of the experience, how we do something with excellence and skill, makes the experience rewarding. The more habits we can perform in this way the more we can be in ‘flow’.
  • Set new challenges. Increasing the complexity and seeking new opportunities are essential to keep enjoying something. If not, then we risk it becomes boring. Activities that have almost infinite complexities are generally more satisfying because we can keep upping the ante (think music, writing, gardening, philosophy, et cetera).

3. Habits of strength

  • Take charge of your own schedule. Most people are bound by some inflexibility in terms of schedule (e.g. office hours), but creative energy is very personal. Some people work better in the morning, others in the evening. So the key is to be in charge of your own schedule and do things according to our own routine.
  • Reflect and relax: being busy is not conducive to being creative. So after a period of work and stress, there needs to be a period of relaxation – for many creative people this involves light physical activities such as walking, swimming, or driving. This allows time for thinking, reflection, and for subconscious creative processing to happen.
  • Set up your own creative space. This is very personal and works on a few different levels: macro (e.g. live in a city, on the seashore, mountains, et cetera), mid-level (which community, urban or suburban, type of activities available, et cetera), and micro (at home).
  • Find out what you like and dislike about your own life. “It is astonishing how little most people know about their feelings. There are people who can’t even tell if they are ever happy, and if they are, when or where. Their lives pass by as a featureless stream of experience, a string of events barely perceived in a fog of indifference. As opposed to this state of chronic apathy, creative individuals are in very close touch with their emotions. They always know the reason for what they are doing, and they are very sensitive to pain, to boredom, to joy, to interest, and to other emotions. They are very quick to pack up and leave if they are bored and to get involved if they are interested. And because they have practiced this skill for a long time, they need to invest no psychic energy in self-monitoring; they are aware of their inner states without having to become self-conscious .”

4. Integration in personality traits

  • Develop the things you lack. Creative people tend to exhibit opposite characteristics, while most people are very specialized. By developing opposite characteristics (e.g. intuition if you’re analytical), a new world of experience opens up.
  • Shift between openness and closure. Creativity requires shifting between being open and receptive on the one hand, and focusing and discipline on the other.
  • Choose complexity. Humans beings are complex, and creative personalities even more so. They have many different sides, but at the same time they are also integrated (there’s a common thread). This is something everyone can aim to do: by developing things we lack, by shifting between openness and closure, and by cultivating curiosity.

5. Applying creative energy

  • Find a problem – it might not change the world, but will change your view of the world because it means you are actively looking at things you would otherwise ignore.
  • As a first step you need to be able to express the problem, which means translating a feeling of unease into words.
  • Then don’t immediate rush into a solution, but examine the problem from multiple viewpoints and actively try to find multiple arguments and alternatives for the same issue.
  • What are the implications of the problem? At this stage you can start thinking about different solutions – the key is to find different solutions and alternatives until the optimum one has been found. This will take time, but to be creative you sometimes need to be indecisive rather than quick and consistent.
  • Implement the solution, but stay flexible and keep your options open until the last moment. The more information and feedback the better (and more original) the solution will be.

6. Stimulating divergent thinking

Creativity does not always mean solving problems, it can also mean finding out the best way to respond to something or generating abstract ideas. This is divergent thinking and, when training this, three aspects are usually in focus:

  • Fluency, or coming up with as many ideas as possible (quantity)
  • Flexibility, or coming up with as many different ideas as possible (i.e. avoiding redundancy)
  • Originality, or coming up with ideas that are rare

In the end, “what really matters […] is not whether your name has been attached to a recognized discovery, but whether you have lived a full and creative life.” And to a live a creative life, the above steps are not a bad place to start.

Interested in Creativity? Get the book on Amazon.

Or, browse all book notes here.