reading: Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience

I can’t get the image out of my mind. In routine training, several Army members jumped out of a helicopter with parachutes, but one right-handed man had to use a left-handed parachute. He fell to his death and was found to have gouged out his skin on the right side as he was struggling to find the strap that would open the parachute.

Why can’t I lose this? The story was included in Flow in order to explain how fear shields us from options. We get tunnel vision and imagine that we only have one way out and are therefore cut off from other opportunities.

You know, those opportunities that seem to come out of nowhere when you weren’t looking? But that desperation that comes with fear clouds our consciousness, and it’s an easy trap.

When I started this book, I understood it to be about those experiences where you don’t feel time passing as you are so focused on what you’re doing. I’ve had this happen in painting, and in building websites, but never in my art of choice – writing. Odd. I thought this book would tell me if I should pursue these other things rather than writing. It did nothing of the sort.

In fact, I almost gave up reading it.

The opening chapters make the point that this “Flow” experience can be found in any type of work – a surgeon’s, a mountain climbers, or a tedious manufacturer’s work. It has a lot to do with the person – people raised with attentive parents can be more capable of Flow, but so can people who have been through a life threatening/altering experience (while others of the same will just be bitter). So there is no real recipe.

But, by understanding what causes Flow, we can teach ourselves to do it more often. It is being totally captivated and focused on your work – usually by turning it into a game. I used to eat a chocolate chip every time I finished a math problem in my homework. It went by faster – I would say I found Flow.

And even more – the book got encouraging when it talked about the way different cultures do work. Some cultures do little work but spend time doing activities like dancing or other social “games” that are Flow. Some cultures work morning to night, and there’s nothing those people (who were interviewed) would rather be doing.

They don’t say “I’d rather be in the Caribbean.”

Once, I was on the beach in Hawaii, and an older couple walked by in pants and tennis shoes (on the sand) in the middle of a fight and as they went by, one said “We should have never come here.”

Flow’s author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that their studies (giving people pagers and having them write down their happiness level and what they were doing at the moment several times each day) found that people were happier while working. They usually were not happy on vacation …

I read this book on vacation

… and as it turns out, vacations are rather unfocused with a lot up in the air – what should we do now, what will we do tomorrow, etc. The uncertainty and lack of tangible goals reduces our enjoyment.

But, our culture teaches us that we should like vacation, and dislike work. Everyone says so. We should strive for work/life balance.

It’s been pointed out by Paul Graham that this makes us people who choose jobs that we dislike, pretend we like them because that’ll make us seem like we’re more talented, but still not enjoy working because work is supposed to be dull.

As humans we were designed to enjoy work. That is the crazy, crazy kicker. And it really encouraged me.

I’ve often felt guilty for becoming “one of those people” because I ran a company’s Twitter account and needed to check, oh, every hour or so except for when sleeping. It also explains why I’m always looking for a bigger challenge, and at times seemed incapable of being content. As I look forward to life, most of the things I want to do are work related. And the evidence is actually on my side.

Here are my Highlights from the book.