Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born in 1934. As World War II was raging, he and his family fled from their native country of Hungary by train. At the age of 22, Mihaly arrived in America. He was a high school dropout with minimal knowledge of English. He found a job and place to live through fellow Hungarians. He passed the GED and enrolled in college while still working. Nine years after arriving in America, he had earned a PhD from the University of Chicago.
Mihaly developed the concept of flow to describe the balance of what a person has to do and what a person is capable of doing. His work has become the basis of understanding what it takes for people to be happy with their work lives. Flow has become especially important in understanding what it takes to retain highly talented employees.
Flow is when people become so absorbed in an activity that a sense of everything else seems to disappear. We’ve heard the term being in the zone to describe an athlete who is having an incredible game. The same could apply to an entertainer. But what does flow or being in the zone mean to others at work?
There are two dimensions to flow: the challenge of the task and the skill required to do the task. We are in a flow state when the challenge of the task is slightly above our skill level to such an extent that we become absorbed by the task, so completely that the very process of achieving the task is highly motivating.
Persons who experience flow are highly productive. In fact, the challenge of mastering something new is one of the greatest influences on productivity. There is a rapid decline in productivity and effectiveness when the challenge of the tasks being performed doesn’t stretch a person’s skill level.
People are born with curiosity and desire to get better. Anyone who has children, or are young enough to remember their own childhood, can recall seeing moments of flow in a young child when they are so engaged that nothing else seems to matter. The challenge that all of us face is to find flow in our adult lives. We may not find it on the job, but there are other ways to find the meaning that flow provides. Flow becomes what sustains us when times get tough.
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“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi