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.

 

Krishnamurti – A surprisingly secular wise man

Jiddu_Krishnamurti_01
J. Krishnamurti as a young man

Total Freedom, the Essential Krishnamurti is an excellent introduction to the profound thought and lucid writings of J. Krishnamurti (1895-1986). It begins with his renouncement of the Theosophical Society’s Order of the Star—an occult group which had groomed him to be their “world teacher”—in a blunt yet eloquent speech to the order’s followers. In this speech, which opens the book,  Krishnamurti, rejects any kind of cult. In words that launched his subsequent six-decade career as a philosopher, he makes a case against any one tradition:

I Maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to it absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people, along any particular path.

Wow. That must have taken some courage. This rebellious stance surprised and impressed me. Looking over the book’s dust jacket with accolades from the Dalai Lama and other spiritual luminaries, I was not expecting anything so ardently secular.  This brings a refreshing (to me) non-dogmatic approach to the many themes he subsequently covers.

In his early writings, which comprise the first 100 pages or so in this collection, Krishnamurti presents creative intelligence as a master key to the good life and an antidote to otherwise endless suffering. This intelligence is honed by facing suffering directly. He writes “Through your own awakening intelligence, through your own suffering you will discover the manner of true fulfillment.”

In subsequent pages, Krishnamurti describes this “manner of true fulfillment” in various ways, most convincingly (to me) as the understanding of suffering’s sources and increasing the capacity for attention, awareness that can guide people to avoiding predictable traps in life. I perceive clear echoes of the Buddha, and also of ancient Greek thinkers such as the Stoics and Aristotle.

I think Krishnamurti’s philosophical essays are quite valuable to readers today. He is a tremendous idea synthesizer who nonetheless rejects the role of fixed ideas. He is a champion of dynamic discovery, and I can see why his writings remain popular. Just as Montaigne remains a vital and creative link between the ancient world and modern times, I think Krishnamurti is a valuable voice that deepens the secular experience.

Bridge of Dreams – A Review of The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris

 

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Screen depicting the Miotsukushi chapter of Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, which is the centerpiece of Ivan Morris’s World of the Shining Prince (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The World of the Shining Prince  synthesizes a vast amount of Japanese history, anthropology, and aesthetics through the prism of the world’s first novel—The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. From its sparkling prose to its lucidly conceived themes, this 1964 book by Ivan Morris must rank as one of the greatest achievements in liberal arts. Reading The Tale of Genji before reading The World of the Shining Prince is probably a good idea, and recommended, but not absolutely necessary. Morris’s book conveys most of the 1,000+ page novel’s plot—which spans 75 years around the turn of the 11th century and contains hundreds of characters—as well as its aesthetic flavor. The triumph of the book is that he adds so much more to the picture.

Morris writes that “The Tale of Genji gives a realistic and fairly complete picture of cultural life in the capital.” What his book adds is the context—historical, anthropological, political, artistic—that makes this picture more three dimensional. Reading The Tale of Genji is like being steeped in tea, soaking up dreamlike episodes linked by poems. Morris’s book is more clear-eyed, yet forms multiple bridges of understanding into the dream world.

The Shining Prince  in Morris’s title is none other than Prince Genji, the aristocratic ladies-man aesthete whose adventures are chronicled in the first two-thirds of The Tale of Genji. The author, Lady Muraski, was a noblewoman in the Heian-era court. Both main character and author are so absorbed in court life that a reader needs a guide like Morris to understand how unique, elite, and remote from other civilizations court life had become.

Genji’s era is known as the Heian, which lasted from 794 to 1185 and marked the rise of Chinese influence in Japan. The country became Buddhist during the preceding Nara period, and the borrowing of Chinese culture continued into the Heian. However, Morris makes an interesting point about the time period depicted by Muraski: that for 100 years the Japanese aristocracy had been purposefully distancing themselves from Chinese influence and retreating into a more insular and uniquely Japanese way of life.

