No brief commentary can do full justice to a concept as complicated – and as important — as flow, I realize, but it may be of interest and value to review a few key points about it.
1. Hungarian scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (“Cheeks-sent-me-high”) is generally credited with formulating the concept of flow based on decades of research. He published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in 1990.
Note: Bernie DeKoven is among the most original thinkers among contemporary authors of business books. He recentlly pointed out to me that “actually, Csikszentmihalyi used the word ‘flow’ in his book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety published in 1975. Can you believe it? I’ve been quoting from it ever since.”
2. There are several ways of describing the state of flow. Here is mine, based on what I have learned from Csikszentmihalyi : Pretend that you are a basketball player who hits every shot, a putter who sinks every putt, a bowler who only makes strikes, a rifleman or archer who only hits bulls eyes, etc. You are oblivious to where you are, what time it is, who else is there, etc. Athletes call it “the zone.” Musicians call in “in the groove.” Gamblers call it “on a roll.” Activity seems effortless.
3. In a workplace, “flow” can be achieved but seldom sustained. Reasons vary.
4. A neurologist from Yale, Amy Arnsten, has conducted years of research on positive and negative arousal. Here is my take on her key points:
• One challenge for supervisors is to determine which level of stress is best for each worker for whom they are directly responsible: This is their “sweet spot” for peak performance.
• There are two critically important chemicals, dopamine and norpinephrine, that affect synapses in the prefrontal cortex: Not enough of dopamine and/or norpinephrine results in boredom, too much results in burn-out. Usually there are early-warning signs of insufficiency or excess.
5. It is important to create or locate optimal conditions (i.e. mental, emotional, and environmental) for experiencing “flow,” then take full advantage of “being at our best” for as long as possible.
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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is professor and former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. His previous books include Flow and The Evolving Self. Flow was identified during the 1993 NBC Super Bowl broadcast as the book that inspired Jimmy Johnson, then coach of the Dallas Cowboys. It was also a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club.
Amy Arnsten was raised in Maplewood, N.J. where she attended Columbia High School. She received her B.A. in Neuroscience from Brown University in 1976, and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from UCSD in 1981. She did post-doctoral research with Dr. Susan Iversen at Cambridge University, and with Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic at Yale. Dr. Arnsten’s research has led to the development of guanfacine (IntunivTM) for the treatment of ADHD and related prefrontal cortical disorders.