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Three Things I Learned From The Godfather Of Flow Every Leader Can Adapt Today

Milena Regos

In a world obsessed with busyness and chasing success at all costs, we end up burnt out, stressed out, and lonely. At Unhustle, my vision is to shift this paradigm. It’s about finding the sweet spot between doing and real living, embracing a lifestyle that balances life enjoyment with purposeful achievement. This is the future I’m creating with Unhustle—a sustainable, prosperous future for ourselves, our families, communities, teams, companies, and the planet.

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Why do some people feel happy, engaged and find joy in their work while others burn out and lack focus and energy?

Flow may be the answer. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, but best known as the architect of the notion of Flow, died on Wed at the age of 88. Being Bulgarian, I can pretend to pronounce his name, but I will make a fool of myself. It’s easily spelled (Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High).

I stumbled upon his work when I went through somewhat of existential crisis years back, looking for more meaning and purpose in a successful but unfulfilling marketing career. I quickly realized that Flow adds to well-being, quality of life, purpose, and joy. So I dove deep into the subject and discovered that Flow is powerful, especially in our stressed-out, distracted and busy world.

To honor the great Hungarian-American psychologist, I want to share these three lessons from his book “Flow.” Great book, highly recommend it.

Lesson 1: Happiness is an inside job.

Only by learning to control the contents of our consciousness, we get closer to being happy. We get closer to inner joy, calm, and freedom when we achieve mastery over our consciousness by controlling our feelings, thoughts, and emotions. We all strive to attain certain goals in life. How close we get to achieving these goals equates to the quality of our life. When we fail to achieve them, we feel resentful and discontent. Developing our goals instead of only following society’s goals, redefining success on our terms, and seeking happiness on the inside are ways to gain more control of life and the path to liberation. What others think of us or what we own does not determine our happiness but rather how we feel about ourselves.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi now typing…

“Happiness is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events but, rather, on how to interpret them. Therefore, happiness is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.

“To improve life, one must improve the quality of experience.”

Lesson #2: Find your Flow.

Getting control of life is not easy. But sometimes, doing the difficult things are the most rewarding ones. Flow happens when you become so “involved with the activity that nothing else matters; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at greater cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Being in Flow improves the quality of life. Flow is not reserved for the affluent. Anyone can get in Flow, regardless of age, race, or profession. Spending time in the activity you prefer is the goal. If what you’re doing is no longer driving you in Flow, it’s time for a change. Flow is why some people can work long hours and not feel drained, and some feel depleted. Creating high-flow living and working is the ultimate goal of Unhustle – controlling the quality of your experience.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi now typing…

“Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments of our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can be enjoyable if we have worked hard to attain them. Instead, the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

Lesson #3: Elements of Enjoyment.

According to the Hungarian psychologist, there are certain elements necessary for activities to be enjoyable. As leaders and entrepreneurs we need to know what these are and how to tap into them for ourselves and our teams.

1. A challenging activity that requires skills

Whether that’s reading a book, kiteboarding (in my case), working on a project, concentrating on attention, and the skills to do it adds to the enjoyment of the activity. Without the skills, the activity becomes meaningless or anxious. With too many skills, you get bored. It’s only when you have the proper challenge to skill ratio that the activity is enjoyable.

Spending your time, focus and energy in your Zone of Genius is where the magic happens.

  1. Merging of action and awareness 

“When all of a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person’s attention is completely absorbed by the activity.”

Think of a rock climber or a dancer who is fully immersed in the activity. A dancer describes it: “Your concentration is very complete. Your mind isn’t wandering. You’re not thinking of something else; you are totally involved in what you’re doing… Your energy is flowing very smoothly. You feel relaxed, comfortable, and energetic.”

Now imagine going through your days in Flow. What are you doing?

  1. Clear goals and feedback 

When goals are clear and feedback immediate, it’s easier to stay focused. But, of course, you can’t choose a goal like staying alive while sitting on the couch. It needs to make sense. And sometimes, in creative projects, goals are hard to set.

“Unless the person learns to set goals and to recognize and gauge feedback in such activities, she will not enjoy them.” Procrastination, motivation, and even burnout can be the result of lack of clear goals.

  1. Concentration on the task at hand 

Being in Flow means that you forget about all unpleasantries of life around you. Being in Flow during the pandemic helped me maintain my mental health, motivation, and creativity. Not paying any attention to what’s going on around you means less to worry about. An activity that requires concentration is like rock climbing – all you can think about is the next step. Keeping all troubling thoughts away is one motivation to seek more Flow in everyday life – it adds a layer of structure in your brain.

So focus on what you’re working on, one thing at a time.

  1. The paradox of control 

“The flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control – or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about losing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.”

In other words, no worries about failure. As an entrepreneur, the paradox of control is something compelling and exciting. If I can run my business the same way I kiteboard, knowing there are risks but still doing it and having fun, that’s Flow. Leaving aside “objective” reasons for a business failure, we can focus on the “subjective” ones and get the training, skills and team we need to achieve the goal.

“What people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.”

  1. Loss of self-consciousness 

The idea is that we get so consumed in the activity that it becomes automatic, and we lose ourselves in it. Our self disappears. The ego is gone. We become one with the ocean, the mountain, the work we’re doing.

For most type-A overachievers, this is a good one to experiment with. Letting to and surrendering.

  1. Transformation of time 

Time changes when we’re in Flow – it slows down or speeds up. Unless the work you’re doing is highly related to time (like you’re a surgeon or a runner), then time in flow changes form and no longer follows the traditional watch. Time flies when you’re having fun.

Not all time is created equal. If you’re dragging through your days, maybe you’re doing the wrong things.

“Optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of their own individual efforts and creativity.”

Like all adventures, it’s not an easy one. But it’s worth it.

The world lost a great mind, but his legacy lives on.

RIP Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

May the flow be with you.

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