Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Do what you love, love what you do

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High-ee) is an eminent psychology professor in California and has written some interesting stuff on the psychology of humans, in particular our happiness as well as what it is to be truly successful (not just financially well-off, highly thought of, famous etc.). For ease in referring to him in this blog I'll call him "MC". MC coined the term "flow" to describe the state of being immersed in an activity for its own sake, feeling totally energised by the act rather than the rewards that may follow afterwards. He grew up in Europe during World War II and first began thinking about flow after witnessing so many people unable to find any joy once they had lost the security of their job, home and status, and yet some did.

Having clear goals, being immersed in the activity where time passes unnoticed (time is distorted), losing any self-consciousness, having a perception of high personal control, the activity earning direct and immediate feedback, with little to no disparity between the level of challenge and ability, all contribute to flow. In relation to learning new skills or knowledge, flow is extremely important. He recognises that for children to want to master something and overcome fear or boredom, as any good teacher already knows, they must experience moments of flow, where challenge matches the level of ability, and regular goals and opportunities for direct feedback are provided (Motivating People to Learn, Edutopia, Oct 2008, MC). I can think of moments like this recently with my French tutor, me desperate to improve my ability and he generally chivvying, congratulating, advancing and reinforcing (thanks Gerard!).

Importantly MC emphasises that older people who consider themselves to be truly successful don't think so because of the amount of money they earn nor are they too worried about the opinions of others. What they report as being key is the internal state of feeling good about themselves, being respected and valued for what they do and having peace of mind. It is above all else, how we live now that determines how satisfying our lives become later on.

The real key to achieving flow, according to MC, is having the ability to direct one's attention, to control and organise it, and ignore distractions whilst pursuing what you enjoy doing. We cannot process very much at all if constantly being distracted by too many goals, objectives or interests. Most important is to do the things that truly matter to you personally, to focus on this and this alone, at the expense of other distractions. Those who cannot do this, live with what MC refers to as "psychic entropy" which means there is too much interference in the mind to allow any one thing to be done well. Flow is the exact opposite of psychic entropy. This is not about doing something grand or important either. MC notes that many of the examples of people in flow are doing fairly mundane or routine work rather than being Professors or esteemed Politicians. It is how this person feels about what they are doing, how much control they have over it and how immersed they are in doing it that matters. Being a Janitor in flow is about viewing this as meaningful and experiencing intrinsic reward more than it is about being recognised by others or being paid well. A highly ambitious individual might not really be that focused on the job at hand, rather more concerned about what the future holds, how much he / she will be paid or what prestige is attached to the job. This person runs the risk of doing this for his / her entire career before being presented with the gold watch and being asked to retire still never having been truly fulfilled (a less obvious example of psychic entropy).

A hopeful message that I take from the idea of living in flow is that it is never too late to experience a "second adolescence" and discover something that gives us this experience. We can change fairly dramatically from being highly competitve to being concerned about others (think of ruthless politicians or business-men becoming philanthropists in their later years), or from being concerned only with financial security to being financially secure doing something that holds meaning as an individual. These things might indeed become more possible once freed from the pressures of providing for a family or repaying financial commitments.

Here are some pertinent questions to ask to explore being in flow:

- when am I unconsciously good at something? (MC reports it takes c.10 years of practice to be able to be in flow for activities such as sport, music or art);

- what is it I really like to do, that I would happily do if it weren't for my obligations?

- who do I know living like this?

- would I happily put in the hours (years) of practice i.e. you feel good when engaged in this activity rather than what rewards the future offers?

- when I am older will I be at peace with having lived like this?

- how do I rate my overall ability to concentrate, block out distractions and pursue a goal single-mindedly?

- what are the main things that distract me from living more purposefully? (MC gives the examples of TV, extrinsic motivators, family, internet, friends, computer games, the media in general)

In an age where we are constantly bombarded with attention-robbing information, hopefully these questions trigger some ideas on achieving more flow, and satisfaction in your life. They certainly have for me, as someone who runs the risk of finding new and interesting projects which distract me from my bigger, more important goals. When I project myself forwards in life, suddenly my choices become much clearer and I am reminded of what I must do more of now (at the expense of these others)!

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