This way of life could be extremely strange. Bureaucrats would often start their working day after nightfall and work into the pre-dawn hours, their dreary activities made more lively by drinking rice wine. Their lives were dominated by aesthetics such the turn of a poetic phrase that conjures meaning through allusion (Japanese are masters at speaking indirectly), the quality of a fabric, the thoughtfulness of an incense blend.

Why is this small cast of courtiers and their strange rituals worth studying? Because, Morris argues, they produced a unique and indelible flourishing of literature written by women (Murasaki and her contemporary Sei Shonagon being the most famous) that have not only stood the test of time but become increasingly renowned across the centuries. Only Shakespeare is trailed by more commentary.

The thing that really makes the book stand out to me—its heart, so to speak—is that Morris’s work builds upon Murasaki’s themes of dreamlike reality and impermanence. He writes toward the end:

Throughout the novel…Murasaki rings the changes on the image of dreams and thereby evokes one of her central themes—the nebulous, unreal quality of the world about us, and the idea that our life is a mere ‘bridge of dreams’ (the title of her final book), over which we cross from one state of existence to the next.

When I read this line, I thought that this theme is also a perfect metaphor for Morris’s own work.

 

A force at play: the more you pay, the less you get

One of Vanguard founder Jack Bogle’s axioms in personal finance is that the more you pay to buy investments, measured by the fees, the less you get over time measured by total return. This principle is illustrated very well in the PBS Frontline documentary The Retirement Gamble in which Bogle appears to introduce the idea.

Recently I started reading Phishing for Phools (2105) by Akerloff and Shiller, which takes thesis that market competition leads to hoodwinking of consumers. Shiller is known for his work on economic models of housing prices and his most famous book Irrational Exuberance. Akerloff is an economics professor at Georgetown. Both are Nobel laureates.

I hadn’t made it very far into the book when it struck me that Bogle’s axiom could be extended to more than just the trade offs between passively and actively managed mutual funds. In the very first pages, Akerloff and Shiller introduce the concept of reputation mining. In classic economics professor fashion (harnessing the undergraduate cliché of a basket of goods at the supermarket), they use a fruit metaphor:

“If I have a reputation for selling beautiful, ripe avocados, I have an opportunity. I can sell you a mediocre avocado at the price you would pay for a perfectly ripe one. I will have mined my reputation. I will also have phished you for a phool.”

The banal fruit metaphor becomes more provocative when they proceed to apply it to the way in which ratings agencies mined their reputation for credibility in the run-up to the subprime mortgage meltdown. For a good illustration of context of this chapter of American financial history, watch the 2015 film The Big Short.

When most customers get tricked into buying overpriced goods, collapse is possible when some part of the market wises up. My mind immediately leaped to another part of the economy that is arguably engaging in widespread reputation mining: higher education. Many people say that higher ed in the United States represents a bubble similar to the one built on bad mortgages in the United States. A few years ago the amount of student loan debt exceeded credit card debt at more than $1 trillion. Reportedly, more than 40 million Americans are paying down these loans, which tend to have more affordable interest rates than credit cards but cannot be expunged in bankrutpcy.

Have all these Americans been ‘phished for a phool?’

Much research shows that college remains a good investment. Yet as much as I love higher education, particularly the liberal arts tradition I benefited from at Kenyon College, I think a solid case can be made that the higher sticker prices of recent years, combined with the increasing use of part-time adjunct instructors, fit a pattern of reputation mining. According to PBS:   “Adjuncts now make up more than 70 percent of all college and university faculty, often juggling a course load at multiple universities, earning an average of $2,500 per course.” Meanwhile, according to an editorial in the New York Times,  “if over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000.”

Thus while the job security of the typical university instructor has vanished, which I think is a headwind against teaching quality, the product has (in the case of public universities) quadrupled in price. There are many factors influencing these trends, but they don’t seem sustainable. If tuition remained the same but classes were offered through prerecorded online lessons and proctored via algorithms, teacher salaries could plummet further. This would be blatant reputation mining. It would also mean that students and their families would be paying more for less.

