May 28, 2020

8 Steps To A World-Class Understanding of Creativity (and how to hack it)

Steven Kotler

Step 1: Flow & Creativity (Psychology Today)

This article is a good starter offer on the subject. A bit of backstory, an overview of the science and a look at my own thoughts. Lets dive in:

When it comes to creativity two facts are clear.

First, it tops nearly every “Twenty First Century Skills” list ever made. The skills our children need to thrive in the future? According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills—a collection of 250 researchers at 60 institutions—creativity. The quality most desirable in a CEO? According to a global survey conducted by IBM of 1500 top executives in 60 countries, creativity is again the answer.

But in light of this first fact, our second is far more troubling— we still have no real idea how to train people to be more creativity.  But “flow states” change this equation—though this will take some explanation.

Technically, flow is defined as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It’s also a strange state of consciousness. In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates—meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened—and that includes creative performance.

This last bit is no understatement. In a recent study run in Australia, 40 research subjects were presented with an exceptionally tricky brain teaser—the kind that requires a deep creative insight to solve. No one solved it. But when flow was induced artificially (using—for reasons that we’ll get to—transcranial magnetic stimulation), 23 subjects got the answer right and in record time.

Of course, solving a brain teaser requires only one type of creativity (problem solving), and a solo egg does not an omelet make. In a more general (and still preliminary) study run by my organization, The Flow Research Collective, subjects from a far-ranging fields—everyone from entrepreneurs to scientists to writers—reported being seven times (i.e. 700 percent) more creative in flow. While that gaudy number is definitely in need of much further verification, it is the kind of gaudy statistic common in flow research (for comparison, a 10 year McKinsey and Co. study found top executives 500 percent more productive in flow) and thus worthy of being taken seriously.

Most importantly, Harvard’s Teresa Amiable discovered that not only are people more creative in flow, they also report being more creative the day after a flow state—suggesting that flow doesn’t just heighten creativity in the moment, it heightens it over the long haul. In other words, being in flow actually trains us to be more creative.

How this all works comes down to neurobiology. Flow is the product of profound changes in standard brain function. In the state, our brainwaves move from the fast-moving beta wave of normal waking consciousness down to the far slower borderline between alpha and theta waves. Alpha is associated with day-dreaming mode—when we can slip from thought to thought without much internal resistance. Theta, meanwhile, only shows up during REM or just before we fall asleep, in that hypnogogic gap where ideas combine in truly radical ways. Since creativity is always recombinatory—the product of novel information bumping into old thoughts to create something startling new—being able to slip between thoughts quickly and combine them wildly enhances creativity at a very fundamental level.

But brainwaves are only the beginning of this discussion. Flow is also caused by “transient hypofrontality”— the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex. The PFC is the part of our brain that houses most of our higher cognitive function. Why does our sense of self disappear in flow? Because self is generated by large portions of the prefrontal cortex and with large swatches of this area no longer open for business, that sense vanishes completely.

This to has huge consequences for creativity. For example, during flow, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain charged with self-monitoring and impulse control—goes quiet. The DLPFC is our inner critic, that voice of doubt and disparagement. As a result, with this area deactivated, we’re far less critical and far more courageous, both augmenting our ability to imagine new possibilities and share those possibilities with the world.

Lastly, during flow, the brain releases an enormous cascade of neurochemistry. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin flood our system. All are pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing chemicals with considerable impacts on creativity. Both norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus,  boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information. They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways. Anandamide, meanwhile, increases lateral thinking—meaning it expands the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system. 

Taken together, these neurochemical, neuroelectrical and neuroanatomical changes in brain function provide us with an exceptionally potent workaround for the problem of teaching people how to be more creative.  Instead of having to come at this thorny problem head on, we can instead train up people’s ability to find flow and the state’s neurobiology takes care of the rest.

Step 2: 3 Surprising Ways to Unlock Your Creativity (Entrepreneur)

Here we get pragmatic. Its the quick and dirty on creativity boosting and why it's so damn important. I drill own on one of the fundamentals you have to understand: "Creativity isn't a skill, it's a state of mind." Here we go:

Creativity tops the heap. It’s the apex of “21st-century skills,” or those skills considered essential for children to thrive today. It’s the same ability that IBM -- after surveying over 1,500 CEOs -- found most critical to being a successful CEO. And, as mental health and successful aging have become national concerns, a bevy of research finds creative expression crucial to both short term happiness and long term satisfaction. Yet, despite being bedrock fundamental to so much that we want from our lives, creativity remains elusive: tricky to understand, nearly impossible to train.

In 2015, for example, the energy drink company Red Bull completed the first phase of Hacking Creativity, the largest meta-analysis of the subject ever undertaken. After combing through more than 30,000 scientific studies and conducting hundreds of interviews with experts, researchers concluded that creativity is, indeed, the most important skill for success in our fast-paced world. Unfortunately, they also found we have very little success teaching people how to be more creative.

But there’s a startling reason for this failure. We keep trying to train up a skill, but what we really need to be training is a state of mind.

