Flow into Imagination
Imagination democratizes humanity, empowering all of us to muse, visualize, and fantasize how we will create, enjoy life, find, and solve problems, effect change, and, when necessary, survive.
So it might seem.
In 2004, I launched a university course called Creativity and the Evolution of Culture. Each semester, over half the students write the same lament: “I am not creative,” paired with variations of “I am not an artist” and “I have no imagination.” Conflating imagination and creativity with the arts, most have resigned themselves to being outsiders who can only appreciate these seemingly mystical processes from a distance.
My students’ view of themselves as imaginatively and creatively disenfranchised is endemic within the culture. Can human beings unimprison imagination, and live the vitality it unleashes, if it’s something they believe they’ve never had?
By semester’s end, many of the same students answer with an absolute “Yes!” The credit for their transformation goes to my longtime mentor, friend, and collaborator, Mihaly (Mike) Csikszentmihalyi.
Reading and acting upon his book Creativity: Flow and Psychology of Discovery and Innovation, they are asked to intentionally apply flow as a practical framework for more deeply understanding a challenging activity they love doing for its own sake. Printmaking, developing lesson-plans, and doing crafts with children are recent examples.
Concentrating intensely on increasingly challenging goals, they understand flow experientially. Hours feel like minutes; self-consciousness disappears; in the moment, they act intuitively and with confidence. They see what Mike always argued: In flow, we free up energy to make new connections. We grow in our ability to imagine what we can do and what we can be.
My students are forever concerned with finding their life “passion.” My advice: Forget passion. Find flow. Life offers infinite opportunities to lose yourself in new challenges and experience flow. Flow liberates curiosity and imagination. Creativity and passion often follow. Recent brain imaging technology reveals how.
For many, flow remains the unexplored path to imagination. For all of us, experiencing flow is necessary if we are to learn to use our complex potential. The survival of our species might depend upon it.
Gary Gute is committed to advancing the scholarship and wisdom of his longtime mentor, friend, and collaborator, Mihaly (Mike) Csikszentmihalyi. With Deanne Gute and Mihaly, he created TheFlowChannel. He is an old-house restorer and a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches the courses The Creative Experience, The Science and Experience of Human Flourishing, and Creativity and the Evolution of Culture, as well as directing the UNIFlowLab research center.