Just like the mortgage market, these macro-trends oversimplify a very complex set of market interactions. I think reputation mining is going on at the same time as many university experiences represent genuine value for each tuition dollar spent. I’m still a big supporter of higher education, and believe that teachers will be more important than ever in our future as many jobs become obsolete through automation. Families now have to be strategic and savvy to avoid being ‘phished.’

In my own educational experience, I believe that my Kenyon degree, though expensive, represented real value. From that base I’ve been able to build a career as a writer and editor. My Master’s in Journalism at the University of Maryland was similar. During my time as a writer working for Georgetown, I got free tuition which I applied to earning a Master of Professional Studies degree in Technology Management. The ten courses I took were taught exclusively by adjuncts. Was this Georgetown mining its reputation for dollars? Tough call. I was glad that many of my teachers in technical subjects were practitioners of those subjects rather than academics,  so I valued that they all had relevant day jobs and moonlighted their expertise. But on the value spectrum between the residential undergraduate experience at Kenyon and the night-school-style Professional Studies degree, I think I got a lot more value in my earlier studies. As much as I enjoyed studying tech at Georgetown, had I needed to pay the tuition out of pocket, I likely wouldn’t have gone for that extra degree.

A lot of financial wisdom amounts to ‘avoid getting ripped off.’ Alas, we live in a world where market forces make that a tricky thicket. I’m looking forward to delving further into Phishing for Phools.

 

 

Review: James Gleick’s “The Information”

Review of The Information by James Gleick (2011)

James Gleick jumped into my small circle of favorite authors this month. “The Information” reveals a hidden pattern, a signal to be discovered amid the noise of 21st-Century information overload. It tells the story of information technology’s rise through an elegant, though not overly-simplified, history of two things:

  • communication technology
  • information theory

The latter forms the book’s organizational thread. Information theory weaves through African talking drums, books, semaphore, telegraphs, wartime code-making and breaking, telephones, and finally the flood of digital platforms that now send information coursing through our lives. Like a bot crawling the web, this thread extends backward into the past and forward to the present. It makes its entry point is 1948, when an American engineer and theorist named Claude Shannon wrote a paper called “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” that coined the term bit as the fundamental unit for measuring information.

The book is a masterful synthesis of everything that led to this idea–the physics of Newton, the rise of the telegraph, the emergence of quantum mechanics and uncertainty in both physics and mathematics–and everything that flowed from it, which includes how we interpret DNA and RNA a la Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene.” Although the details of this history are scarcely relevant to the life I live, I couldn’t help but feel that knowing this history provides a cogent context for how we live today. In other words, it provides powerful insight.

For example, I’m more inspired to write this blog by knowing the larger context for its technology. I am adding this book to Jaron Lanier’s two, more-opinionated, books, “You Are Not a Gadget,” and “Who Owns the Future,” to my short list of indispensable guides for understanding IT — its humanistic potential and potential abuse. I’m sure that Gleick opposes Lanier about certain things such as the desirability of Wikipedia. Gleick is far less strident, though he quotes Lanier in “the Information,” and likely appreciates his perspective. He’s more on the sunny side of the street, whereas Lanier sees darkness in the “hive mind.”This makes “The Information” more of an uplifting read. At the same time, he doesn’t fall into the temptation that Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, does for internet triumphalism in his books.

A good example of this is the pros and cons Gleick sees in the idea of “the wisdom of crowds.” Humans indubitably benefit from crowd-sourced effort, but they are also indelibly individual. Gleick captures this well:

It remains difficult to know when and how much to trust the wisdom of crowds–the title of a 2004 book by James Surowiecki, to be distinguished from the madness of crowds as chronicled in 1841 by Charles Mackay, who declared that people “go mad in herds, while they recover their sense slowly, and one by one.” Crowds turn all to quickly into mobs, with their time-honored manifestations: manias, bubbles, lynch mobs, flash mobs, crusades, mass hysteria, herd mentality, goose-stepping, conformity, groupthink–all potentially magnified by network effects and studied under the rubric of information cascades. Collective judgment has appealing possibilities; collective self-deception and collective evil have already left a cataclysmic record. But knowledge in the network is different from group decision making based on copying and parroting. It seems to develop by accretion; it can give full weight to quirks and exceptions; the challenge is to recognize it and gain access to it.

