The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
If you identified the title of this musing as a lyric from “Where It’s At” by Beck, you get extra points today. In the song, Beck sings,
There’s a destination a little up the road
From the habitations and the towns we know
A place we saw the lights turn low
Jig-saw jazz and the get-fresh flow
What both Beck and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi are talking about is a state of being where time seems to be suspended, where we lose our sense of being, and we experience a high degree of creativity and productivity. (If you are struggling to pronounce Mihály’s name, it sounds like this: Me-High Cheek-Sent-Me-High.) In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Beck said, “Get crazy with the Cheez Whiz.”
Mihály developed his ideas on flow while studying what makes people happy. He observed that many people struggled to experience contentment after losing their jobs, homes, and security during WWII. However, even as personal prosperity increased consistently in the years following the war, happiness and contentment stayed level at around 30%. Mihály determined that happiness is an internal state of being, not an external one, and that each individual has some degree of control over their level of happiness.
Mihály, through much study, research, and interviews with thousands of workers, artists, and creative people, discovered there was a correlation between our skill level, the challenge our tasks present, and our happiness.
If the task is both below a poor match for our skills and not very challenging, we experience Apathy. Not a very happy state. If the task utilizes more of our abilities, but the challenge stays low, we experience Boredom. Better than apathy, but still not a very happy state. As the necessary skill level approaches our maximum ability yet the challenge remains very low, we find ourselves in Relaxation. This is not an unpleasant state, and we need to spend some of our time in this mode.
As the challenge level increases while the match with our skills stays low, we begin to experience Worry. We are uncomfortable because we doubt our ability to perform. If the challenge level continues to rise within a poor match for our skills, we will move into Anxiety. This is a distressed and unhappy state.
Then things get interesting.
When the challenge level is high and the task requires more of our ability, we move into Arousal. This is where we are over-challenged but interested. We are being pushed beyond our comfort zone. This is where most people learn and improve, and by doing so we can achieve Flow. If the required skill is near our maximum ability and the challenge level increases, we find ourselves in Control. This is a pleasant state where we are comfortable, but to get to Flow we must increase the challenge.
Finally, Flow occurs when there is a good balance of required skill and challenge level and they are both above the unique average for an individual. This is where we experience happiness, creativity, and productivity while at the same time finding ourselves ignoring the passing of time, being immune to discomfort (not realizing we’re hungry or tired,) and being able to ignore our inner critic. Mihály would say we are truly happy.
This is easily visualized using the chart below:
The best part of this is that we can, to a great degree, control where we are on this diagram and therefore manage our level or state of happiness and contentment, while reducing our stress and sadness.
Interestingly, distractions interrupt our ability to achieve flow. I should not have to work too hard to convince you that distractions negatively impact many areas of our lives. Relationships, focused work, rest and meditation, intentionality, and being present are all severely compromised by distraction. Cell phones, background “noise”, unresolved and/or unorganized issues, and a host of other minor yet attention grabbing things rob us of the ability to be present with ourselves, our relationships, and our work.
To live a happier, more productive, and “better” life, we must turn off the minor things (whatever steals your attention). Then we can focus on people, meaningful work, and our own health and wellness.
When we find ourselves bored or apathetic (depressed), we need to move into an area or activity that requires more effort and presents more of a challenge. It is of note that watching TV puts most people in the apathy zone.
If we are worried and anxious (stressed), we are being challenged outside of our depth. We can choose to move into an area that more closely aligns with our capabilities, or we can gain skill and knowledge. Often, people find themselves in this space because they are attempting to manage things that are not theirs to control.
When we are relaxed, we can enjoy the moment, acknowledge its necessity, and be grateful for its benefit. However, we cannot rest there all the time or we will find ourselves slipping back into boredom and then apathy.
When we find ourselves aroused, it is a signal that we are near the flow state and need to push ourselves to increase our capability. This could take the form of education, training, practice, or some other form of self-improvement. This state is a great place to spend a good amount of time as it challenges us to grow in ability.
When we feel in control, it improves our confidence and resolve. This is also a great place to spend time, but we need to be careful that we do not stagnate here. From the state of control, we are poised to accept additional challenges and push ourselves to utilize our abilities more fully. Control presents the opportunity to grow into more responsibility.
One of the roles of a leader is to discern where the people they serve are and to help them move toward flow. This requires us to be observant and attentive to our team members as well as learning more about their capabilities, dreams, and fears. When we talk about finding the “right seat on the bus” for someone, this is a significant part of that match.
The experience of flow in everyday life is an important component of creativity and well-being. Indeed, it can be described as a key aspect of eudaimonia, or self-actualization, in an individual. Since it is intrinsically rewarding, the more you practice it, the more you seek to replicate these experiences which help lead to a fully engaged and happy life. Our role as leaders is to inspire people to find their own flow so they can continue to practice it and live their best life. The reality of our best life is that it is usually located a little up the road from the habitations and the towns we know. It is a place where we can support and encourage one another to grow our capabilities as well as increase our responsibilities. That is fresh. That is flow. That is The Kimray Way.