In “Finding Flow,” Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi writes, “The quality of experience [is] a function of the relationship between challenges and skills. Optimal experience, or flow, occurs when both variables are high.” When you address big challenges with high skill levels, feats of creative genius are possible.
This is true for any field. Even within the rigid structure of mathematics—my husband is a mathematician, and he tells me this is true—there’s room for divergent thinking that leads to new discoveries and innovative ways to think about old problems.
Last week, I was scheduled to teach a workshop. Two of the four students were a mystery in terms of their creative experience. In preparation, I needed to remember what it was like not to be confident of my creative skills.
Though I have my doubts from day to day, in a general sense, I know that I have a relatively high capacity for creative action. I think this is true for many of us. But when the subject comes up in conversation, there are people who claim they’re not creative.
I muse about what separates the creatives from the self-described “non-creatives.” Some personal archeology was called for: why do I consider myself creative?
In 1968—probably before you were born—I won a red Thermos cooler in a coloring contest.
In seventh grade figure drawing class (poses provided by fully clothed class members) the model sat with his back to me, but I still managed to draw a pretty good likeness of the back of his head.
At my high school, we put on performances that were the equivalent of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland’s “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” if they’d been enrolled at a Department of Defense school in Europe in 1975.
During that same period, the community theater director cast me in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” David Pomeroy was my song and dance partner even though he was shorter than me (a perennial problem throughout high school).
I wrote restaurant reviews/travelogues for the high school paper that mostly involved me taking myself to various Chinese restaurants and visiting tourist destinations in the nearby Belgian city of Mons.
At Ball State University, culture shocked and unsure of where I fit in, I immersed myself in music, taking singing lessons that focused on operatic technique (really awful idea), and performing in local coffee houses (only slightly more successful). My guitar and I learned a few songs from music pals and developed a playlist of tunes by Dylan, Goodman and the three J’s: Judy, Joan and Joni.
In short, it’s not exactly a remarkable list of creative achievements.
“Excuse me, sir, but how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice, practice. Even though my efforts were not particularly impressive, I was practicing being creative from an early age.
My senior year at Ball State, I finally took a “real” art class from ceramicist Marvin Reichle. One of the things that stayed with me from the class was his admonition to “Do it 29 times.” Anyone who’s taken a class from me has heard me say this, probably 29 times.
Reichle opened my eyes to the possibilities of visual art, but by that time I was sure it was too late to go down that path. I was a writer, had always been a writer, and would always be only a writer. In hindsight, 30-odd years later, I realize it wasn’t too late. In fact, it was just the beginning; it was precisely the right time to start contemplating a creative life beyond the one I had initially thought possible.
Maybe our personal definition of “creative” is the most important criteria. Is a great cook creative? A scientist? An administrator? And what if your work defies categorization?
Here’s what I believe: high skill levels brought to bear on interesting problems get our creative juices flowing, regardless of whether our brains and our lives fit into neat little boxes of competency. Sometimes we’re good at or interested in multiple disciplines that don’t neatly overlap. I vote for celebrating those fabulously rich cross-disciplinary pollinations and the resulting discovery of new ways of thinking about the world.