On Flow and Optimal Experiences

I’ve been reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I highly recommend it for most people, but in particular managers, leaders, marketers, programmers, designers … anyone wanting to create or foster the “in the zone” experiences that are commonly associated with sports for their business, products, and overall work (and even leisure time).

It’s a book, based on decades of academic research, about enjoyment and happiness.

As the author says: “The best moments in our lives … are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times — although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

I read a lot because I want to apply and implement practical wisdom in my life and business.

I approached this book for two main reasons …

  • To finetune my thoughts as a leader of how we create a work environment at iThemes that allows our team to have ‘optimal experiences’ through their work; and,
  • To improve how we build tools and training for our customer community that free them to have optimal experiences with our work

Per Flow, here are the elements of enjoyment:

  • A challenging activity that requires skills
  • The merging of action and awareness — when all of a person’s “attention is completely absorbed by the activity”
  • Clear goals and feedback
  • Concentration on the task at hand
  • The paradox of control — or “lacking a sense of worry about losing control that is typical in many situations of normal life”
  • The loss of self-consciousness
  • The transformation of time

Examples were given of star athletes, chess players and surgeons — those fully engaged in their task.

You’ve probably had numerous experiences like these elements of enjoyment or flow, where you were so engulfed in what you’re doing that you lost track of time. You felt in control, totally focused, and knew what you were doing was making some sort of impact. And even though it might have exhausted you physically or mentally, you thoroughly enjoyed whatever you were doing. You were in the moment.

As I’ve read deeper and deeper into Flow, I’ve been thinking how we filter these concepts through our work …

My leadership theory has always been that if someone loves what they do, meaning they are passionate and would do it if money didn’t matter and is working for a greater goal, together, as a team, then we will see the ultimate, highest-level, peak performance out of those team members.

I believe if you put good, quality people in an environment that gives them freedom of creativity and are empowered to do things and make decisions and chase ideas (autonomy), allow them to learn and grow (through teaching each other and providing opportunities like buying books or attending events), reward them fairly and publicly (the easiest thing I do is get excited about their projects and give them public credit for it), and continue to reinforce a greater purpose of working toward a common goal (this hasn’t always been easy) … then there’s no limit to what that team can do.

I know that’s the environment I’ve personally always wanted and craved. To chase my ideas. To be rewarded for my passion. To work toward a bigger, higher goal than simply for just myself.

So I set out to create one with and through my business.

OK, so here are some highlight recommendations on reading Flow ….

  • The whole chapter 7 on Work as Flow …. this is why I bought the book – to apply it to our business.
  • The Waste of Free Time (chapter 7) in particular … this hit home. I’ve always loved using my free time to read and explore and learn and grow, but sadly for most people that’s wasted. There’s a great quote by C.K. Brightbill that says, “The future will belong not only to the educated man, but to the man who is educated to use his leisure wisely.” How true.
  • Chapter 10 on The Making of Meaning … the author and I have drastically different worldviews, but ultimately if you don’t have purpose and meaning and are just seeking “the moment” all the time then you’re going to be left an empty void. Flow can be abused.
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