What Rock Climbing and Creativity have in Common

El Capitan, a towering 3,000' monolith of granite located in Yosemite Valley, presents a brutal challenge for any climber. Here's how legendary climber Mayan Smith-Gobat describes her 2011 ascent the mountain's Salathe Wall:

"My brain switches off to everything else, and only that moment exists...that's probably when you feel most alive, but you're not thinking about life. It's just being there, right there.. Most of it's just body and mind coming together, everything focused on one task."

Interestingly, that type of language is exactly how creative always people describe their creative process; regardless of their age, nationality, or the project they're working on. And while it is surprising enough that people from all walks of life would describe creativity in the same way, it seems even stranger that the language they use also describes rock climbing - or even religion. As it turns out, all of these activities are manifestations of what creativity scholar Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has termed "flow".

Flow is the automatic, effortless, and highly focused state of consciousness that comes along with stretching one's capacity and engaging in novel discovery and creation. Flow is that feeling that we've likely all had of "losing oneself" entirely in an activity, only to "wake up" minutes or hours later to find that the world has gone on without us. Through in-depth interviews with dozens of highly creative people, Csikzentmihalyi found a few common factors that allow people to find flow:

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
  2. There is immediate feedback to one's actions.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  4. Action and awareness are merged.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  6. There is no worry of failure.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears.
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
  9. The activity becomes autotelic.

The last factor is the big one, since that's what what allows us to really lose ourselves in the creative process. Autotelic is a Greek word for something that is an end in itself; it's a poem written because it wants to be written, or a mountain climbed because it is there. An activity becomes autotelic when we're just at the edge of what we're capable of, or "trying something that's right at your limit", as Smith-Gobat says. The balance of this challenge, along with the freedom to focus and a confidence in our ability, is what allows us to engage freely in the creative process. And that's where all the other elements come in. Jack Kerouac famously taped hundreds of sheets of paper together and fed them into his type writer while writing On The Road, for instance, so that he could avoid the distraction of changing pages. His goal was to become completely absorbed in the story he was creating, as flow is found when we're acting and creating and learning without thinking of any of those things.

We actually had a term to describe this same phenomenon in rowing: "swing" was eight rowers becoming one. I suspect that this feeling was a lot like the sensation of mind and body coming together that Mayan Smith-Gobat describes, as well as what a person in the throes of religious ecstasy might experience. All three are instances of people pushing themselves to their limits, searching for something beautiful. And while that doesn't necessarily make rowing (or prayer) a creative activity, it is pretty fascinating that our brains treat all three the same way.

For more, check out Csikzentmihalyi's book "Creativity", or just watch Mayan be a total bad*ss in this absolutely stunning video of her ascent up El Capitan's Salathe Wall.

Why Hallways Matter

​If you were setting out to do something that had never been done before, how would you build your team? As it turns out, it depends on the nature of the task: 100 years ago, the Wright Brothers were able to realize human flight with nothing but their own minds and the tools in their garage. But if you're going to revolutionize the world today; say by training a monkey to move a mouse cursor with nothing but it's mind, you might need to do things differently. That's what the Brain Science Program at Brown University set out to do back in 2002. They assembled a group of mathematicians, medial doctors, neuroscientists, and computer scientists and set them on the task of understanding how brain activity could be decoded and interfaced with a computer. Not only did they get it, successfully teaching a rhesus monkey with implanted neural electrodes to control a cursor on the screen, but in doing so they accomplished something far larger than any one individual (or even a pair of brothers) might have been able to accomplish.

As problems have gotten more complex and our knowledge of particular fields deeper, the amount of expertise that needs to be brought to bear on particular problems has increased. This has pushed project teams to be larger and more diverse. After all, building team composed of a variety of experts with different skill sets and interests allows the group to draw on a knowledge base much broader than any one of them would have been bring to bear. This means more knowledge and more interesting combinations of that knowledge. Frans Johansson, author of the Medici Effect, terms this phenomenon "intersection", which describes the process of combining "fields, disciplines, or cultures [in order to] combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas."

And that's where hallways come in.

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