This is one of the most unique and insightful self-help books I think I’ve ever read… and it’s not at all what I assumed it would be based upon the title.
I thought it would just essentially expand upon the truism that optimal experience is to be found in getting so immersed in an activity that one loses track of time, and that one should seek out the activities in which this occurs for him. It does make the first half of that point, but it argues that these experiences can be created rather than discovered, from almost anything… provided one knows the rules of how to do it.
The rules are these: the activity must be one freely chosen for its own sake, rather than for the sake of some external reward. There should be rules associated with the activity in question to provide a framework for action. The feedback to tell you if you’re doing well or poorly must be immediate and clear. The activity should require skills of some kind, and it should be commensurate with one’s abilities (too easy and it’s boring; too hard and it produces anxiety). Examples include games of almost every kind, from sports to board games; dancing; rock climbing; reading; art; music (making it and also listening to and appreciating it if one does so with a critical ear); social interactions (there are certainly social rules, and one knows in the moment whether or not he’s the life of the party!), and many complex careers. Even less complex or “rote” jobs have the potential for flow, provided one sets an intrinsic goal with immediate feedback. Some of the most compelling examples of flow occurred in extreme circumstances of deprivation and hardship. Yet the survivors all seemed to possess this one thing in common: they created an intrinsic goal with immediate feedback, even if the feedback was only within their own minds, in order to find purpose in the bleakest of circumstances.
The author makes the point that creating flow is natural in children–to them, everything is new and fascinating. Children get so immersed in play that time slips by blissfully and in wonder. This remains the case until formal education replaces intrinsic with extrinsic goals. Once that happens, learning and improving their skills ceases to be enjoyable–now, it’s something they “have” to do. Certain personalities (those he calls “autotelic,” or those who inherently know how to structure their time to create flow experiences) can overcome this, but many never do. Most of us continue to be motivated only by external rewards well into adulthood. There’s no point in continuing to learn, once we’ve graduated from formal education and are competent enough at our jobs to get our basic needs met. Many of us don’t structure our leisure time for flow activities either–because this takes effort, and we’re tired at the end of a long day. So instead, we passively consume entertainment, or seek sensual pleasure. But pleasure is not the same as true enjoyment as he defines it. There is no purpose to it. As a result, as adults, many of us find our lives slipping away in boredom and vague anxiety. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
“Flow” is empowering, because it makes explicit the tools that every one of us has at our disposal to shape our own experiences–if we just have the discipline and motivation to use them.
My rating: *****
Language, Politics, Sexual Content, Violence: not relevant (it’s non-fiction)
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