Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


Is there a secret recipe for creativity? Is there a method to the creative process? The author, a renown psychologist, presents what is probably the closest answer to the elusive holy grail of creativity. His findings are based on his interviews with 90 selected creative people who ‘have made a difference to a major domain of culture’ (page 11). These are people who express unusual thoughts, or who experience the world differently (pages 25-26). Dispelling the myth that creativity is ‘a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark’, the book defines creativity as ‘a process that unfolds over a lifetime‘, and which ‘comes after years of hard work’. In this way, he challenges the conventional stages of creativity-preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration (pages 79-83). The book sets out the general requirements that enable creativity, but does not pretend to have a single formula for creativity, stressing that ‘there are no simple solutions in these pages’ (page 1).

By LaurMGOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The book rejects the myth of the creative personality, but it establishes some traits that are common to creative people. The most important feature of creative people is the pleasure they get in ‘the flow of creativity‘; ‘even without success, creative people find joy in a job well done’ (page 5). Creative people are also complex, and the book explores this feature with ‘ten dimensions of complexity‘ such as the ability to use both convergent and divergent thinking styles, and the ability to combine playfulness with discipline (pages 55-76). These complex characteristics may explain why many creative people appear to others as arrogant, selfish, and ruthless (page 10). The book reviews several factors which favour creativity such as genetic predisposition for a domain (pages 51-52), openness to experience, and ability to the negotiate the field, or cultural capital (pages 51-55). The book extensively reviewed the different factors that shape the creative mind such as parenting style (pages 161-172), marriage (pages 183-210), and social class (page 171).

One of the key lessons of the book is the critical link between creativity and domain. The author, perhaps stating the obvious, says a person can only transform a domain he or she thoroughly understands, and this is consistent with his definition of creativity as ‘any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one’ (page 28). He illustrated this with the example of astronomer Vera Rubin whose discoveries about the motion of galaxies was only possible because ‘she had been, for years, deeply involved with the small details of the movements of stars’ (page 2). What is not so obvious however is that the spark for creativity frequently arises, not from within the domain, but from the interaction of domains, ‘when an idea that works well in one domain gets grafted to another and revitalises it’ (page 88). Creativity, therefore, usually involves ‘crossing the boundaries of domains‘, and this explains why ‘centres of creativity tend to be at the intersection of different cultures’ (page 9).

Creativity. Lauren Finkel on Flikr.

Throughout the book, the author stresses that creativity is as much a product of the individual as it is of the environment. He said creativity requires ‘the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context‘ (page 23). He illustrates this point with the examples of Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein whose discoveries depended as much on their knowledge as on the intellectual and social networks that ‘stimulated their thinking’ (page 7). ‘The right milieu’ is also important for creative people because it increases their chances of success, as the book demonstrates with the move by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar to Cambridge from India (pages 127-128). Social and historical contexts also explain many creative epochs such as the flourishing of creative art in Florence during the Renaissance (page 32-36), and the blooming of discoveries at the time empires collapse, along with their old belief systems and certainties (page 94).

By Giuseppe ZocchiWeb Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, Link

The book made many references to historical creative achievements such as Freud‘s theory of the unconscious, Eliot‘s freeform poetry, Stravinsky‘s twelve-tone music, Martha Graham‘s abstract choreography, and Picasso‘s deformed figures (page 94). The author explored many concepts such as prodigious curiosity (page 156), fluid and crystallized intelligence (page 213), achieving integrity (page 224), the nine elements of enjoyment (pages 107-126), the role of luck (page 46), and the negative influence of self-reverential domains (page 89). The author made many useful recommendations to enhance personal creativity such as his advice to enjoy being curious, and to learn new patterns of attention (pages 346-372).


It is inevitable that a work like this will be largely subjective. It is however perhaps the most scientific outlook on what constitutes creativity. Definite conclusions are difficult to make in view of the diverse people the book discusses. Indeed the author acknowledges ‘the great variety of paths that lead to eminence’ (page 181). The authors approach and conclusions are however faultless. He explored each topic in detail, perhaps excessively so in some places, such as his treatment of artistic and scientific domains. There were also some overdrawn biographical references such as to Freeman Dyson, E. O. Wilson, and Barry Commoner. The book is however well-written and easy to understand.

Overall impression

Creativity is clearly an important subject, and the author has treated it authoritatively, supporting his views with research evidence. The books recommendations and lessons are invaluable, and the author’s unhurried approach is refreshing. Creativity is vital for health care, and this book has given perhaps the best account there is on the nature and process of creativity. I therefore highly recommend this book to all doctors.

Book details

  • Publisher, Place, Year: Harper Perennial, New York, 1996
  • Number of chapters: 14
  • Number of pages: 456
  • ISBN: 978-0-06-092820-9
  • Star rating: 5
  • Price: £10.49


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