Thursday, September 9, 2010

Creative Flow and Gifted Children

“Flow is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” 

When the concept of creativity comes up for discussion, it is never long before Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow comes up. A Hungarian-American psychologist, he has devoted his career to the study of human happiness. He has shown that, regardless of culture or station in life, there is one thing which makes us all happy; being in a state of flow. So, what does this mean? It means experiencing some or all of the following:

1. Being completely involved in what we are doing…focused, concentrated.

2. A sense of ecstasy, meaning the feeling of being outside everyday reality. 

3. Great inner clarity…knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing it. 

4. Knowing that the activity is do-able…that our skills are adequate to the task. 

5. A sense of serenity…no worries about oneself and a feeling of going beyond the boundaries of
     the ego, of being a part of something larger. 

6. Timelessness…thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes. 

7. Intrinsic motivation…whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

In a state of flow, one becomes so intensely focused on the task in hand that one ceases to be aware of anything else, even hunger, tiredness or the passage of time. Csikszentmihalyi says that it is the "spontaneous, effortless experience you achieve when you have a close match between a high level of challenge and the skills you need to meet that challenge. The experience is almost addictive and very rewarding."

The centre point of this graph, where the sectors meet, represents average challenge and average skill level. In order for flow to occur, the level of both skill and challenge must be beyond average and the challenge must be at or slightly above the skill level. If the challenge is too little, we feel bored or apathetic. If the challenge is too great, we feel worried or anxious. For a given challenge, the state between anxiety and flow is arousal. From here, to tip into a state of flow, we need to slightly increase our skill level. It is here that most learning occurs. As our skill increases, we also need to gradually increase the challenge accordingly. The further from the centre in each sector, the more intense the experience of that state.

Interestingly, he points out that small children, as they learn to walk and talk etc, spend large amounts of time in a state of flow. They choose their tasks and challenges to suit. As they get older and begin school, the choice of both task and level of challenge is removed and the less time they get to spend in flow.

The level of challenge in a mainstream classroom is set for the average student. In that setting, it may be difficult for a gifted or exceptionally able child to find a challenge to match his/her skill level so that they reach the state of arousal where learning occurs, never mind a state of flow. Without the inherent reward and motivation which that brings, the risk is that they become bored, apathetic underachievers. In their study Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure, Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues reached the conclusion that experiencing "flow was the strongest predictor of subjective engagement and how far the student progressed in the school's curriculum."

“the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is, therefore, something which we make happen”

We can all get into “the zone” at some level, but to go deep and experience a high level of flow during which we are truly creative in the sense that we produce something new and special, our skill level must be very high. Regardless of any innate potential ability which we may have, research has shown that it is only after about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice that we develop mastery of a skill. This means about 10 years of hard work!

It is my belief that gifted children are born with innate high ability. There is no doubt that these children learn faster and differently than other children. However, in order to keep alive that spark and love of learning, they need challenges appropriate to their exceptional ability. In order to unlock and develop their potential, they need to be given the opportunity to experience flow. Then, just the same as anyone else, they must work and practice to hone their skill. I believe that we can all be creative, but only a few have the potential to be truly exceptional. 

In this video, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses Creativity, Fulfillment and Flow:

Further reading: 

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceMihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Do Students Care About Learning? A Conversation with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

Examination of Csikszentmihalyi's Theory of Flow and its Implications in Education:


  1. Great post, gets me thinking (re-thinking) the connection between flow and intensity which is a typical characteristic of the gifted. I am happy to have found your blog; educated, informative, brilliant - thanks!

  2. Loved his book, one of the best and most interesting people I have come across!