I am going to talk about a set of studies on creativity which focuses on adults and which will result in a book scheduled to appear next year (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). I had the good fortune of being able to interview, over the past 6 years, about 100 creative men and women, generally in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even in their 90s-who are still very actively involved in creative activities. We videotaped the interviews and my team at the University of Chicago and myself have been analyzing the interviews and will be reporting on them.
Most of you are interested in creativity in children, and of course that makes sense, because that's where the long process of creative development begins. But I think it is also important to look at creativity from the other end of the spectrum, and look at those who have led a life in which they have demonstrated creativity over time. Among other things, focusing on creativity in later life is a way to understand better what we should or could do with our children to make their creativity flourish throughout their life, instead of focusing on problem solving or even problem finding in childhood. How are they going to be able to develop their talent and creativity over time? Understanding older people who are still creative will have an impact on understanding what we can do with children now.
In this paper, I want to bring up three major issues, which are among the topics of our study. The first one is, what can we learn about the life of creative persons? We are interested both in what these people have done from childhood on, and also what they do now that they are in their 80s or so. We are interested in their early background, the development of their careers, their motivations through life, and their working styles, as well as their present goals, challenges, and life situations. The outcome that we hope to achieve through this is to better understand creativity in real life contexts instead of testing situations or just the academic and educational environment. The second issue we hope to illuminate has to do with a model of optimal aging. We hear so much about the problems that age brings with it, and of course they are very real problems, but at the same time it would be good to see what the optimal potential is for people in their 80s and 90s. I hope that what we will learn from this group of 100 will be applicable to normal, everyday people like us in our later years.
The third issue is to use what we have learned about creativity in later life as a model for how to deal with creative children. For example, one of our results is that these individuals' curiosity and interest is still childlike. Many others who have studied creativity report that an almost childish curiosity is typical of creative adults (Gardner, 1993) Yet our educational system often dampens curiosity and interest in early life. Once these characteristics are gone it's hard to find them again. Preserving curiosity and interest is clearly a top priority for the cultivation of creativity.
Before presenting the initial data of our study, let me present the conceptual model that I am using. First of all, let me define creativity the way I am using the term. When talking about creativity, I don't mean the results of creativity tests or the kind of judgments that teachers make of the work of children. I mean by creativity an idea or action that changes a cultural domain such as mathematics, or a subset of mathematics like number theory, or geometry, or algebra. It could also be something more trivial like Creole cuisine or a new way of dancing (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990b; Feldman, Csikszentmihalyi, & Gardner, 1994). Culture is made up by a multitude of domains, and when a domain is changed we have creativity. So a creative person is someone whose idea or action succeeds in changing one of the domains of culture.
Therefore, what I am talking about here is creativity with a capital "C"--to differentiate it from the small "c" creativity, which represents creativity in everyday life, that all of us are striving for and that we push our children to develop. Small "c" creativity, or personal creativity, will in some cases develop into large "C" or cultural creativity. Personal creativity is presumably useful in order to achieve cultural creativity, but it may not be necessary. By looking at cultural creativity, we can understand better personal creativity, whereas the opposite might be less true. That is the general perspective I am working from.
The model to be used as the context for the data is a systems model of creativity. According to this, creativity that changes a culture is the product of three sub-systems. One is the individual, which is what we usually study. But it's not enough to know just about the individual. In order to know whether the novelty produced by a person is going to actually be effective in changing the culture, we also have to understand two other sub-systems: The culture, which is composed of a variety of domains, and the society, which is composed of a number of fields.
Let me give you a very simple example. Let's talk about creativity in a new domain, such as cinematography, or the making of movies. It is one of the more creative art forms of our time. Let's call that domain A. Now, cinematography did not start out cold. It did not spring from the brow of Jupiter, complete and ready to go. The domain of cinematography is related to other artistic domains that existed for a long time, such as the theater, literature, and photography. These already existing domains were combined to make the first movies. Any culture is made up of thousands and thousands of domains like these.
To be creative one must have a domain from which one can learn a cultural tradition. For instance, a person interested in movies may want to become a director, screenwriter, cinematographer, actor, film editor, or maybe a producer. This person will turn to the already existing domain of cinematography and bring to it something new that may change that domain. The individual learns from that domain and tries to produce a novelty in it. Depending on whether the novelty is accepted by the field of cinematography, the person will be recognized as someone creative who has contributed to the domain. The field of cinematography is made up of producers, investors, directors, critics, script writers, and The Academy of Motion Pictures. These are the people who can decide whether a new film or a new cutting technique is or is not worth including into the domain of cinematography. You could have a lot of very interesting and novel ideas about making movies, but unless those ideas are selected by the field, there will be no change and therefore no creativity.
