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January 12, 2022+Orin Davis

A Complex Life Worth Living: Lessons in Heterodoxy from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

Have you ever looked at Prigogene’s [concept of] dissipative structures?” After being a doctoral student of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi for a while, getting a question about physical chemistry no longer seemed shocking. After all, instead of starting the doctoral seminar on positive psychology with an overview paper, he had us read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Instead of the usual survey course on the seminal papers of the field, Csíkszentmihályi brought us key papers from a range of subjects that he then had us relate to the concept of human flourishing. Over the years that I studied and worked with Csíkszentmihályi, I came to understand that heterodoxy was one of his hallmarks, and I received many lessons in it, both directly from him and from looking at his biography and his research. As a memorial to my late advisor, I would like to share some of these with the community. (Note: While the lessons are his, the wording is mine.)

Lesson 1: Research deeply and widely, but never lose sight of the big question.

What makes life worth living? This question, more than any other, sums up the arc of Csíkszentmihályi’s research, and while his work on flow was a key part of his answer, so too was his research on creativity and complexity. To Csíkszentmihályi, the worthwhile life was not one of materialism or spirituality per se, but rather a life in which one sought out a range of experiences that would enhance their uniqueness such that they could make a contribution to the world that would transcend their own existence. Modeling this in his own research, Csíkszentmihályi drew from a wide range of subjects and sources, including the natural sciences, philosophy, and art, to give us a deeper understanding of human development and flourishing.

Lesson 2: Be a specialist who embraces a diverse range of viewpoints.

Drawing from research in biology, Csíkszentmihályi’s 1993 work, The Evolving Self, discussed how people engage in the evolutionary processes of differentiation and integration to develop maturity and uniqueness. Through differentiation, one seeks to distinguish oneself from the rest, developing a unique identity and set of characteristics that allow for specific contributions to the world that can be made by no other. Through integration, the individual goes beyond the self, seeking out ideas, resources, and people that enable the person to connect with the world they serve. That is, the primary way to make the most of our potential is to develop specialized expertise and a worldview that is built of diverse perspectives, a core component of being a heterodox thinker.

Lesson 3: To go against the grain, you have to study the grain.

The combination of differentiation and integration is an analog of the creative processes of divergent and convergent thinking (the field of creativity research defines these respectively as developing an extensive and/or broad range of ideas and winnowing a set of ideas into a usable solution), both of which are necessary for developing something that qualifies as being “creative” (defined as being novel and useful).

In developing his work on the Systems Model of Creativity, Csíkszentmihályi highlighted the value of internalizing the domain (i.e., deeply understanding the precepts and skills of the specialized area, such as painting, engineering, and politics, in which one works, in addition to developing general creativity skills), mastering the forms and processes that the experts used to create, and understanding the field to which the individual will contribute. What do the people want and need, and what will the masters and gatekeepers of the domain respect? In many ways, this is the convergent aspect of creative thinking, as the utility of a creation is contingent upon its being understood and accepted by others.

But, warns Csíkszentmihályi, knowing what people want and what experts respect is insufficient, as one must also apply one’s own uniqueness to the works produced, differentiating and diverging from the extant products available. This is the divergent aspect of creative thinking, but, as noted above, it must be combined with convergent thinking. A creation with too much uniqueness fails, too, as the domain will not accept it as admissible and/or the populace will not understand it. Thus, one must temper this individuality with the convergence that comes from a study of the gatekeepers and the audience. This complex dance is all too familiar to artists and academics seeking to make a name for themselves but remains a constant in the lives of every person wanting to make a contribution to the world.

Lesson 4: It’s not about “A or B” versus “A and B.” It’s about knowing when to embrace the “A” and when to embrace the “B.”

Building on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s notion that the creative and self-actualized person may indeed be one and the same, Csíkszentmihályi developed a research-based model of the characteristics of a creative personality as a mature and complex individual.

The research showed that many of the people who achieved a world-changing level of success in their fields (“Big-C creatives”) had also developed a significant level of complexity through differentiation and integration – they internalized the domain in which they work and also made unique contributions. Over the course of getting to that point, they developed a consistent set of characteristics that were documented in Csíkszentmihályi’s research. Inherent in this research model is psychologist Carl Jung’s conception that maturity involves embracing dialectical aspects of the self such that one is able to use the full force of either at will. Csíkszentmihályi found a set of 10 dialectics that are common to world-changing creatives that reflect higher-order abilities to command great internal forces in the process of living their lives.

For example, he found that Big-C creatives embrace the dialectic of industriousness and laziness, which means that they are able to not only put their noses to the proverbial grindstone when they choose but put all vestiges of work aside and rest. Though we typically conceive of industriousness as a good and laziness as an ill, Csíkszentmihályi (via Jung) points out that the failure to use either pole of the dialectic in moderation is problematic.

