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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Harper Perennial, 320 pages, $10.28

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There are times when we feel at the peak of our abilities and Flow posits that these rare breakthroughs, or optimal experiences, can be controlled and more fully realized. The core of the Flow philosophy is that our best moments usually occur when our minds or bodies are stretched to their limit to accomplish something difficult.

Flow itself is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Csikszentmihalyi studied experts in fields ranging from medicine to the arts to see how people felt when they most enjoyed themselves and why they felt that way. Although only one chapter is devoted specifically to work, anyone who wants to improve their concentration and dedication will appreciate Flow as a catalyst and a call to action.

Chapter 7, titled “Work as Flow,” examines a study conducted by a team of Italian psychologists on how work is experienced in a traditional farming setting. The most striking feature of the places studied is that those who live there can seldom distinguish work from free time.

Csikszentmihalyi discusses the case of a factory worker named Joe who is widely regarded as the most valuable worker at the plant because he has mastered every phase of the plant’s operation. Joe is the one called upon to fix any piece of machinery when it breaks down and he relishes this role because he loves to discover what is wrong with a machine and fix it. In his workplace, Joe possesses the vision to perceive challenging opportunities for action.

The author’s point is that the quality of experience of people who transform the opportunities in their work environments is more developed and enjoyable than that of people who resign themselves to live within the constraints of reality.

Csikszentmihalyi recommends another way to achieve flow through one’s work. Instead of transforming oneself, it’s possible to change the job itself until it inherently resembles a game. The characteristics of the game are that it has:

  • Variety
  • Appropriate and Flexible Challenges
  • Clear Goals
  • Immediate Feedback

The author laments the fact that managers must care for productivity first and foremost because in the short run this priority can conflict with flow-producing conditions. According to Csikszentmihalyi , “Combining the transformation of our outlook on work with viewing the work itself as a game contributes greatly to achieving optimal experience.”

The section on work time and leisure time offers fascinating insights. Studies show that people feel they are most in flow when they are actively involved at work and that when engaged in leisure activities only 18% of people felt in flow. Thus, we have to examine how our time spent doing leisure activities may affect our work.

Csikszentmihalyi concludes that unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing. He provides especially relevant insights into the dangers of burnout and falling into professional ruts. Anyone looking to stretch themselves in the workplace and their leisure activities will welcome the lessons Flow offers.

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