“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every week, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to the featured book: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
It’s high time I reviewed this book because it’s one of my favorite self-development books.
To understand why, close your eyes and think back to an instance where you were doing something that made your consciousness feel harmoniously ordered, that absorbed all of your focus and attention, and that dissolved your awareness of time, worries, and even yourself.
Maybe it was playing an instrument, spending an evening with loved ones, coding a website, cooking a meal, driving a car, whatever.
Csikszentmihalyi refers to such occurrences as “optimal experiences” and the psychological and emotional state they produce as “flow,” and this book is a scientific investigation of these phenomena and how to increase their frequency and intensity in our lives.
Flow is cool, clinical, and sometimes discomfiting, which some people find off-putting. It wasn’t written to lift spirits, alleviate insecurities, or justify weaknesses and failures, and it doesn’t contain flowery prose or resonant stories.
Instead, this book reads more like a friendly but firm textbook that doesn’t care much about your problems or feelings, but don’t let that stop you from absorbing and applying its wisdom, which revolves around this central premise:
The more time we can spend in a state of flow, the less time we’ll have to be disconnected, dissatisfied, or dejected.
What’s more, as flow-producing activities are almost always active and constructive in nature, the more we engage in them, the more conscious, competent, and complex we become as individuals and the more stimulating and rewarding our progress and achievements are.
Thus, Csikszentmihalyi believes one of the most powerful ways to improve our quality of life is to spend as much of it in flow as we can. And although he doesn’t provide a pat, step-by-step checklist to follow, he does give enough pragmatic principles and real-world examples for you to understand how to lift the information off the pages and incorporate it successfully into your day-to-day.
For me, the flow framework has helped me make better choices in just about every area of my life because I’ve found the more flow-producing activities I engage in, the more my real-world conditions improve and the better I feel about them.
To do that, sometimes I modify activities to incorporate elements that are conducive to flow (more on this in a minute) and other times I simply say no to things that I know I’m going to find boring and unengaging no matter what I do.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
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The essential steps in this process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities.
This is Csikszentmihalyi’s formula for achieving flow, and if you think back to times where you achieved flow, you’ll probably find each of those points in play to one degree or another.
One point that’s often overlooked but worth underscoring is the second: finding ways of measuring progress. Just setting goals and working at them isn’t necessarily enough to unlock flow—you also have to know how you’re doing. This way, you can discover what works and what doesn’t and adjust your ideas and actions accordingly, refining your thinking and behaviors further and further over time.
Take your work, for example. If you can’t boil each job you do or “hat” you wear down to a single number that’s plotted on a graph you monitor regularly, you’ll always struggle to achieve flow in your work.
Or let’s take fitness. Recording your workouts and measurements (like your weight and the size of your waist and other body parts) and using that data to track and visualize your progress is one of the easiest ways to get “hooked” on the process of gaining muscle and strength, losing fat, and getting healthy.
This point applies to any activity that you wish to elevate and derive maximum enjoyment from, really. If you’re going to set a goal, make sure you figure out how to measure progress toward it and then do just that. It might seem like a chore at first, but it doesn’t take long to start paying dividends.
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.
We all want to be happy, but what does that mean, exactly, and how do we achieve it?
For me, the surest route to happiness is twofold:
- Making progress toward specific, articulated, and achievable short- and long-term goals.
- Experiencing a sense of mastery and control along the way, which is produced by concentrating on tasks, overcoming challenges, and executing intentions.
What’s conspicuously missing from this list, of course, is the actual achievement of goals and desires, because for me at least, this provides a certain measure of fulfillment but also dissatisfaction as a new list of wishes dampens the glow. In this way, I find more enjoyment and pleasure in doing the work than having done the work.
This takeaway also gives insight into why I enjoy most work for its own sake. For me, work’s an easy way to get into a flow state where my attention is fully absorbed by something meaningful, something that aligns with a vision of the future I want to realize, and something that can provide tangible feedback.
As Csikszentmihalyi says elsewhere in the book: “Goals justify the effort they demand at the outset, but later it is the effort that justifies the goal.”
