Several years ago, as a reporter for an investigative magazine in Latin America, I met an indigenous girl named Ñusta Sangurima. She was 11 years old and lived in a community of indigenous people known as the Saraguro. After spending a day with her, I realized that her upbringing and education were strikingly different from what I had experienced as a child.
Like all kids her age, Ñusta would go to school everyday, but what made her experience so unique was that she didn’t have to worry about handing in homework, taking exams, getting to class on time, or even studying something she didn’t like. She had all the freedom in the world to choose what she wanted to do and when she wanted to do it.
Since she loved working with her hands, she spent most of her day in the arts and crafts station making a clay pot and knitting a wool vest for her sister. She was living every child’s dream, and there was no one to tell her that she should spend her time on “more important” activities.
The brain child of a Saraguro community leader with a doctorate in evolutionary psychology, Ñusta’s school was a world away from traditional classrooms with rows of desks, schedules, tests, and lessons plans. Not only did it help conserve its indigenous community’s values, it allowed the community’s children to grow as their ancestors did: by being free to learn by doing and at each person’s own pace.
Although many might think twice before enrolling their children in such a school (They would never learn “necessary” skills, some would say), this model actually incorporates principles embraced by thought leaders who have been pushing for a much-needed revolution in education.
After spending a day at Ñusta’s school, I realized that the traditional education I received–with its sometimes inhibiting structure and one-size-fits-all mentality–had a tremendous influence on what I decided to pursue as an adult; the limited exposure I received determined what I thought I was good at and what I eventually decided to be in life. If I would have been left to my own devices, who knows if I wouldn’t have been a chef? An entrepreneur? A gardener?
This is the very question being tackled by leading visionaries and educators across the planet. In an age in which the global challenges we face are of daunting proportions–a looming water crisis, global warming, food shortages, overpopulation–the capacity to create and innovate will lead the way to comprehensive solutions and likely become the new literacies of the future. Yet, the current education system “is ill-prepared to educate the next generation of creative leaders,” according to the Berlin School of Creative Leadership.
Leonard Sommer, an alumni of the school, writes that the “information age” has officially ended and that the world’s developed countries have entered the “imagination age” in which he foresees there will be a shift in leadership from left-brained executives to right-brained ones. For this to occur, however, today’s educational system must not only develop an environment that nurtures creativity, it should also foster curiosity and the ability to think outside of the box to tackle complex problems.
Employees in the current workforce agree. In a study conducted by Adobe (see infographic below), 71 percent of college-educated, full-time salaried employees surveyed said creative thinking should be taught as a course, just like math or science. Additionally, 86 percent said creativity is important in their career, while 82 percent stated they would have liked more exposure to creative thinking as students.
Part of the problem lies in the way students are trained to handle challenges. According to creativity expert Ken Robinson, schools teach children to become afraid of making mistakes and being wrong. A prerequisite for creativity and innovation, however, is being willing to learn from past mistakes and engage in a trial-and-error process of discovery.
We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it.
-Ken Robinson, creativity expert
Also, Robinson points out that the system is designed to root out rather than encourage creative thinking by “stigmatizing mistakes” and leading students to believe that subjects such as art, music, dance, and drama are less important than math and science. In Robinson’s words, as we grow up, we are increasingly trained from the “waist up,” until the focus is finally placed on the left side of the brain.
A revolution in education, though, is on its way. Besides the fact that child-centered approaches–such as the one I witnessed in Ecuador and others similar to the Montessori model–have been in existence for centuries, the increasing pace of innovation has brought with it a greater awareness of the need for creative studies programs. For this reason, there are a handful of initiatives out there trying to get the ball rolling, such as Buffalo State College’s International Center for Studies in Creativity, CreativeLIVE, and Adobe’s ConnectED initiative.
And this is only the beginning. The push for greater creative freedom within both classrooms and boardrooms is leading all types of learners to seek out ways to tap into their dormant creativity. Far from a talent possessed only by exceptional painters and composers, creativity is an innate capacity within every person–whether this refers to the ability to take stunning pictures, cook delicious meals, design innovative experiments, or find new ways to solve old problems.
So, how do you go about unleashing this hidden creative potential? One answer lies in the concept known by researchers as “flow.” This is a state in which we are so immersed in a given activity that we become unaware of the passage of time. We’ve all felt it at one point or another. We are so engaged and focused on a certain task–and enjoying it intensely at the same time–that we forget about how long we’ve been doing it, while everything else around us recedes into the background.
