Working with Meaning (Part Four)

Previously, we discussed the three common denominators for reaching a state of Flow:
  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. Freedom for decision making and creativity within these set rules and boundaries.
  3. Immediate feedback for the incremental steps made toward achieving the goal and recognition when the defined goal has been accomplished.
In the previous posts, we were primarily discussing how these components related to work, but Csikszentmihalyi's ideas expands to even game theory. Of the three components, the second is the most nuanced and I would argue, often what makes one game more or less enjoyable than another.  In fact, the next time you’re playing a game and find yourself sort of bored, it’s likely from an inability to make creative decisions within the game's rules or boundaries. 

For participants and fans alike, professional sports display a nearly perfect execution of the these three components. Most of the major sports have not only rules in place but referees and umpires to enforce them, as well as instant replay to enforce this enforcement. The vast differences among players in style and skill illustrate the range of creativity and decision making allowed within the rules set into place. Immediate feedback is not only displayed on the scoreboard during each second of the game, channels like ESPN and sports radio provide recognition and commentary about each accomplishment. In addition, there are myriad awards presented each season, culminating with the most gifted players being inducted into a Hall of Fame.

These ideas of Flow move beyond just work and gameplay though and can expand to the very definition of meaning itself. Csikszentmihalyi writes: 
For people in our studies who live by themselves and do not attend church, Sunday mornings are the lowest part of the week, because with no demands on attention, they are unable to decide what to do. The rest of the week psychic energy is directed by external routines: work, shopping, favorite TV shows, and so on. But what is one to do Sunday morning after breakfast, after having browsed through the papers? For many, the lack of structure of those hours is devastating. Generally by noon a decision is made: I’ll mow the lawn, visit relatives, or watch the football game. A sense of purpose then returns, and attention is focused on the next goal.
Why is solitude such a negative experience? The bottom-line answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimulation, external feedback to keep attention directed. And when external input is lacking, attention begins to wander, and thoughts become chaotic—Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.) (pp. 168-169). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.   
Csikszentmihalyi’s passage reminds me of when I was a teacher and I’d be preparing for summer break after the spring semester. It was a moment I looked forward to each school year, yet when it would arrive, I'd always feel anxious, even paralyzed. Now I realize that these feelings occurred because the school year was “directed by external routines” while the summer provided no structure. In other words, it was 3 months of Sunday mornings.  I eventually overcame this anxiety by planning my summers ahead of time and setting a schedule into place so once the semester ended, I could instantly go from one routine or structure to another. 

I also wonder if this why I feel a sort of relief on a rainy Saturday or Sunday afternoons? Does a sunny day just present too many options to keep attention directed?  

As a writer, I find Csikszentmihalyi’s research particularly interesting. It helps me understand why I prefer an imposed deadline as to creating one myself. It also helps me understand why writing, particularly as a freelance writing, can be so challenging. Without an editor, there often isn’t incremental feedback or any recognition until after the hard work is over. One of the biggest challenges is dealing with just how abstract the act of writing actually is. This is easy to put into context by contrasting it to the other work I’ve done in my life. When my wife and I moved into our current home, we had to remodel it from the ground up. Everything, including many of the walls, were torn out.  While it was miserable at the time, there was a certain satisfaction each day as we made progress and our new home began materializing before our very eyes. A writer rarely has this luxury- forever trapped within the the abstract, the immaterial. There is no dust from sheetrock to sweep away, no kitchen that needs to be painted, no ceiling to raise or wall to remove. As a writer, I may delete an entire chapter or move a paragraph, but it all still remains two dimensional on the page, or even worse, illuminated on a computer screen. What’s more is that when I put the final period on the final page of my final draft, even then, the process isn’t complete. In actuality, it’s just beginning. At that point, someone still has to read it and understand it, and not only understand it, but, hopefully, find it compelling or meaningful.

In Part Five, we’ll continue our discussion and begin transitioning from lowercase work and towards what I described earlier as uppercase Work as in one's calling or lifework.  

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