Creativity, the Time You Have (Left), and a Very Big Waste Paper Basket

The book on the top of the pile on my desk right now is Creativity, Flow and the Psychology of Discovery by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  You know him as the author of the influential book, Flow.

On page eight of this tome, he articulates a simple, but devastatingly important point:

“If we want to learn anything, we must pay attention to the information to be learned.  And attention is a limited resource … The point is, a great deal of our limited supply of attention is committed to the tasks of surviving from one day to the next.  Over an entire lifetime, the amount of attention left over for learning a symbolic domain – such as music or physics – is a fraction of this already small amount … To achieve creativity in an existing domain, there must be surplus attention available."

For me, this is the crux of ALL achievement in any creative domain: prioritizing and maximizing the time you have to learn, assimilate, and innovate in your chosen field.  The extent to which one is able to do this is the extent to which one is successful.  (Of course there are always exceptions to this rule -- the child prodigy who ends up losing steam in adulthood -- but these are the edges of the argument, not the middle).

Csikszentmihalyi goes on to talk about how he picked the "exceptional" people he interviewed for his study on creativity.  His criteria is not important.  What interests me is that out of the 275 people he initially contacted about a third declined to be interviewed "because they could not spare the time."  Basically, they were calling Csikszentmihalyi out.

He goes on to share a few of the great No's he received.

The secretary to the novelist Saul Bellow wrote back saying: "Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of his life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be the object of other people's 'studies.'" 

The secretary to the composer George Ligeti had this to say: "He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked.  Therefore, the very reason that you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have the time to help you in this study."


And then there is my favorite No of the group mentioned, one from the legendary management expert, professor Peter Drucker:

"I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter ... for I have admired you and your work for many years, and have learned much from it.  But, my dear Professor Csikszentmihalyi, I am afraid I have to disappoint you.  I could not possibly answer your questions ... I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours -- productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one's time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well."

Obviously, Drucker was not advocating being unkind or stingy.  He doesn't mean don't help other people at all, ever.  He means: protect your time.

There are a thousand ways we let our time slip through our hands.  These days, guiding my Mom through radiation and the coming months of chemo, it feels like my life is a pocket with a hole in it. Time is the loose change I am cramming into it.  I am constantly putting shiny slivers of time in and they are disappearing, vanishing, only to be found later in my sock, on the street near where I was standing, rolling across the floor and under the cupboard, never to be seen again. 

How do you say no?  Do you say no?  How do you know what no to say no to, you know?