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.
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
For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”
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
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.”
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.
Continue reading Irony: ‘Good Fences Make Good Neighbors’