And although it feels good to relax for a little bit after a long day of work or take a day to fully “unplug” now and then, I find the “work flow” experience more enjoyable than many other things I could do with my time, even those that might seem more “fun” at first blush.
When a young man asked Carlyle how he should go about reforming the world, Carlyle answered, “Reform yourself. That way there will be one less rascal in the world.” The advice is still valid. Those who try to make life better for everyone without having learned to control their own lives first usually end up making things worse all around.
This summarizes my message to many of the people here in the West who are currently agitating for radical social, political, and cultural reforms.
If someone can’t even get their own shit together, how can they possibly help the rest of us get our collective shit together? If the sum total of someone’s personal decisions and actions is a mostly broken, dysfunctional life, how can they create anything but a mostly broken, dysfunctional society?
Thus, I’m extremely skeptical of people who proclaim to know what’s best for the rest of us. Before I even consider their ideas or intentions, I first judge their character and circumstances.
The problem is that it has recently become fashionable to regard whatever we feel inside as the true voice of nature speaking. The only authority many people trust today is instinct. If something feels good, if it is natural and spontaneous, then it must be right. But when we follow the suggestions of genetic and social instructions without question we relinquish the control of consciousness and become helpless playthings of impersonal forces.
This reminds me of the following from my book The Little Black Book of Workout Motivation:
For at least the last couple of decades, many brilliant people have been working tirelessly not to advance our general knowledge, judgment, or capabilities, but to convince us to buy more things we don’t need, consume more poisonous foods and vacuous entertainment, and conform our thoughts and beliefs to a cultural hive mind that worships whatever feels right.
And so it’s no surprise that we have a dysfunctional “normal” where most people are comfortably numb. They’ve resigned themselves to what they believe they can and can’t do and change, and have accepted the rules and restrictions dinned into them since childhood. According to various surveys and studies, they’re on average twenty-three pounds overweight, they do just three hours of real work and watch five hours of TV per day, and they’re over $130,000 in debt with less than $1,000 in savings. They sit. They eat. They watch. And they die.
Somewhere along the way, though, they’ll wonder what happened and whom to blame for their misfortunes. “It’s not your fault,” the psychosocial tastemakers will coo. “You’re not responsible for your condition. You’re a victim of your circumstances.” Yes, something in them will say, that feels good. That must be right. And then the power dive begins.
In other words, the result of following the part of us that says we should just do whatever makes us happy is a life that mostly feels wasted—a house full of condiments and no real food. Work is frustrating, unengaging, and alienating and free time is meaningless, boring, and dispiriting, and while there are occasional moments of pleasure, enjoyment remains elusive.
The other option, then, is to consciously invest our attention and energy into activities that may not be pleasurable while we’re doing them but that introduce novelty and produce forward movement and accomplishment. Closing a tricky business deal. Completing a difficult piece of work. Playing a close game of tennis. Reading an insightful book. These are the types of experiences that allow us to change, grow, and transcend, and that we look back on fondly and wish to repeat.
It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning. Much of what we call culture and civilization consists in efforts people have made, generally against overwhelming odds, to create a sense of purpose for themselves and their descendants. It is one thing to recognize that life is, by itself, meaningless. It is another thing entirely to accept this with resignation. The first fact does not entail the second any more than the fact that we lack wings prevents us from flying. From the point of view of an individual, it does not matter what the ultimate goal is—provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime’s worth of psychic energy.
“You have a class of young strong men and women, and they want to give their lives to something,” Tyler Durden said in Fight Club.
“Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need.
“We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.”
A poignant social commentary with a point: Unless we fully align our energies to goals and purposes that matter to us, we’ll always feel disconnected from ourselves, others, and reality. No amount of trinkets, indulgences, or substances can change this.
“Blessed is he who has found his work,” Thomas Carlyle wrote, “let him ask no other blessedness.”
We all must strive to find and hold onto our work for as long as we can, not to reach the peak, but to justify the climbing.