Revisiting Books: Flow


One of my favorite books about the creative experience, Flow was a fantastic re-visit. If you’ve ever spent a night rehearsing for a play, been lost in a song you’re trying to write, or worked so intensely on a project that you lost track of hunger and time, you’ve experienced Flow.

Csikszentmihalyi, the author and a renowned scholar, summarizes observations that led him to an understanding of Flow:

When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following.

First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.

FlowInterestingly, there is an ‘autotelic‘ quality to Flow.

The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, ‘auto’ meaning self, and ‘telos’ meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

The author talks about how Flow has helped individuals in times of extreme adversity. Anyone who has read Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ knows that one can be free even in prison through their mind. Cszikszentmihalyi connects the dots through Richard Logan’s conclusion based on the study of writings of many survivors.

[Logan] concludes that the most important trait of survivors is a ‘nonself-conscious individualism,’ or a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. .. because they are intrinsically motivated in their actions, they are not easily disturbed by external threats.

Cszikszentmihaly contends that the natural state of mind is one of ‘psychic entropy‘ or ‘chaos’. It is only a sense of clarity in purpose that can help anchor a person to a state of ‘flow’, because clear goals and expectations help focus the mind on the essential, leading to ‘harmony’. He also writes ‘a person who knows how to find flow from life is able to enjoy even the situations that seem to allow only for despair’, summarizing a result from his interviews with blind people: ‘what is so remarkable about these interviews is the number of people who describe the loss of their sight as a positive event that has enriched their lives.’

The peak in development of coping skills is reached when a young man or woman has achieved a strong sense of self, based on personally selected goals, that no external disappointment can entirely undermine who he or she is. For some people the strength derives from a goal that involves identification with the family, with the country, or with a religion or an ideology. For others, it depends on mastery of a harmonious system of symbols, such as art, music, or physics. Srinivasa Ramanujan, the young mathematical genius from India, had so much of his psychic energy invested in number theory that poverty, sickness, pain, and even rapidly approaching death, although tiresome, had no chance of distracting him from calculations– in fact, they just spurred him on to greater creativity.

There is a sense of beauty and order in the ability to ‘transform hopeless situations’ in to an activity that gives meaning and purpose in life.  How does one create such conditions in life? Cszikszentmihalyi gives 3 pointers on common traits among people who share this attitude:

  1. Unselfconscious self-assurance: Implicit belief that destiny is in their hands. Yet, at the same time, their egos seem curiously absent: they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.
  2. Focussing attention on the world: People who know how to transform stress into an enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings. The focus is still set by the person’s goal, but it is open enough to notice and adapt to external events even if they are not directly relevant to what he wants to accomplish.
  3. The discovery of new solutions: [they] focus on the entire situation, including oneself, to discover whether alternative goals may or may not be more appropriate, and thus different solutions possible.

Finally, the author talks about Meaning in life. It is a very interesting question, and each of us have our own answers. One of my biggest take-aways from that was that our life’s meaning is what we choose to give it. Whether it is spiritual, artistic, scientific, family-oriented, patriotic, or a combination of the limitless possibilities, it is one of our choosing. Let’s be conscious of that.

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