Creativity — Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Hannes Kleist
10 min readNov 17, 2021


Buch-Review — Hannes Kleist — 30.10.2020

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi second book I read after “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

It focuses on creative people. I kind of qualitative research on how people become and stay creative.

Spoiler: In the end, “Flow” is very important in this ;-)

Chapter One

And a genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work. Creativity, at least as I deal with it in this book, is a process by which a symbolic domain in the culture is changed.

Wow. Right of the bet, he destroys my notion of a creative person being somewhat disorganized with no follow-through. But he defines it as a disruptive force.

Part I

Therefore, creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and sociocultural context. It is a systemic rather than an individual phenomenon.

Interesting. Breaks the notion of the creative being a lone lunatic.

They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work.

Another bonus point for writing a journal.

This is probably why Goethe, among others, said that naïveté is the most important attribute of genius.

I can very much relate to that for entrepreneurs. If I had known all the issues we are going to run into when we started Stanwood 13 years ago, that would have been the end right there.

In fact, in current psychological research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits that differentiate people from each other and that can be reliably measured. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to express both traits at the same time.

Woohoo! I have been tested like that.

Only those teens who can tolerate being alone are able to master the symbolic content of a domain.

So, only introverts can become geniuses in their field when they are young.

Some individuals stress humility, others self-assurance, but in actuality all of the people we interviewed seemed to have a good dose of both.

And probably the wisdom and reflection to chose when to employ what.

Several persons mention that in the course of their careers motivation has shifted from self-centered goals to more altruistic interests.


Robert Galvin says that creativity consists of anticipation and commitment. Anticipation involves having a vision of something that will become important in the future before anybody else has it; commitment is the belief that keeps one working to realize the vision despite doubt and discouragement.

I saw this once in my life: The iPhone. Everyone was laughing at it. Check this video from Steve Balmer.

If everyone and your mother agree that your idea is brilliant, it is probably not.

The creative process has traditionally been described as taking five steps. The first is a period of preparation, becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity. The second phase of the creative process is a period of incubation, during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness. It is during this time that unusual connections are likely to be made. The third component of the creative process is insight, sometimes called the “Aha!” moment, the instant when Archimedes cried out “Eureka!” The fourth component is evaluation, when the person must decide whether the insight is valuable. The fifth and last component of the process is elaboration.

I like how methodical this is. As you might have noticed: I am a process lover ;-)

Someone who is motivated solely by the desire to become rich and famous might struggle hard to get ahead but will rarely have enough inducement to work beyond.

Another nail in ego-driving life goals.

You cannot transform a domain unless you first thoroughly understand how it works.

Also, really important for those millennials out there: Try to work in a field for 10 years, before you try to “disrupt” it.

I mean, they always say that Shakespeare was idle between plays. I am not comparing myself to Shakespeare, but people who keep themselves busy all of the time are generally not creative. So I am not ashamed of being idle.

Best ideas happen, when you shower, on vacation, running, driving the car…

First of all, when we are in flow, we do not usually feel happy — for the simple reason that in flow we feel only what is relevant to the activity. Happiness is a distraction.


In the long run, the more flow we experience in daily life, the more likely we are to feel happy overall.

My mission for 2021: Building a flow-based workplace.

Unfortunately, many people find the only challenges they can respond to are violence, gambling, random sex, or drugs. Some of these experiences can be enjoyable, but these episodes of flow do not add up to a sense of satisfaction and happiness over time. Pleasure does not lead to creativity, but soon turns into addiction — the thrall of entropy.

Stoics: Pleasure does not equal happiness. Quite the contrary.

So the link between flow and happiness depends on whether the flow-producing activity is complex, whether it leads to new challenges and hence to personal as well as cultural growth.

Not quite sure, I understand this. I thought Flow by its very definition is tasks at 104% of my current abilities, thus challenging.

Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato wrote that the most important task for a society was to teach the young to find pleasure in the right objects.

By that count, we failing hard focusing kids narcissistically seeking approval on social media, hunting for trophies (job, expensive cars, big house…) and generalizing “hacking” their way to “success”.

The problem is that it is easier to find pleasure in things that are easier, in activities like sex and violence that are already programmed into our genes.


Schools generally fail to teach how exciting, how mesmerizingly beautiful science or mathematics can be.

That’s why we are sending our kids to Montessori schools. They somehow keep the spark of curiosity burning in those kids.

And I had a notebook, an Italian notebook, and I wrote myself long essays on what was going on and what I was worried about. And it helped me get my mind organized.

Same for me.

The Greek philosophers had settled on the peripatetic method — they preferred to discuss ideas while walking up and down in the courtyards of the academy.

Fully agreed. All meetings where I need to discuss something I take walking.

Freeman Dyson and Barry Commoner believe that one should make a major career change every ten years or so to avoid becoming stale.

It’s now 9 years, since my last change from Corporate to Startup.

Part II

A child who gets recognized for her ability to jump and tumble is likely to become interested in gymnastics. A boy whose drawings get more favorable comments than those of his friends will become interested in art.

I was always wondering about the “do something you are really good at” in Ikigai. Being good at something always seemed to be a result of some other process rather than a starting point. Obviously, it takes 10,000 hours to achieve proficiency in any topic. But it rather seems to me, the real question is: “What motivates people to put in 10,000 hours?”.

