Flowing In Work | Walking in Flow


“Like other animals, we must spend a large part of our existence making a living: calories needed to fuel the body don’t appear magically on the table, and houses and cars don’t assemble themselves spontaneously. There are no strict formulas, however, for how much time people actually have to work. . . [But we do know that] work requiring great skills and that is done freely will refine the complexity of the self; and, on the other hand, there are few things as entropic as unskilled work done under compulsion. . . . Because work is so universal, yet so varied, it makes a tremendous difference to one’s overall contentment whether what one does for a living is enjoyable or not.


It does not seem to be true that work necessarily needs to be unpleasant. It may always have to be hard, or at least harder than doing nothing at all. But there is ample evidence that work can be enjoyable, and that indeed, it is often the most enjoyable part of life.” (143-144)


“Work not only transforms the environment by building bridges across rivers and cultivating barren plains; it also transforms the worker from an animal guided by instincts into a conscious, goal-directed, skillful person. . . . One might argue here that endorsing the [autotelic’s] lifestyle over that of his fellow works is reprehensibly ‘elitist.’ After all, the guys in the saloon are having a good time, and who is to say that grubbing away in the backyard making rainbows is a better way to spend one’s time? By the tenets of cultural relativism the criticism would be justifiable, of course. But when one understands that enjoyment depends on increasing complexity, it is no longer possible to take such radical relativism seriously. The quality of experience of people who play with and transform the opportunities in their surroundings is clearly more developed as well as more enjoyable than that of people who resign themselves to live within the constraints of the barren reality they feel they cannot alter.” (149)


“Individuals that are able to transform their jobs into complex activities do this “by recognizing opportunities for action where others did not, by developing skills, by focusing on the activity at hand, and allowing themselves to be lost in the interaction so that their selves could emerge stronger afterward. . . .Despite severe limitations of the environment, these people are able to change constraints into opportunities for expressing their freedom and creativity. Their method represents one way to enjoy one’s job while making it richer. The other is to change the job itself, until its conditions are more conducive to flow, even for people who lack autotelic personalities. The more the job inherently resembles a game--with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback--the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development. Thus transformed, work becomes enjoyable, and as the result of a personal investment of psychic energy, it feels as if it were freely chosen, as well.” (151-152).


“One of the most interesting examples of how the phenomenon of flow appeared to thinkers of earlier times is the concept of Yu referred to about 2300 years ago in the writings of the Taoist scholar Chuang Tzu. Yu is a synonym for the right way of following the path, or Tao: it has been translated into English as “wandering”; as “walking without touching the ground”; or as “swimming,” “flying,” and “flowing.” Chuang Tzu believed that to Yu was the proper way to live -- without concern for external rewards, spontaneously, with total commitment -- in short, as a total autotelic experience. . . . “Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. In other words, the mystical heights of the Yu are not attained by some superhuman quantum jump, but simply by the gradual focusing of attention on the opportunities for action in one’s environment, which results in a perfection of skills that with time becomes so thoroughly automatic as to seem spontaneous and otherworldly. . . . it is also remarkable that over twenty-three centuries ago the dynamics of this experience were already so well known.” (150-151)


“So work can be either brutal or boring, or enjoyable and exciting…. The sooner we realize that the quality of the work experience can be transformed at will, the sooner we can improve this enormously important dimension of life. Yet most people still believe that work is forever destined to remain “the curse of Adam.


In theory, any job could be changed so as to make it more enjoyable by following the prescriptions of the flow model. At present, however, whether work is enjoyable or not ranks quite low among the concerns of those who have the power to influence the nature of a given job. Management has to care for productivity first and foremost, and union bosses have to keep safety, security, and compensations uppermost in their minds. In the short run these priorities might well conflict with flow-producing conditions. This is regrettable, because if workers really enjoyed their jobs they would not only benefits personally, but sooner or later they would almost certainly produce more efficiently and reach all the other goals that now take precedence.


At the same time, it would be erroneous to expect that if all jobs were constructed like games, everyone would enjoy them.Even the most favorable external conditions do not guarantee that a person will be in flow. Because optimal experience depends on a subjective evaluation of what the possibilities for action are, and of one’s own capacities, it happens quite often that an individual will be discontented even with a potentially great job. . . Well-paid but repetitive routines soon begin to feel their tedium. . . .Specialization can be lucrative, but it makes enjoying the job more difficult. . . . Pioneers burn out for the opposite reason of the routine specialist: they have accomplished the impossible once, but they haven't found a way to do it again.” (154-155)


“What this indicates is that important as the structure of a job is, by itself it won’t determine whether or not a person performing that job will find enjoyment in it. Satisfaction in a job will also depend on whether or not a worker has an autotelic personality. . . . To improve the quality of life through work, two complementary strategies are necessary: On the one hand jobs should be redesigned so that they resemble as closely as possible flow activities. . . But it will also be necessary to help people develop autotelic personalities. . . by training them to recognize opportunities for action, to hone their skills, to set reachable goals. Neither one of these strategies is likely to make work much more enjoyable by itself; in combination, they should contribute enormously to optimal experience.” (157)


