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Stop Forcing Start Flowing: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Optimal Experience

Flow: A Better Way

How to live a better, more meaningful life? A question that has no shortage of solutions, home remedies and anecdotes, all seeking to address this pressing issue. In our modern, self-centered consumerized culture, we all too often fall prey to the notion that buying more things will make us happy and fulfilled. “I will be happy when I buy that new piece of crap, and add it to the collection of all my old crap,” so the notion goes. But if you are reading my blog you are looking for something more. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi author of the book, Flow outlines the steps necessary for you to experience such a phenoma. Csikszentmihalyi believes that the more optimal experiences or flow states we can enter into, the happier and more satisfying our lives will become. Flow is described as a state in which timelessness, a sense of purpose and a loss of self are all experienced while in the pursuit of a challenging goal. Flow forces you into the moment, making you forget the bills that need to be paid, the pressures from work and family, and those annoying little  tidbits of day-to-day life. Optimal experiences act as an exit, affording you a productive, enriching growth-inducing experience while simultaneously separating you from your larger ego.

And it is energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience (Csikszentmihalyi 33).

The Requirements

There are five separate elements that need to be designed into any activity for it to become a flow-producing experience. First, an overall goal must be established. This is the foundation upon which the other steps can be built. Take running for an example. If I were to run every morning, using the same trails, while maintaining the same pace, not only would I have no way of measuring progress, but it would be impossible for me to transform my run into a flow activity. It would be simple repetition, which after some time I would get used to and my body would as well, hindering my future development as a runner.

Measuring Progress

The second pillar of a flow activity is measuring progress in the context of the overarching goal. Now, If I were to measure my route, and time how long it took me to get to my designated finish line, I would have numbers and data in order to evaluate my performance and make meaningful adjustments. It is said in business that what is measured can be managed. The same idea holds true for flow activities. Also, when you compare your current performance to the data, it gives you a standard to measure the goal against. Rather than guessing about your progress, you know how you are doing in this goal area!

Flow and Focus

Third, you must focus on the task at hand if you want to transform the mundane into a flow activity. In those awful prequels Star Wars offered the world in the early 2000’s, Qui Gon Jinn tells a young Anakin Skywalker that “your focus determines your reality.”  He was right! This is particularly profound information when attempting to produce your own optimal experience. Though your focus, adjustments can be made, and you can inch ever closer to accomplishing your outlined goal. If all these steps seem to blend together, it’s because they do. They are built on one another. If you remove one of these conditions from a flow inducing activity it will cease to bring about the desired effect.

Raise The Stakes

And finally, you must keep upping the wager! Yesterday I ran two miles in 16:45 seconds. Let’s cut that time down by 15 seconds tomorrow! If I keep pushing myself towards a better time; because I measured my progress, just paid attention, and built up endurance, it is now possible for me to up the ante and improve my time. If done in the correct sequence, a flow experience is sure to bring a level of transformation to your life, and in turn, bring you more fulfillment. The steps outlined by Csikszentmihalyi can be applied to almost any area of life, giving you the ability to make little enjoyable experiences everywhere you go!

What Flow Is NOT

One would say that watching TV could be considered a flow activity. You have the goal of finishing the totality of Breaking Bad in one night, and you can measure your progress by the time you have wasted.  Yay! Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. For an activity to be optimal there must be– and this is key– the development of a skill that is required to reach the goal.  Your lofty goal of watching Walter White sell drugs requires no skill other than planting your ass in front of  the TV. Let’s go back to the running example. I must develop the skill of endurance to decrease the amount of time it takes me to run two miles.

Now Do It, Flow!

I challenge you to pick up one activity that can be flow inducing. For me, it’s writing. At times, there is nothing more enjoyable to me that being locked into a piece of writing, attempting to put words onto paper that, all too often, do not want to be there. The challenge of conveying ideas effectively and the goal of improving upon my clarity all cause me to experience a sense of flow. These activities do not have to be dangerous. One can as easily experience flow while playing a game of chess as when climbing a mountain. By taking this step of finding an activity that can be flow inducing, you are actively improving your life!


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Becoming The Magic: How Grit Improves the Lives of Those Who Use It!

