Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning

© 2003, Coert Visser

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the Hungarian-born writer of the bestseller Flow. This professor of Psychology and Education at the University of Chicago has been studying this concept of Flow for many years and has written several interesting books, among which Flow (1990) and Finding Flow (1997). Now he has written a new book: Good Business. It turns out to be just the book I hoped he would write: a book about Flow and work.

Work can contribute to your well-being!Although many people view work primarily negatively, it can actually contribute importantly to your well-being, more so than gaining more and more possessions. And because work is so important, it is vital that managers and employees create conditions in which good work can happen. But what is good work? It is enjoying doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself. Csikszentmihalyi explains how this can be achieved through two processes: 1) experiencing flow and 2) growth toward complexity. What precisely do these two things mean?

1. Experiencing FlowIn situations of flow, tasks demand the full involvement of the person. In these situations there is a perfect balance between the challenge of the task and the skills of the person. The so-called ´flow channel´ represents optimal experience, where both challenges and skills lie above the average level. More challenge than skill leads to arousal, anxiety, or worry. More skill than challenge leads to control, relaxation, or boredom. Flow depends on eight conditions: 1) goals are clear, 2) feedback is immediate, 3) a balance between opportunity and capacity, 4) concentration deepens, 5) the present is what matters, 6) control is no problem, 7) the sense of time is altered, 8) the loss of ego.

2. Growth Toward Complexity
People flourish when in their activities there is a trajectory of growth that results in the development of increasing emotional, cognitive and social complexity. With complexity two processes happen at once: a) DIFFERENTIATION: realizing that we are unique individuals, responsible for our own survival and well being, b) INTEGRATION: the realization that however unique we are, we are also part of a larger whole.

Conclusion:Regularly experiencing flow plus growing toward complexity are the ingredients of good work. But what about the ´happy´ part? How can it be that pleasurable activities, products and relaxation are less important for happiness than the hard work of flow and complexity?

Pleasure Versus EnjoymentCsikszentmihalyi contrasts pleasure with enjoyment. He explains pleasure is nice but also conservative and leading to equilibrium while enjoyment is like happiness in action leading to greater skills. Enjoyment leads to a “triumph over the forces of entropy” and is like building psychological capital. Too bad that our materialistic and marketing-dominated culture emphasizes the importance of pleasure over enjoyment, since enjoyment is far more likely to lead to long term happiness!

What can managers and employees do?Managers and employees can do quite a lot to advance conditions of flow and complexity. The book does not provide a simple list but the reader will probably get many ideas.

As a manager I could take the eight conditions of flow and the two aspects of complexity and use them to rethink work and the way I interact with my employees. Doing that I would recognize I need to (among other things) create attractive working conditions (with clear goals, feedback, etc), provide a good degree of control to stimulate the development of employees and build an organization with a long term purpose people can relate to. Another thing I could do is start a one-on-one or group dialogue with employees about these flow and complexity principles in order to improve work.

Employees also can do a lot. As an employee I could do certain things to improve my objective work conditions. I could ask for clearer goals, and more specific and timely feedback. I could negotiate with my manager to get more autonomy and more flexibility in time schedules. Further, I could change the way I look at and what I expect from work. If I indeed believe that the hard work of flow and complexity indeed improves the quality of my life …… I could resist the temptation to cut corners (doing my work with as little effort as possible) and instead pay attention more closely to the complexity of my tasks. In terms of my career development I could think about what kind of products I really believe in and what kind of company I truly would like to be part of.

ConclusionThe book contains a great framework, is well written and contains good examples. The one I liked best is the anecdote about the brother of the author, Moricz. It was not until his eighties that Moricz took up the hobby of the collection and study of crystals. Moricz describes a flow experience he had when looking at one of his crystals.
“I was looking at this thing just yesterday,” he said, smiling. “It was nine in the morning when I put it under the microscope. Outside it was sunny, just like today. I kept turning the rock around, looking at all the fissures, the intrusions, the dozen or more different crystal formations inside and around…then I looked up, and thought that a storm must be coming, because it had gotten so dark…then I realized that it was not overcast, but the sun had been setting – it was past seven in the evening.”
I think this is a wonderful book. I would, however, have liked the book even more if it had been still a bit more practical. Still, I recommend this book highly for anyone searching for ways to improve work and careers. I think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who seems to be a great example of his own theory) has something to offer of great value for them.

4 opmerkingen:

Rodney Daut zei


Perhaps we can use SF to help us to implement flow in our lives. I'm actually going to make it a point to create more flow today as an experiment.

Coert Visser zei

keep us posted!

Stijn Vogels zei

I have personally been in flow for several months on end now. Everything is very clear and I challenge myself hard enough to keep the rewards coming. This month I have taken up the task to incite flow in my work colleagues as well. I am looking forward to watching them grow. For that reason, this article and the related book seem to be very interesting. Is it relevant still, or are there now better sources?

Coert Visser zei

I think you'll find it still relevant