Flow: Being a player at work makes work feel like play

By now you’ve no doubt heard of “flow,” the highly pronounceable psychological term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist with the nearly unpronounceable name. In case you’ve missed it, flow is another name for being in the zone, at the top of your game--whatever it may be--and perfectly involved with what you’re doing, undistracted by any other concerns.

Csikszentmihalyi has spent over 25 years investigating the sources of true happiness. His conclusion: happiness is not that state of supposed bliss, lounging seaside or poolside, lapping up the sun’s rays and a piña colada. In fact, idle time tends to make people restless. Rather, what makes us happy is total immersion, an all-consuming state of engagement on the edge your seat, doing what you do best and getting better at it. Flow is the pursuit of mastery--and getting there is more than half the fun.

I was out with my jogging partner this morning. She jogs nearly every day, so she can handle the fast uphill at the start of our eight-mile running trail. She talked; I panted. She wanted to think something through out loud.

Yesterday she found herself working against an undertow of disappointment that was pulling her out to that old sea of career doubts. She described the undertow one way, then another--something about feeling like an imposter in her profession, but also something about how even the real climbers in her profession are unsatisfied, and then something else about them being unimpressive anyway.

She is a business consultant and for three years has been working on a case study book. Browsing on Amazon yesterday, she found a book very much like the one she has been writing. I said that’s good news; publishers don’t like to publish a book without comparables that prove there’s a market for it.

It wasn’t that, she said. It’s not that she thought someone had stolen her thunder. Rather the book gave her the impression that there was no thunder to steal. The book was no big deal.

Ah, welcome to midlife crisis, I said, or (since she’s my age), it’s probably one of those periodic midlife crisis refresher courses we get. In midlife something pops. We fall out of flow and are forced to notice that our lives are smaller than we once dreamed they would be. We struggle to adjust.

My term for the particular bubble this Amazon book burst is “founder’s fascination.” I can get very excited about a project I’m hatching and assume by extrapolation that others would be equally fascinated, forgetting that at least half of my excitement stems from my being the project’s founder. The project is mine and if it goes well it will reflect well on me, so of course I want it to go well and am excited by the prospect that it is or will be soon. With founder’s fascination, I forget that to an outside observer without skin in the game, it’s just another project.

Founder’s fascination is a vocational hazard of entrepreneurship. It’s a kind of mind-blindness, a failure of empathy, whereby one has trouble putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. Entrepreneurs are often surprised and exasperated that their potential backers, employees, and customers just don’t see how thrilling their project is.

Founder’s fascination is a vocational hazard--but it’s also one of the keys to entrepreneurial success. It often provides the thrill that keeps entrepreneurs pushing forward until their ventures gain momentum of their own. An entrepreneur who like my friend steps back and sees the project plainly risks losing the momentum essential to any start-up. You’ve got to romance your project. Aggrandizement and even self-aggrandizement are liabilities but also assets to the visionary.

I asked my friend if the wind was out of her sails mostly because she feels she hasn’t chosen a great career or mostly because she doesn’t feel she’s been doing great within her career. She said she couldn’t tell. The conversation drifted toward that old chestnut of a dilemma: Should I stay or should I go? She was in what she refers to as “four bell hell.” You want to hear the bells ring. So what do you do when you were hoping to hear seven bells ringing but you hear only four? Do you leave and look for a place where all seven will ring, or do you convince yourself that four bells are enough?

She said maybe her work just isn’t meaningful enough. That reminded me of another jogging friend who once, struggling against the same undertow, blurted, “I want to make a difference; I want to feel as though I’m making a difference.” I’ve always loved that juxtaposition because it highlights the contrast. Making a difference and feeling like you’re making a difference are not the same thing.

For two decades I was a political activist. I moved from cause to cause, chasing the work I thought would make the greatest difference in the world. I wanted very big work, profound, life-saving work, until I had my midlife crisis. Then I recognized the ways in which I was counting on grandness to sustain me--and saw it wasn’t working. I had devoted years to the nuclear arms race, world hunger, and global warming. I thought working to make a big difference would provide me with a rich supply of the feeling that I was making a difference. But I came to realize that when I was sustained in my work, it was because of flow--not grand significance.

