Maybe your parents have been pressuring you into accounting when you want to be an actor, or pressuring you into acting but all you want is to be an accountant. Maybe no-one’s giving you any advice and you don’t know what subjects to pick for Year 9, Year 11 or university.
I’ve got a very simple theory that you will help you to make all of these choices, and every other life choice you’ll ever be confronted with. I want to introduce you to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
First, let’s tackle his name together. It’s pronounced Mee-hai Chick-sent-me-hai. He’s a Croatian psychologist who’s most famous for his ‘flow’ theory that is all centred around a single emotional state.
Have you ever been so focused on making a drawing, writing a song, rebuilding a motor or giving someone a massage that you felt your thoughts dissolve?
You weren’t consciously thinking, it just felt like you were so absorbed in the task that you didn’t notice time passing, like all your awareness merged with what was in front of you? This is what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as ‘flow state’ when the doer and the task merge into each other in a state of intense, pleasurable focus.
Csikszentmihalyi began his work because he was fascinated by artists who could get so lost in their work that they’d ignore their needs for food, water and sleep, but flow state doesn’t need to be this intense. He defines it by these criteria:
1. Intense concentration on the present moment
2. Merging of action and awareness
3. A loss of self-consciousness
4. A sense of agency over the activity
5. Distorted sense of time passing
6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding
It’s likely that everyone has experienced this state at some point in their lives, and especially when they were children. Building a model, searching for bugs, playing an imaginary game.
We all know how pleasurable it is, so my proposition is to build our lives around that feeling. You can think about it like this. If drawing puts you into flow state, you can pursue a wide range of careers that relate to it.
The key is not to just think, if I love art I’ll be an artist, because we all know how hard it is to make it in that industry. Instead, think about the core activity, which for drawing may be ‘bringing my ideas to life visually’.
This could translate into a career as an architect, graphic designer, sign writer, fashion designer, etc. If giving someone a massage puts you into flow state, the core activity may be, ‘helping people care for their bodies’. This could translate into a career as a physiotherapist, PE teacher, personal trainer, GP, nurse, etc.
There’s a lot of overlap between flow state and mindfulness/meditation, and countless studies are being done to show the benefits of tuning out of the ‘thinking’ mind.
It’s really important to pursue work that puts us into flow state, because if your mind doesn’t get a regular break from conscious thinking (‘What do I do next? Am I doing this right?’) then you’ll finish each day feeling burnt-out, drained and unsatisfied.
On the other hand, working in a job that puts you in flow state for at least some of the time gives you a juicy feeling of meaning, calm and effortless contentment.