A growing pile of evidence shows that non-ordinary states of consciousness -- a term defined by John Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof as dramatic shifts in perception, emotion and thought -- are the real key to unlocking our creativity. Consider three of today’s most familiar non-ordinary states: meditation, flow and psychedelics.


Research done in the 1990s on Tibetan Buddhists found that longtime meditation produces brainwaves in the gamma range. These unusual waves arise primarily during “binding,” the moment novel ideas snap together for the first time -- the telltale signature of "a-ha insight.” This means meditation amplifies creativity, but -- as those monks had put in 34,000 hours of cross-legged cushion time -- it was a finding with limited practical application.

Then researchers began to consider the impact of short-term meditation on mental performance. Was it possible to cut some monastic corners and get similar results? Turns out, you can cut quite a few corners.

In 2009, psychologists at the University of North Carolina found that even four days of meditation significantly improved both creativity and cognitive flexibility. “Simply stated,” lead researcher Fadel Zeidan explained to Science Daily, “the profound improvements we found after just four days of meditation training are really surprising. . . . [They’re] comparable to results that have been documented after far more extensive training.” So rather than pulling a caffeinated all-nighter to force a eureka insight (or devoting decades to becoming a monk), we now know that even a few days’ training in mindfulness can up the odds of a breakthrough considerably.


Similar boosts are showing up in the study of those “in the zone” moments of total absorption known as flow. A recent University of Sydney experiment used transcranial magnetic stimulation to induce the state, then gave subjects the nine-dot problem, that classic test of creative puzzle solving: Connect nine dots with four lines without lifting pencil from paper in 10 minutes. Normally, fewer than 5 percent pull it off. In their control group, no one did. But 40 percent of the flow group connected the dots in record time, or eight times better than the norm. This is also why, when McKinsey did a 10-year study of companies, top executives -- meaning those most frequently called upon to solve complex creative problems -- reported being up to 500 percent more productive in flow.


And comparable results are appearing in psychedelic research. In a national study of microdosing among professionals, psychologist James Fadiman found sub-perceptual doses of substances like LSD consistently enhanced pattern recognition and creative problem-solving. This also explains how the headline “Why Men Are Dropping Acid At Work” came to grace this month’s cover of GQ.

But the key takeaway here isn’t that mindfulness, micro-dosing or flow are the next "killer app." It's that tuning our states of mind -- regardless of mechanism -- makes us far more creative and effective.

And for anyone interested in this approach, but unsure where to begin, consider the protocols we developed at Google while beta-testing this research. Over a six week stretch, with 60 minutes a day of required practice, the subjects in our study averaged a 71 percent increase in both flow and heightened performance.

  1. Enforce rigorous sleep hygiene: Dark, cold and quiet. Want to go further? Learn your "chronotype" by taking Dr. Michael Breuss's The Power of When quiz and tune your circadian rhythm.
  2. Own the hour after waking: How we start our day has a massive impact on whether we stride or stumble through the rest of it -- so take time to hydrate, reflect, move and fuel.
  3. Defend your first 90 minutes of work: To heighten flow, eliminate distraction, use to block out noise and enhance concentration, push calls and meetings to afternoon and focus only on your most important tasks -- not your inbox. And if you're curious about your unique way to get into the zone, there's a free quiz.
  4. Periodize recovery: Just because you could sit at your desk for 5 hours without budging doesn't mean you should. Use a Pomodoro timer to get up and move for 5-10 minutes for every hour spent working. This will keep you from getting overtaxed, allowing you to stay in peak productivity longer.
  5. Practice active recovery: Passive recovery is when we're too fried to take the steps needed to rebound. Think Netflix and veg vs. workout and meditate. Instead, build time into your calendar to shift states and recover quicker. Download a heart-rate variability (HRV) app and spend 5 minutes calibrating your cardiac rhythm. Soak in an Epsom salt bath or take a sauna before bed. Get outside and move: Recent studies have shown that hiking in nature decreases "excess rumination" and boosts creativity and memory.
  6. Plan state shifting experiences and adventures: Book a float tank session. Do a weekend silent meditation retreat. Train for and compete in an adventure race. Ask your doctor if transcranial magnetic stimulation is right for you. Learn to hyperventilate with Wim Hof, or go to a raging dance party.

Anything that gets you out of ruts and routines, defrags your mental hard drive and resets your nervous system, pays big dividends over time.

Consider the gains: a 200 percent boost in creativity, a 490 percent boost in learning, a 500 percent boost in productivity. These are essential skills and those are big percentage gains. If they were merely the result of a few studies done by a couple of labs, they would be easier to dismiss. But there are now seven decades of research, conducted by hundreds of scientists on thousands of participants, showing that changing the channel of consciousness, no matter the method used, can unlock the creativity we’ve been searching for.

Step 3: The Audio Primer w/ Jim Kwik: Get Into Your Creative Flow

I go wide with Jim on everything flow hacking and creativity turbo-boosting. Some of what we cover:

  • Factors that hamper Flow
  • Reasons you might be stuck with your writing
  • The 4 stages of Flow (and how to capitalize on each)
  • Check it out here.

