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January 2011


Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


(Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008)


What are the big take-aways?


First and foremost, this is a psychology book that espouses a philosophy of how to live in a state of happiness. Based on the conclusions of decades-long research, Csikszentmihalyi argues that challenge, complexity and bringing increasing levels of order to the chaos of the mind are what promote sustainable enjoyment of life. The bulk of the theory is explained on pages 48-70. To achieve the most constant state of happiness, Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that these elements must be present as pervasively as possible: (1) a challenging activity that requires skills; (2) the merging of action and awareness; and (3) clear goals and feedback. Accompanying these elements are three phenomena of experience: (1) a paradoxical sense of control in complex or difficult situations; (2) a loss of self-consciousness; and (3) the transformation of time (it seems to go by faster).


Together, Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “flow” state of optimal experience (or the “autotelic” experience, one that is an “end in itself”) on page 67:


The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.


The zone of flow, according to the author, is in the creative space of tension that lies between anxiety in the realm of challenge, and boredom in the realm of skill or ability (see chart, page 74). Throughout the book, Csikszentmihalyi offers rich examples of flow experiences and strategies for increasing them in all aspects of life: body, mind, work, social situations and solitude.


Why did I like it?


While the introductory chapter, “Happiness Revisited,” is distractingly out-of-date, the rest of the book is a fascinating journey through a philosopher’s own exploration of his theory. As a leadership coach, the third chapter, titled “Enjoyment and the Quality of Life,” is where I found the key theoretical structure for an inspiring way to think about my work and the leadership work of my clients. I believe in using one’s career to discover and capitalize on the strengths and passions that make us unique. My observation is that the happiest leaders (and the most effective over the long-term) are those who express their authenticity in all aspects of their lives; they learn about and lead from an ever-increasing complexity of self, and they are primarily motivated by their own passion.


In what situations would this be useful?


Insofar as the leadership experience is a learning and personal growth experience, I think Flow is a useful guide to achieving the state of mind and body that increases leadership agility, creativity and effectiveness. In this regard, it would worthwhile for any leader to consult. I suggest that a reader start with Chapters 3 (“Enjoyment and the Quality of Life”) and 4 (“The Conditions of Flow”) and then range around from there.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books, 2009), previously reviewed in the Leadership Library, is a good pick for a leader looking to specifically link the theory of flow to the operation of contemporary business. On pages 203-204, Pink says business should take a new approach to motivation in the workplace, and the new approach “has three essential elements: (1) Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives; (2) Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and (3) Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. [Author’s emphases.]”


The workbook that I recommended as a pairing with Drive might also be a good choice to accompany Flow: Kevin Cashman’s Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008). It places a lot of emphasis on the concept of mastery in several personal and professional areas, such as authenticity, awareness, purpose, and “leading through synergy and service.”


I have used fingerpaint meditation in two primary ways.  Initially, I used it to sharpen my skills, deepen my “presence,”


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