Working with Meaning (Part 3)


In Part 2, we discussed the scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Brick is looking for an ever-elusive click "that turns the hot light off and the cool one on."  A few years ago, Wright Thompson wrote a great article titled “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building” that illustrates Jordan looking for this same click.  Why is it soothing to hear that in spite of his accomplishments Michael Jordan is still a restless, unhappy soul? Is this the sentiment Shakespeare's Richard II suggests when he says let's sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings? It's clear this is the appeal Thompson's article is trying to foster. He even uses some of Jordan’s material possessions as pointed metaphors: his cigar not staying lit, a lost championship ring, a missing pair of glasses.  It's an easy story to tell:  If I can't be like Mike, I want him to be like me. 

Obviously, work is how many turn the hot light off and the cool light on. Yet, why does some work provide meaning while other work offers only boredom or dread?  Similarly, how was the narrator's father in Shane able to feel "rest" while actually doing a grueling task? Is any of this related to what Jordan experienced as an athlete that he seemingly hasn't found in retirement? I think a possible answer to all these questions can be found within the work of Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has spent decades studying the phenomenon of FLOW which he describes as a sort of hypnosis where all sense of self, time, and place drift away and only a singular focus on the task at hand remains. For Flow to occur, some fundamental components have to be in place. For one, a person's skill has to be in proportion to the difficulty of the task being performed, and as one's skill increases, so must the challenge. Is this Jordan's struggle as he has transitioned into the role of owner and executive? The good news is that according to Csikszentmihalyi, Flow can be achieved within a wide variety of activities- athletes, musicians, artists, even a mother piecing together a puzzle with her child can all experience it. Within each scenario though, there are always 3 common denominators:

  1. A clearly defined goal as well as agreed upon rules and boundaries that dictate the terms of how this goal can be accomplished.
  2. The ability for decision making and creativity within these set rules and boundaries.
  3. Immediate feedback for the incremental steps made toward achieving the goal as well as recognition when the defined goal has been accomplished. 
The paradox of the narrator's father in Shane feeling "rest" finally comes into focus here. Wasn't he simply in a state of Flow? Removing the tree trunk was the “clearly defined goal.” Determining what branch to cut and at what angle required “decision making and creativity” while “immediate feedback” occurred each time the giant tree creaked and swayed.  The boy narrating the story provided the final exclamation when the tree ultimately broke free from the soil: "Someone was shouting, a high-pitched, wordless shout. I realized that the voice was mine..."   Immediate feedback indeed!  

We will end our discussion there for now, but next time we'll look at this notion of Flow even further and if the above 3 components are in fact what makes some tasks more meaningful than others. 





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