Monday, August 8, 2011

Finding Flow

(Photo: Susan Stroup)
Gaining satisfaction in work isn’t easy. Learning to love what you do is less easy. But there are ways to move in a positive direction, playing well the cards you’re dealt, and enjoying what you do every day.

Flow, initially proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (What a last name!), is the ultimate form of satisfaction. Defined as the “mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity,” flow is achieved when you make the best of a situation, are ready, and fire on all cylinders when it is your time.

People may witness flow watching professional sports. As a kid, I watched Michael Jordan in his prime, and I remember him regularly finding flow, often in the most critical of circumstances. It was amazing.

Writers and other creative types often experience flow during work sessions. Listening to accomplished writers describe periods of high-gear productivity gets my juices going, no doubt.

Flow is not just for yogis, professional athletes and novelists. You can reach a state of flow in anything you do. It can be found no matter your work–whether you are dedicated to a corporation (like me) or out there swinging for the fences on your own. But getting there requires work and discipline.

When I reach states of flow in my life, it's worth writing home about.

Here’s my recipe for finding flow:

1. Light a fire in the belly. I don’t know who lit a fire in mine, but I’m glad to have one and know that it burns bright. Every morning, I take a few puffs from my pipe of gusto, and get after living.

2. Seek passion. This is ongoing in my life. The thought of doing what I love moves me to no end. In my wallet, I carry a quote from Steve Ballmer, Chief Executive of Microsoft. In his commencement speech to the students of this year’s graduating class at the University of Southern California, Ballmer said: “People think that passion is something you either have or you don’t. People think passion is something that has to manifest itself in some kind of explosive and emotional format. It’s not. It’s the thing in your life that you can care about, that you can cling to, that you can invest yourself in–heart, body and soul. Finding passion is kind of your job now.”

3. Explore other professions. You may have the greatest job in the world (or so you think), but that shouldn’t prevent you from noticing other ways of working. If you’re not looking at what others are doing, you may not fully comprehend your own situation. Interview, set up breakfasts or beers, whatever, just understand what your peers and friends are doing in their work. Observing what others do helps me to grasp how what I do fits into the larger marketplace.

4. Fail and forget. As one of my mentors told me, “There’s no such thing as failure, only feedback.” Failing to get into a certain school or land that “perfect” job can be painful, shameful and even humiliating. I know. But what I’ve found through failing, and have many times over, is that in hindsight, doing so only builds you up for your next set of challenges. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Don’t fear failure.

5. Improve the situation. Like they say about the weather in many places, “If you don’t like it, wait a few minutes.” The atmosphere of work, like anything in life, will ebb and flow. If you’re stuck in a rut, start climbing out of it. If your work situation is truly horrible, then it’s time for change. Tweak as you go.

6. Commit to something with total focus. This is where the magic happens and mojo finds its way into the workplace. If you can find something that interests you, whether a corporate project, a non-profit service or an entrepreneurial endeavor, take on the challenge. If you’re committed, you will find victory and satisfaction. As written in one of my favorite reads, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

7. Work with good people. Build networks, work with people who have values similar to yours, hang around those you respect and who can teach you. Period.

8. Meditate. Try it, if you haven’t. No need to dress like Gandhi, or or even sit cross-legged. Find your breath above all else. I recently read that Gary Player, one of the world’s greatest golfers, now 75, meditates for 20 to 30 minutes every day. "I think it’s important to work on strength of mind, patience and gratitude," he says. All goodness.

9. Change. We all get burnt out. Realize when your flame is low, and address it. Recharge your batteries. You will benefit in the long run. Life is a series of experiences, and the more experiences you have, the better your chances of being satisfied when you reflect at the end of the line.

10. Let go. “Let it flow; Let yourself go,” is the opening line of Slow and Low by The Beastie Boys. Look it, we all want to control our situations. But we can’t. By letting go, we can begin to enjoy what’s given to us on a daily basis. It’s a gift, and by realizing that simple fact, we don’t have to be Michael Jordan to find flow. We can create our own situations to experience it.

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