Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Flow

Alert! Feelings laden paragraphs ahead. If you are hear to read about me being a mad scientist or climbing something, turn around and go back to the site with the fluffy kittens doing what fluffy kittens do.

I've been thinking about The Quest for a long time -- something like 21 years now. I've found that as time passes, it has become increasingly hard to hold to some of my own ideals. How do I continue to strive, to seek, to find year after year?

One thing that has really bothered me lately is that activities that I once enjoyed have stopped filling me up. I feel bored. I don't care. This doesn't matter. It started out being a seasonal depressive thing (which I do believe contributes to the severity), but this last year, there were elements that stayed with me all summer. I thought it was a failing in my person -- that somehow I had changed for the worse and couldn't make myself feel the way I felt when I was twenty. This kind of thinking has never seemed like a fair judgement of myself, is far from productive, and I have found recently that in fact it is quite the opposite. In many ways I am a victim of my own success.

I would like to say that "I have been thinking about my declining enjoyment of life over the last year and it has lead to an epiphany." It would feel satisfying to say that, but not true. I have struggled all year to figure this out and come up with nothing. I lacked a framework to clearly think about the problem and I spent hours spinning my intellectual wheels. Perhaps I should have taken some philosophy classes in university.

Fortunately, I have something better than university level training in logic. I have my own Vulcan advisor. Wendy had mentioned the psychological concept of Flow to me on several occasions. It is something that has come up in her work as a teacher and particularly since she has been at the school division office. It sounded interesting, but I didn't give it much thought.

Several weeks ago Wen and I were having a discussion. We have talked about divorce many, many times. It's one of those things that logical people do. Not in the sense that we have been close to divorce -- we simply talk about our marriage a lot and having ways to fix (or end) it is a natural outcome of those discussions. We both hold the ideal that the marriage should work well for both of us and if it ever ceases to, than we should be smart enough to end the marriage -- for the "good of the many," as it were ;) Anyway, this particular discussion wasn't going too well. 11 months previous, I had accepted the responsibility of getting my act together. By which I mean that we both knew things were going poorly for me, it was beginning to adversely affect the family, and I was going to figure out why, or at least manage to change it.

I can hear you already. Yes, my family is great. Yes, we have loving, respectful relationships. Yes, the girls are amazing. Wendy and I communicate effectively. I am well liked, talented and fun. So, what's the problem? It's relative. Wendy lovingly summed it up like this: "Things are going fine right now, but if you continue in the direction you are going, there will come a time when you are someone to which I don't want to be married." Ouch! So, not really at the disaster stage, but her super-long-term-planning-crazy-brain (as I like to call it) was able to stretch out 10 years into the future and see where I was headed. What's more, I knew she was right.

Help. My original deadline for action was one year. and I was at 11 months with no progress. I told Wendy that I would seek counselling starting in January if I didn't make serious headway by the end of December. I'm really not interested in that option.

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in
an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus,
full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.
So I forced myself to do... something. I had noticed a diagram up on Wendy's office wall a couple of weeks prior. It was very bright, simple and described the concept of flow. I asked her if she could bring home a copy and talk to me about it. We sat down with the chart and discussed definitions for the various categories and plotted many of the activities where I spend my time. I had to be careful to place things where they were currently -- not where they might have been historically. I didn't look at the headings of "challenge" or "skill" to determine the position of my activities, but rather how I felt when I was performing these activities. Was I bored, relaxed, anxious, in control, etc...


During this process a couple of things became immediately obvious. The first was that I was spending way too much time on the bottom and left-hand side of that chart. The second was that many of the activities that I placed in boredom or apathy were things that once would have been in relaxation, control, or even flow. The third thing was that I had drawn a little circular arrow on the left. It ran from apathy, past worry and up into anxiety before dropping back down. There were a number of things I did which I described as going through that cycle. This circular arrow was key and the first big burst of excitement I had in this process.


There are many challenges that I face willingly -- even eagerly. But, there are some that I am afraid of facing. It usually hinges on a perception of authority. I'm not quite sure of this yet. As I think about the issue, I begin to worry and may eventually begin to feel a sense of panic. Usually I will distract myself from the problem or tell myself that it is unimportant, at which point, I promptly forget all about it. I've known about this pattern of behaviour for years, but seeing it on this chart suddenly imparted a whole layer of understanding that had previous eluded me. I was artificially changing the challenge level and/or misperceiving my own skill


Over the next week I managed to simplify what I learned from the chart into a series of rules...
























What I am currently working on:
  1. Correctly assessing both the challenge of an activity and my own skill level.
  2. Adjusting my skill (though learning) or the challenge level (by modifying the task) to achieve positive outcomes on the chart.
  3. Being my own parent. I never discussed this, but it involves talking to myself as if I were dealing with one of my kids vs berating myself as insufficient.
So, what does this have to do with The Quest? Perhaps it's obvious by this point. Questing has always been about challenge, elegance, struggle, self improvement. I realize now that flow is what I have always sought in my questing. The perfect union of skill and challenge is my concept of Quest. 

I've spent my adult life gathering tools to help me meet challenges and overcome obstacles. I've just discovered I don't need to find tools -- I'm learning how to make my own.


Mike hangs up the phone, as he steps out of the phone booth, and puts on his sunglasses.
He looks around the street for a moment, and then flies off.

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The author of the flow concept, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a poor motivational speaker. He's a bit too rambly. But I feel I owe it to him to link to his TED talk anyway.



**beware the matrix code generator that I used above. I had to seriously prune the code that they wanted to put along with that image before I was comfortable using it.