My most recent career as a Work Experience teacher at a local high school was everything I wanted in a job. I helped students transition to the world of work and helped them with career choices.
Vocational work has always interested me and this teaching job gave me one-on-one student interaction and community connection. I felt like a “kid in a candy store.” I created programs to help students with career choices, work protocols, and emotional intelligence. My work day filled with students, business and school leadership communication, and program development.
Each day I felt euphoric and I felt so engaged in the program’s development that one day I looked up from my desk to see a pair of students horsing around outside my window. I asked someone, “What are those students doing out of class?” The person stared back at me and replied, “School has been out for an hour.”
I often lost track of my time like that because I felt so engaged in my work. I was challenged, but not too challenged. If my tasks grew to be too much at that moment I backed off to where it felt more palpable yet not boring.
These states of time where I feel this strong interest in what I do and at the same time feel capable to handle the challenge is sometimes called Flow.
Flow is the mind state where I feel so involved in an activity that I lose tract of time. Flow gives me a sense of extreme focus on a task where I’m so engaged with no sense of anxiety or boredom. Where working becomes almost euphoric.
It was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, in his groundbreaking book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow is a way to feel a sense of joy in an activity. I’m not bored; I’m not nervous; I’m “in the zone.”
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 Ted Talk.
The key to flow is finding that “Sweet spot” of challenge and interest, to feel “euphoria” or joy in activities or subjects or people that interest me. If the activity or mental challenge is beyond the ability or preference or interest, anxiety or high stress may ensue. If the activity or mental challenge is below the ability or preference or interest, then boredom may ensue. The trick is to find the right activity where my abilities are equal to the challenge and maybe a little harder, pushing myself to new levels of growth and understanding, then Flow is possible.
“The manifestation of happiness takes a committed effort.”Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I might be highly intrigued in a subject matter, but if engagement is too high a level too soon, I may just develop high anxiety. This happened to a friend of mine who loved a his career as a coach and felt so engaged and alive but reached a high level quickly in his profession. He was the youngest to reach that level. He shared his stress and anxiety with me when he took the job. He chalked it up to Imposter Syndrome, but as time passed the stress did not get better and actually worsened to a point he took a step back.
The point being, sometimes Flow can lead to too much, too fast. For example the talented, passionate athlete that goes from high school to the pros without more maturation. Sometimes there are inherent growth that needs to happen before another level is attained.
A way that helped me find Flow in my daily life
There was a time when life bombarded me with responsibilities, jobs, data inputs from social media, the news, friends. I tried to be everything to everyone and in the process lost sight of who I am. I needed to step back from all the noise and reflect back on what made me feel “in the zone” of life that gave me more joy. That’s when I came across the Seven Stories Exercise.
The exercise is meant for people to find what they enjoy most in life, what skills they prefer to use, and find ways of incorporating it in their work life.
The Seven Story Exercise
The exercise is about examining those life experiences that felt satisfying and enjoyable and maybe even accomplished. Money may or may not have been involved. The age does not matter either. Some of my best experiences came when I was a child or young adult before I “tweeked” my personality to fit the real world.
First part of the exercise
First, make of list of 20 experiences in life that felt enjoyable or accomplished or fun . . . maybe even joyful, maybe even in a Flow state. List each activity in a five to seven word phrase (not just a word or two.) This part of the exercise could take some time, maybe even a week or more.
For example, here are some phrases from my list of 20: “created a bowling alley in a garage;” “Worked hard to win a contest by collecting the most coupons.” “Developed a lemonade stand that employed three kids;” “Started a club team for kids;” “Wrote and published three books about window cleaning;” “Helped start a window cleaning association;” “Wrote and directed a play with neighborhood kids.” The list goes on until I had 20 experiences.
Next, select the top seven experiences. Write a paragraph or two explaining the action details with strong verbs about the experience.
Here is what I would write about that bowling business experience.
When I was 10 years old, my friend Bobby and I wanted to earn some money. Bobby even at 10 years old was an expert bowler (his dad managed a bowling alley.) I came up with the idea of creating three bowling lanes in his garage using the plastic pins and balls. Every kid on the block had one back then. We decided to hold it the next Saturday. During school, I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was how to organize and create a smooth running bowling alley. I felt excited when I discovered a solution to a problem of rolling the balls back to the customers. We would use grape stakes used for fencing back then. It worked perfect. Bobby would keep score, since he knew how. I would reset the pins.
Kids came from blocks around to play in our bowling alley. We charged a nickle a game and the business was nonstop. The day flew by. I loved the physical work of setting up pins while talking with the players. I never felt happier. The thing was, we only wanted to do this event once, then it got boring, but it was exciting and we made money.
Finally, once the paragraphs are written, ask the following questions about each experience;
- What was the main accomplishment? make money
- What about it was most enjoyable? Creating a business from scratch
- Activities liked that were done best? Figuring out how to make it run like a business
- What was the key motivator? Money
- What led up to the involvement? My innovation
- What was the relationship with others? Leader
- What was the environment like? Outdoors
- What was the subject matter? Game
I did this with all seven experiences. I wrote out the answers.
What I found was there were key activities that put me in a state of Flow.
In a nutshell for me, I found three areas that stood out for me to feel flow:
First, I found creativity of any kind helps put in a state of Flow. It doesn’t matter if the project is big or small, takes a day or takes a lifetime. It could be creating a book, an association, a team, a program. It doesn’t matter. I must use creativity to truly feel flow.
Second, I found the interaction and connection with people must be part of equation –whether it’s for five minutes or a lifetime. I need to feel connected to others. If I don’t I’ll go looking for it to help me enjoin my creative state. There is no just me. There is me and those that surround me. People must be part of my engagement to enter a state of Flow.
Finally, Of the activities I jotted down, not one of them was the same. Each activity was innovative and different and had an interest span to the point the project or activity or creation was complete and did not need me anymore. What I discovered was that which I haven’t done before or had never been done before I found exhilarating. When the project became routine, I lost interest. Routine is my “kryptonite.” It saps my spirit of energy and joy. I need to watch out for “kryptonite” activities.
I feel much more confident now that I have reviewed what gives me Flow and more importantly what helps bring me joy.
Peace, Love, Joy