Once the movie is accepted by the field, it is added to the domain and the contribution enlarges the domain from what it was before. The new generation of movie makers will see the work as being part of the domain and react to it by saying something like, "Gee, look how well he cut the scenes or how well he used pan shots. I am going to try something like that, but different." This process is part of a continuing spiral. A person absorbs certain rules or techniques from a domain and makes a change, which might or might not be accepted by the people who control the domain. The field acts as a gatekeeper to the domain, and if the gatekeepers accept the new idea and add it to the domain, then it will become part of the culture. Then another cycle will start, and so on and on. To be useful, this model has to generate new questions and has to suggest different ways of looking at things. One can in fact play with this model quite a bit. For instance, one question that immediately presents itself is whether domains are all equally important to the culture. We will probably agree that they are not. Physics is much more important than a domain like chess. The importance of domains change with time. Theology and religion were much more important in the Middle Ages, and now they have much less relevance to the culture in general. Let's say that creative theologians, like Augustine and Aquinas, became centerpieces of European civilization in the 5th and 14th centuries, respectively. It would be difficult to make a similar impact nowadays, no matter how creative one might be, by changing the domain of religion. But, by changing the domain of physics one can become a world icon.
Another implication of the model is that, depending on how accessible the domain is, it is easier or more difficult to change it. A domain like mathematics is pretty well protected by long years of arduous training, so that if you are born in a lower class environment, you may not be able to access it. Even if you are very creative, you can't make that much of a change in it, whereas in some other domains like music, it is easier for a poor person to access the domain and be recognized for changing it.
Change in a domain that is clearly structured and codified will immediately be recognized around the world, whereas a change in a domain that is loosely organized may never be noticed. For instance, a professor of physics in Germany I know was teaching a small seminar on physics and one day he put an equation on the board, and one of the students raised his hands and asked if he could make a change in the equation. This student said, "I think I can write it more clearly." The professor said, "Sure, help yourself!" The student went on to write a beautiful equation which was much more elegant than the professor's. The story is that a week later the professor was getting phone calls from colleagues from other universities in Germany and Scandinavia, asking if it was true that he actually had a student who wrote this great equation on the board. Two weeks later he was getting calls from MIT and Harvard asking the same question, and then 3 weeks later from Berkeley, Cal Tech, and the rest of the West Coast. The moral is that physics is so well mapped and organized and integrated, that just the slightest change has repercussions immediately all over the world. Incidentally, the student in the story went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics some years later.
You can have students in psychology, as I do, who are as smart and creative as any physics
student, but no matter what they do in a seminar, no one would know about it because there is not enough consensus about the domain of psychology to recognize whether an idea is really new, and
if so, whether it deserves attention. It would take years and years of hard work to get that idea recognized or to make an impression outside that domain. This is why creativity is relatively easy to achieve in some domains that are very closely structured, and why creativity in physics is usually recognized very early. The same is true for musicians or chess players, because one can tell a superb performance in these domains, whereas in others it is more difficult.
I could talk for hours and hours about the implications of the model. Let's return to the individual, because that's what most people are interested in, and that's also what the study of creativity has traditionally been concerned with. Some questions one might ask are: "How do people come to learn from a domain?" or "How do they produce novel ideas in it?"
Creative individuals are those who are able to internalize this system, which includes the domain, the field, and the person. They start with personal talent, interests, curiosity, and drive. They learn and take seriously the rules, the problems, and the conflicts that exist in the symbolic domain in which they have chosen to work. At the same time, they learn the criteria, priorities, and the concerns of other people who comprise the field. They anticipate what others will say when they see or hear their own new ideas. In all of the fields we studied, individuals are very aware of what colleagues and other people in their field are doing, thinking, and what their concerns are. It is very rare to find the isolated creator that a romantic version of history has told us exists--the kind of persons who never talk to anyone and work all by themselves. That is not really typical at all. Most creative people, even if they don't interact with others, have internalized the criteria of the other people in the field, their opinions, and values. Of course the creative person may then decide to reject everything that the field believes in, but the rejection will have no effect unless it is done in a way that is acceptable to others.
