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  • Writer's pictureDavid Gaudet

Libri aut Liberi - Of Leaving a Legacy

Mihaly Csikszentmilayli’s passing last week was particularly ironic to me. I had been knee deep in his work since mid-September, developing a course on creativity - one of Csikszentmilayli’s career obsessions – and had punched his name again into Google for a quick reference on something, only to discover the news of his death. I was shocked. I had been trying to reach out to him for weeks, to tell him how much I appreciated his work. Now he was gone.

I had read his bestseller, “Flow” years ago, but it had found its way into a box of books which had long since been retired from the shelf. My eleven year old had been born since "Flow" was published, and if you're a parent you might appreciate that things tend to get a bit foggy when a child bursts on to the scene. I could only remember the central premise, but not the fine detail. But the great Hungarian philosopher was squarely back in my life by way of a course I was developing for Medicine Hat College.

Since news of his death October 20th I have been thinking a lot about why I had been re-introduced to his work. There have been times in the past few weeks, while working on this course about creativity, that I have found myself in the state of flow he famously wrote about – where the work doesn’t seem like work at all, but is more like an enjoyable activity that seems to move itself along effortlessly. The metaphysical nature of this experience was not lost on me. There I was, essentially writing about flow, while actually experiencing flow. I was also downloading loads of information about creativity and the creativity process in every waking moment, and listening to Csikszentmilayli’s books on Audible ad nauseum.

I’m not prone to believing too much in the concept of fate, but I had to ask myself if there was any reason between me binging on Csikszentmilayli, finding out about his death, and then binging some more on his work. What was behind my newfound fascination with this man and his work? Or do I even dare to ask if he himself was sending me, and thousands of others, a message as he passed from his earthly experience to what lies beyond? Even thinking these thoughts, never mind writing these words, makes me cringe more than just a little. But I’m intent to follow my curiosity a little further to see where it takes me.

Mihaly would probably nod his head quite knowingly about people like me doing things like I’m doing right now. “Of course”, he might say in that Hungarian accent which never relented despite his 65 years living in America, “you are now in an autotelic state”. I feel he himself probably preferred the term autotelic to flow, but he had the foresight and awareness to know that he needed to capture the concept in a more succinct verb that wouldn’t scare people away.

Csikszentmilayli did as much work in the domain of human happiness as within that of creativity. It is in fact these two conditions that he fused together to create the very concept of flow. In reading through his Collected Works recently I discovered the following passage which I am compelled to include this week. In it, Mihaly eloquently and prophetically, ties together a concept I believe he was getting at his entire career, and perhaps one that people like me need to embrace just a little tighter.

The various behaviors associated with control and mastery— such as curiosity, interest, exploration; the pursuit of skills, the relishing of challenges— need not be seen as derivatives of thwarted libidinal sexuality. They are just as much a part of human nature, just as necessary for our survival, as the drive to reproduce. The ancients understood this when they coined the aphorism Libri aut liberi ‘‘Books or sons.’’ As humans, we have the option of leaving a trace of our existence by writing books (or shaping tools, raising buildings, writing songs, etc.) and thus leaving a cultural legacy, as well as leaving our genes to our progeny. The two are not reducible to each other, but are equally important motives that have become ingrained in our natures. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014)

Mihaly acknowledges my personal favorite, curiosity, as a "behavior of control and mastery". I don't think he would disagree with my anointing it and creativity as Pillar Competencies. IMO, what he was getting at here though, was related to the work of another famous Eastern European psychologist, Abraham Maslow, whose hierarchy of needs demonstrated our escalation up the pyramid of learning to satisfy 5 different categories of need - the base one of course being physiological (food, water, shelter and the need to reproduce). Up at the top of the triangle was Maslow's obsession - self-actuality. And that's the overlap. Csikszentmihalyi's contention, along with that of Maslow and Nietzsche (the German philosopher who was actually credited with coining the Latin pun "aut liberi aut libri") is that what we leave behind is vital to the continuum of humanity. Whether children or books, which is the literal translation of the adage, or both, or neither. What we leave behind, our legacy is subject to what we're capable of doing (our circumstances) and our willingness to do. As Mihaly says, "as humans we have the option of leaving a trace of our existence". That's all.

“Libri aut Liberi”, dear sir. “Libri aut Liberi”. Thank YOU for the legacy you so generously and passionately leave behind for us to relish and contemplate.

And on that note, I'll leave you with an action from "The Daily Undoing" to help spur a little more vitality into how we can be using creativity a little more in our lives. I hope Mihaly would have approved.



Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology : The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Springer Netherlands, 2014.

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