Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I have this paperback copy of Flow that I would carry around with me from university, to home, to university, and now back to home. Despite holding on to it for what was probably close to 1.5-2 years, I had yet to read it til now. Making time to read amongst school, work, and the general entropy of life is difficult. This is unfortunate, given how many good ideas Csikszentmihalyi brings up with dealing with said entropy.

Flow, despite it’s subtitle, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is not a self-help book. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi makes a very strong point about it in the first few pages:

…what follows is not going to be a “how-to” book. There are literally thousands of such volumnes in print…explaining how to get rich, powerful, loved, or slim…Yet even if their advice were to work, what would be the result afterward in the unlikely event that one did turn into a slim, well-loved, powerful millionaire? Usually what happens is that the person finds [themself] back at square one, with a new list of wishes, just as disssatisfied as before.

Rather, Flow is a book that attempts to extracts principals of what makes a good, meaningful life from research conducted over Csikszentmihalyi’s career. And I think it does a very, very good job of it.

Flow is colloquially understood as “being in the zone.”

That feeling when you are playing a sport, performing, or captured by a game – when everything “falls into place” – that is what we understand as being in “flow.”

Csikszentmihalyi captures this sentiment in Chapter 3, where he list experiences that people tend describe when they talk about their time in flow. In brief, it seems flow activities are ones where we are uncertain about the outcome (i.e. uncertain about success or failure), but feel confident in our skills being able to meet the challenges presented by the activity. The activity itself is one that is well-defined and provides one with frequent and immediate feedback (e.g. sports, performing music, programming). And in pursuing the activity we become so focused on performing successfully, that we begin to lose our sense of self and time.

But at the end, I think Csikszentmihalyi has an even more important idea than describing what “being in the zone” means.

Ultimately, once we exit flow, we emerge as more complex individuals. That in some way, some how, being in flow changes us (usually for the better).

Csikszentmihalyi makes this point more concrete later. He explains by choosing activities that match our skill to appropriate challenges (with roughly equal chance of success and failure), individuals are bound to arise from such activities are more skilled (which I believe Csikszentmihalyi means as a synonym for complexity).

But this brings up the question, why chase increasing complexity?

As Csikszentmihalyi makes a point of stressing, increasing complexity can be a deep well of meaning and purpose in one’s life. That pursuing activities that produce flow doesn’t have to exclusively increase the complexity of the individual. That flow can also increase the complexity of the relationships that individual has with their friends, family, community, and beyond.

He describes the process of increasing complexity as equal parts differentiation and integration. Differentiation being the ways we change as indivdiuals to highlight our unique abilities and tastes. And integration being the process by which we bring these tastes and abilities back to our relationships. And this process can provide pathways for people to create order out of the disorder of day-to-day life.

Because that’s what flow is about, at the end of the day – creating an organized experience in the mess of our minds.