Step 4: How Flow Drives Creative Genius | The Rise of Superman - featuring Chase Jarvis

The below is a quickie but a real treat. Myself and renowned artist and photographer Chase Jarvis explore how flow drives the creative process. Hint: Flow states silence our inner critic, allowing radical new ideas and ways of thinking to emerge.



There are times when the work is easy. When it’s 3am and there is a connected feeling, when ideas flow effortlessly. When the inner critic who otherwise stunts creativity gets gagged, bound and shoved into a dark closet. And then there are the opposite times. When the feeling of being “blocked” or stunted creatively is powerfully frustrating and the inner critic rages supreme – where nothing of value seems to find its way to the surface.

Whether trying to break a creative block or sustain a creative flow, we have been searching for a secret on this topic for centuries. And unless you’re completely new to this blog, you’ll know that unleashing the creative potential in everyone is a lifelong mission of mine – both personally and at scale (ala creativeLIVE). I’ve given some talks on how I believe creativity is the new literacy and anything we can do to further creative forces – I’m all for it.

Today, however, I’d like we’re on the verge of something great. Getting unstuck using science. In this upcoming book The Rise of Superman (Amazon link here), author and personal friend of mine Steven Kotler breaks down the science of this state of mind, the science of ultimate human performance (called “Flow”)

YOU know what flow feels like. You’ve felt it creatively when amazing ideas flow like water, in life when everything is just right, or perhaps in sports where you’re “in the zone”. THAT’S flow. So what actually happens in our brains when we achieve this feeling of effortless creative energy? You might be surprised to find that there is a sequence and a science behind this “zone” of flow that you we can actually tap into with regularity, and in Rise of Superman, Kotler sets out to decode exactly this. He’s been releasing a series of trailers and interviews with artists (me!) and elite athletes (Dean Potter, Travis Rice, Danny Way, others) and has uncovered some common threads to their own experiences with Flow.

For all our benefit, I reached out to Kotler with a few questions about Flow and his upcoming book. The interview below is our back and forth…Enjoy.

CJ: How did you come to the idea of flow?

There’s two answers here. The first is this is not my idea. Flow research dates back to the 1870s. There’s 150 years of really hard work that has gone into this topic. Thousands and thousands of researchers have worked on it. I just stumbled into that lineage. The story of how that happened is told in my second book (West of Jesus), but the very short answer is that flow states saved my life. Literally. I spent 3 years in bed with Lyme disease and the doctors had given up on me. No one knew if I would ever get better, but for complicated medical reasons they had pulled me off drugs—so there was literally nothing anyone else could do for me.

But it was a series of flow states that brought me back to health. It was radical and rapid. I went from like 10 percent functionality back to about 80 percent in under six months. I wanted to understand how this was possible. I mean, on the surface, it seemed crazy. An altered state of consciousness beats back a chronic autoimmune condition—like how the hell does that work. So, some 15 years ago, I decided to find out. That’s where all this started for me.

CJ: Where does the term “flow” come from, and is there actually a definition of flow?

The technical definition of flow is “an optimal state of consciousness where we perform our best and feel our best.” But the reason these states as called “flow” is because of the sensation conferred. When you’re in flow, every action, every decision, leads fluidly, seamlessly to the next. In other words, flow feels flowy.

CJ: Is flow on a progressive scale, or are you either in or out of flow? My own experiences say it feels like a scale…a progression, but what does your research tell us?

When University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did his groundbreaking research on flow, he discovered there are seven different attributes to the state. This is essentially a checklist of things experienced in flow: intense concentration on the task at hand, the merger of action and awareness, the loss of a sense of self, the distortion of time, etc. And flow is progressive. It exists on a spectrum that is sort of like emotions. With anger, you can be mildly irate or deeply homicidal. The same is true for flow. When only a few of these categories show up, we’re in a state of “micro-flow.” When all ten show up at once, we’re in “macro-flow.”

[To go deep on the 7 Stages, how to get there, and what that unlocks, pickup the book here.]

CJ: Your book connects some very diverse terrain: action-sports, creativity, business, and neuroscience. How did you realize that flow crossed between them all – what’s the thread?

This wasn’t actually my realization. Very, very early flow researchers (back in the 1870s) believed they were looking at an experience brought on by high risk behavior (the action sports category), but, in the 1940, famed psychologist Abraham Maslow discovered the flow experiences are a commonality shared by all successful people. Then, when Csikszentmihalyi got involved in the 1960s and 70s, he discovered the state is ubiquitous. Everyone everywhere has access to flow. So flow applies in pretty much every domain. But this isn’t a business secret. Companies like Toyota, Microsoft, and Patagonia have flow woven into their corporate philosophies. A lot of the really innovative things that companies like Google and Facebook do to manage their knowledge workers comes down to flow science. Flow is everywhere in business—it’s just that most people are unaware of it.

CJ: I’ve read the advance copy of the book. I’ve sat for interviews w you, etc. The book is really focused on action sports, but flow is certainly present in so many other areas – ie the creative process — as well. Tell me about that.

