If you want to be a fulfilled, happy, successful person, consider the below graph.
The white diagonal line represents what positive psychology pioneer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi referred to as “flow.”
The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as “aesthetic rapture.”
It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.
Flow, the psychologist continues, is different from the “passive pleasures” of deep sleep, warm sunshine, or a contented relationship, since those all depend on external circumstances.
In contrast, flow is something you can create.
“This complete immersion in an experience could occur while you are singing in a choir, dancing, playing bridge, or reading a good book,” Csikszentmihalyi writes. “If you love your job, it could happen during a complicated surgical operation or a close business deal.”
Looking at the graph, you can see that in order to achieve flow an activity has to have the right level of engagement with your skills. If the challenge is too great, you’ll feel overwhelmed; if the challenge is too easy, you’ll get bored. The key is to go just beyond your comfort level.
If you do so, you’re in the flow channel: engaged in your work and growing along with it.
But there’s also the matter of how you grow. Writer and philosophy Ph.D. Jim Stone wrote in a Quora post that you can advance from A1 to A4 in the flow channel in one of two ways:
First, you can move from A1 to A2, and then to A4. On this path, you develop new skills without much challenge. And once you start to feel competent with those new skills, and you start to get bored with the way you are using those skills, you can take on a challenge that will use those skills and get your mind back in the game.
This might be the approach of a maths student who keeps working on easy problem sets until he gets so good at them that he’s bored, and then decides to tackle a harder problem set.
Second, you can move from A1 to A3, and then to A4. On this path you take on a challenge before you have the skills to meet the challenge. This creates anxiety, and the anxiety drives you to develop the skills you need to meet the challenge.
This might be the approach of a maths student who jumps right to the most difficult problem set and fills in her skills as she works on those problems.
Which is better, career-wise? The second, more anxiety-filled one, since it forces you to tackle big projects and get comfortable with the discomfort inherent to the process.
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