What does this have to do with creativity, though? Since this concept is defined as an optimal state of consciousness in which we produce our best work and ideas flow effortlessly, it is an effective method for finding our most creative selves. In this state, also referred to as being “in the zone,” we lose consciousness of our own selves, our egos–and most important of all–our inner critic, allowing creativity to flow without inhibitions. Research has found that people who experience “flow” more often in their lives also report a significantly higher level of well-being in terms of self-esteem and engagement.
Photographer Chase Jarvis compares it to the experience artists have while creating music or art. “We’ve all seen a musician when they’re in that state. The guitar or the piano becomes a part of their body. Their ego is completely gone, and it’s just their connection to the art, their connection to the emotions that they’re trying to share with the audience. That is pure flow,” he says.
While this sounds like the sole domain of creative geniuses, the state of “flow” can actually be replicated at will. First defined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a state of “single-minded immersion,” “flow” can be deliberately induced by creating the right conditions for its activation. While Csikszentmihalyi identifies nine elements that produce flow, other researchers such as Steven Kotler have found 17 different flow triggers.
To assist you in your quest to discovering the hidden innovator in you, we’ve summarized some of these optimal conditions for flow so that you can activate them in your professional work and personal hobbies.
Kotler asserts that for “flow” to occur, you must be deeply concentrated on the task at hand. This means that open office plans and multi-tasking are actually counterproductive to coming up with truly inspired ideas and creating your life’s best work. Also, “flow” requires long periods of intense and uninterrupted attention, which means that solitude is one of the best ways to achieve this state (see video below).
Another condition cited by Csikszentmihalyi is the definition of clear goals and objectives. When you know what you’re working toward, then the mind can concentrate on the present moment and not on the future. Also, the establishment of clear goals allows you to gauge your progress, which is the next trigger.
Through immediate feedback that occurs in real time, it is also easy to tell whether you’re performing well or not when you’re in “flow.” This constant input allows you to improve on the spot and keep your attention on the present moment. For example, professional musicians and athletes have developed their own mechanisms for immediately gauging their performance, which allows them to remain in “flow” and keep their minds from worrying about whether they’re doing well or not.
For “flow” to occur, there must also be an adequate balance between the challenge posed by the task at hand and your skill level. For example, if you’re attempting to create highly sophisticated data visualizations but your skill level in this area is low, then you’re likely not to achieve “flow.” Inversely, if the task is too easy, then boredom will set in and “flow” will not be activated. The ideal balance is to engage in a task that poses a challenge slightly above your skill level, as seen in the graph below.
The British writer Samuel Johnson once said that “when a man knows he is to be hanged … it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” When you know that there are high consequences behind your actions, it helps your mind concentrate on the present moment, thereby achieving one of the prerequisites of “flow.” For example, when athletes play a game with high stakes involved, it significantly boosts “flow.” Similarly, when you’re working on an important client project with potentially high returns–as opposed to a favor for a friend–intense concentration is more likely to occur in the first case.
Whenever you immerse yourself in environments full of new, unpredictable, and complex information, your mind lights up and becomes more engaged. If you want more “flow,” stimulate your body and mind with rich environments that pose a challenge and help focus your attention.
When our entire being is immersed in an activity–not just our brains–we experience what is called deep embodiment. Since half of our nerve endings are found in our hands, feet, and face, we cannot limit ourselves to experiencing reality solely through our eyes and ears. We have five senses for a reason, and our bodies are meant for more than just “transporting our heads.” When our bodies are engaged, then we go from receiving information from a single data feed, so to speak, to receiving information in broadband mode. As Oriental philosophies have noted for centuries, mastery of the body yields mastery of the mind, which explains why athletes are such successful entrepreneurs.
The ability to connect ideas in innovative and unexpected ways is another important trigger. This entails tackling projects from new angles and linking concepts that would normally not be related to each other. Besides looking at a problem from every imaginable perspective, you can also seek out new and stimulating experiences and environments, which serve to increase the amount of unforeseen connections made and can inspire your next big idea.
The last “flow” trigger for enhancing individual creativity–there is also such as thing as group flow–is not being afraid to take risks. When your inner critic is shut off and you muster the courage to present your new ideas to the world, then “flow” can begin to occur more frequently both in your professional life and personal undertakings.
Taken together, these triggers can significantly boost your capacity for “flow” and increase out-of-the-box thinking. Read Part 2 of this series to find out more about common myths and misconceptions people have of creativity and proven methods for enhancing your creative potential from five experts.
“Significant creativity is within everyone’s reach—no exceptions.”
-Robert Epstein, creativity researcher