As I See It: The Paradox
November 12, 2007 Victor Rozek
Someone once said that wisdom comes from seeing the paradox–a contradiction that is nonetheless true. Work is a paradox: It can be life’s most pleasurable and fulfilling experience; or it can be filled with boredom and drudgery. For most of us, the truth lies somewhere between, and we navigate our careers longing for more fulfillment while searching for ways to minimize the drudgery–or at the very least, ways to anesthetize ourselves against it.
In our culture, work has long been equated with punishment. Christian mythology describes Adam and Eve leading idyllic lives of leisure until an act of disobedience finds them banished from Paradise and sentenced evermore to work the earth with the sweat of their brow. Across generations, that single parable anchored two companion beliefs: Leisure is the desirable state; and work is a curse to be avoided whenever possible.
Throughout history those beliefs were validated by various forms of slavery and serfdom. The majority of the population worked not in support of personal fulfillment, but to sustain the opulent lifestyles of people who had the means to exploit them. Those blessed with leisure often claimed it as a divine right, while those doomed to toil saw it as divine retribution.
Within this religious belief lay the countenance for exploitation and the de-linking of work from joy. Those who believed they were sinners accepted grueling labor as their rightful plight. The Puritan work ethic–to this day used to describe the psychology of a person who works to joyless excess–essentially says: accept your punishment stoically and soldier on. Happiness is not of this world.
Industrialization did little to elevate the reputation of work. People toiled to daily exhaustion in grizzly factories and deadly mines. Work was often brutal, almost always boring, and callously unconcerned with the fulfillment of personal ambitions beyond providing just enough sustenance to survive another day’s work.
Yet, a quite different relationship to work occasionally emerged. There were people who wanted nothing more but to work and made little distinction between labor and leisure. They were able to achieve a state of total concentration in which time stood still. It was a state often reported by artists and composers, athletes and religious mystics; a state in which they were fully immersed in their tasks and completely absorbed by their process. While in that state they reported feelings of joy and fulfillment. They felt simultaneously free yet connected to something greater. And the experience of being completely engaged, with every action or movement flowing inevitably from the previous one and requiring their full range of skills and powers, pushed aside all temporal concerns until nothing existed but the experience itself.
But such a state of being is not limited to people involved in great creative or physical exertions; nor does it require total control over ones mental faculties as exhibited by those in deep meditation. This state is also reported by people while gardening, or hiking in the wilderness, or interacting with animals. Monks doing the most menial and repetitive tasks have achieved it, as have assembly line workers. Gamblers, dancers, chess players, writers, programmers, and countless others occasionally inhabit this elevated state. The caveat seems to be that very few can reach it on demand.
There are lots of names for it: being in the zone, in the groove, on a roll; having a peak experience. For those who achieve it, however, it doesn’t last long. Most of us can longingly recall a handful of occasions when we were in the grip of this elevated form of consciousness. Those rare moments when we could do no wrong; when we played beyond our capabilities, hit the winning shot, wrote the impossible program; became one with the music, one with the dance; found joy in the simple, repetitive tasks of living; felt connected to the universe, or sensed the presence of God.
But what if this state were achievable by choice rather than happenstance? That’s the belief of a guy with 22 unpronounceable letters in his name who blessedly chose a simple four-letter word to describe this illusive state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, wrote a book 16 years ago about the psychology of optimal experience and called it Flow.
Mihaly (I use his first name not for lack of respect, but for lack of spelling skills), postulates that not only can individuals enhance the skills that promote flow, but jobs can also be designed to heighten the experience of flow in the workplace.
Flow requires single-minded focus and unwavering concentration; states we have been trained to abandon by television’s disruptive commercial breaks, but which can be reacquired. Additionally, bringing excellence to the most mundane tasks creates a mind set that supports flow. But, as Mihaly points out: “One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long.” After a time “the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.”
At least that’s true for those of us who find standing still more uncomfortable than risk. Those for whom risk is too threatening, end up living Thoreau’s dictum of quiet desperation.
Because threat is so debilitating, one of the requirements of flow states appears to be a balance between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy, the doer will get bored; if it is too difficult, he will become frustrated. Jobs, Mihaly argues, should resemble games “with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback.”
Job design, however, may not be enough. Apparently our beliefs about the desirability of leisure and the drudgery of work blinds us to the very fulfillment we seek. Leisure, reports Mihaly, typically has low flow values because much of modern leisure is passive offering little or no challenge and requiring little or no skill. During leisure times, the percentage of people who reported feeling “passive, weak, dull, and dissatisfied” was 52 percent. Only 16 percent of people at work reported feeling the same negative emotions. In spite of that, people who reported experiencing low flow states during leisure nonetheless desired more leisure; and those who reported experiencing flow at work, still preferred to be doing something else.
Thus, Mihaly says, we have a paradoxical situation. “On the job, people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time, people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad . . . and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure.”
Apparently, people view work as “an imposition, a constraint, an infringement on their freedom,” rather than a path to it. If we believe we are investing our psychic energy against our will, for the advancement of someone else’s goals, then “the time channeled into such a task is perceived as time subtracted from the total available for our life.”
Perhaps it is our choice of leisure, rather than our choice of jobs, that contributes to our unhappiness. Passive entertainment leads nowhere, says Mihaly. “Collectively, we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness.” Mass leisure activities are, according to Mihaly, “parasites of the mind. They absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return. They leave us more exhausted, more disheartened than we were before.”
Which succinctly describes a night of watching television.
A Zen poet wrote, “A person who is a master in the art of living makes little distinction between their work and their play, their labor and their leisure, their mind and their body, their education and their recreation, their love and their religion. They hardly know which is which and simply pursue their vision of excellence and grace, whatever they do, leaving others to decide whether they are working or playing. To them they are always doing both.”
Mihaly would argue that achieving this state of being may well be our most important work.