When you are pursuing mastery, when you are engaged in actions that are aligned with your core values, and when you are pursuing goals that are unique and meaningful to you, and you alone, you are more likely to experience an emotional state of Flow.
Flow, as first articulated by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, former Chair of the Psychology department at the University of Chicago, is a state of optimal experience, or the set of conditions that exist when a human being is most fulfilled. As described in his book, optimal experience is not the result of wealth, individual significance, or any other form of social status. Optimal experience occurs when an individual achieves a state of completely focused motivation, or single-minded immersion, where their mind and body are stretched to their absolute limits in a voluntary effort to achieve a difficult and worthwhile self-directed goal.
The author articulates ten factors that characterize a state of Flow:
1. Clear goals, where the expectations and rules are discernible and the goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities. Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high;
2. A high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention;
3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness. Otherwise described as the merging of action and awareness;
4. A distorted sense of time in that the individual’s subjective experience of time is altered;
5. Direct and immediate feedback with respect to the goal such that successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed;
6. An appropriate balance between ability level and challenge in that the activity cannot be too easy, nor can it be too difficult;
7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity;
8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is effortless action;
9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs, to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it; and
10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of focus or awareness down to the activity itself, and action and awareness merging.
It is easy to see how determining your core values and pursuing a self-directed path towards mastery can induce flow. The goals you set on this path are clear and compelling, they aren’t motivated by fear or social pressure. As a result you experience a sense of control, or at least a notion of participation in the determination of your outcome. You have an intrinsic sense that you, and no one else, is the driving force before behind your desire. You are constantly learning, refining your skills, and adapting your abilities to the challenges that present themselves. Because your pursuit is something that is internally valuable you are easily able to concentrate on the task at hand, and you are not discouraged if you don’t receive “external rewards” on a pre-conceived timeline.
More importantly because the actions involved in the pursuit of your goal are related to your core values it is much easier to find intrinsic enjoyment in the pursuit itself. This makes the process of becoming autotelic and losing oneself in the engagement natural, thereby causing time to “stand still”.
Unfortunately, many people don’t ever tap into Flow in their careers. They don’t feel the great internal rewards that come when you are in a Flow state. Work for many people is about the reward, and only the reward. It is about “doing what is necessary” to get the pay cheque. Our society places great value on materialism. To the point that many people consider themselves to be failures, relatively speaking, if they don’t make as much money as their peers. This in my opinion is a great mistake. You are better off emotionally making less money and channeling Flow, than making more money and being entirely externally driven. Paradoxically when Flow is channeled repeatedly in a career, great results often manifest. Great results in our society are often rewarded monetarily. However, when people place their focus on the base needs of security and social acceptance, and design their careers around these values, they rarely are able to tap into the energy, creativity and passion resultant in obtaining a state of flow.
Tap into flow, the money will follow. Refine your craft. Focus your work. Let the work itself be your reward, and strangely enough, when you do this long enough, the money will follow.