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The ABCs of Creativity: Zone

When someone is “in the zone,” he or she is exhibiting the highest level of his or her talent through a seemingly effortless expenditure of energy. Michael Jordan’s 38 pts, 7 rebound, five assists, three steals and a block stat line while having the flu or his hitting six triples against Portland and shrugging about it after being criticized for his lack of three-point shooting skills are both great examples of being in the zone. Athletes are most often described this way because they are most often in the limelight, but artists, scientists and hobbyists can feel as if they are in the zone or, as creativity pioneer Csikszentmihalyi called it, “the flow.”

In Csikszentmihalyi’s “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” he describes part of the creative process as “the flow” and says that there are nine elements that characterize the flow:

  • Clear goals with no ambiguity: In the case of Jordan’s basketball games, the goal is clear; put the ball in your hoop. Whether you do it or you get a teammate to do it, the ball needs to get in your hoop.
  • Immediate feedback: The ball either goes in the hoop or it doesn’t. The feedback is immediate.
  • Challenge and skills are balanced: This is a little more difficult to illustrate. Basically, the question is whether or not the person’s skills are balanced with the challenge he or she is facing. If the challenge is too easy or too difficult, the person will not be able to enter the flow. It’s when the two are in alignment that the person enters the flow state.
  • Action merges with awareness: The person is focused on what he or she is doing. They do not think about anything other than the activity in the here and now.
  • No distractions: They exclude distraction from their minds. They are in the moment.
  • No concern about failure: The activity that the person is involved in is too consuming to give the person the opportunity to worry about failing or the outcome of failure.
  • No self-consciousness: The activity is too consuming for the person to be worried about how he or she appears to the outside world.
  • Time changes: Things slow down and time speeds up so that while the person is doing the activity, every detail can be examined, everyone else around him or her is slower, but when the activity is over the person doesn’t feel as if any time at all has passed. He or she loses track of time.
  • The activity is the end not the means to an end: If the activity is itself the goal and the required means to get to a greater goal, it becomes easier to enter the flow. If an author is writing to write a book and not to publish it or make money from it, he or she is more likely to enter the flow.

Getting into the flow creatively is why artists are depicted as absent-minded or the author doesn’t her someone calling out to him while he or she sits at the typewriter. It’s also what makes creativity so rewarding. Being in the flow indicates the person is operating at his or her highest possible ability without being overwhelmed. Get in the flow, or the zone, if you prefer, become more creative.

For more on creativity, check out, “Disneyland Is Creativity,” “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity,” and “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories for Greater Positive Creativity.” If you want more content like this, join our Patreon.

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Want More Creativity? Figure out Where You Can Save Time and Decision Making Energy

clear glass with red sand grainer

According to Csikszentmihalyi in “Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” Albert Einstein wore the same sweater and pants every day, so he didn’t have to decide what to where, he could focus his attention on the more important things he was thinking about. Choosing what clothes to wear may seem like a trivial thing to worry about, but every decision takes energy and time, and little moments add up to large chunks of time when put together (p. 351).

Charles Dickens rejected a friend’s invitation on the basis of time. He had so much to accomplish and so little time to do it in, so while it may seem only an afternoon or a lunch to his friend, it could be an entire day lost thinking about how the whole encounter would go. His art wouldn’t allow him to use his time in dalliances because time is the most precious commodity, we possess (Kevin Ashton, “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,” p. 71-72).

Fidel Castro said he didn’t shave because shaving took up to 10 days a year from him. The amount of time he saved by not shaving every day was precious enough for him to sport a long beard.

Finding ways to save time that can be put to better use is one of the projects that every creative person should take. Hiring a housekeeper can help free time for more creative activities. The same could be said of hiring a gardener. Moving closer to the day job, cleaning the home less often if you can’t afford a housekeeper, and learning to say “No” to obligations you don’t need or want are other suggestions.

Tell us in the comments what your favorite ways are to save time.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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Is the Creative Personality a Result of Genetic Predisposition for Needing Newness and Needing Stability?

Let your dreams be bigger than your fears

Csikszentmihalyi says that the creative personality is made up of seemingly opposite character traits. Creative people are extroverted and introverted. They are energetic and restful. They are smart and naïve. In all, he lists 10 different pairs of personality traits that many people would consider contradictory. Creative people have access to these modes of being and use them when the situation calls for it.

It is possible that these diametrically opposed traits come from the underlying genetic predisposition homo sapiens have regarding creativity. Human beings want safety and security; most of the population avoids risk taking. However, people also need to engage in finding the new and creating. It’s how the human race has survived. Taking risks is an important part of creating something, but the wrong risks could threaten your tribe’s existence.

It’s this constant push and pull that creative people face. Business say they want creativity, but they ignore new ideas and promote those who maintain the status quo. The give resources to the old products and leave research and development to flounder. When someone comes up with a way to change the corporate culture for greater profitability, the risk is seen as too great and that person is often ridiculed, especially if the change would’ve resulted in people losing their jobs or having to change their skills.

Even people who are interested in creativity will choose what they know over what they don’t. It takes a concerted effort or an ironclad argument to get people to change. When facing the effort it takes to introduce new patterns or changes that could fail to an organization and the associated risks, many people would rather hide their ideas and continue as if nothing will be different. Creative people would rather control the direction of the change, even if that means they aren’t really in control of what happens.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Order “Penguinate! Positive Creativity.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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Irony: ‘Good Fences Make Good Neighbors’

In “Everything All At Once” Bill Nye uses the proverb “Good fences make good neighbors” to bring out his point that sometimes people need privacy. He isn’t advocating for a wall. A “voluntary boundary” built to keep to oneself is different than a boundary built to keep others out. People need both to have a fence and have people in their lives. It’s one of the diametrically opposed character traits that all creatives have, according to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi: they need to be alone and they need to be with people.

However, the specific wording in this proverb comes from Robert Frost’s 1914 poem “Mending Wall” (see below). Two men walk along a rock wall putting the rocks back from where they have fallen. The narrator says, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” As he continues along the wall with his neighbor, he thinks about the fence they are mending.

What point is there in this wall? It separates apples from pines as if they would eat the fruit of the other tree. “Good fences make good neighbors,” replies the neighbor using his father’s sentiments.

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know\What I was walling in or walling out,\And to whom I was like to give offense.\Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,\That wants it down,” continues the narrator. The neighbor appears as an old-stone savage in the dark and can think of no more reply than the one he gave before. “Good fences make good neighbors.”

While the character who says the proverb believes it, even if he doesn’t think about it or maybe because he specifically doesn’t think about it, it’s clear that the narrator doesn’t believe the same. The point is that good fences DON’T make good neighbors. It’s ironic.

Nye’s reference to this proverb doesn’t harness the irony inherent in it. Considering his entire book centers on people thinking about and challenge currently held beliefs while using the scientific method to come up with better ways to do better in the world. This seems like a missed opportunity. (Unless he addresses the issue again in the last 30 pages of “Everything All At Once.”)

“Mending Wall” is in the public domain.

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors”.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”