So, here's the situation. Depending on where you are reading this, you may expect to live anywhere from 70 to 84 years on this planet. These figures are only going to rise as technology and medicine progress.
If you've ever had a conversation with someone old enough to be contemplating their death, you've undoubtedly discussed the benefits and drawbacks of living to be 100 years old.
Nobody wants to die quite yet, but would life be worth living when you're a century and a quarter old?
Of course, it's simple to discuss theoretically. But what if I asked you if your life right now is worth living?
That's the dilemma I had when I read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow." And it's the one I'm hoping we can struggle with together here today for a few minutes.
I Learned Something Shocking in between My University Years
I had the exciting job of delivering potato chips to convenience shops for the Hostess-Frito Lay drivers on vacation during the summers when I was in university.
I shadowed one of the drivers during my training. He taught me the ropes before letting me go on the dangerous city streets, including a 10-minute instruction in basic driving in a parking lot.
When I was covering his route, we got to chatting about where he was going on vacation. That happened as we were loading one of the boxes in the back of the truck.
I asked him playfully whether he was looking forward to it, and I'll never forget his response:
"Steve, I live for my vacations and weekends. It's the only thing that keeps me going."
The remark shocked me because he performed his duties properly and thoroughly. He didn't strike me as the sort of man who complains about his work. But I remember thinking on the way home that night that, while I could see why he didn't find much purpose and drive in his career, I didn't want to wind up like him.
After a few years, I've recently completed my second year of law school. I obtained a position as a glorified coffee boy at a legal office, where I shadowed a number of the firm's lawyers. It took me a while to notice something, but eventually, I did.
Almost all of the company's lawyers saw their work as something they had to put up with until the end of the day when they could unwind with a beer and watch sports or American Idol. The weekend arrived, and they were able to sneak off to their cottages, have a few glasses of wine, and dread the start of the next week.
But I did meet one lawyer (there were others) who still looked passionate about what they were doing.
Apparently, he enjoyed his profession, and that his life outside of work was similarly full of vitality. He participated in sports, went to the theater, and seemed to be always on the go.
That summer, I learned a few things. For starters, as a summer student, you should always store beer in the lounge fridge for the older lawyers. Always.
Second, unless I found a job that challenged me every day and that I enjoyed, I was doomed to become a more well-paid version of Mr. Potato Chip Man.
That was the day I realized I didn't want to be a lawyer for the rest of my life (I only lasted a week as a practicing lawyer, but that is a whole other story).
8 Elements to Find "Flow" and Lead a Life You Love
Although there are no hard and fast rules for living a life you love, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified eight factors that might help you discover purpose in all you do, including your profession.
Of course, there isn't enough time to go through each one in-depth, but as you read through them, ask yourself if you're receiving this from your employment.
Clear Goals and Immediate Feedback
The best metaphor for your profession is to compare it to sports.
Do you have a clear understanding of what it takes to win the game? Are the game's rules well-defined?
And do you get regular feedback on whether or not you're making progress toward your goal of winning the game?
The Balance between the Level of Challenge and Personal Skill
This is the Goldilocks principle: you must ensure that your task is neither too difficult nor too simple, but rather "just right."
If it's too difficult, you'll give up since there's no way to win. If it's too simple, you'll give up since there's no sense in trying.
When the difficulty level climbs to the point that your greatest effort is required, you will give it all you've got.
Action and Awareness Are Merged
When you're in flow, the actions you're taking and the ideas you're thinking are one and the same. The best way to grasp this concept is to consider its polar opposite, in which action and consciousness are separated.
How many times, for example, have you been at a meeting and your mind was elsewhere? When you're in the zone, this doesn't happen.
A High Level of Concentration on a Limited Field
The capacity to dig fully into a particular task is one of the frequently lacking components in our day-to-day professional life.
To achieve flow, you must turn off everything else in your life for a few hours and devote your full concentration to a single activity.
A Feeling of Control
When was the last time you felt in total command of your workplace? Another thing that today's busy environment has made harder is feeling safe without thinking about anything other than the work at hand.
An Altered Perception of Time
You lose your usual capacity to sense time while you're in a flow state. Typically, it's when hours feel like minutes.
You cease thinking about yourself in the circumstance while you're in a flow mood. You are unconcerned with how you appear to others.
The Experience Is Self-rewarding
This indicates that the activity would be worthwhile even if you weren't aiming for a certain outcome.
For example, if you asked me what I'd like to do when I retire, I'd say reading books and passing on what I've learned to others, which is precisely what I'm doing here.
It's Your Life, so What Are You Going to Do About It?
I'm far from an expert when it comes to finding flow in my life, though I'm always trying to discover more of it.
I've realized that this is a decision, and there are three choices to consider.
The first step is to accept responsibility for identifying aspects of flow in your current employment. You may discover methods to make your job more challenging, add meaning to your work that wasn't there yesterday, and conduct your work in a way that makes it seem like a pleasure rather than a burden.
Chip truck drivers aren't as likely to be in a flow state as doctors or artists, but they do exist. They exist because they made the decision to be that way.
Your other option is to look for new employment. If you can't discover methods to find flow in your current career, you can look for a position that allows you to do so.
The third and last option is to keep doing things the way you've always done them.
Of course, it's your decision, but you only have so many days on this earth, and you owe it to yourself to spend them doing things that give you a life that has value and that you like.