Flow is arguably as well-linked to creativity as it is to athletics. As a writer, I would be absolutely unable to function without flow. Every idea I’ve ever had for a book has come out of a flow state. Every article I’ve ever written that has won awards was written in a flow state. To put this in scientific terms, in recent years we’ve begun to look under the hood of creativity. We now know that the three key mental functions that produce the most creativity are mental risk-taking, pattern recognition (our ability to link ideas together) and the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system. Flow massively amplifies all three functions. It jacks up our ability to take risk by making us feel less fear. It amps up pattern recognition and expands the size of the database the pattern recognition can search. This is why studies have shown people are far more creative in flow. It’s a huge boost. In work done at my companiest, we found that most people report being 7x more creative in flow—that’s a 700 percent boost in creativity. More importantly, at Harvard, Teresa Amiable discovered that not only are people more creative in flow, they report being more creative in the days after a flow state. Thus flow doesn’t just amplify creativity in the moment, it literally trains the brain to think more creatively over the long haul.

CJ: One of the core arguments of your book is that the chemistry and function of the brain actually change during flow. How does portions of the brain shutting down help me be more creative?

Flow is causes by profound changes in neurobiology including something known as “transient hypofrontality.” Transient means temporary. “Hypo” is the opposite of “”hyper,” it means to slow down or deactivate. And frontality is show for the pre-frontal cortex—i.e., the part of your brain in charge of higher cognitive functions—shut off. One of the areas deactivated by flow is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part houses your inner critic—that relentless, defeatist nag that is always part of waking consciousness. When the inner critic shuts off, we feel this as tremendous freedom, as liberation. This is fantastic for creatives. It means the portion of the brain that is always judging creative ideas—shooting them down before they get off the ground—is turned off. This allows you to move from idea to idea far faster.

CJ: You have compared the chemicals released in your brain during flow to some of the most addictive drugs in the world. Does this mean that people have similar feelings in flow that they might experience on drugs?

That’s a really interesting and complicated question. Flow cocktails five of the most powerful neurochemicals the body can produce and each of these neurochemicals have a drug analogue. For example, when you snort cocaine. All the drug does is cause the brain to release copious amounts of the neurochemical dopamine. Well, dopamine is released in flow. So are norepinephrine (speed), anandamide (marijuana), endorphins (heroin) and serotonin (ecstasy). You actually couldn’t produce this cocktail with drugs. Trying to take all those drugs at once and you’re going to end up drooling or dead. But the brain does it naturally. So yes, being in flow is an altered state, just like being on drugs. Does flow feel like any one of these drugs—not exactly. It actually feels a lot better. Moreover, while being addicted to drugs can lead backwards, being addicted to flow—because the state requires meeting challenges and learning new skills—leads forwards.

CJ: In your book and communications, you talk about this concept of “flow hacking,” or doing things to help trigger a flow state. Do you mean that people can create flow in their own lives?

For certain. Flow has 15 triggers—that is, pre-conditions that lead to more flow. Anyone can pull these triggers.

CJ: Besides jumping off a cliff on skis, what’s one trick you might use to help you get into flow?

As I said before, flow has 15 triggers and risk—or what we call “high consequences”—is only one of them. But even here, within the high consequence trigger, their possibility. For example, sure, you can jump off a cliff and take a physical risk. But you can also use emotional risk, social risk, creative risk—it doesn’t matter. It’s also very individual. A shy guy needs only to cross a room to talk to a pretty gal to pull this trigger.

But the most important thing to know is that flow follows focus. This is why people recommend always following your passion if you’re chasing flow. Why? Because our brain pays way more attention to stuff we’re passionate about. Put differently, a lot of what we call “flow hacking” is really ways of tricking the brain into paying more attention to the here and now.

CJ: I understand that you do a lot of consulting with business leaders on how to facilitate more flow in their workers.

Yes, I have done a fair bit of this work. My partner at my old company, Jamie Wheal, has done far, far more. The flow triggers we’ve been talking about are really accessible—it is not hard to design businesses around them.

CJ: Now that the book is releasing, you’re going to continue to work on flow research through your organisationst. Can you tell us a bit about that?

My projects have always been an international, trans-disciplinary organizations dedicated to decoding flow. As you pointed out above, we do a bit of consulting, but our core focus is to seriously advance flow state research. We’re also in the process of building Flow Dojos—dedicated flow research and training facilities. But the most important thing to know is this is an open source project. The goal is to hack ultimate human performance. This is relevant to everyone—who doesn’t want to be able to perform at their best. Thus, we want everyone involved. Go to our website, sign up for Flow Hacker Nation, and get involved.

Step 6: Long Haul Creativity

This is a more recent and super important piece. Let's get right in there:

About five years ago, I started thinking long and hard about a very specific type of creativity. Unlike most researchers, I was less interested in exploring the day-to-day puzzle of making something out of nothing and more about the equally baffling mystery of how to do this over a lifetime. Long Haul Creativity is how I’ve come to think of this topic.

Over the past few years, this topic has become a bit of an obsession. I’ve talked about it with everyone I know and have come to realize the answers I’ve gotten apply to far more folks than just writers. These days, creativity is a buzz word in just about every field. It seems like everyone’s hunting for more of this skill, but no one’s really talking about the ramifications of getting what we desire.

