“I want to talk to the kids at home watching. I was a kid and I watched this show and it seemed so far away from me…. With the world being so fast, I want to remind you to focus on what you love, because it is the greatest passport, it is the greatest road map to an extraordinarily blissful life.”
Tony Winner Katie Finneran, June 14, 2010
Let’s talk about creativity, innovation, and “flow.” And throw a little “self-actualization” in the mix. This may be a little “rambling,” but I think it is important.
I was “surfing,” and caught Katie Finneran’s acceptance speech at the Tony’s last night. I could not get it out of my mind.
It may seem a little like a luxury to even discuss this right now. One of the most viewed posts I have written on this blog is A Jobless Recovery and a Slip Down Maslow’s Hierarchy, and in it I suggest that in this economic climate, we have slipped down a notch or two on Maslow’s hierarchy. People need jobs – they need money – they need to survive. Finding a job that is fulfilling, that allows one to reach “flow,” to attain “self-actualization” is almost a luxury too far.
But… on the other hand. If there is any fact that is becoming more apparent, more important, it is this — we need a very talented, very large group of people always asking “what’s next?” What will the next trend be, product be, innovation be. We definitely need a whole lot of our workers to be able to flourish in an environment of creativity and innovation. And to reach this ability, we need people who are experiencing “flow,” and reaching for self-actualization.
A little background:
Flow: (from the Wikipedia summary)
In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.
In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.
The flow state also implies a kind of focused attention, and indeed, it has been noted that mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and martial arts seem to improve a person’s capacity for flow. Among other benefits, all of these activities train and improve attention.
In short, flow could be described as a state where attention, motivation, and the situation meet, resulting in a kind of productive harmony or feedback.
Self-Actualization: (from the Wikipedia summary)
Abraham Maslow defines self-actualization as “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
And, just one quote from Twyla Tharp (The Creative Habit):
Imagine people dancing into the wee hours of the morning at a club. Most of them have spent all day working at demanding jobs. Yet their energy returns like magic at night when the music and dancing start up. Dancing, perhaps more than any other art form, has an energizing effect on people.
In Daniel Pink’s Drive, he affirms the value of “20% time,” the time that some companies (not enough) like Google and 3M give their employees to work on “whatever they want to.” Out of such creative freedom has come Google News, Gmail, and Post-it Notes. The idea is simple, and profound. Creative work, breakthrough work, does not arrive on a schedule. We need to find ways to let the creative juices flow, and they seldom flow on deadline.
So – back to the Tony’s. Katie Finneran may not quite be saying “do what you love, and the money will follow.” But she is definitely encouraging a generation of children out there to discover what they love, and the fulfillment will follow.
And I think that we might be learning this in the world of business – “do what you love, and this will lead to more breakthrough innovations.”
A couple of obvious lessons:
1) If you are a business owner/leader, consider creating a 20% time program for your employees. The research indicates that it will pay off – maybe substantially.
2) And, personally, what is it that you do that when you do it, you lose all sense of time, and your energy just keeps you going in a lost state of discovery, creativity, productivity? Discover that about yourself – and then “focus on what you love.”
Update: I just thought of this quote from George Orwell, from his essay Why I Write, about “outraging his true nature” before he returned to it:
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
I met Captain Sam as I was flying home last week – we sat beside one another on the flight. Sam (I have changed the name because his business environment is really not healthy) has flown for American Airlines long enough that he has seen lots of change and 3 or 4 CEO’s. We talked about a lot of things but what struck me was how the culture at airlines was chipping away at Sam. At one point I asked him about his relationship to his employer. He said he feels like a 40 watt light bulb – cheap and easy to change. Whoa! Note to Gerald Arpey – you have a lot more to worry about than just falling revenues! Mihaly Csikzenthmihaly says it very well in his book Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning, “…if management views workers not as valuable, unique individuals but as tools to be discarded when no longer needed, then employees will also regard the firm as nothing more than a machine for issuing paychecks, with no other value or meaning. Under such conditions it is difficult to do a good job…” Mr Arpey, I assure you that Sam is the best pilot he can be every time he enters the cockpit, but what is the burden on your workforce when the best of the best feel like a 40 watt light bulb? Those who lead – whatever size the company – need to balance the needs of the business with the needs of their workforce. Jim Collins reminds us in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness…is a matter of conscious choice.”