Book review: Flow (second time review)

Here we are (again)! How can I review this? An incredible landmark of a book, it has sat on my bookshelf for more than a decade, and then on my ‘actively reading coffee table’ for another few years. Despite its mention in almost every important other book I have read, and my repeated abortive attempts to push through, I found this book alternatively revelatory and then densely incomprehensible. I frequently dove in, underlined many passages, got stuck, and put this book down for prolonged periods. 

Finally I convinced my book club friends to tackle this, set a discussion date (Jan 2019), and that was my trick to completing the massive read.

What I’ll take away is the idea of linking happiness NOT to acquisition and idle pleasure, but to difficult challenges that are just outside my comfort zone and skill set, where with maximal concentration, I can succeed. 

Fortunately for me, I have had many times in my life when I have achieved such Flow, and now I have a framework for thinking about it and setting up my day, my home, my work life to achieve this as often as possible for myself and for colleagues. 

Incidentally, I have recently completed the massive tome ‘Alexander Hamilton‘ by Chernow, another incredible read (I was drawn in by, of course the immensely popular musical), and I am led to reflect that Hamilton must, in his voluminous lifetime of groundbreaking writings, must have set up conditions to achieve Flow for quite extensive parts of his life, despite tremendous tragedy, political rancor and his final demise at the business end of a duelist’s pistol. For example, he would read all day, head to bed, then wake up the next morning and just write, with no interruptions, for hours. As a result, his subconscious worked on problems overnight. Often his manuscripts had NO corrections, as he would scribble furiously a final draft, fully formed. This was how he tackled many of the Federalist papers, papers that are studies in minute detail by constitutional scholars to this day. 

My favorite Flow pointers:

  • Attention is how you create your experience and consciousness, and psychic entropy is the opposite: the chaos that detracts from focus and intentional effort. 
  • Flow requires: clear goals and feedback; concentration on the task; a sense of control; loss of self consciousness; transformation of time. 
  • Flow occurs when the top of your skills barely match the presented challenge. Otherwise you get boredom or anxiety. 
  • Source of dissatisfaction at work: lack of variety and challenge; conflicts with other people/boss; too much pressure, too little time. All CAN BE under our control. 
  • Autotelic self: easily translates external threats into enjoyable challenges and maintains inner harmony, transforming potential entropy into creating flow. 

CMIO’s take? I defer to these great words by Chuang Tzu: ‘When I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move my knife with the greatest of subtlety, until–flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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