What kind of person is the one who does all this? One way to talk about the individuals we studied, is that they demonstrate something which I call a complex personality. Ordinarily, psychologists talk about people being either extroverted or introverted, masculine or feminine, being cooperative or cooperating. What we found in our study is the amazing ability on the part of creative people to move across the whole spectrum so that they don't generally end up at one of the extremes in the distribution of traits. That is why I call it complexity: an integration of different abilities.
Most of these people have a tremendous amount of energy. For instance, we interviewed Linus Pauling (one of the very few double Nobel Prize-winners, in Chemistry and Peace) when he was 92, a year before he passed away. He was still working on five different projects and for 3 hours he talked with enormous exuberance without taking a break. He could remember a dozen of his grade school friends, including where they lived and played. This great energy does not mean that creative persons are always on, or that they are hyperactive, because they also have the ability to turn off and take a nap for fifteen minutes and to reemerge very rested. Many of them also claim to sleep more than normal people. Business executives are often advised to sleep for only five hours so they have twice as much time to do all the things they need to do. That's fine as long as all you have to do is repeat things or do ordinary routines, but for creative work one needs a lot of processing time for the conscious and the unconscious mental processes to play around.
Their divergent thinking manifests itself in a variety of ways. Even in their 80s and 90s, they are very playful, open to new ideas and experiences. Yet, at the same time, when it's required, they are disciplined and responsible, rational and focused. They are not just imaginative and divergent, but also convergent, realistic thinkers. In our very first study of creative people (Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976), one of the things we found was that if you give the Rorschach test to creative artists, they come up with many more original interpretations of the inkblot than normal people, but they never give bizarre responses, which normal people generally do. The bizarre response is one where, even with the best of intentions, one could not recognize their description of what they see in the inkblots. Normal people say they see a submarine, when what it resembles is a butterfly. The originality of creative people's insights never distorts reality.
The psychological complexity of creative people also reveals itself in that they are both extroverted and introverted at the same time. Freeman Dyson, the physicist, also one of the members of our sample, uses the metaphor of having the door of his office open and closed. Whenever he wants to gather information, he keeps the door of his office open because one cannot do science without knowing what everyone else is doing. With the door open, he can go up and down the corridor and listen to everyone in their labs. Then comes the times to write, and then he closes the door and spends two to three weeks in complete quiet. The same alternation between interaction and solitude is necessary to do creative work in art, music, the movies, or business.
For instance, the CEO of one of the biggest banks in the world gets up at 5:30 a.m., goes to work at 6:00 a.m. and then spends 3 hours completely alone. No one can talk to him or see him, and that's when he gets most of his work pone. At about 10 o'clock, he opens his door, and, he says, "...then I become a tribal chief." All the Vice presidents and general managers come and bring their problems, they discuss plans and ideas, and he pats them on the backs.
Creative people are both ambitious and humble, competitive and cooperative. They also have androgynous traits: The women tend to be dominant and strong, the men sensitive. They cover the whole field and experience the whole gamut of human responses.
It's not that they are confused or indecisive, but that they can respond appropriately, depending on what the environment requires, in ways that at first might appear contradictory. For instance, creative individuals tend to be traditional and iconoclastic at the same time. One cannot be creative without taking seriously an existing domain. You have to be committed to a tradition if you want to change it. At the same time, if you want to change it you have to be somewhat irreverent of the existing wisdom. One must take it lightly and seriously at the same time. Another dialectic is that between attachment and detachment. It is very important to care tremendously about what one does, so as to completely forget everything else, so as to be immersed in what one is doing. Then one should be able to pull back and ask, "Is this good or not?" If one doesn't have the ability to be detached, then one will be allover the place and probably not know if and when one has something good. The ability to be self-critical follows from the internalization of the rules of the domain and the opinions of the field. That's what makes people detached, able to know what is needed, and able to apply criticism to the work as it develops. Finally, another set of polar opposites worth mentioning are those that involve suffering and joy. Creative individuals have more than the usual complement of both. After all, they are trying to do things that haven't been done before, and they are more sensitive than normal people (Piechowski, 1979; Piechowski, 1995). Failure is almost inevitable and this is painful. At the same time, when they are involved in what they are doing there is a tremendous joy and self confidence that comes from expanding limits of a domain. These are some of the contradictory characteristics of a complex personality that make it possible for these people to have the endurance, the concentration, and at the same time, the questioning attitude that leads to problem finding, which gives them the opportunity to change some element of their domain so that the culture will change.
It is not enough to have the appropriate personality characteristics and talent. When we asked creative people what made them become creative, most of them said "luck." Obviously it wasn't just luck, but they saw luck as being one of the most important things. What does luck mean? It means being at the right place at the right time. For instance, almost all the women scientists that we studied belonged to the cohort of women who were the first ones to go to graduate school in their fields.
