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[SUMMARY] Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Published March 12, 2019 in Books - 0 Comments
flow: the psychology of optimal experience

So here’s the deal. Depending on where you are reading this from, you can expect to live anywhere from 70 to 84 years on this earth. As technology and medicine advances, these numbers have nowhere to go but up.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with somebody who is old enough to be grappling with their mortality, you’ve probably debated the pros and cons of living past the century mark.

Nobody wants to kick the bucket just yet, but will life be worth living if you are a hundred and twenty years old?

It’s easy to talk about hypothetically, of course. But what if I asked you whether or not your life is worth living right now?

That’s the question I was faced with when reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and it’s the question that I’m hoping that you and I can take a few minutes to wrestle with together here today.

I learned something shocking in between my university years

During the summer months when I was in university, I had the glamorous job of delivering potato chips to convenience stores for the Hostess-Frito Lay drivers that went on vacation.

During my training, I shadowed one of the drivers. He showed me the ropes, including a 10-minute lesson on how to drive standard in a parking lot before setting me loose on the busy city streets.

As we were packing up one of the boxes in the back of the truck, we got to talking about where he was going on vacation when I was covering his route.

I jokingly asked him whether or not he was looking forward to it, and I’ll never forget his answer:

“I live for my vacations and weekends. It’s the only thing that keeps me going.”

The comment really surprised me, because he did his job professionally and diligently. He didn’t strike me as the “I hate my job” type of guy.

But I can remember going home that night thinking that although I could understand why he didn’t find a lot of meaning and motivation in his job, that I didn’t want to end up like that.

Fast forward a few years and I’ve just finished the second year of law school. I landed a job at a law firm where I was the a glorified coffee boy where I shadowed a bunch of the lawyers at my firm.

It took me a while, but then I noticed something: Almost all of the lawyers at the firm considered their job as something to be endured until the end of the day, when they could wind down with a beer and watch sports or American Idol.

Then the weekend came, when they could scoot off to their cottages, have a few glasses of wine and dread the start of the next week.

But I also met one particular lawyer who still seemed to have that passion for what he was doing.

It was clear that he loved his job, and it was also clear that his life outside of work was full of energy as well. He played sports, went to the theatre, and always seemed to be on the go.

I learned a couple of things that summer. First, when you are the summer student, you always keep the fridge in the lounge stocked with beer for the senior lawyers. Always.

Second, that unless I found a job that challenged me every day and that I had a passion for, I was bound to turn into a higher paid version of Mr. Potato Chip Man.

That was the day that I decided that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer for the rest of my life (I made it one week as a practicing lawyer, but that’s a story for another day).

8 elements to find “flow”, and lead a life you love

Although there are no hard and fast rules for living a life you love, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has uncovered 8 elements for finding meaning in everything you do – including your job.

Of course, there isn’t enough time to go into them in detail, but as you are reading these, ask yourself this question – am I getting this from my job?

1. Clear goals and immediate feedback

The best metaphor here is to relate your job to sports. Do you know exactly what’s required to win the game? Are the rules of the game clear?

And are you getting consistent feedback on whether or not you are making progress towards winning the game?

2. Balance between the level of challenge and personal skill

This is the Goldilocks principle – you have to make sure your job isn’t too hard, or too easy, but “just right”.

If it’s too hard, you are going to stop trying because there’s no way to win. If it’s too easy, you are going to stop trying because there’s no point.

But when the challenge level rises up to meet your absolute best effort, then you will give everything you have.

3. Action and awareness are merged

When you are in flow, there is no difference between the actions you are taking and the thoughts you are having – they are one and the same.

The easiest way to understand this element is to think about its opposite – where action and awareness are separate.

For instance, how many times have you been in a meeting, and your thoughts have been elsewhere? This doesn’t happen when you are in flow.

4. A high level of concentration on a limited field

One of the elements that is quite often missing from our day to day working lives is the ability to dive deeply into a single activity.

Turning everything else off in your life for a couple of hours to give your full attention over to a single activity is key in achieving flow.

5. A feeling of control

When was the last time you felt completely in control in your job? Feeling secure without worrying about anything but the task at hand is another thing that today’s hectic world has made difficult.

6. An altered perception of time

When you are in a flow state, you lose your normal ability to perceive time. Usually, it’s when hours can feel like minutes.

7. Self-consciousness disappears

When you are in a flow state, you stop thinking about yourself in the situation. You’re not worried about how you look to others.

8. The experience is self-rewarding

This means that even if you weren’t striving for some end goal, the activity itself would be worth doing.

For instance, if you were to ask me what I’d love to do when I’m retired, it would include reading books and teaching what I’ve learned to other people – exactly what I’m doing here.

It’s your life, so what are you going to do about it?

I’m by no means an expert in finding flow in my life, although I’m constantly striving to find more of it. One thing I’ve come to realize about this is that it’s a choice, and there are three options to choose from.

The first thing is to take responsibility for finding elements of flow in the job you already have.

You can find ways to make your role more challenging, you can create meaning in the work that you do that wasn’t there yesterday, and you can find ways of doing your work that make it seem like a treat instead of a chore.

There are not as many chip truck drivers in a constant state of flow as surgeons or musicians, but they exist. And they exist because they chose to be that way.

Your second choice is to find another job. If you simply can’t find ways to find flow in the role you have today, you can find yourself a job where you can find flow.

Your third and last choice is to continue on doing things as you’ve always done them.

It’s your choice of course, but you’ve got a finite number of days left on this planet, and you owe it to yourself to spend them doing things that give you a life full of meaning, and a life that you love.

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