Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the "flow" of life...

Thank goodness for copy/paste! I think if I had to learn to key that name in every time I would be tempted to skip it altogether.
Thanks, too, for the Wikipedia entry and others for furnishing the pronunciation, chick-SENT-me-high-ee. I especially like this one: "Chicks send me high"!

Toward the end of Virginia Postrel's The Future and it's Enemies she refers to this man, this researcher, this fountain of aphorisms, as she advances her thesis that dynamists are assets and stasists are not in the constellation of the human community. At least that seems to be the gist of the book, although she never really says it that plainly. I have been plodding through this book at a leisurely pace for over a year.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is into research about work and what makes work better. The idea that attitude has a lot to do with results is at the core of his thinking, and from personal experience I have to agree. He talks a lot about play -- in the sense that work can be a kind of game -- which is the context of Virginia Postrel's observations.

My post about this man does not have any agenda this morning. Mainly I am still learning about him and his ideas. The Google search spit out about half a million referrences, so he isn't exactly small potatoes, but my first impression is that he plays a one note tune. Once you have heard it, it's okay to remember it, like the Birthday Song or an Aesop's fable, and move on with life.

But I do like the tune. I like it a lot. Those of us who have had to endure endless hours of mindless repetitive tasks (cleaning tables, washing dishes, cooking the same green beans and mashed potatoes day after day for years at a time, dealing with the same tiresome customer comments and employee disagreements...) had to figure out a long time ago that without a sense of play at work we might go crazy. It is reassuring to know that somebody in academia figured it out on his own.

This snip from a Fast Company article last year is instructive...

In a world teeming with authors lusting for the speaking circuit, Csikszentmihalyi is a refreshing oddity. Although business is clamoring for more and more of him, his relationship with the private sector remains ambivalent; he even recently organized a conference called "Alternatives to Materialism." Csikszentmihalyi says he never really thought about business until five years ago, when he was offered the post at Drucker. He accepted it in part because he liked his potential colleagues, and also because it was a quiet place with good weather for his wife's tortured sinuses. "I lived my life in an ivory tower, and business was to be held at an arm's length," he says, Birkenstocks poking out below his slacks and blazer. That may be because none of his research has established any link between happiness and the possession of lucre.

It may also be because there is a dark side to flow, says Csikszentmihalyi. It can come while pursuing destructive activities, such as addictions or crimes. He offers the contrasting examples of Mother Teresa and Napoleon Bonaparte to show how differently the flow state can affect the world. The same is true of business; it's easy to imagine Enron's Andrew Fastow in a rapturous flow state as he plotted his next scheme.
[Emphasis added.]

When I try to imagine how a rapturous flow might affect the daily activities of a government bureaucrat, say someone behind a desk at the Veteran's Administration or the creative minds that craft medical billing requirements for the private sector, it makes me uncomfortable. If I allow myself to think of how that same euphoria might affect the Secretary of Defense, head of the CIA or others in positions of authority, it gets worse. When I think of how it might affect the president himself I am ready to turn the page and think about something else.

1 comment:

ilona said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. The name looks Hungarian- that is Saint Michael in there I think but I don't know what the Csik is.