Rosalyn Yalow, Nobel Prize winner in medicine, was the first woman to be admitted to the graduate physics program at the University of Illinois. That was in 1941 and she was admitted only because most of the other physics students were at the War in the Pacific. There weren't enough male graduate students, so the faculty decided against their 'better wisdom' to admit women to graduate school. Almost every woman of that generation said that if it weren't for World War II, they wouldn't be in science. This includes astronomers, chemists, and physicists who happened to be the first generation of women to really have a chance to get fellowships, teach classes, and have a mentor. Before that time, a woman may have received a degree, but she wouldn't have been admitted to the field. The connection of the field to society at large is important. The field of science opened up because of the World War II embroiled the whole society. Other historical changes, such as the Great Depression or a sudden affluence, will affect how many new people can be admitted into the field. The University of Rome for almost 500 years had only seven students who majored in physics in graduate school, but after World War II, when physics became popular thanks to the atomic bomb, within 5 years there were over 300 graduate students in physics. This sudden increase was not due to a sudden opening of the domain but because society wanted nuclear physicists. That will allow the person to be creative in that domain but because society wanted nuclear physicists. There are fields of medicine that are contracting nowadays because HMOs have less use for radiologists or anesthesiologists-they want patients out as soon as possible-so young students training in those fields don't have as good of chances as they used to have 10 years ago.
Whether you can be creative in a field depends to a longer degree on whether or not society wants that field to continue and to have new ideas. So luck has to do with the convergence of the domain and the field at a particular time that will allow the person to be creative in that domain. One can be a creative person as an individual, but not achieve creativity in the sense of changing the culture, because that depends on the situation of the system as a whole.
We have reviewed certain aspects of the character of creative people and the next issue I would like to address is what happened to them as they grew older. What changes did they see in the last 20 years. The first kind of change these 100 creative people, most of them age 70 or above reported, concerns physical and cognitive abilities. These are the dimensions that we usually think of when we talk about creativity. About 36% of all the answers have to do with changes in mental abilities. What is interesting is that these answers were half negative and half positive. Actually, there was a nice half-and-half breakdown. The negative changes are predictable: "I don't have the energy, I can't travel, I am slower, I don't work as fast, my memory is not as good as it used to be, I make mistakes that I didn't used to make, etc." While such things were reported, there was an equal number of opposite changes. One respondent stated: "I am now more careful, so that even though I have a tendency to make more mistakes, because I take more care, I make fewer mistakes." Many people report they have become more understanding. They learn new strategies of thought. For instance, a Pulitzer Prize poet says, "I probably am a little more trustful of my unconscious instincts than I was before. I am not as rigid as I was, and I can feel it in the quality and the texture of the poems themselves. They are freer grammatically and freer in general design. The earliest poems that I wrote are almost rigid in my eagerness not to make any errors. I am less worried about it now." This quote would be a typical response from a businessman or an inventor, too. There would be the same feeling of "I can trust myself more now." There is a sense that one can take more risks, be more adventurous.
About one quarter of the responses have to do with habit, and here the positives outnumber the negatives 2 to 1. The negative changes include getting impatient, not having enough time, and becoming over committed. The positive changes involve becoming less anxious and less driven. In later life, these individuals tend to be more confident--they don't have to prove themselves. At 80 and 90 years of age, these people say they are more organized and assured, they have learned from the past, and they know how to use time better. Even though they know that time is shorter and that life is on its way out, they continue to stay busy and have learned to manage time. Women were more apt to give positive responses than men. They seem to learn more strategies for dealing with the kind of problems that aging presents. Here is a response from a woman astronomer whose name has recently been in the media for discoveries concerning the motion of galaxies: "Thirty years ago, it was totally different. I questioned whether or not I would actually be an astronomer. I had enormous doubts early on in my career. I was never really sure it was going to work and if I was going to be an astronomer." Despite her powerful drive, interest, and motivation, she was beset by the uncertainty that is typical of all creative persons: "Will this really work? Will anyone accept it? Will I really be able to convince others that what I do is important?" That was 30 years ago, but now that she is in her 70s she feels that these are no longer a problem. She is less anxious.