This is a critical point. Being creative over a career involves a whole subset of nearly invisible skills, a great many of which conflict with most people’s general ideas about what it means to be creative. What’s more, being creative is different than the business of being creative, and most people who learn how to be good at the first, are often really terrible at the second. Finally, emotionally, creativity just takes a toll. Decade after decade, that toll adds up.

So here are eight of my favorite lessons on the hard fight of long-haul creativity. A few are my own. Most are things I learned from others. All have managed to keep me saner along the way.

One: Creativity De-Coded

The one thing neuroscientists know for sure about creativity is that it’s not one thing.* The brain is creative in dozens and dozens of different ways, which is why training people to be more creative can be so difficult. Yet, what we do know is that creativity is always recombinatory — it’s the product of novel information bumping into old ideas to produce something startlingly new.

What’s more, we also know that this recombinatory process always requires the interaction of three overlapping neural networks: attention, imagination and salience. Understanding how these networks work and how we can augment their effects gives long haul creatives some much needed leverage.

Attention: This network governs executive attention or spotlight attention. It’s the go-to system for the hours-on-end laser-focus required by creativity. And this leads to an obvious intervention: anything that trains up attention, amplifies creativity. Almost any mindfulness practice will work.

Imagination: The imagination network or, more formally, the default mode network (DMN), is all about mind-wandering. It’s what allows you to construct mental simulations of potential outcomes and test out creative possibilities. The trick here is to activate the DMN you have to stop focusing on the problem you’ve been trying to solve. This means turning off the spotlight attention system. Research shows the best way to pull this off is via low-grade physical activity. I prefer gardening. Tim Ferriss (see below) likes long walks. But Lee Zlotoff, creator of the TV show MacGyver and (no surprise) an expert on creative problem solving, has tested dozens of different activities, and found that building models — airplanes, dinosaurs, whatever — consistently produces the best results.

Salience: This network monitors incoming information and tags it as important or irrelevant. The more salient info the brain detects, the more raw material it has to be creativeThe big issue here is that familiarity breeds contempt — meaning, when we are locked into our normal routine this network usually runs on autopilot. It notices what it always notices. The secret to getting its attention is risk and novelty. New experiences and new ideas. Ceaseless adventure and constant reading are key. For the former, see this article I wrote on risk and creativity. For the latter, books are always better than magazines, newspapers, blogs etc. — I explain why in this piece for Forbes.

The best book on all the different neuronal systems involved in creativity is the recently released How Creativity Happens In the Brain, by neuroscientist and pioneering flow researcher Arne Dietrich. But be warned, this is not light summer fare. Dietrich is funny as hell, but the book is dense and — because it’s published by an academic publisher — expensive.

TwoKnow The Better Question.

A little while back author and investor Tim Ferriss walked me through the four things he does on a regular basis to support long haul creativity. His whole list is really good, so we’ll start there:

Daily Exercise: at least an hour, needed to lower anxiety levels and clear the head. Interestingly, the research shows that weight training is better than aerobic training for quieting the inner critic.Keep a Maker Schedule: Carve out dedicated periods for key tasks that require creativity. If complex problem-solving or analysis is required, Ferriss recommends at least four hour blocks. And this also means no distractions — turn off email, phone, messages, skype, twitter, facebook and all the rest.Long Walks: Without music or podcasts or distraction, purposefully letting the mind wander. This switches off spotlight attention and switches on the default mode network — aka, the imagination network.Surround yourself with driven people who are good at spotting your assumptions. Ferriss explains: “The people who are the very best at this are the ones who hear my question and respond with: ‘You’re asking the wrong question. The better question is….’”

This last point is really important. While feedback can often be a hindrance to in-the-moment creativity, it’s essential for the long haul. But choice in feedback giver is critical.

This becomes doubly important the more successful you get. If you make a name for yourself in creativity people tend to trust your creative ideas a little more than they should and too frequently give you the benefit of the doubt. This is no bueno. To make sure he’s getting the feedback he needs, Ferriss hunts for folks who help him reframe his question, rather than just play devil’s advocate. This is spot on. People who play devil’s advocate often do so out of reflex — this means they tend to lack the technical sophistication to really help and often derail creativity through generalization. Reframers, meanwhile, take the idea farther faster. By providing a better question, they’re providing a new launch pad. This creates momentum. And for long haul creativity, nothing is more fundamental than momentum.

Three: Momentum Matters Most

Speaking of momentumthere is something deeply exhausting about the year-in and year-out requirements of imagination. Every morning, the writer faces a blank page, the painter an empty canvas; the innovator a dozen directions to go at once. The brilliant tidbit of advice that has helped me solve this slog came from Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Marquez said that the key was to have quit working at the point you’re most excited. In other words, once Marquez really starts to cook, he shuts down the stove. This seems counter-intuitive. Creativity is an emergent property. Quitting when most excited — when ideas are really emerging — seems like the exact opposite of what you should do.

