Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: How We Can Become A Creative Society

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist living in the United States, a recipient of the Széchenyi Grand Prize, the creator of the concept of flow, arrived in Budapest at the invitation of the Pallas Athene Geopolitical Foundation to give a lecture about his specialty, research into creativity. Several hundred people attended his lecture on creativity’s components, its effects on society as a whole, and about the similarities discovered among thirty Nobel Prize Laureates.


I have been studying the question of creativity for over fifty years. It all started in October 1944, when I was nine years old, when we departed from Nyugati Railway Terminal, Budapest, to leave Hungary behind for good. All over the city we heard the guns of the approaching Soviet troops. We returned to Italy, where my father worked. At that time, as a nine-year-old, I was surprised that many grownups who served in high offices in our country had not known what would happen, despite the fact that they were well-educated and very experienced people. The events, and the fact that the government’s entire character and structure changed completely caught them unaware. Thus, I began to seek an explanation. What was missing from the lives of these people? What could convince the rest of the population that they could live their lives in such a way that they made their own lives and society as a whole better? I became convinced that the decision was in our hands whether our lives would be brutal, short, and full of pain, or a life that is flourishing, has purpose and meaning. Moreover, this would leave a trace on future generations. Creativity is a potential that exists in people, just as the potential for destruction and cruelty is in them. However, it is our responsibility to make sure that creativity, not destruction, triumphs.

We must distinguish between two types of creativity. One type transforms culture, the way people view the world. This is big “C” public creativity. Small “c” creativity appears in the lives of people who never get to be famous, but through its deployment their own lives are enriched and gain meaning. Here I will mostly address creativity with a big “C”, because it is easier to study, and it has a greater effect on society, or rather this type of creativity is the kind that we must make sure to preserve. Creativity makes society lively, healthy, and progressing.

A characteristic of Creativity with a big “C” is that it is rare. Creativity does not occur frequently, statistically speaking, so it is imperative that society, or at least part of it, appreciates it. The most exciting part of my studies is how society recognizes novelty, rare occurrences, which bring about change.

Renaissance culture changed the Western world. When we read about the Renaissance in Florence, we discover – as historians discovered, too – that the Renaissance was the work of the ruling class, and not talented youth. The talent was always there, however previously it simply did not gain recognition. The City of Florence’s commitment to seek out such artists, painters, and sculptors so that they could decorate the city is something quite incredible. These artists could come from anywhere, they could be rural kids who appear to be talented, so even I had a chance. They were sent to schools and taught how to use techniques and materials. All of this came to exist because society learned to recognize, teach, and enjoy excellence, those rare talents.


This work then must be completed. The big idea itself, that we then forget, is not Creativity with a big C. They say a person needs ten thousand hours to become a master of a subject, whatever this subject may be: geometry, biology, painting or music. However, this is not yet creativity. A creative person surpasses mastery.

It is important to emphasize that creativity is not an isolated phenomenon that happens on its own in someone’s brain. It has to be the synergy of the entire system. In the course of big “C” creativity you can change the symbolic representation of some part of reality, be that physics, biology etc. The individual can enrich the community’s experience as it relates to that domain, a separate realm of skill. Creativity may change this domain and its rules, it may change how we use numbers, instruments, colors, and sounds.

Creativity means that a person is able to learn to work within a domain, then become that domain’s expert after ten thousand hours, and then, once he has learned all this, he sets out to change it, and people say: “Well, I have not thought about it that way before, but this method is indeed better.”

Creativity is made up of three elements: the first is culture – where rules and the domain are embedded.


Ten years ago, we were driving with my family in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. There were no people, no cities, just bears and all sorts of other animals as far as the eye could see. Our car overheated and we wanted to change the water, whereupon another vehicle stopped and asked what the problem was. We began to talk, and to my great surprise it turned out that this man, who lived nearby, was the curator of a small town’s Rubik’s museum. He knew that Rubik’s cubes came from Hungary, but aside from this he only knew that it was a magic cube that people played with all over the world. The museum was located in a nicely painted shed and they had cubes from all over the world. Some of the cubes were signed by Rubik himself. This man’s imagination advanced as far in the civilized world as it possibly could. This is big “C” Creativity.

The second is that man who learns the rules but thinks he could do things differently. For instance, Albert Einstein responded to the question of what motivated him to create the theory of relativity by saying that he could not understand physics the way it was taught back in his day, so he came up with the theory of relativity. The creative person realizes that there is something missing, something that is hard to understand and says: why don’t we find a new method? This is where creativity begins. The experts are the third element. When a society is not creative, when there are no new ideas, products, lifestyles, that is not because there are no smart and creative people, but rather because those in power do not want change. The experts decide on the new ideas that are imported into culture, which owes its progress and complexity to this process. The next generation can use it for its own success, or they might also create novelties, and make decisions about whether they would continue teaching them.

This model also applies to smaller-scale systems. For instance, if we think of a business or a school, or any human community, all of these have their own culture. A common knowledge, traditions that belong to a firm or a school. Most workers may only be there because of the income, and they keep the system running. But then there are those individuals who wish to improve the system with new elements. If the company management takes no notice of its employees’ good ideas, it slowly excludes the company from progress. If they accept too many ideas and import too many novelties, that may have a destructive effect on the company’s future. The management must know which ideas to choose and it must integrate them into the company’s culture. When studying people, we quickly realized that we always strive to conserve energy: we repeat things as always, we eat the same things, we spend time with those whom we love. This is a conservative tendency. After a while, however, we like to transcend our own boundaries. We want to do what we do better, with less effort and greater precision. This is a spreading tendency, and this one is more important when it comes to creativity.

