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Finding Flow

by Jeremy McCarthy

There is no single book that has had a greater impact on my life than Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly (“Mike”) Csikszentmihalyi. There are many books that promise to provide simple, evidence-based tips for a happier and more fulfilling life, but for me, Flow was one of the few that truly delivered on that promise.

The book was so impactful to me that I can remember vividly where I was while reading it 30 years ago, and I can remember the feelings of epiphany as the book struck many chords with me on a deep level. I came out of the book truly inspired to pursue a life of “flow experiences,” defined as activities that are so immersive and engaging that we lose track of time. According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, it is in these moments of flow that we also feel the greatest sense of well-being. While it is impossible to say what my life would have been like without the book, I clearly can see how a pursuit of flow has shaped much of my life.

This can first be expressed in terms of learning and development. My pursuit of flow led me to achieve black belts in two martial arts. I learned to Salsa dance. I learned to speak Spanish (and eventually French, and now Chinese). I eventually pursued a master’s degree in applied positive psychology (and had the opportunity to meet Mike at an IPPA conference.)

A job opportunity brought me to Hawaii, a perfect backdrop for flow experiences. I met many people who moved to Hawaii for work and regretted that they didn't fully take advantage of the island life. I have no such regrets. I learned to scuba dive and went diving every week, falling in love with underwater world. I became an avid hiker exploring every remote trail, hidden beach and secret waterfall I could find. (One of those secret waterfalls would be where I would later propose to my wife.) I learned to play tennis and beach volleyball. I learned to surf, a passion I now share with my wife and that shapes our vacation plans every year.

Flow not only shaped my leisure hobbies but also changed my mindset about work. I saw work not as a chore, but as an opportunity for engagement, growth and fulfillment. I embraced challenges and immersed myself in them. I expected and achieved the same kinds of joy through my work that I enjoyed in my leisure time.

As a leader, I strove to create flow experiences for my teams, pushing them to rise to meet the challenges of the work and encouraging them to discover and use their strengths. Full engagement and growth through my work led to a career trajectory that I am very proud of. I would eventually teach a university course on "Positive Leadership," and would turn to another Csikszentmihalyi book, Good Business, to help me create my curriculum.

I have lived a blessed life, with Flow as a rallying cry. Maybe these things were inside me already. Maybe I would have created this life even if I had never discovered Csikszentmihalyi's work. I'm not so sure. And I will never know the answer. But I feel a deep sense of gratitude to Mike and his gifts to the world and I.

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