The Question & Micro-Backstory
When it comes to creating and distributing art and work that matters, what distinguishes people who flourish and those who flounder?
Are there five foundations to flourish? It’s an audacious premise. But let’s break it down.
I have worked with, spoken with, and talked to thousands of people who desire to excel at what they do, how they do it, and how they live while doing it. For over 25 years I’ve worked either as a creativity consultant, story consultant, teacher, book strategist, book editor, brand identity and communication strategist, and instigator of a meet-up for creatives in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.
Most of the ones I work intimately with ultimately flourish. A few have floundered and fallen away. “Why?” I wondered.
Hence, the question.
In a non-scientific manner, I reviewed and studied especially 23 individuals with whom I’ve worked in the past eight years of my 20-plus years of this work—executives, business owners, scholars, scientists, actors, therapists, novelists, teachers, service providers, coaches, journalists, consultants. Smart people. Curious people. Devoted people.
I broke down these elements:
- their goals and project aspirations
- their life situation (home life, approximate income, hardships & dependencies & emergencies)
- their field-related training and trainability
- their mindset and equilibrium
And then I reviewed the literature in human flourishing. In my twenties, I co-founded an institute that pursued the intersections of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, neuroscience, mindfulness traditions, and literature—all with an eye toward human flourishing.
I’ve examined more up-to-date literature including but not limited to the following:
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention; individual studies)
- Martin Seligman (Flourishing; Character Strengths and Virtues; individual studies)
- Jonathan Haidt (The Happiness Hypothesis; individual studies)
- Dacher Keltner (Born to Be Good; individual studies)
- Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence; Focus)
- The studies of Anders Ericsson and people who excel and master their fields (and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated and Robert Greene’s Mastery)
- Timothy Wilson’s cognitive science and the adaptive unconscious (Strangers to Ourselves; Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change; individual studies)
- Barbara Frederickson’s research in resilience
- Todd Kashadan’s research in curiosity and mindfulness
- Carol Dweck’s research in mastery and growth
- Numerous individual studies in the neuroscience and psychology of creativity
No Protection from Disruptions & Challenges
One thing every committed creative person with whom I have worked has in common is this:
Their lives get disrupted. The Greeks had a name for it: Eris. The goddess of chaos.
A scientist gets breast cancer in the middle of writing her novel. When she finishes the first draft, her partner gets cancer and dies within months.
A journalist finishes his second book, and his wife leaves him to figure out what she wants.
Someone else’s child with special needs challenges her to finish her book and then launch her business.
Someone else’s spouse loses his job just before she launches a big program.
Their best laid schemes…
People don’t flourish because they have it easy.
Malcolm Gladwell’s assimilation of studies and stories on the subject—David and Goliath—takes on his Upper West Side neighbors’ desire for comfort and privilege and shows, repeatedly, how adversity (tough upbringings, not being accepted, average but solid schools) contribute to creativity and success.
Csikszentmihalyi puts it this way so elegantly:
“I shall argue that the primary reason it is so difficult to achieve happiness centers on the fact that, contrary to the myths mankind has developed to reassure itself, the universe was not created to answer our needs.”
In another text, when he talked to the "[c]hess players, rock climbers, dancers, and composers [who] devoted many hours a week to their avocations,” it was clear that neither money nor fame most motivated them because most of them—while quite fulfilled—had neither.
It was the quality of the experience they felt while engaged in the activity they loved. Here’s the key take-away in this context:
“This feeling didn’t come when they were relaxing, when they were taking drugs or alcohol, or when they were consuming the expensive privileges of wealth. Rather, it often involved painful, risky, difficult activities that stretched the person’s capacity and involved an element of novelty and discovery.”
Frederickson’s studies from 1999 onward show how and why many people don’t just survive crises. Some of them thrive amidst them.
No risk. No challenge. No quest.
These findings don’t mean that people who flourish seek chaos and disruption. But they do seek creative problems and challenges. And they do find ways to transfer their qualities of resilience, mindset, and wit-full problem-solving to crises.
5 Foundations to Flourish
Can I really claim there are five foundations for every human being to flourish? No. Every human being’s situation—biology, history of patterns, mindset, life circumstances—varies. That’s why any consultant, coach, or teacher worth her salt must approach a person beyond any formula.
Still, I will hazard these claims and see if your experiences and findings jibe with them. The people whom I have studied and work with, consistent with the studies I have assimilated, suggest this.
People who flourish instead of flounder amidst inevitable challenge while pursuing meaningful goals possess these qualities as a foundation:
- They can direct and re-direct their attention. Attention is a fine, precious commodity. Attention is the umbrella of consciousness. Do you want to focus, fret, analyze, wonder, imagine, investigate? The people I work with who flourish are willing to learn how to watch their minds, plumb their minds, and pragmatically direct and re-direct their attention toward meaningful ends. (For more, read Flow, Focus, and Redirect cited above. Also, Rapt by W. Gallagher.)
- They shape time with intention and for impact. Almost everyone I know rails against poor Chronos. My response: Without time constraints, we’d never be driven to create. The people I work with who flourish are willing to learn how to cultivate a different relationship to time. This begins with #1 above. They shape time. They don’t manage or spend or waste it. At least not as much. They find meaningful methods to assume charge over their hours and days and weeks. Without feeling spent in a “get things done’ hyper-productive mania. At least not as much. (For more, read Internal Time by Till Roenberg and see the Mind Rooms Method & eGuide.)
- They design their creative and business practice for constant improvement. The people I work with are willing to break down their projects into the skills they need to hone and the skills they need to learn. They also willingly look at what skills and talents they already possess that we can bring forward to their work. They don’t over-rely on wispy inspiration to carry them through—unless they understand that inspiration at its root has to do with harnessing respiration to redirect attention with intention. (For more, see the work of Anders Ericcson and the books Focus, Talent is Overrated, and Mastery cited above.)
- They receive constant feedback from trusted mentors and peers. The key words here are “constant” and “trusted.” The evidence is fairly consistent here, too. People—with some exceptions—who insist upon creating in a silo ultimately flounder. There are emotional reasons for this factor, but there is also the very real nature of how we human beings grow and evolve intellectually and creatively. We can automate numerous habits, and we can learn how to be act on stage, how to play a guitar or violin, how to give a presentation, and how to write a book—all badly. We can be taught bad habits that we then must undo. Hence, the “constant” and the “trusted” factor help a person stay on-track. (For more, see the works cited in #3 plus Marc McGuinness’s book resilience as well as Csikszentmihalyi’s studies.)
- They assure they experience moments of delight, meaning, and rejuvenation. Anders Ericcson lays out certain qualities of practice for mastery. One of them is that “practice is not fun.” Imagine the ten-year-old practicing piano. But fun differs from delight in nuanced ways. Delight is wonder’s sensual cousin. It’s an emotional experience that awakens our skin, deepens our eyes, widens our ears, opens our nose, and tickles our tongue. Artists find delight sometimes in the medium itself. They find delight in light and line and shape. Writers find delight in the syntax of things.
All of the flourishing people with whom I work find delight not only in their work but in other facets of their life, too. In fact, they tend not to bifurcate facets of their life as being “creative” and “not-creative.” They find much of their life to be a continuum of creativity, full of delight and meaning. Because meaning is so important to them, they also protect the experiences that especially give them meaning. And they are self-aware enough to learn or re-learn how to allow for rejuvenating moments as part and parcel of their creative work flow.
These are the claims I’m working with for now. How do they land with you and your experience? The people with whom you work? What would you contribute or dispute? Scholars and psychologists, what would you contribute or dispute? I appreciate your additions to the conversation.