When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, you do not have enough attention left over to monitor how your body feels, or your problems at home.
You cannot feel even that you’re hungry or tired.
Your body disappears, your identity disappears from your consciousness, because you don’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that you exist.
So existence is temporarily suspended.
This automatic, spontaneous process that is being described can only happen to someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique. And it has become a kind of a truism in the study of creativity that you cannot be creating anything with less than 10 years of technical-knowledge immersion in a particular field.
Whether it is mathematics or music, it takes that long to be able to begin to change something in a way that it is better than what was there before. Now, when that happens, he says the music just flows out.
This is the flow experience, and it happens in different realms.
–Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the TED Talk “Flow, The Secret to Happiness.” All quotes in this post are from this TED talk, which can be viewed also at the bottom of this post.
Flow Experience for a Poet
For instance, a poet describes it in this form. This is by a student of mine who interviewed some of the leading writers and poets in the United States. And it describes the same effortless, spontaneous feeling that you get when you enter into this ecstatic state. This poet describes it as opening a door that floats in the sky — a very similar description to what Albert Einstein gave as to how he imagined the forces of relativity, when he was struggling with trying to understand how it worked.
Flow Experience for an Athlete
But it happens in other activities. For instance, this is another student of mine, Susan Jackson from Australia, who did work with some of the leading athletes in the world. And you see here in this description of an Olympic skater, the same essential description of the phenomenology of the inner state of the person. You don’t think; it goes automatically, if you merge yourself with the music, and so forth.
Flow Experience for CEOs
It happens also, actually, in the most recent book I wrote, called “Good Business,” where I interviewed some of the CEOs who had been nominated by their peers as being both very successful and very ethical, very socially responsible. You see that these people define success as something that helps others and at the same time makes you feel happy as you are working at it. And like all of these successful and responsible CEOs say, you can’t have just one of these things be successful if you want a meaningful and successful job. Anita Roddick is another one of these CEOs we interviewed. She is the founder of Body Shop, the natural cosmetics king. It’s kind of a passion that comes from doing the best and having flow while you’re working.
This is an interesting little quote from Masaru Ibuka, who was at that time starting out Sony without any money, without a product — they didn’t have a product, they didn’t have anything, but they had an idea. And the idea he had was to establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society and work to their heart’s content. I couldn’t improve on this as a good example of how flow enters the workplace.
Flow Experience during Work
Now, when we do studies — we have, with other colleagues around the world, done over 8,000 interviews of people — from Dominican monks, to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shepherds — who enjoy their work. And regardless of the culture, regardless of education or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. 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. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.
7 Conditions of Flow Experience
1. Completely involved in what you are doing – focused, concentrated.
2. A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well you are doing.
4. Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
5. A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
6. Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes it own reward.
What Do You Think?
What could help people have a flow experience regardless of their profession or skill?
Is there a common flow experience we could all help each other achieve, and thus experience this exalted state much more often, and not in connection to our profession or skills? If there is, how could we achieve that?
Please write your answers in the comments below!
Watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow, The Secret to Happiness [TED Talk] »
Image: "The Flow of Water" by "John T. Howard."