To start the work week I’d like to remind myself of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (apparently pronounced something like MEhile ChickSENTmehigh) dubbed “flow”. This is a state we can recognize by our complete absorption in an activity, where we are neither sunk in boredom nor ripped out of our concentration by anxiety. Flow is what we experience at those wonderful times when we lose track of time because we are so focused on and engaged in what we are doing, when we “come to” later with a sense of accomplishment and pleasure. (Just an aside–I often feel a sense of flow when I work on this blog. Otherwise, my posts would be much shorter, if they existed at all. ;-))
Csikszentmihalyi started his research decades ago by studying “experts” (the quotation marks are his) like artists, athletes, musicians, chess masters and surgeons and then got interested in how universal the experience of flow is. When I think about curiosity and how it can make work ultimately more pleasurable and satisfying, I think of Joe Kramer as described in Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. Joe was a welder in a plant that assembled railroad cars. His work conditions were really hard–sometimes overwhelmingly hot, sometimes overwhelmingly cold, and always very, very loud. One interesting thing about Joe is that he chose to be a welder and go on being a welder. He was offered promotions but never wanted to move up. What he had done, instead of moving up, was to broaden his experience. Csikszentmihalyi tells us “He had apparently mastered every phase of the plant’s operation, and he was now able to take anyone’s place if the necessity arose. Moreover, he could fix any broken down piece of machinery, ranging from huge industrial cranes to tiny electronic monitors.” It’s easy to believe Csikszentmihalyi when he writes that “The manager stated that if he had five more people like Joe, his plant would be the most efficient in the business.”
How and why did Joe become this most valuable worker? When asked, he explained that he had always been fascinated by machinery. It was this fascination that motivated him to explore and discover. The side effect–and this is a crucial part about flow, it is always a side effect of devoting oneself to an enterprise–was that he enjoyed his work. By the way, Csikszentmihalyi makes a point of saying that Joe was not a workaholic. He had (perhaps still has) interests outside of work, particularly an intricate rock garden he built in his initially modest back yard.
Csikszentmihalyi tells us that Joe has an autotelic personality. That means Joe can “create flow experiences even in the most barren environment”. Lucky Joe! Most of the rest of us have to work at it. But as I go into my work week, I want to remember that work offers me many opportunities for flow and I hope to make the most of some of those.