Yet Marquez is exactly right. Creativity isn’t a single battle; it’s an ongoing war. By quitting when you’re most excited, you’re carrying momentum into the next day’s work session. Momentum is the key. When you realize that you left off someplace both exciting and familiar — someplace where you know the idea that comes next — you dive right back in, no time wasted, no time to let fear creep back into the equation, and far less time to get up to speed.

Four: A Few Thoughts on Sobbing, Shouting, and Punching Hard Objects

I’ve written nine books. Two are in drawers. Seven are in stores. All share one thing in common: at some point during their writing, I lost my mind.

Without question, at least once a book, I end up on the ground, sobbing, shouting, and punching the floor. For a long time, I was convinced I was the only one who behaved this way. But about five years ago, I heard author David Foster Wallace tell a story about the difficulty of creativity. “It never fails,” he said, “at least once a book, I end up on the ground, sobbing, screaming and punching the floor.”

The obvious point here is yes, creativity is insanely frustrating for everybody. The core question for Long Haul Creativity is what to do about it? Turns out, researchers have discovered that frustration is actually a fundamental step in the creative process. From a technical perspective, this seems to have something to do with the limits of working memory and the requirements of creativity’s incubation period, but no one is exactly certain.

From a practical perspective, this means reversing our traditional relationship with frustration. Since this emotion is a basic step in the creative process, we need to stop feeling its arrival as disaster. For creatives, frustration is actually a sign of progress, a sign of movement in the right direction, a sign that the much needed breakthrough is ever closer to showing up.

Five: Sir Ken Robinson Weighs In On Frustration

I just returned from presenting at the World Business Forum in Milan, where I spent some time with creativity expert and all-around great guy Sir Ken Robinson. Sir Ken pointed out that long haul creativity requires a low-level, near-constant sense of frustration — which is different from the just-discussed moment-of-madness version of frustration.

George Lucas.
George Lucas.

Moment-of-madness frustration makes you punch the ground. Ken’s version is about motivation. It’s a constant, itchy dissatisfaction, a deep sense of what-if, and can-we-make-it-better, and the like.

To illustrate this, he told me a story about George Lucas. Robinson, apparently, popped the question: “Hey George,” he said, “why do you keep remaking all those Star Wars movies?” Lucas had a great answer: “In this particular universe, I’m God. And God isn’t satisfied.”

SixEverybody’s Got A Job To Do

There’s this mistaken assumption that creativity is a solitary pursuit. This may be true, but the business of creativity is always collaborative. Every journalist has to brave a gauntlet of editors, copy-editors, managing editors ad infinitum. Movies and books and plays and poems are more of the same. Startup entrepreneurs always have investors — etc.

And this brings me to an important point: everybody’s got a job to do. And everybody wants to keep that job. In writing, this means that even if I turn in something perfect, my editors are still being paid to edit — so they will. This is why, I discovered, every time I turned in a piece of finished work I intentionally include a few horrible lines. It gives my editors something to do. It lets them feel useful. It keeps their grubby little hands away from my damn perfect sentences.

Seven: Creativity Is A By-Product

Contrary to popular opinion, creativity is almost always the by-product of passionate hard work and not the other way around. Olympian Gretchen Bleiler — one of the more creative snowboarders in history — puts it this way: “You don’t wake up and say: ‘Today I’m going to be more creative. You do the things you love to do and try to get at their essence and allow things to emerge.’ ”

Eight: Listen To Neil Gaiman

Pretty much everything I’ve learned about long haul creativity author Neil Gaiman says in this speech, only he says it so much better than I could.

Step 7: The Best of Creativity Researchers

Scott Barry Kaufman is a good friend and a wizard of a creativity researcher. He also birthed the Dual-Process Theory of Human Intelligence, no biggie. Here he goes deep on the Neuroscience of Creativity, Flow, and Openness to Experience. It's a must watch for anyone looking to superhero-up. 


Step 8: The Official FGP Research Overview on Flow & Creativity

This next section is taken right out of our paper on our 2100 respondent study on Flow & Creativity. It's the academic overview for those who really want it all. Enjoy:

1.3 The Relationship between Flow & Creativity

1.3.1 Anecdotal & Intuitive Links Between Flow & Creativity

Strong anecdotal evidence suggests a positive causal relationship between flow and creativity. During comprehensive interviews with action and adventure sport athletes, US military special forces, technology companies, artists and musicians, it was found that self-perceived increases in creativity were highly associated with flow (Kotler, 2014, Kotler & Wheal, 2017). Numerous accounts from distinguished individuals in the arts and sciences report that the state of flow has enabled and intensified their creative process (Csikszentmihályi, 1997). Additionally, there are intuitive and anecdotal links between flow and creativity. The characteristics of flow, such as loss of self-consciousness and high concentration, seem to overlap with anecdotal descriptions of creative experiences. For example, in colloquial speech, “being in the zone,” which is a synonym for flow, is also used to describe a state of heightened creativity.

