Book Review: Flow by Csikszentmihalyi

flow

One hallmark of good philosophy is timelessness. The observations of Plato and Aristotle are relevant today. Much has changed since the dawn of Western civilization, but the best philosophy survives and thrives. People have been reading Lord Montaigne since the sixteenth century, though his stature as a lucid and wise thinker continues to grow.

Most people would probably use the word psychology rather than philosophy to describe Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience, a book that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published in 1990. Cracking it open, I fully expected to read a typical psychology book: A few narrative vignettes with clunky references to research studies. This, in my opinion, is often the weak point of books that strive to give the impression of scientific rigor. I’m all for scientific rigor, but the emphasis on detailing experimental process rather than meaningful synthesis is, in a word, boring.

On the contrary, to my surprise, Flow is one of the most elegant, succinct, well-written, and persuasive philosophical works I’ve encountered. It has almost instantly become one of my favorite books–one to which I hope to return over and over. It’s that good. Instead of experimental weeds, the book delivers a landscape of human potential. It navigates this landscape with the hypothesis that climbing the highest heights requires the practice of flow.

What is flow? Csikszentmihalyi’s composing this book undoubtedly exemplifies flow, which he describes as follows:

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy–or attention–is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives. A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in a consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual. (p. 6)

Flow is thus a kind of trance in which one’s best work is done. It is the state in which a person can reach their highest potential. It can involve creative intelligence as easily as bodily strength, and my guess is that it typically involves both.

What follows from this description of flow is Csikszentmihalyi’s brilliant synthesis of how flow can be generated and controlled, how positive meaning can be discovered in life, and how this discovery process within each individual has bearing on the future of humanity. Sounds philosophical, right? I thought so too. I believe that with this book, Csikszentmihalyi fully became the extraordinary individual he describes.

Flow was published a few years before the internet became commonplace (manual typewriters were still used) and just as the collapse of the Iron Curtain gave rise to new geopolitical realities. To return to the observation that good philosophy is timeless, reading this book helps me better understand today’s dilemmas. The author spends a good deal of time discussing the human tendencies and actions that tend to prevent flow: things like retreating to the television set at the end of the day and allowing perception to be pushed around by profit-oriented mass media. Csikszentmihalyi thinks that the natural state of the human mind is chaotic, and that ordinary life is characterized by entropy. Flow is the ability to overcome the chaos and temporarily hold entropy in abeyance.

How does this relate to today’s issues? I think the reactionary politics we have in 2018 is fueled by people not becoming citizens, which requires education and effort. Instead of being citizens, they consume ideas marketed to them online and on TV. Trump shaped a popular perception through reality TV. The ads worked, but they masked the man’s chaotic nature. In the future it may be someone of more progressive persuasion that does the same. We live in a time characterized by a sense of increasing chaos. Entropy is no fun. Those who can master the art of flow have an opportunity to help change this reality, at least for a time, and lead the way to less chaos.

In short, this is an inspiring book–one of the best I have ever read–and I highly recommend it to anyone.

 

RAD LSD MAN

Tie-dye

RAD LSD MAN!

No, I’m not talking about the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide. I’m talking about the trippy acronym I just put together while running:

Run

All

Day with

 

Long

Slow

Distances as a

 

Means of

Attaining

Nirvana

LSD is not my creation (it’s a common term in the running community), nor is RAD entirely original.  However this entire long acronym might just be original. In any case, it’s a nice & groovy mantra for a natural high.

 

 

Fly fishing

Casting
Fly fishing on the Rose River in Virginia

Last year I took up fly fishing. The photo above is me and Duber Winters, a guide and Orvis store manager, casting into the Rose River. Duber helped me catch a rainbow trout on that chilly day in March–my first fish caught on a fly.

Though I shouldn’t say “my,” since I got so much help that day.

Another reason not to say “my” is a dawning realization that probably comes early in most angling careers: fly fishing is a vehicle for stepping outside of oneself and melding with nature.

The rush of water against the waders, the interplay of insects, branches, and rocks, and the imperative to mimic the dance of river life — in each of these ways, fly fishing brings the angler into a focused yet transcendent state of mind. It’s a practice that combines sport, artistry, and meditation.

No wonder fly-fishers have the reputation as being good ecological stewards while also being secretive and territorial. Cold and clean water + solitude = good. Global warming + too many anglers on the river = bad. For this reason, conscientious anglers possess an ethical code that helps nature and respects others.

In my day fishing with Duber, I got the strong sense that he guides and fishes with these values in mind.

 

 

State of the Union: No Sale

I watched the State of the Union address last night. The talk was dumb. Serves me right for watching television, that old-school tool of social control.

Of course the address was a sales pitch for Donald Trump’s administration. Although pundits may credit the president for not spending the entire time talking about himself, he did spend a lot of the time clapping at his own lines and goosing the crowd to give him more ovations.

There were some genuinely touching moments featuring extraordinary human bravery, suffering, and compassion. We saw the North Koren defector/amputee raising his crutches in the air, the police officer whose family adopted the unborn child of a woman hooked on heroin pleading to give that child a better life, and the family whose daughters were killed by MS-13 gang members.

These stories, however compelling, reminded me of the ubiquitous technique of showing happy people to sell products. There is no real connection between the story or image and the product. One exists to foster an emotional association about the other. All of these stories could have appeared in an Obama State of the Union address. Which is to say that none of this is new with Trump. The technique is likely as ancient as civilization — or at least as old as Methuselah.

Beyond the gambit of emotionally associating Trump and his administration with heroes and those who struggle. What else was he trying to sell? To me the big sale he tried to make is the tax bill. He said it would be good for the middle class and small business, that the new standard deduction eliminates federal taxation for the poorest Americans whose incomes are $24,000 or less per year.

