Why is it that in the same experience one person can feel complete boredom, another anxiety and a third absolute elation? It really comes down to two variables: level of skill and level of challenge. When you understand how these two variables effect your experiences in life, you can then learn to create at will these optimal experiences or as some call it, flow.
Flow has been described as having ones concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption into the activity involved. There have been moments in my life where I’ve had these peak experiences. These peak experiences have allowed me to sustain an almost effortless concentration, being completely involved but at the same time unselfconscious to the point of transcending the activity itself. I’ve been able to experience this while playing music, practicing martial arts, and even in my day-to-day activities. And each time I had wished I knew how to recreate it.
After studying Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, I’ve been able to recreate these moments with greater frequency. Most recently, I’ve experienced this while at work and even while blogging. I wish to share with you some of the things that I’ve learned.
Mihaly states that the way to enter into the flow state is by seeking activities that are just within reach of your current abilities.
If you’re performing an activity where the difficulty of the task outweighs your skill level, it will induce anxiety. An example of this may be starting the first day of a new job and your immediately thrown into a task that you’re neither prepared nor trained for (I’ve been there ). Clearly this is not an optimal experience.
On the other hand, if your skill level well exceeds the difficulty of the activity, you enter the area of boredom. Recently I was invited to join a local martial arts club. Because I’ve been involved with martial arts since I was eight, I quickly became bored at the lack of difficulty the students and instruction presented and am now looking for a more challenging place to train. Clearly that wasn’t an optimal experience for me either.
It is only when you can match a level of difficulty with the limits of your skill that you will achieve the state of flow.
This can be achieved in sports, music, work, studies, even day-to-day activities.
It’s interesting to note then, that quality of experience is not so much dependent upon the experience itself but one’s relation to it. As your skill level grows, it’s important that you continue to find tasks that are at the upper level of your skills. Finding that point can be sometimes difficult, but when you do, I promise you that you’ll know that you found it.
How do you know if your performing at the limits of your skill level? If you’re not in the state of flow, then you’re most likely not at your limits.
Goal setting is another subset of this. In the beginning your goals shouldn’t be too lofty, or it will lead to anxiety in the form of disappointment or self-censure. Also, they shouldn’t be too easy to achieve, or boredom will result. Finding goals that are both challenging and just within your ability to fulfill, will create an optimal experience in your life that will provide tremendous joy as well as enhancing and stretching your capabilities.
True quality of experience is not found in idleness or ease of living. Money cannot buy it. One cannot win it. Quality of experience comes when we stretch ourselves to the edge of our abilities and enter into that state we call flow.