Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has been studying how creative people live and work for more than thirty years. Here, he extends his earlier theory of “flow” to encompass the relationship between creative individuals and the societies in which they live. Csikszentmihalyi defines creativity as a process by which a symbolic domain in a culture is changed. His discussion is based on ninety-one extensive interviews with contemporary individuals at least sixty years of age who have made significant contributions to one of the arts or sciences, business, government, or human wellbeing in general. These people range from actor Ed Asner to chemist Ilya Progogene, social scientist David Riesman to writer Naguib Mahfouz, banker and philanthropist John Reed to politician Eugene McCarthy, and excerpts from their interview transcripts are fascinating.
After detailed consideration of the creative process, Csikszentmihalyi focuses on how creativity manifests at different stages of the human life cycle, and his conclusions about creativity and aging are encouraging. He also offers detailed case studies of individuals working in the particular domains of language, life sciences, and future studies. The book’s stated purpose is to describe how culture evolves as domains are transformed by the curiosity and dedication of a few exceptional individuals. A secondary goal is to extract useful ideas from the lives of such people so that everyone’s life can become more creative. In the last chapter, Csikszentmihalyi presents his own conclusions about obstacles to everyday creativity as well as prescriptive suggestions.
The perspective on creativity taken here, intentionally turning away from the individual nature of the creative experience to focus on social context, is interesting but may be disconcerting to some readers. In a footnote, Csikszentmihalyi himself says: “My preference would be to approach creativity as a subjective phenomenon, but unfortunately I see no realistic way of doing so.” One can hope that this desire is sufficiently alive in the author to serve as a spur for subsequent consideration. Systematic investigation of the development of individual consciousness—objective study of subjective growth—seems to be the next research step in this important frontier.