One of my friends has been recommending Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly to me for a while. I got around to reading it this last month and figured I’d review it here.
The book is about flow. The author spends the first third of the book explaining flow. Essentially, flow is that peak experience where you lose yourself in the task at hand. Everything in your being is focused and you’re concentrating solely on what you’re doing, totally immersed in your activity. We’ve all (probably… hopefully?) experienced it at some point. It’s when you’re playing a sport and nothing exists except you, your opponent, and ball; when your writing and there is nothing but you and your words; or when you’re working on that difficult project, look up, and find that 2 hours have just somehow disappeared. That’s what flow is, being in the zone. He differentiates flow from happiness, concentration, and motivation.
Mihaly argues that flow comes from a meeting of a high level of both challenge and skill. If something is not challenging enough, people become bored, if something is too challenging people become frustrated, but if the challenge is just right right for someone’s skill level, he will enter this experiential high. (This concept of flow actually aligns fairly well with my last post. Devote your whole being to your work for God and flow will be one of the immediate rewards).
The second third of the book concentrates on analyzing where flow can be found in work, in leisure, and in relationships.
The last third of the book give some advice on arranging your life so you are more likely to encounter experiences where flow is likely, describing the autocelic personality, and discussing the role of flow and transcendent goals on society.
Two major concepts aside from flow he writes of are the autocelic personality and psychic energy. Psychic energy is pretty self-explanatory; each person has a reserve of mental energy and attention they can devote to activities, things, and people. Autocelic individuals are those who seem to have high levels of psychic energy which they devote to the tasks they are working at allowing them to experience flow often.
The book is fairly short, at less than 150 pages of writing, and is easy to read through. It’s well written and moderately engaging. The ideas are interesting and are mostly backed up with science. Overall, the book was solid.
I do have two criticisms of the book. The first being that, despite being called Finding Flow, there was little practical advice for finding flow. There was some general advice, mostly lumped into the 7th chapter, for putting yourself into situation to experience flow, but given the title of the book and the impressions I got from my friend, I was expecting a more practical book.
As well, the general advice basically boiled down to: try new things, pay active attention when you do things, do things you like, don’t watch too much TV, make lists, and prioritize your time. None of that is bad advice. In fact, its all good advice, but its also pretty standard fare; that kind of advice can be found everywhere and most of it was too general to be immediately useful. It might have been the hype of my friend, but I was expecting something more groundbreakingly insightful or life-changing.
The second criticism of the book comes from the last chapter. There was a slight bit of a new-ageyness feel throughout the book, as is not uncommon in self-help books, but for the most part it the book was grounded in science which made it ignorable. During the last chapter, however, he follows a decent section on our societies narcissism with his ruminations on creating transcendent goals for people to work against entropy apart from traditional religion. He talks about science throughout this and explicitly separates it from New Age mysticism, but its disconnection from first principles was off-putting and made it felt like repackaged, semi-spiritual. New Agey mumbo-jumbo. Although, he did ameliorate this some at by stating that it might be possible everything is meaningless in the last paragraph of the chapter and book.
Despite these criticisms, Finding Flow was a decent psychological self-help book that mostly avoided the off-putting inanity of many self-help books. The concept of flow is a good one and his discussion of where flow can be found was interesting. On the other hand, his recommendations were more general than practical and were not particularly novel. I was expecting more and was a bit disappointed, but that was probably more because my friend had been hyping the book to me for such a long time than any actual deficiencies in the book itself.
This book was fairly good read on an interesting concept with some good, if not original, advice. It’s readable, not overly long, and the Kindle version is decently priced (at $13 the paperback price might be a bit on the high side for its length). If the concept of flow is interesting to you or you are looking for some general self-help advice based on scientific study, this book would be worth looking at. I wouldn’t say it’s a must-read, but if my description interests you, pick up Finding Flow.