Yet for many of us, no matter how much flow we experience at work, we still report feeling discontent. We would still rather be doing something else. This phenomenon brings us to the strange paradox of work: “In our studies we have often encountered a strange inner conflict in the way people relate to the way they make their living. On the one hand, our subjects usually report that they have had some of their most positive experiences while on the job. From this response it would follow that they would wish to be working, that their motivation on the job would be high. Instead, even when they feel good, people generally say that they would prefer not to be working, that their motivation on the job is low. The converse is also true: when supposedly enjoying their hard-earned leisure, people generally report surprisingly low moods; yet they keep on wishing for more leisure. As expected, the more time a person spent in flow during the week, the better was the overall quality of his or her reported experience. People who were more often in flow were especially likely to feel ‘strong,’ ‘active,’ ‘creative,’ ‘concentrated,’ and ‘motivated.’ What was unexpected, however, is how frequently people reported flow situations at work, and how rarely in leisure. [When asked if people would rather be doing something else], the results showed that people wished to be doing something else to a much greater extent when working than when at leisure, and this regardless of whether they were in flow. In other words, motivation was low at work even when it provided flow, and it was high in leisure even when the quality of experience was low.” (157- 159)

Thus we have the paradoxical situation: On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure. . . .[Clearly], when it comes to work, people do not heed the evidence of their senses. They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like. They think of it as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of their freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible. It could be argued that although flow at work is enjoyable, people cannot stand high levels of challenge all the time. They need to recover at home, to turn into couch potatoes for a few hours each day even though they don’t enjoy it. But comparative examples seem to contradict this argument. As these findings suggest, the apathy of many of the people around us is not due to their being physically or mentally exhausted. The problem seems to lie more in the modern worker’s relation to his job, with the way he perceives his goals in relation to it. When we feel that we are investing attention in a task against our will, it is as if our psychic energy is being wasted. Instead of helping us reach our own goals, it is called upon to make someone else’s come true. The time channeled into such a task is perceived as time subtracted from the total available for our life. Many people consider their jobs as something they have to do, a burden imposed from the outside, an effort that takes life away from the ledger of their existence. So even though the momentary on-the-job experience may be positive, they tend to discount it, because it does not contribute to their own long-range goals.(159-160)


“It should be stressed, however, that ‘dissatisfaction’ is a relative term. . . In our studies we find that American workers tend to mention three main reasons for their dissatisfaction with their jobs, all of which are related to the quality of experience typically available to them at work--even though, as we have just seen, their experience at work tends to be better than it is at home. (Contrary to popular opinion, salary and other material concerns are generally not among their most pressing concerns.) The first and perhaps most important complain concerns the lack of variety and challenge. This can be a problem for everyone, but especially for those in lower-level occupations in which routine plays a major role. The second has to do with conflicts with other people on the job, especially bosses. The third reason involves burnout: too much pressure, too much stress, too little time to think for oneself, too little time to spend with the family. This is a factor that particularly troubles the higher echelons--executives and managers.

Such complaints are real enough, as they refer to objective conditions, yet they can be addressed by a subjective shift in one’s consciousness. Variety and challenge, for instance, are in one sense inherent characteristics of jobs, but they also depend on how one perceives opportunities. Some people see challenges in tasks that most people would find dull and meaningless. Whether a job has variety or not ultimately depends more on a person’s approach to it than on actual working conditions. The same is true of the other causes of dissatisfaction. Getting along with co-workers and supervisors might be difficult, but generally can be managed if one makes the attempt. Conflict at work is often due to a person’s feeling defensive out of a fear of losing face. To prove himself he sets certain goals for how others should treat him, and then expects rigidly that others will fulfill those expectations. This rarely happens as planned, however, because others also have an agenda for their own rigid goals to be achieved. Perhaps the best way to avoid this impasse is to set the challenge of reaching one’s goals while helping the boss and colleagues reach theirs; it is less direct and more time-consuming than forging ahead to satisfy one’s interests regardless of what happens to others, but in the long run it seldom fails.

Finally, stresses and pressures are clearly the most subjective aspects of a job, and therefore the ones that should be most amenable to the control of consciousness. Stress exists only if we experience it; it takes the most extreme objective conditions to cause it directly. The same amount of pressure will wilt one person and be a welcome challenge to another. There are hundreds of ways to relieve stress, some based on better organization, delegation of responsibility, better communication with co-workers and supervisors; others are based on factors external to the job, such as improved home life, leisure patterns, or inner disciplines like transcendental meditation. “ (160-161)


“These piecemeal solutions may help, but the only real answer to coping with work stress is to consider it part of a general strategy to improve the overall quality of experience. Of course this is easier said than done. To do so involves mobilizing psychic energy and keeping it focused on personally forged goals, despite inevitable distractions.” (162)

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