It was the same for my fellow activists. At forty, looking around at who had stuck with it and who had dropped out, I didn’t see high correlation between the size of the issue they were working on and their sustained involvement. Rather, activists who were caught up in the flow of phone calls and speaking events and financial support and projects--they were the ones who stayed, regardless of whether they were working on a big campaign or a small one. No matter whether they thought or acted locally or globally, they felt locally. They were sustained by their immediate environment or they dropped out.

There are other terms for being in flow: being in the groove, the pocket, the zone. I like “flow” because it suggests throughput. Happiness comes from disappearing into your role as a conduit through which challenges flow.

With my friend, I think the undertow may not be the problem. That undertow is always there. The question is what’s going to keep you from drifting into its current. Flow is the answer. If your work consumes you, you don’t have time to wonder about it much.

I mean to be quite specific about what’s flowing through you when you’re in flow. My decades pursuing flow as an amateur musician illustrates the point. We musicians deal with a perpetual bait-and-switch effect. Just when you master that impressively difficult piece of music, it’s no longer impressively difficult. Though we chase the opportunity to play something impressively difficult, we never get to do it because as soon as we can play something, it is by definition no longer impressively difficult. So what sustains us in this endless game? I’d say it’s the micro-differences along the way. It’s that moment just before the piece becomes old hat when it’s still a little impressive. Now each of those moments is ephemeral, at least to an ever-improving musician. These moments aren’t exciting for long. So the trick to flow is to have new ambitions coming in at a rate commensurate with the rate at which the thrill of past ambitions subsides.

Maybe this is what Freud meant about sublimating one’s libido into work. The flow we musicians try to achieve is like the flow that other kind of player--the mac daddy, the ladies’ man, the day-tripper-one-night-stander--goes for. He gets all excited about catching some girl, catches her, gets bored, loses interest, and is almost immediately restless to go catch another. In a ladies’ man it’s vile. In work it’s a key to sustainable enjoyment.

Maintaining flow is really an inventory problem. You’ve got to be moving new challenges in neither faster nor slower than the thrill is gone from your old challenges. It’s about keeping the inventory in proper circulation. If you don’t have a new thrill in time, then you get idle moments and your mind wanders into wondering what’s amiss.

But if you have new challenges moving in at a rate too fast to keep up with, you can also create lulls. My friend had wanted to write this book over three years ago. She tried to strike while the iron was hot. Before she got too far on it, another exciting project swooped her up and she put the book aside. Now she’s come back to the book and the iron’s cold.

I find that all books are like that, both in the writing and the reading. Books are perishable fruit--luscious when first acquired, unappealing once they’ve sat around a while. A book I purchased a month ago but did not read is like a bruised banana. It lies there rejected, mumbling scornfully at me that I don’t follow through, that I wait too long. It scolds me for not wanting its old bruised self.

The regular eight-mile runs I take with this friend have generated more than a few of these Mind Readers articles. Producing them is important to the flow I rely upon to keep me out of mischief. I run, we talk, I get runner’s high. I get excited about some new idea. But I’d better write it quickly, because I know it’s going to become old hat soon and then it will take twice as long to write and come out half as good.

I’m grateful to say that it’s been years since I wondered much about my profession. I love what I do, even though--in the grand scheme of things and from the perspective of my early imperative to work on grand issues--it’s fairly rinky-dink, what I do.

That doesn’t faze me a bit. I like what I do because the throughput is about right. I manage to move stuff to my outbox, and there’s new stuff in my inbox. The new stuff is different enough from the old that I stay on the edge of my seat. I worry that my inbox will run dry, but so far it’s flowing. It occasionally gushes out of control--I’ve got some articles half written that are beginning to look like bruised bananas. But I’ll get to them and move them along.

It’s FIFO--first in first out. When you’re excited about some new challenge, that’s the time to work on it. Strike while the iron’s hot--and as it cools, hope for something else hot to come along.

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