Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934-2021)
Good Business is about enjoyment of work and productivity. It is based on the author’s research on flow, the psychology of optimal experience.
Flow is “a deep sense of enjoyment.” To be fully engaged in a state of flow, one must be skilled and challenged. “Basically, the more a person feels skilled, the more her moods will improve; while the more challenges that are present, the more her attention will become focused and concentrated.”
“Adults who are more often in flow are not only happier, but they spend significantly more time at work actually working instead of gossiping, reading the papers, or surfing the Web… If flow is absent, work turns into drudgery, and the worker loses his or her creative initiative.”
“Money, security and comfort may be necessary to make us happy, but they are definitely not sufficient. A person must also feel that his or her talents are fully employed, that he is able to develop his potentialities, and that his everyday life is not stressful or boring, but holds deeply enjoyable experiences.”
Prof. Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues determined eight conditions of flow experience:
- Clear Goals – “True enjoyment comes from the steps one takes toward attaining a goal, not from actually reaching it.”
- Immediate Feedback – “The sense of total involvement of the flow experience derives in large part from knowing that what one does matters, that it has consequences.”
- Balance Between Opportunity and Capacity – “If it appears to be beyond our capacity we tend to respond to it by feeling anxious; if the task is too easy we get bored.”
- Deep Concentration – Flow happens when “the distinction between self and activity disappears… a pleasant feeling of total involvement.”
- Present Moment – “Because in flow the task at hand demands complete attention, the worries and problems that are so nagging in everyday life have no chance to register in the mind.”
- Control – “A worker who feels micromanaged soon loses interest in her job.”
- Sense of Altered Time – “Quite often, this means that time is perceived as flying by.”
- Loss of Ego – “While one forgets the self during the flow experience, after the event a person’s self-esteem reappears in a stronger form than it had been before… Similarly, people who have more flow experiences also have higher self-esteem overall.”
“When a task produces flow, it is worth doing for its own sake… Another way to term such activities is intrinsically rewarding.”
The author writes about “the importance of what in creativity research is called ‘incubation’—the subliminal parallel-processing activity that takes place in the mind when we are not consciously trying to solve a problem.” On a related note, he observed from his interviews that “the most frequently mentioned personal trait the managers wished they could change was ‘impatience.’”
He makes another interesting point about the speed of the brain’s processing power and why multitasking doesn’t work. “The brain can process on the order of 110 bits of information each second. To understand what another person is saying to us, for example, requires about forty bits, which explains why we cannot understand more than two people talking at the same time.”
From a management perspective, flow is important because an “organization whose employees are happy is more productive, has a higher morale, and has a lower turnover… An ideal organization is one in which each worker’s potentialities find room for expression.”
“To summarize briefly the essential conditions for flow to occur, they are: clear goals that can be adapted to meet changing conditions; immediate feedback to one’s actions; and a matching of the challenges of the job with the worker’s skills.”
Prof. Csikszentmihalyi also wrote Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter (1990), and Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996).
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Buy from Amazon.com
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Related reading: The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler (2021)