1.3.2 Existing Literature on Flow & Creativity

There are a number of existing sources that directly address the relationship between flow and creativity. Csikszentmihalyi’s text Beyond Boredom and Anxiety and his more recent text Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention suggests that the nine characteristics of flow listed above are highly intertwined with the creative process (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, pp. 112). There are two primary reasons Csikszentmihalyi suggests this. First, there is the concept of effortless attention. Intuitively, one might presume that the more challenging a mental activity, the more effort will be exerted. However, when in flow, greater challenge results in less subjective effort and less resulting self-regulatory fatigue. Second, flow is a state of complete focus, but at the same time cognition appears to be driven by free association and implicit processes rather than by explicit rational reasoning or self referential thought. This state of unforced concentration may spur novel and relevant ideas. So, according to Csíkszentmihályi, flow may promote creativity in at least two ways: First, by promoting the hard work which is required to gain necessary knowledge to pursue an idea. Second, the state itself may facilitate creative thinking.

Additional studies have found significant correlations between levels of flow in music students and quality of their group composition as measured by creativity ratings (Byrne, 2006), levels of flow and heightened group creativity and quality of performance in both ensemble performance and improvisational jazz (Sawyer, 2006) and levels of flow and levels of engagement, enjoyment and absorption in the creative writing process (Forgeard, Kaufman & Kaufman, 2009).

Arne Dietrich, who conducted the foundational research on flow and transient hypofrontality, explores the neurological profile of creativity in his text How Creativity Happens in the Brain. He suggests that “Flow represents a third mode of creativity, alongside the deliberate and spontaneous modes of creative thinking” due to the fact that flow appears to involve processing in the implicit system (Dietrich, 2015, pp. 11). Furthermore, research done at Harvard by Teresa Amabile found that individuals see a spike in creativity for a number of days after experiencing an affective state similar to that experienced during flow. Amabile also found that creative insights were consistently associated with flow states (Amabile, 2005).

Beyond this, a study conducted at the University of Sydney found that creative problem solving increased after subjects experienced a state comparable to flow, which was artificially induced via transcranial magnetic stimulation. Subjects were given a classic test of creative problem solving: the nine-dot problem. Under normal circumstances, fewer than 5 percent of subjects successfully solve the nine-dot problem. In their control group, no one did. In the flow-induced group, 40 percent successfully solved the problem making this group 40 percent more successful at this creative challenge than the norm (Chi and Snyder, 2011). Additionally, research carried out by DARPA and Advanced Brain Monitoring used neurofeedback to artificially induce a state comparable to flow and they found that soldiers solved complex creative problems and mastered new skills up to 490% faster than normal (Adlee, 2012), (Berka, 2013).

Associations have also been drawn between the notion of “group flow” and creative problem solving, due to the possibility that the collaborative nature of this state may accelerate the problem solving process (Sawyer, 2007). Furthermore, a meta-analysis which provided a first approximation of how creative cognition may map onto the brain, found that free associations, divergent thinking, imagination and silencing the internal critic all rely upon a reduction in the activation of the Executive Attention Network and an increase in activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks (Jung, 2013). These findings directly align with research done on the brainstates of jazz musicians and rappers who were in flow during creative improvisation (Liu, 2012), (Limb, 2008). This apparent similarity between the brain state that defines both flow and creativity has lead prominent creativity researchers to explicitly infer a causal relationship between flow and creativity (Kaufman, 2013), (Kaufman, 2014).

1.3.3 Relationships between Brainwave Signature of Flow & Creativity

There is good reason to believe that the use of EEG to measure brainwave states and their association with creativity is a valuable means of furthering our understanding of the cognitive processes involved in creativity (Srinivasan, 2007). Interestingly, the brainwave signature of flow is similar to various brainwave signatures which have been associated with heightened creativity. During Flow, brain waves move from beta to the borderline between alpha and theta (Kotler, 2014), (Katahira, 2018). This brainwave state is similar to the hypnagogic state which has been associated with heightened Creativity (Gruzelier, 2008). Studies have also found that the occurrence of Theta brainwaves, which occur during Flow, are conducive to improvements in creative performance (Roberts, 2006). Furthermore, EEG research has shown that the “readiness state” for sudden creative insight occurs during a theta brainwave state that has intermittent gamma wave activity (Martindale, 1975), (Kaufman and Sternberg, 2011). This suggests that Flow may “neurologically poise” individuals for creative insight which would serve to increase creative decision making abilities. Finally, aspects of the actual brainwave signature of Flow, which is characterised by moderate to low alpha activity and high theta, have been directly linked to Creativity. One EEG study revealed that the generation of original ideas was associated with alpha synchronisation in frontal brain regions and with a diffuse and widespread pattern of alpha synchronisation over parietal cortical regions (Fink, 2009).