Far from rah-rah cheerleading about the potential of IT and big data, Gleick’s perspective includes the pitfalls. “The Information” can stand shoulder to shoulder on a bookshelf alongside Nassim Taleb’s thorny “Incerto” triology, which includes Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile, and Jaron Lanier’s contrarian works. He’s too smart to become a blind IT partisan/optimist, but it’s clear that he is an IT partisan and, ultimately, an optimist. He thinks that what humans have built is of tremendous value for those who can “recognize [knowledge] and gain access to it.”

Being able to harness “the information” is essential for humans. This ability is central to performing one of our fundamental tasks–perhaps the fundamental task–introducing and preserving order amid the universe’s entropy. This is part of what it means to be alive. In describing this purpose, Gleick is eloquent:

Not only to living things lessen the disorder in their environments; they are in themselves, their skeletons and their flesh, vesicles and membranes, shells and carapaces, leaves and blossoms, circulatory systems and metabolic pathways–miracles of pattern and structure, It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in this universe.

This observation lies at the heart of “The Information.” It is the signal, at least for me. I could not recommend a book more highly.

The function of John le Carre’s novels

John le Carre (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
John le Carre (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

Mystery novels—according to a widely held theory—attract readers because the detective brings an off-kilter world into concordance.

John le Carré, whose espionage novels I admire, almost always brings the reader to the opposite end of the spectrum. The off-kilter world becomes even more discordant as suspense rises to its climax.

The function of his novels is revealing the discordant undertow of secret worlds. Instead of feeling better because order has been restored to the universe, I usually feel grateful that my life has nowhere near that level of complexity, intrigue, moral compromise, etc. They put life in perspective by presenting suffering best avoided.

For this reason I don’t think I could read a stack of le Carré books back to back, but every once in a while one of them hits the spot. Currently I’m reading The Tailor of Panama, which I’m enjoying. Beyond that there are five or six of his titles on my shelf that I haven’t read like The Russia House. I guess it will take some time to go through them. That way I can emerge for air, read something simpler, more conducive to everyday ethics.

One more thing about le Carré—I believe that reading his masterfully rendered dialogues makes me a better writer. Few turn a better, or more wickedly humorous, spoken phrase.

Be the change you’d like to see in the world

A simple aphorism sums up much of human wisdom from antiquity to today: Be the change you’d like to see in the world.

This encompasses the Golden Rule, the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, and countless other traditions.

Like many simple things, achieving it requires  a great deal of refinement and practice.

I’m far from the mark myself.

Recently a combination of readings made this idea resonate more strongly than usual for me.

First, I’ve been working through a stack of books on the Roman Stoics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and their philosophic ancestors in Greece, primarily Plato. These schools of thought encourage scrutiny of the things before us, which allow a more objective perspective on justice or the moral good.

Second, I’ve been reading contemporary thinkers on sustainable, community-based, environmentally friendly life. I’m currently making my way through Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. Next up will be Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher.

The confluence of these thinkers is rather striking. Once we scrutinize the things around us, we realize that, while we can’t choose the reality around us (the Stoics in particular believed in destiny), we can scrutinize that reality and choose how we act. The question is, what kinds of choices?

That’s what brought me to ‘be the change you’d like to see in the world.’

I think that Schumacher and McKibben point to some better alternatives than the default settings in America’s society, which currently sends most of its resources to hedge fund managers and corporate executives whose relationships with our  communities are mostly abstract and involve maintaining profit margins.

I’ll write again after reading Schumacher, and perhaps a bit more of the ancients.