Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Finding Flow

Recently I’ve been rereading “Finding Flow” by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (“chick-SENT-me-high”). It’s an easy read, conversationally written, and in it MC discusses a phenomenon he calls “flow”: the feeling one gets when an activity is so enjoyable that one becomes caught up in it and loses all sense of time. Experienced chess players, surfers, and violin players all report experiencing this feeling, but so do regular people driving to work, traders on the floor of the NY stock exchange, and students preparing a difficult school project. Runners call this feeling “runner’s high”. Others call it being “in the zone”.

These flow experiences happen when an activity is challenging and the person doing them has a high set of skills to accomplish it. Both high challenge and high skill set must be present to experience flow. If the challenge is high but the skill set is low, the person experiences anxiety – the task is too hard. If the challenge is low but the person has a high skill set, she feels relaxed. If the experience is low-challenge and low-skills, then the person feels apathetic. Housework, watching TV and “just laying around” fall in this category.

MC argues that flow experiences are what make life enjoyable. He says:

“A person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification…..It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.” [p. 31]

Reading this has made me reflect on my own flow experiences. I’m fortunate enough to experience flow many times at work – when a situation is at the cutting edge of my capabilities, and yet I feel that I’m able to do it well, I get “in the zone” and time seems to pass by in the blink of an eye. MC argues that flow experiences tend to occur when the goals are clear, and feedback is immediate and relevant. In other words, you’ve got to be working at the cutting edge of your abilities on a challenging task, know what’s expected of you, and be receiving feedback to allow you to adjust your actions as necessary.

How many of you or your co-workers experience flow at work? MC states that up to 40% of the population never has this experience. It seems a shame that some teachers might miss the opportunity to consistently feel that focused energy that comes from being “in the zone” and seeing “the light bulb go off” when teaching goes almost perfectly.

I’m still working through what this means for me as a coach. But couldn’t we increase the number of teachers who find flow in teaching? It would require that we be the sounding board to help them define their goals, and offer them honest, immediate feedback to help them adjust their instruction mid-stream. The alternative of living a work life without flow seems unacceptable.

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