It seems to me: Flow. Find something you enjoy somewhat for the sake of it and build those subtle mechanisms to achieve this wonderful state of mind.

Many respondents mentioned how important a father or mother had been in teaching them certain values. Probably the most important of these was honesty.

That is really unexpected. My gut feeling would have been that creative people are looser when it comes to rules like honesty.

I still love it, because I teach my kids that honesty and kindness are non-negotiable.

Often one senses that, if anything, school threatened to extinguish the interest and curiosity that the child had discovered outside its walls.


What made these teachers influential? Two main factors stand out. First, the teachers noticed the student, believed in his or her abilities, and cared. Second, the teacher showed care by giving the child extra work to do, greater challenges than the rest of the class received.

That’s how my love for math (which leads to physics, computers and business) got started: One great math teacher in first grade, who took me aside.

After curiosity, this quality of concentrated attention is what creative individuals mentioned most often as having set them apart in college from their peers.

He is talking about being able to lose oneself in a task and work diligently in it. Really hunker down and grind away. A subtle introverted character definitely helps here.

I wonder how I can foster that in my own children. Obviously, keeping them away from social media and smartphones as long as I can, is a priority.

But what can I do with a 3-year-old to help him work diligently on something? Perhaps it’s as simple as finding things that put him in Flow: Stakes, challenging but still within their scope of skills…

The individuals in our sample had, as a rule, stable and satisfying marital relationships.

If you spent your time chasing women, it’s hard to concentrate 80 hours per week on a single topic, isn’t it?

When explaining what enabled them to accomplish what they had achieved, several pointed to the indispensable help of their spouses. And these answers did not ring perfunctory. Hans Bethe, one of the leading physicists earlier this century and teacher of many of the later ones, volunteered: “My wife has very much influenced my life and made me happy.”

I second that. Thanks, Karin Kleist for being the rock in my life.

“Raising kids is a far more rewarding thing than earning money for a company, in terms of a sense of satisfaction.”

Same here!

Part III

The most fundamental difference between people consists in how much uncommitted attention they have left over to deal with novelty.

You need to decide how much time per day you spent with stuff that is important to you (meditation, reading, writing, thinking, designing, coding) and how much is important to others (emails, meetings, calls, paperwork) and then assign time slots to it and keep them.

This is how I do it.

In a person concerned with protecting his or her self, practically all the attention is invested in monitoring threats to the ego.

Mindfulness and studying the Stoics really helped me with that.

Creative individuals are childlike in that their curiosity remains fresh even at ninety years of age; they delight in the strange and the unknown.

I like the word “childlike”.

Try to be surprised by something every day. It could be something you see, hear, or read about. Stop to look at the unusual car parked at the curb, taste the new item on the cafeteria menu, actually listen to your colleague at the office.

Simple hack: Always eat the daily or weekly special at the restaurant, or ask the waiter for their recommendation on the menu.

We started using HelloFresh (my wife picks the recipes, I cook them) and that totally enlarged my range of foods and dishes.

Try to surprise at least one person every day. Instead of being your predictable self, say something unexpected, express an opinion that you have not dared to reveal, ask a question you wouldn’t ordinarily ask.

How would you do that long term?

Write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others. Most creative people keep a diary, or notes, or lab records to make their experiences more concrete and enduring.

Keeping a diary is so good for lots of reasons.

When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it. Usually, when something captures our attention — an idea, a song, a flower — the impression is brief. We are too busy to explore the idea, song, or flower further.

But how can you integrate the new exploration back into our life.

Wake up in the morning with a specific goal to look forward to.

Perhaps more the task than the goal. I put “coding” and “writing” in my diary as the first two tasks of the day.

If you do anything well, it becomes enjoyable.

That is an amazing insight. Especially in the valley-born philosophy of MVPs, “move fast and break things” and generally “good is the enemy of perfect”.

I followed that advice for the last 5 years. And I do not enjoy most of my “general management” tasks. But I do enjoy loading the dishwasher to maximum capacity and elegance.

Some advice, on when you feel already open and creative, but struggle to get focus on it:

After creative energy is awakened, it is necessary to protect it. We must erect barriers against distractions. Take charge of your schedule. Make time for reflection and relaxation. Shape your space.

If you are struggling to be creative, try this:

Find out what you like and what you hate about life. Perhaps the pattern of feelings shows that you should change your job — or learn to bring more flow to it. Is it possible to reshape personality to make it more creative?

If you are just trying to solve a problem, try this:

The first step in solving a problem is to find it, to formulate the vague unease into a concrete problem amenable to solution. Look at problems from as many viewpoints as possible. Figure out the implications of the problem. Produce as many ideas as possible. Try to produce unlikely ideas. If your job involves frequent meetings and conferences, you might cultivate the habit of jotting down brief summaries of what the others around the table have said. Then you can quickly generate alternative positions to those that have been expressed, or integrate the various perspectives in a more comprehensive perspective.

This is fantastic advice. Keeps you much more focused during those boring sessions as well ;-)

Learning to operate within a new domain is always difficult, and love at first sight is rare. A certain amount of persistence is necessary.

I cheat my kids into new topics with extrinsic motivation. Getting them to play football, I promised them ice cream after ;-)

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Hannes also shares sales strategy and tutorials for startups on YouTube and at his consultancy’s blog.



Hannes Kleist

MBA, 10 years strategy at ProSiebenSat.1, 5 years app startup (exited), 5 years digital agency, now helping startups with sales