1.3.4 Neuroanatomical Link between Flow & Creativity

Transient hypofrontality, the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, has been shown to occur during flow (Liu, 2012), (Limb, 2008). It is also seen as being a partial cause of the loss of self-consciousness that is synonymous with flow (Dietrich, 2003). It appears that transient hypofrontality may positively influence creativity. This speculation is based on the reduction in self-monitoring and impulse control and the increasingly integrative brain functionality that accompanies transient hypofrontality. Neuroanatomically, with the prefrontal cortex largely deactivated, the “inner critic” shuts off and the inner monologue, that can hinder creative expression, is rendered silent. This appears to enhance receptivity to novel experiences, which are foundational in the generation of new ideas due to decreased inhibition, and increase the likelihood of acting upon those new ideas. This speculation has some empirical support. In one study the artificial induction of transient hypofrontality resulted in an increase in creative problem solving. The novelty of the creative insights produced by the subjects increased and they were capable of solving creative problems in less time than the control subjects (Thompson-Schill, 2010).

1.3.5 Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness and Creativity

Flow sits inside the broader category of non-ordinary states of consciousness. There are strong theoretical reasons for believing that non-ordinary states of consciousness may be conducive to improvements in creativity. Non-ordinary states of consciousness tend to facilitate information richness, perspective shift and heightened lateral thinking. It is suggested that these characteristics of non-ordinary states can compensate for the frequent limitations we face when using rational binary logic alone to solve difficult creative challenges. Furthermore, the ability to hold conflicting perspectives simultaneously and leverage the friction between them to synthesize new ideas is characteristic of non-ordinary states. This process has been said to be an integral part of creative problem solving (Martin, 2009).

The research that already exists on various non-ordinary states, such as meditation, drug-induced peak experiences, awe and flow, also suggest that these states have an ability to heighten creativity (Kotler and Wheal, 2017). For example, there appears to be a link between meditation and creativity. Research done on Tibetan Buddhists in the 1990’s found that longtime contemplative practice can produce brain waves in the gamma range which primarily occur during the “binding” phase of the creative process, when novel ideas are generated for the first time (Kounios, 2014), (Gilsinan, 2015). This suggests that meditation may amplify the initial stages of creative problem solving. Furthermore, work done at the University of North Carolina also found that just four days of meditation produced significant improvements in attention, memory, vigilance, creativity and cognitive flexibility (Zeidan, 2009). Another study found that focused attention based meditation and open monitoring meditation exerts specific effects on creativity. Open monitoring meditation induces a control state that promotes divergent thinking, a style of thinking that allows many new ideas to be generated. For comparison, focused attention meditation was found to minimize convergent thinking, the process of generating one possible solution to a particular problem (Colzato, 2012).

Additionally, non-ordinary states of consciousness produced by psychedelic drugs have also been associated with heightened creativity. The International Foundation for Advanced Study at Menlo Park, California conducted a study on twenty-seven test subjects who had been struggling to solve a highly technical problem over a prolonged period of time. The subjects were given minor doses of either LSD or mescaline and then tested across nine categories of cognitive performance. They then spent four hours working on their predetermined problems. All of the subjects experienced a boost in creativity with some as high as 200 percent (Fadiman, 2011, pp.133).

The combination of this empirical evidence and our initial theoretical assumptions serves to solidify the assumption that non-ordinary states of consciousness, with flow being one among many non-ordinary states, may positively influence creativity. Furthermore, if the broader characteristics of non-ordinary states heighten creativity, it appears reasonable to infer flow may do the same (Kotler and Wheal, 2017).

1.3.6 Neurochemical Similarities Between Flow & Creativity

Dopamine has been claimed to be one of the main neurochemicals that shows up during flow, along with serotonin, anandamide, endorphins and norepinephrine (Berns, 2005). Dopamine is highly correlated with increased artistic output and thus heightened creativity (Zaidel, 2014). One study examined whether individual performance in divergent thinking and convergent thinking can be predicted by the individual spontaneous eye blink rate (EBR), a clinical marker of dopaminergic functioning. Convergent thinking was found to be positively correlated with intelligence but negatively correlated with EBR, suggesting that higher dopamine levels impair convergent thinking and supporting the claim that creativity and dopamine are related (Chermahini, 2010). Given the increase in dopaminergic function that occurs during flow, this is reason to hypothesize that flow may positively influence creativity through a similar mechanism.

Bonus: A Quick Creativity-Boosting Hack

Vipassana for Creativity (from Monday of the Mind): Latent inhibition is the technical term for the length of time you can hold an idea in consciousness before attaching meaning to it. If you meditate you’ve probably heard talk about “lengthening the gap between thought and emotion”. What people talk less about is that getting into this gap also improves latent inhibition and, by extension, amplifies creativity.

By putting in your time on the cushion, you can stretch out that gap. This increases the amount of time novel information will sit in your awareness before you attach meaning to it. The longer you do this the more time the pattern recognition system has to work and the more far-flungconnections between ideas you’ll uncover. So - How do you train up latent inhibition? 

Open sense meditation like Vipassana where you’re just trying to allow information into your awareness does the trick. It’s a really easy way to start hacking this. 

Here’s my personal routine including my Vipassana practice:

  1. Focused Breathwork for 5 minutes
  2. Box Breathing for 10 minutes (we dive deep on this in Stealing Fire)
  3. Wim Hof style breathing for a few rounds (an added benefits is cardiovascular fitness to help on the slopes)
  4. Finally, stack on Vipassana for 10 minutes at the end

Try this for a couple of weeks and you should start seeing really interesting results.

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