Rather, the mature individual is capable of controlling their energy to the point of being able to engage with the attitudes and practices of work or rest to the full, and having the wisdom to know when enough is enough (at least for the moment). One of Csíkszentmihályi’s graduate students (me, as it happens) would later frame this model as a basis for therapy and coaching.

Lesson 5: Let the good times flow, and from them grow.

Getting to such high levels of self-control is often the result of many repeated experiences in which we need to act as our best selves, which in turn comes from acting upon the values and principles that resonate with us most deeply (which often manifests as intrinsic motivation). In his endeavor to understand this fundamental question of why people create and the personal utility of engaging in acts of creation, Csíkszentmihályi conducted research on why artists pursue their careers even when there might be little promise of monetary reward. He found that the artists were intrinsically motivated to create their works and in fact were heavily engaged in the act of creating art simply for the sake of the act itself. Writ large, the pursuit of excellence in a way one considers meaningful is its own reward, often because of how challenging it is to do so.

Csíkszentmihályi described how this desire to engage in an act for its own sake was often a function of (and often contributed to) a higher-order experience that he called flow. As flow experiences are some of the most wonderful and rewarding that a person can have, Csíkszentmihályi pointed out that many of these experiences make life worth living for the individual and are often a source of developing uniqueness, differentiation, and integration.

We can experience flow solo, in groups, in almost any activity, and, as I theorized and preliminarily demonstrated, in microdoses. Indeed, people are willing to invest prodigious amounts of time, money, and energy into finding and having these flow experiences, to the point that Csíkszentmihályi and colleagues had to provide numerous cautions against becoming a flow junkie: The pursuit of excellence and one’s highest ideals is a grand endeavor but must be done in a meaningful and personally resonant way.

Lesson 6: That which we call “science” is merely the truth of the moment.

As Csíkszentmihályi’s student, I wasn’t allowed to be a “facts” junkie. In science, the canon is not sacred and can (and must!) be trodden upon from time to time. Never did I see this as starkly as when I was strongly advocating for a research model of flow with nine characteristics (which had already been well established by Csíkszentmihályi, as well as by Susan Jackson and colleagues). “You’re being too dogmatic about [the theory],” he said. “But, professor,” I interjected, “it’s your theory!” “Right. So, I’m telling you [not to be too dogmatic].” No matter how established his work was, and no matter how much evidence he had provided, there was always plenty of room for him to be wrong about things, and that meant no one should be taking it as gospel.

Csíkszentmihályi reinforced this lesson for me about a year later when he and I were discussing the nature of the flow experience and the question of whether flow could be characterized as a “state.” I was positing that it couldn’t, and he actually agreed with me, turning his back at that moment on a claim that was repeated in a bigger stack of publications than some will have in a lifetime. When I noted this, he acknowledged offhandedly that his thinking had evolved since he had written those pieces and that what he had out was merely what he thought at the time. Over the years, his conception of flow always outpaced what he could get out in the publications, and he simply figured he would get around to explaining his updated thoughts once he clarified them and could write them down. No matter his age or degree of establishment in the research world, Csíkszentmihályi was never willing to let his thinking stagnate and was always open to the evolution of his ideas and the possibility that a better conception was out there.

Lesson 7: Creativity and complexity may require significant effort, but they help make life worth living.

Throughout his works, Csíkszentmihályi intricately weaves the relationships between maturity, complexity, flow, and creativity into a clear conception that these are among the key elements that make a life unique and worth living. Perhaps one of the most telling insights into this came from experiments using the experience sampling method that he co-invented, in which people experiencing flow were actually not having a positive experience in the moment.

In a counterintuitive way, this actually makes perfect sense: When a person is deeply involved in a task that is more challenging than what they typically encounter, and to which they need to apply a relatively high level of skill, the high effort and energy they need to put in is going to be a painful strain. Though they may frame this in retrospect as being a delicious pain that provides them with a positive reflection upon their capacities and the high-level goals they can reach, putting in elbow grease is never an inherently pleasurable experience. Yet, it serves as a reminder that, if we are willing to put in the work to develop our complexity and uniqueness, share it with the world in a comprehensible way, and find paths to creation that are intrinsically rewarding, then we will find in retrospect that we have not only self-actualized and self-transcended, we have lived a life worth living.

To encounter my mentor for any length of time was to experience a recognition that we each have uniqueness to share with the world and that we can exchange with others for the mutual enhancement of that uniqueness. Those of us who studied with Csíkszentmihályi received even deeper lessons about the importance of learning, entertaining, and drawing from a wide range of ideas, and even (perhaps especially!) contrary ones, because the only way to get anything done in science is to learn the canon and then question it and make it evolve.

Among the things I miss most, though, was how Csíkszentmihályi embodied the dialectic of being hard on us to spur our intellectual growth, but also being proud of us not just for the uniqueness we brought to bear on our work but for the potential he saw in each of us to create.


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