Sounds good, right? And the points are true in a limited sense. But I think the larger picture is troubling. Completely unmentioned is the fact that families like Trump’s receive the lion’s share of benefits: lower “pass-through” rates of taxation than the middle class for partners as opposed to employees, a new tax deduction for private school, and a curtailment of the estate tax meant to prevent the American equivalent of dynastic wealth. Despite all the talk of closing the “carried-interest” loophole that lets certain financial professionals, such as private equity managers, skate by only paying around 23% of income, it survived tax reform. The upshot of all of this is that economic inequality will likely increase, which will be bad for almost everyone. I believe it will also be bad for the rich. Most spiritual traditions warn against greed.

So why would anyone buy it? Same question could be asked about why would anyone buy anything? They’ve been persuaded. The marketing worked.

For me: no sale, but that’s just one man’s opinion.

The rechargeable battery theory of running

So much in life comes down to a simple principle: use it or lose it. This principle applies to the mind as well as the body. Our muscles and neurons are like rechargeable batteries which can have a remarkably long life if they are consistently utilized. I perceive this principle quite strongly when it comes to running: the more I run, the easier it gets to run, and the healthier I feel. Running is like charging up a battery in a car by driving for a half an hour on any icy cold day. It helps ensure that the battery will start up again the next day, and the day after that.

A few observations help validate this principle:

Getting started in running can be as frustrating as trying to turn on a car with a dead battery. Many people need a jump start in the form of a coach, a friend, a goal, or a challenge. The main obstacle in the beginning is the desire to quit. But with some persistence the energy level in the battery starts to rise. For this reason, I think beginner runners should limit the number of expectations they have on themselves (speed, etc.) and simply concentrate on building up mileage. Once the battery is brimming with a full charge, new goals can set that go beyond simply getting out there.

Running is also immensely popular among those in middle age. It’s entirely possible to peak as a marathon runner in one’s 50s, and I see it a lot in the runners I follow on Strava. These elders are real road warriors who tend to stack up miles in a methodical way. Their training level makes most of their workouts practically effortless unless they are throwing a speed workout into the mix, which they do strategically when training for races. A lot of folks qualify for Boston when they hit their 50s. This is in part due to the easier qualification time limit, which is a bit more lenient, but not much. You still have to finish a qualifying marathon in 3h 30 min until the age of 55. Yet I’ve seen this awesome feat, which only a small portion of all runners can achieve, completed by people I know. They are not superhuman. They are just very motivated to keep at it. I get the sense that rather than becoming more tired, running makes them more energized. This makes me think that our battery life can extend into old age, and following the use it or lose it principle, improve the quality of old age.

Too bad so much of contemporary life conspires against us filling up our batteries. The rat race keeps us sitting (or standing, for the clever) at a desk, and the built infrastructure keeps us driving around in a “clown car lifestyle” to quote Mister Money Mustache. I keep waiting for the day when my beloved running trails in the DC area are flooded all the time with people who know how to live the good life. But no, even in a super running and bicycling-friendly region, the trails remain remain tranquil except during peak weekend hours.

My prediction for the future, perhaps in my daughter’s generation (she is now in elementary school), most people will have a much clearer picture of their battery condition. She and her peers will have a wealth of data about how healthy they are for their stage of life, how healthy they could be, and hopefully they will set their goals accordingly. If I were a city planner, I would be building more trails for all generations so everyone can have a place to recharge.

Eventually our batteries wear down so they don’t fill up as well, and life continues after that. But I’m inspired by people I’ve met who are bullish on their battery, who take the time to stoke it.

 

 

 

On MLK, Jr. Day: Time Out from noxious news

Count me among the chorus of disapproval of President Trump’s reference to Nigeria and Haiti as “shithole countries,” and a preference for Norwegian immigrants-just a few days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day no less.

When I think of Trump, I think there’s no hope. His racism and economic ignorance makes my blood pressure go up. Yet futile anger empowers no-one.

So I think a good way to celebrate MLK Day today is to take a time out from noxious news, tune out the distraction of the day, and start to visualize a better future as Dr. King would do.

All weekend I’ve been doing this. After looking at one too many news article on Friday, I’ve gone on a three day news fast. It’s been a great way to clear my head, which I believe more American citizens need to do more often.

An interesting thing happens on a news fast: other productive things to do start to come to mind. A couple of examples: this is the second blog post I’ve posted this weekend and over the past three days I’ve logged 28.2 miles. This morning I went over to Home Depot and bought some potting soil. My wife, daughter, and I then replanted two plants, breaking one of them up into two pots to make three plants. And so on..

Don’t get me wrong. As a former reporter, I am a strong proponent of a free and fierce journalistic estate capable of conducting in-depth investigations and informing public opinion. I pay for subscriptions to the Economist and The New York Times and other publications. Yet in a “resistance” type situation such as the one that currently grips the United States, we all need to pace ourselves, keep our minds healthy since there is a long slog ahead. What matters to me is seeing that democracy can ultimately correct itself with a clear view about who our leaders really are. I came to a conclusion about Trump long ago, and looking at more news about him just makes me sick.

So what would Dr. King do? I’m not sure. In fact, I must admit that there’s a lot more I could know about the rhetorical genius and organizational mastermind who did so much to advance racial equality in America. I mostly know him through his writing, which is on par with Abraham Lincoln for its poetry and moral power.

So there’s another thing I can do while not looking at the bogus commander in chief and his gang of pilferers: go to a library and check out a book on Dr. King. I’ll write more about it here when I do.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day! Respect to the man and his memory.