Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: In the Flow

 

Pronounciation: Me-high Chick-sent-me-high-ee

 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a US psychologist at forefront of the field of positive psychology; the study of human strengths and how we can have a happy, flourishing life.

His research into flow states has made a famous figure among specialists and interested general readers alike, with several books including his two best-sellers: Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

 

Brief Biography

Csikszentmihalyi was born to a Hungarian family in a city long disputed by Hungary, Italy and Croatia – now called Rijeka and part of Croatia; it was, at the time of his birth in 1934 a part of Italy, named Fiume. He emigrated to the United States at the age of 22, and got a BA and PhD from the University of Chicago, going on to become a a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology. He is the founder and a co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center – a non-profit research institute that studies positive psychology.

Flow, in a Nutshell

Csikszentmihalyi’s signature research was into Flow States – those states of mind when we are totally absorbed in an activity, and can therefore want nothing else in the world, at that time, than to continue uninterrupted. He describes these Flow States as the optimum states for a human being, and catalogues the three conditions under which they arise:

  1. The task has a clear and worthwhile goal
  2. The task is sufficiently challenging to stretch us to our limits (and maybe a little beyond) but not so challenging for us that we find ourselves anxious and hyper-alert for failure
  3. The task offers constant feedback on our progress and performance levels

For more details on Flow, see our earlier blog: Flow and Performance Management.

Contribution to Management Thinking

It would be easy to write a long blog about Csikszentmihalyi’s contributions to positive psychology, but from a management perspective, I want to focus on his work on creativity, in documented in his book: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

In the book, he relates interviews with over 90 creative people from many fields of the arts, sciences and humanities. From those, he distils a great many lessons. For me, one of the simplest is most valuable, his five steps to creativity:

  1. Preparation
    Becoming immersed in a problem that is interesting and arouses curiosity.
  2. Incubation
    Ideas churn around at an unconsciousness level.
  3. Insight
    The “Aha!” moment when the answers you reach unconsciously emerge into consciousness.
  4. Evaluation
    Evaluating the insight to test if it is valuable and worth pursuing.
  5. Elaboration
    Translating the insight into a workable solution – Edison’s ’99 per cent perspiration’.

This to me explains why we seem to get our best ideas when out walking, sipping a coffee, or in a shower. These are not the times when we solve our problems: they are the times when our conscious mind is sufficiently unoccupied to notice the answers that our unconscious has developed.

What does this mean for managers?

If you want creative thinking from your team, I think it tells us four things:

  1. You need to give people time to understand and research the problem, making it as interesting and relevant to them as you can.
  2. You need to let people go away and mull, allowing a reasonable period for ideas to incubate.
  3. You need to bring people back together with no distractions and pressures, so that the ideas can naturally emerge.
  4. You need to create separate stages of your process for evaluating the solutions and then for implemental thinking, when you hone the preferred solution into a workable plan.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at TED

Here is an excellent video from 2004 of the man himself…

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