Another quarter of the accounts of change had to do with how the person relates to the field. These were half positive and half negative. Interestingly, all the negative responses were from men, whereas men and women were equally positive. Men in their 70s and 80s often experience loss of status and power, which makes them feel less positive about this period of life. Many have to give up their laboratories and their administrative or political positions. A famous physicist is on his fourth career at 84 years of age. Now he is a famous cookbook author in Germany. But before becoming a cookbook author, he was president of the German Science Foundation, he built the first atomic research reactor in Europe, and before all of that he was a top researcher and professor of physics. Even though he enjoys cooking and is glad to a be a famous author, he feels sad that he can't participate in setting the science agenda for Germany as he did before. While one loses power, there are new options and new opportunities. Many of the women say they have more time to work with students and that they help bring up a new generation of researchers and scientists. Incidentally, almost without exception, these people made major contributions by going beyond the original domains and connecting different domains with each other. Even creative artists often connect one branch of art to another. It is very rare to find real change that comes simply by burrowing more and more deeply into a single domain.
Here is an example from a woman physicist who was among the founders of the new field of nuclear medicine. In this example, Rosalyn Yalow, who is in her late 70s, describes a few weeks of her work at this point in her life.
This is clearly a person who hasn't given up working in her field. She is still very much involved in what happens in it and at the same time she is involved with her family. She is not just interested in the physics of radiation, she enjoys teaching seventh graders about the future of nuclear medicine as well. She is covering the whole spectrum of possibilities for this type of person.
The next set of changes has to do with relations to the domain. About 17% of the responses fell into this category and all of them are positive. No one complains that the domain let them down. In other words they can work in their domain until their last breath, and their knowledge can expand indefinitely. If you are an artist or physicist, there is no end to all the new things one can find out, and then one can move into a neighboring domain. Here is a typical quote from Jonas Salk, who perfected the polio vaccine in the late 1950s, and who at the end of his life was trying to find an antidote to the AIDS virus. This is what he said about what interests him now, besides the work in the laboratory.
This quote is fairly typical of creative people attempting to push into domains that don't yet exist. Post-biological evolution still lacks the symbolic organization that would qualify it as a domain. Salk was trying to move in this direction. It is true that when younger scholars hear the kind of thing Salk was talking about, they might say, "He is getting old and senile," from the perspective of a field that is focused on a specific domain that is what it looks like. But at this stage of life many creative individuals are no longer content with doing molecular biology or nuclear physics. They want to go beyond, and like most people who go beyond what is already known, many will fail and be ridiculed. Hopefully a few will break through and create a new domain and find a way for us to understand the world a little better.
Domains provide an inexhaustible supply of exciting new challenges. Here is the account of Isabelle Karle, an outstanding chemist and christallographer, who is in her 70s: "I have been successful in the sense that I have had all sorts of scientific awards, have been elected to membership in what are considered 'elite' societies; I get invited to speak at all sorts of universities allover the world. I think that the biggest satisfaction is just doing and finding out about something in nature that has never been known before. There is the satisfaction of seeing what some of these molecules look like. I suppose it is very personal. Other people find satisfaction doing something that has never been done before, writing music or painting pictures."
That is why domains remain so positive even in the last life of these people. They allow people in their 80s and 90s to keep exploring, keep marveling, and wondering at the kind of mysterious and yet understandable things revealed through the domain. Some even break through the domain to larger questions.
As we get older, without having something of this sort to sustain interest, curiosity, skills, and involvement, it is very difficult to have a happy old age. A symbolic system in which one can work, whether it is poetry or chemistry, gives us the opportunity to continue an active and purposeful life. It doesn't have to be at the Nobel Prize level. It can be at the level of the best that each of us can do, and that's really what happy aging is all about.
The reason why creativity research is so important, is because creativity is what distinguishes us from other life forms. Not just because we think original ideas, but because we can judge and evaluate our thoughts and record and preserve them in a culture. Biologically we share 98% of our genetic material with chimpanzees. Chimpanzees may also have original and creative thoughts, but they can't express them, and they can't create cultures with their thoughts. That is our privilege. What makes us different from other life forms is the result of creative thought, and the cultural and social systems that we build with them.
The creative process is what makes us totally human, and can make us happy despite all of the things that can go wrong in our lives, including death and old age. It is when we are creating that our lives are most fulfilled. By understanding how the creative process works, we have a chance to learn how to improve the quality of life for everyone, and especially for our children. In order to achieve these goals, it is clear that research must first broaden the understanding of what creativity is in the context of real life, culture, and society. Secondly, to broaden the perspective from childhood to embrace the entire life span. If we can do this, I truly believe that the study of creativity will become one of the most central and most exciting domains of the human sciences.
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