When creating something new we need free attention. The debate continues to this day about how much information a man can process in a single day. A good estimate is about half a million pieces of information: these are things like hunger, being hot, signals coming from the environment or inside – your memories, your imagination. This information is all caught by your brain. If all this information relates to work, food, and bathing, and you spend your waking time doing irrelevant things, then nothing new can come to be, and no one will recognize your talent.


We have a tendency that we want to perform better. Creative people learn to enjoy what they do. They don’t only do it for the money anymore. They want to do it better, in a way that no one had done it before. In the creative people who I investigated, all had a kind of joy. This is one of the most exciting things that makes up flow.

Flow is the feeling we get when we are doing something in the best possible way. Something we must do and we do it better than anyone else. We get support from other people, so we continue and we achieve such things where everyone says: this is outstanding.


The first Egyptian dynasties were very creative, but then they decided that because they were much stronger and richer than other countries they no longer want change. The pharaohs created an entire office whose function was to go from artist to artist and to punish them if they were caught doing something new. Thus, Egypt’s rulers preserved the culture’s status quo, in contrast to the first dynasties who changed and progressed. This is the responsibility of experts and leaders. Those people in Florence who had those new buildings built and ordered those paintings and sculptures, were the big banking families and the leaders of the unions of the age, the guilds, workers of the cotton and the textile industry, who were proud to support the city’s beauty. They donated the money so the best artists could be hired. A society becomes creative if there is a political system that recognizes and supports novelty that deserves support. It is not simple and it is very rare that a society gets to the level where it has the opportunity and the political ability to foster good ideas.

Flow has a characteristic where you must know what next step is going to be, what is needed. Whether you are a pensioner, a sportsman, or a businessman, you must know what you must do. You get information regarding whether what you have done was good. So, you need clear goals and immediate feedback. For flow, you must feel that you are doing exactly what is needed. If you must do more than you can you would feel bad, you would be worried. If the task is too simple, you would be bored. Once you have these elements in place, you need to focus. In that situation

you forget about the future and the past. You are in the present. You feel that you can do what is needed, you don’t feel that you must do it, you only feel that you are doing it. Time passes by very fast, you take no heed, then you look up and you realize that half a day has passed and not half an hour. You forget yourself, you don’t think of yourself, your work, or your paycheck, you don’t worry about your career, you just focus on what you do. This is flow, the state of creative people when they work.

Let’s take rational thought – acting in the interest of pure results. This is a distinguishing trait of creative people, but at the same time they display a kind of childlike naivety. Their ideas go in unexpected directions, and this is not something you can expect of a grown-up. Goethe was asked to explain how he became the genius of German poetry and he responded that he still sought to preserve his childlike naivety. They can think rationally, systematically, and they can think like a child. These people are playful yet disciplined and responsible in their work and in their lives alike.

From among the thirty Nobel Laureates I wrote about, six or seven spent some time in prison, as they did not function according to the expectations of the system. Linus Pauling was arrested because he participated in a demonstration against nuclear weapons, when he laid across the railroad tracks. Egypt’s single Nobel Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz was knifed by Muslim extremists on the street, because he had written about the future uncertainty of Egypt’s Muslims. He was punished for not being a fundamentalist, but he said that he simply had to speak his mind. He almost died, but he managed to recover.

Reality and imagination are also very important. The traits of creative people show that creativity comes to be when opposing forces meet. We think that these are introverted people working alone. This is true, but they are also very curious about how others work. Not because they want to imitate them, but because they think they could learn something. Society is very important for scientists. If you think with others, the continual interaction with others is indispensable.

Ambition – these people are competitive and at time arrogant. Isaac Newton was once asked how he could see so far where no one else could – they were thinking of discovering gravity, of course. He said it was because he was standing on the shoulders of giants.

We must recognize this. No matter how far we can see, how deeply we understand something, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of previous generations. Creative women typically have feminine traits, but they are also strong and competitive. Men tend to be more sensitive, they are more interested in emotions. From childhood, onwards we see two different realities if we are boy or girls. This is what we teach our children as well. Creative people can use opportunities, because they are not constrained.


Passion is crucial even in the sciences where we have to be cold and rational. But creative scientists are very passionate. They notice things that others don’t, they are very interested in what else they could discover. In this they resemble great poets. I translated the poems of Salvatore Quasimodo, an Italian Nobel Laureate, into English and I changed certain words so that they sounded better in English. He sent them back to me saying that these were different in the original. Not a black bird, a raven. He was very careful with concrete words, in the details of language, how he wanted to represent reality.

Years ago, a book on Michelangelo’s life became a bestseller. Its English title was The Agony and the Ecstasy. It addresses a duplicity in Michelangelo’s life: he did not know how to express himself, so he had to make compromises, live in a fashion he did not want to live. The ecstasy he felt when working was one of a vision appearing.

This is the life of creative people – agony and ecstasy, uncertainty and suffering, because the world is not yet mature to receive their ideas. But there is also joy and satisfaction, which they feel when they have accomplished something they did not know it was possible.

These are the traits of creative people. If we want a more creative society, excitement and progress in culture, the problem is usually not that there are no people around who think that way. Rather the problem is that they have no chance to express themselves, they have no support and no access to the right instruments.

For big “C” Creativity we must become a creative society, like Athens or Florence used to be. The fact that the Hungarian National Bank chose Pallas Athene is a good sign. We need a vision for the future, which leads us to a better history, to a better era for humanity. This is the challenge that we are facing.

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