Have you ever witnessed an extraordinary event–an amazing game-winning catch by a receiver, or a fadeaway jumper to clinch the national title? Man, those people are talented! According to Angela Duckworth, yes, they are talented indeed. But what skills they possess have come from years of effort, continuous training and dedication all culminating when it matters most, when all is on the line. We just witnessed the fun part. The performance is where the players get to show off their skills, wowing crowds and winning legions of fans in the process. However, the work was put in at some point: 4 A.M. practices, year after year of weight and endurance training, constant adherence to a demanding diet constructed for performance alone. These examples are only a fraction of what it took to make it to that game-winning shot. We just get to see the show, sometimes ignoring altogether the effort that went into making that amazing performance. This might cause some to ignore the effects of work in light of these talents that seem so natural at first glance. What seems like magic is, in fact, years of practice turned into a skill that allows these high performers to dazzle audiences. In her book Grit, Duckworth outlines the steps necessary for cultivating the quality of grit, allowing seemingly ordinary people to become the very magic they have witnessed.

Passion: The Fuel for Personal Progress

Grit can be defined as the sustained application of effort applied to a long-term goal. The first attribute to develop a grittier personality is finding a deep interest in a hobby, field of study, or vocation. This is the spark that ignites the idea that something might just come from applying a bit of effort to something important. Realizing one’s passion does not have to be instantaneous. In fact, most of the time there is no “aha” moment, where angels sing and announce to you that you were meant to be a doctor. Most often, coming to know one’s passion is a process, often taking years of dabbling in a given area before realizing it’s your calling. For example, my journey with writing started about 4 years ago. I wrote furiously in two-month increments, and then stop altogether. It was only recently that I realized that writing was something I wanted to pursue actively. It takes a bit of time to realize your passions. A good place to start is a hobby or interest that you periodically take up and step back from. Who knows, one of these activities could be what you have been looking for!

Practice Sometimes Sucks But DO IT!

To develop a gritty personality after you have found your interest, it is necessary to improve upon the skills required for that particular field. It is important to spend some time in what Duckworth calls “deliberate practice,” or practicing with the intention of meaningful improvement. Every single day. There are four steps to engaging in deliberate practice. First, set a goal, a target to be hit within given parameters. Second, while practicing your trade,  give your undivided attention to the task at hand, not allowing anything other that the activity you are doing to consume your thoughts. Then, seek feedback. This serves as the yardstick for determining whether or not you are making progress from your efforts. The final step is to do it all over again. In my opinion, one of the major personality traits that makes someone successful in anything is their ability to stick to what they love doing–for a very long time! For real, your goals may take years to realize–better get comfortable!

Experience The Calling

When you feel what you do matters to someone or something greater than yourself, it becomes easier to weather the storm of passing years in service to your goal. People who have a higher calling are happier, period. They derive more pleasure from their activities and are more likely to feel that what they do matters. In Grit, there is an example of two bricklayers with differing attitudes about their trade while building a church. The first bricklayer only views his vocation as a job, something to do until a better opportunity comes along. However, the second bricklayer views his work as a meaningful task, he gets to build the house of God! If you can link your passions to a greater cause the chances are far higher that you will actually reach your desired outcome.

Growth Minded People Learn

The last element of a gritty personality is the ability to develop a growth mindset. The ethos of this way of learning is that people are capable of learning new skills at any point in their lives. This is essentially being willing to be malleable, accepting feedback and making changes to your outlook and actions based on the information. Sometimes I write an article, leave it sit overnight, and when I return to it the next day I cannot stand that piece of crap that somehow came from my head. I relish pushing the delete button! Just as with writing, your path will require adjustments, and more importantly, the ability to know when those changes of course need to be made. The fact is we can learn new information and skills, and it is a worthy endeavor to engage in such activity! If you want to learn more about developing a growth mindset, Carol Dweck quite literally wrote the book on it! The book is called– surprise, surprise, Mindset.

Good News: You Can Do it Too!

Using the principles of Grit, you can discover what is truly interesting to you, and develop the necessary skills allowing you to create and engage in meaningful, fulfilling activities. This is good news! You can learn your way into whatever it is you want to become by embracing the processes outlined in this book. I challenge you to commit to something beneficial to your development. Start small. Walk half a mile today, and do the same tomorrow! Eventually, the walk will become a run, and you will be well on your way to developing the person you want to become. Don’t wait, get started! If you want to like where you end up, the journey must start somewhere. There’s nothing magic about becoming who you want to be.


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